Origin Story: My Path to Nonfiction Storytelling
A few days ago a colleague asked me for my origin story—namely, how did I get into nonfiction video production? I told him this story, and he said “I can’t believe I never knew that about you! You should share that.” OK, here goes.Back when I was a young production assistant, I was working in the location department for various feature films and commercials that would shoot in Washington, D.C., where I lived. In case you think that might be glamorous, I fondly called it “permits and porta-potties” as securing different filming permits, and figuring out logistics such as where a hundred-person crew could park, eat, and yes go to the bathroom, were just some of our jobs in the location department. Through those contacts, I got myself hired as an art department PA on another Hollywood movie. That meant helping the art director source images to propel the vision of the Production Designer and Director. These images and research documents would then be used to fabricate sets, rent or create wardrobe and props, and figure out the action in some scenes. Some of the images and film clips would be used in actual scenes of the movie.
images and film clips would be used in actual scenes of the movie.
All night long, the list of requests spooled out over the parquet floor of my modest apartment (are you old enough to remember rolling fax paper?). Ping pong tournaments in China. Running shoes in the 1970’s. Helicopters used in the Vietnam War. One requests was particularly challenging: find a clip of President Richard Nixon, who was six feet tall, shaking hands and smiling with someone also six feet tall. The background had to be fairly simple, such as one of the white shelved niches in the Oval Office, because this was to be swapped out by the team at Industrial Light and Magic. This was back in the early days of digital compositing when we didn’t have the latitude and sophistication we have today with digital backgrounds.
I went through dozens of silent film reels of President Nixon shaking hands with people. The White House film office didn’t record sync sound unless it was a high level meeting. The meetings gave me an entirely new perspective on the role of the President. He met graciously with ladies from the garden club. With children visiting with their school class. With spouses of visiting dignitaries. And then I found it! Pelton Stewart, Boys Club Boy of the Year award winner. He was a young African American guy about the right height and build for Tom Hanks, who I later learned was the star of this movie. Throughout this months-long project, I was mesmerized by all the hidden stories in these film archives, old magazines and news reels. The seed was planted for me to pursue more “real people stories” in my career.
Working on Forrest Gump was a life-changing project in other ways, too. (And no, I don’t have a credit—that was back in the day when babies born on set didn’t get credits, let alone Art Department PA’s!). I discovered how much I loved a business where every single person on the team had a skill and a craft that they loved and refined daily. I worked under the watchful eye of art director Linda Berger, who started every one of our long days at the warehouse-turned-art-department during DC area filming in this way: with a slew of sticky notes on different piles of photos, storyboards, and papers with the words “ASK ME ABOUT THIS”. I did and learned so much! I was in awe of producer Wendy Finerman–at the time she was one of the only women producers working on major films—who came to the set looking incredibly cool in a beat up black leather jacket. (The seed was also planted here for my activism for more women on set, particularly in technical fields, through my leadership of Women in Film and Video and later, my #GALSNGEAR initiative.)
During filming in DC, I got to watch up close how Bob Zemeckis operated as a director—firm in his vision, but collaborating closely with many department heads and engaging their input. He was a great role model. One day, I was working fairly close to his position on set during the filming of the Vietnam War protest scene at the Lincoln Memorial. He waved me over to his video assist monitor. I looked around to be sure it was me he was pointing to. “Come on over, kid, take a look.” Later that day, I was invited to join the team watching the dailies from scenes we had just shot, and I heard him discussing the different reasons he liked or didn’t like a particular take, and how it would propel the story arc of the film. It was one of many moments in my real world film school education. And one reason I always reach out to the next “kid” to help her propel her film career.
I worked on art department research for many other feature films after that project. But the thing that really stuck with me was my curiosity about the stories of real people – the lives and moments I unearthed from archives and film reels and newspaper accounts along the way. I’ve been lucky to document nonfiction stories throughout my career as a director and producer for many organizations. But I’ve never forgotten the journey that Forrest and I both took that year.
Amy DeLouise writes, produces and directs nonfiction videos for nonprofits, associations and companies with great stories to tell. Book a meeting with her here to discuss a project.
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