When production started on Looking for Charlie back in March we (naively) devoted little thought to how the finished film might use colour. Of course we put a lot of effort into trying to capture images that were as vibrant and consistent as possible but big questions remained. Would the finished film look stylised and, if so, what type of style might we employ? We were never going to make our film look like Zack Snyder’s 300 but we could, if we wanted, alter colours to make to make a more beautiful or fulfilling image. But with that power comes a question of ethics – would using the extensive array of digital tools at our disposal make our film less honest? We are, after all, making a documentary, a piece of non-fiction which is meant to depict reality, not distort it. By playing with colour we might make a more visually interesting film, but we run the risk of creating a piece which is ultimately less honest, less real, as a result. On the other hand, our documentary features several short historic re-enactments which might well be enhanced by subtle colour-coding, shifts in palettes which signal a change from the real to the unreal, the documented to the staged. And by drawing attention to such a change, by acknowledging the fictive nature of non-fiction filmmaking, would not we not achieve a deeper, if more abstract, sense of truth in the final piece? The possibilities were (and are) endless – but so too are the quandaries which come with them.
It was in Central Park, New York, that some of the crew expectantly (and wisely) asked us if our film would be black and white. The idea was brilliant but, at the time, it was one that I had privately discounted. We were shooting in colour, and so the final film would be in colour. Black and white would have fitted the era we were exploring but it seemed obvious and, thus, crude. No, black and white was not something we were seriously considering. Following our return from New York, I spent a vast amount of time testing out different colour schemes. Some were heavily stylised, almost like old 16mm stock. Colours bled into areas where they didn’t belong, creating a balance that felt unnatural but was, nevertheless, pleasant upon the eye. We saturated colours, and in other cases we went the other way, de-saturating scenes and giving sequences a starker, more striking look. Individual hues were selected, manipulated, and changed. Shadows were deepened and highlights blown. There was little that wasn’t tested. Some of those experiments yielded promising results, like moving Polaroid pictures or sequences with rich, pastel tones. Others were not so successful but even in failure we learned and we grew.
I’m not exactly sure when the idea of making the film black and white became more viable in my mind but it took a while. For a long time I rejected black and white (though not openly) but the earnestness of the crew’s question (and enthusiasm for the idea), kept revisiting upon me. At some point, as we ploughed through colour-experiment after colour-experiment, I began to ask myself a different question. Why wouldn’t we make our film black and white?
There is a certain unreality inherent in the documentary making process. No matter how honest a filmmaker’s intentions, the camera captures what we tell it to, not necessarily what it should. We pick and choose our footage and, in the case of interviews and discussions, the presence of a camera, let alone a crew, could greatly impact the tone, style, and quality of the dialogue captured. Put bluntly, people act differently when they are being filmed. That being the case, should the film not reflect that reality by embracing the sense of unreality that black and white creates? We’re back to those same ethical questions – even as we seek reality we cannot help but create a fiction.
A fiction, true, but a fiction that tells the truth. Film is a powerful storytelling device and pretending otherwise can be dangerous. I love to show selected documentaries by Michael Moore to my students – but I especially love the resultant discussions where the assumed truth implied by the documentary format is laid bare. It can be tough for students used to treating documentaries as depictions of fact and fact alone. Documentaries are trusted, and enjoy a privileged place in our culture. Sure, the veracity of documentaries is sometimes challenged (again, see Michael Moore) but, by in large, they are seen as a source of fact and reality, rather than carefully constructed arguments in favour of one particular candidate for the truth. As I’ve said before, the documentary which does not acknowledge its own subjectivity is problematic indeed. Lagging far behind my crew, I realised that black and white should never have been off the table. Indeed, the more thought I devoted to it, the more it felt like a natural fit for our film.
Then, of course, there are aesthetic considerations. Early experiments with black and white did not win me over (black and white can be just as stylised and problematic as colour) but as we played with our footage we increasingly found that a lack of colour could bring clarity to a shot. It was as if a lack of colour served to create a semi-blank canvas onto which an audience could project emotion or sentiment. As early experiments gave way to more consistent and satisfying results the advantages of the format became increasingly evident. Even to me.
