Martin Smith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Documentary Filmmaking: Conversation with Martin Smith, 1/27/03 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Documentary Filmmaking

Before we get into the substance of your work, let's talk a little about the work itself. What does it take to do documentaries, skill-wise, temperament-wise, and so on?

As I said, I wanted to make personal documentaries. I was more interested in storytelling, and I had studied literature. I was more interested in storytelling than I was in the content, than I was in the reporting. So that's the direction I came from. And then, as I worked and layered more complex content into my work, and doing foreign policy stories, I still am coming from this place where storytelling is a very important element. I've worked as a senior producer on programs where we get people who are very skilled at reporting and bringing in nuggets of information, but have not a clue as to how to organize it. And then we get people who are pretty good at writing and putting a story together, but they're not aggressive enough in terms of bringing in the nuggets of fine reporting. And it's combining those two that, I think, makes the difference.

Help us understand what a producer does. He is really the conductor of the orchestra, shall we say?

Well, in Hollywood, he's the guy with the cigar who raises the money for the film and bugs the director. And that's not what they are in documentary. It's a kind of a misnomer for documentary. They don't like to use the word "director" in documentary, because it implies that you're telling people what to do, and how can it be, therefore, a documentary? What are you documenting if you're telling them what to do? So they use the word "producer."

Depending on the way in which the program or shop that you're working on, or the particular film is set up, the producer is generally the person who is calling all the shots -- directing the film, sitting through the whole edit, writing the script. Especially in the networks, where the correspondents really don't have the time to write the script, it's the producer who does that. So they are the director of the orchestra. They work with the cameraman. They work with the sound. They work with the associates, and they work with the editor and the correspondent.

So you need to understand, both skill-wise and other ways, what each piece of this puzzle does and how they best do it together.

Yes, it helps. Not everybody does. I've had an advantage in that I was a cameraman and a film editor before I was a producer, so I knew something about the craft of the people that I was directing. You get people coming at it from all sorts of different directions. It's not like being a doctor or a lawyer, where there is a much more prescribed path, you go to school for a certain number of years and get your skills.

Now, you majored in English, which says you could have gone the literary route, and you chose not to. What is distinctive, what should we make note of in telling stories through writing versus telling them through a documentary?

Well, you're giving too much credit to my choice of a major when I was in college. I thought it would be nice to read a lot of books.

I see.

And novels seem more interesting than nonfiction. I was majoring at Brown in comparative literature, Soviet and American literature, because I liked reading the books. I was really waiting for lightning from above to strike me and tell me what ...

There wasn't a choice?

It wasn't really a choice. I was interested in stories, and the way that they were told as opposed to just reporting, per se. I never really had any ambition to be on the hard news side of the news business. Now, at this point in my career, I've worked with a lot of people who come from that. But I, myself, am interested in marrying good storytelling craft with good reporting.

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