Of course black and white gels with the period that we are depicting, but that is not why we have chosen to abandon the infinite possibilities of colour. Yes, there is an element of style to our choice, but there are deeper considerations at play. Ethics and honesty helped inform our decision but, ultimately, we could do little else but confirm the crew’s instinct. They were right – and theirs is the vision we now happily set ourselves to realising.
Unashamedly Black and White – The first Looking for Charlie poster
Introducing Looking for Charlie – @Youtube
We all know Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, and Harold Lloyd. Their films made them immortal. But what about the generation of comedians who inspired those silent-era luminaries? What about the comedians who commanded the vast stages of the New York and London Hippodromes, who inspired and delighted, but were forgotten when new and innovative comedies, which they helped to inspire, hit the big screen? Looking For Charlie: Or, The Day The Clown Died is the story of Marceline Orbes and Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley, a pair of once-legendary Edwardian comedians who entertained millions, inspired silent-era superstars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who died in obscurity by their own hands. The film explores the overlapping lives of Orbes, Oakley, Chaplin, and Keaton, asking questions about the psychological and social pressures faced by the people who make it their life’s work to make us laugh. Looking for Charlie is a personal journey and exploration of the forgotten comedians who set the tone for a century of laughter.
The film primarily explores the interlocking and overlapping lives and experiences of Marceline Orbes, Francis ‘Slivers’ Oakley, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton.
The making of Looking For Charlie has been a long, emotional, and involving experience into which the filmmakers have poured their hearts. Their journey to discover meaning for the lives of Marceline and Slivers has been a personal one which has continually informed the evolving shape of the film. Our piece is not a straight forward biography but a film which explores the psychological hardships faced by comedians in any age. We are not making this movie to tell a life story – we are making this movie to understand, in some small way, how we can make sense of any life, how we can give it narrative meaning. That journey will be a part of this film because we believe honesty in documentary making to be a vital part of the process.
There are many ways to explore the lives and importance of early performers like Marceline and Slivers, Chaplin and Keaton. Books, articles, stage plays -all can accomplish that exploration in one way or another- but film offers a range of possibilities beyond those other mediums. The first is irony. The coming of sophisticated, cinematic comedy did much to destroy the careers (and ultimately lives) or Marceline and Slivers. And without film, without a record of their performances, they remain little remembered. Using film to explore their lives provides an opportunity to reflect further upon the power of that medium. The second major possibility of film is our ability to engage with our subjects and their lives in a more personal way. The process of making this film has been long and difficult, entwining our subjective selves with our larger intellectual journey. Film offers us the opportunity to integrate that subjective discovery of truth. Finally, film offers a visual language which will allow us to explore our subjects in a sophisticated, intelligent way by layering symbols; visuals, music, commentary.
Provisional work on Looking For Charlie began in late 2014 before the commencement of active production in March 2015. With the assistance of a brilliant crew made up of students from Coventry University, filming took place in New York (USA), London and Birmingham (UK), Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg (German), Kingston (Jamaica), and Hong Kong (China). The film is both a critical biography and a personal journey.
Looking For Charlie is currently in production and will be released in 2016. A very early teaser trailer can be viewed by Clicking Here. An introductory video can be viewed below. As production wraps and post-production begins, more content from the film will be released on the run-up to its release. The teaser trailer and introductory video provide only very early insights into the project. A new series of promotional videos are planned for release during post-production, providing a much more accurate look of the final film.
Discover more about the lives and importance of some our principle subjects from this earlier series of video podcasts:
‘Since the author once again puts the ancient masks on stage, he wishes to resume the old customs in part…A nest of memories was singing one day in the depths of his soul, and he wrote with real tears’ – ‘Si può?’ from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci
This website will post updates on Looking For Charlie, including this series of production diaries. For more immediate updates you can follow me on Twitter @ThatHistorian or search for #LookingForCharlie.
Documentary films can be many different things. On one end of the spectrum are dry, PBS-sytle educational films and biographies. Straight forward narratives which seek to define truth for the viewer, not challenge it. They inform but they rarely provoke. On the other end of the spectrum, documentary films can provide deep personal explorations, considered portraits, and they can challenge dominant truths. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact-based, educational TV documentary. They serve an important function, but rarely do they contend with the problems of truth that so-often lie at the heart of their studies. Human truth (like it or not) is subjective and that is a problem with which educational documentaries must contend – how far does one acknowledge the contested nature of the human stories they tell? Oh-so-many factual documentaries barely hint at the ferocity of the arguments and debates raging behind the academic scenes. What is presented as simple fact, known and quantified, is often anything but. Indeed, it is usually just one perspective of many, perhaps even a controversial one. Discovering this can be frustrating for audiences who dislike being misled. Impassioned arguments and selective use of the evidence can be highly manipulate.
Of course, more personal, subjective, and reflective documentaries can be just as manipulative. Film is a powerful propaganda tool but the acknowledgement of the self, of the author, in a documentary is an admission of its own subjectivity, of its potential for human error and flaw. Even in the driest educational documentary there is a hidden, though often ignored, truth – the filmmakers’ journey towards their conclusions. The BBC have produced an excellent array of documentary films, particularly for niche audiences, but many of their more mainstream efforts only masquerade an investigation. A film’s presenter sits in an archive, explaining why a given document is important, how it helps to shore up the documentary’s core theme or narrative. In reality, of course, a team of researchers, never seen but whose invisible presence is all over such films, are likely the ones who went on the intellectual and personal journey which led to the sequence in the archive. What debates, questions of conscience, or intellectual leaps of faith preceded the drawing of the presenter’s conclusion? What decisions were made (and by whom) regarding the film’s tone? The Audience does not know. In their attempt to represent truth on screens, the educational documentary can easily become dishonest.
Watch the first promotional video for Looking for Charlie: Or, The Day The Clown Died to learn more about the fascinating story of the suicidal clowns who influenced Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The search for truth (either literal or abstract) is often the most interesting and honest part of a potential documentary – even when the results of that search are not entirely honest themselves. Consider Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. Now imagine that Spurlock had created a film in the mold of a fact-based mainstream educational documentary – a dry voice-over, a simple narrative, a growing mountain of facts, and a presenter who delivers pre-scripted conclusions straight to the audience. The heart of that film would have been ripped out and the resultant piece would have been infinitely less honest as a result. Spurlock’s very human journey is the core of that movie, not the McDonald’s nutritional controversy (even though it is that which audiences seem to remember most vividly). The final film is not perfect but Spurlock’s subjective presence brings an honesty to the process a drier presentation might have easily ignored. We can see that this film document’s one individual’s journey, not a rigorous scientific study. We can see the film maker playing for laughs. We may not agree with what he is doing or how he is presenting the issues at hand, but the final film gives us at least some access to the method behind the madness. The process itself becomes truth. Honesty in Supersize Me is found in one person’s journey to understand their relationship with food; not in the conclusions they ultimately come to draw about the producers of that food.
Making my first feature length documentary film (Looking For Charlie: Or, The Day the Clown Died) with co-director Brett Sanders, I find that I am on a similar journey. At its heart, Looking for Charlie is a film about the comedy double act who inspired Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who died in obscurity by their own hands. It is a deliciously compelling story about fame, show business, despair, and suicide. But the real truth of the film isn’t contained in the facts of these biographies, fascinating though they are. The real truth of our project is in our on-going attempt to really understand and come to terms with the depth of our subjects’ lives (and deaths) and how we are able to relate to them. Like any documentary, we aim to enlighten the world about our subjects, but in our search for honesty in film, we must confront the conflicting truths and subjective experiences that make us who we are, that make us more inclined to settle upon the version of the truth that most appeals to our instincts and our intellect. Only then can we boast a film that will be honest in both style, fact, substance, and spirit.
Truth and honesty, then, are the ultimate goals our project. Truth about our subjects, of course, but truth about our subjective selves, also; truth about how we see the world and relate to it, shaping the way we have made our film and the conclusions we have drawn; and truth about how we have informed the film-making process. Those are the goals we have set ourselves and they will, I hope, be the benchmark against which the success or failure of Looking for Charlie, is measured.
Looking For Charlie: Or, The Day the Clown Died is currently in active production. It is directed and written by Darren R. Reid and Brett Sanders and will be entering post-production in the coming two months. A video introduction to the film can be viewed below. To download the video please RIGHT CLICK HERE and ‘save’ the file. You can download the video directly to your mobile device via iTunes by Clicking Here.