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  • "The best documentary makers bring special gifts for recognizing the dramatic potential in real situations." 02/23/12

    "I was one of those kids who won high school science fairs."
    "I was one of those kids who won high school science fairs."

    David W. Leitner, director of Newtown Creek Digester Eggs: The Art of Human Waste answers the Focus Forward questionnaire.

    1. What was it about the Focus Forward themes of innovation and/or invention that attracted you to the project?

    Innovation and invention have always spoken to me. I was one of those kids who won high school science fairs. Years later I spent a year at the Johnson Space Center during production of For All Mankind (winner 1989 Sundance Audience and Jury Awards, Best Documentary), which was a dream come true. NASA was then, as now, an idealistic civilian agency. But with the exception of Apple, all of America's gee-whiz technology today seems to be military. I get excited by invention that enhances life rather than blowing it up. Which is why I get turned on by innovation in the technology of wastewater treatment. Is there a more vital issue in the 21st century than drinkable water for all? 

    The quiet irony of my Focus Forward film, Newtown Creek: The Art of Human Waste, is that the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant is located alongside Newtown Creek, an EPA Superfund site sitting atop an underground oil spill three times [the size of] of the Exxon Valdez. It has yet to be cleaned up and is still poisoning the air, soil, and water under popular Greenpoint in Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan. The Newtown Creek area has hosted oil refining for 170 years, mostly before the era of pollution controls. It is the most toxic waterway in America, a fact to which New Yorkers are oblivious. The innovations that will be needed to permit underground clean-up would make a great Focus Forward film, but I'd need another three minutes.

    2. Can you give me some examples of how technology, such as inexpensive and high quality digital cameras, the advent of social media and other recent innovations have affected your work as a doc maker? 

    I've been writing about these topics for years, so I'm on record. (Google me.) As a documentary and dramatic filmmaker, I've long been a proponent of exploiting the best new technology to cut corners and cost. Small camcorders, FireWire transfers, Final Cut Pro, SSDs as media, Blu-rays for festival exhibition, you name it. In 2000 I directed one of the first features in HD (actor Patrick Wilson's debut). Of the last two dramatic features I produced, both of which premiered at Sundance, the first was anamorphic 35mm, SAG and IATSE, while the second was HDV with a crew of two, myself included. The latter cost 1/50th of the former, which meant we could green-light ourselves. I think that says it all.

    3. What are the biggest challenges of the compressed 3-minute format of the Focus Forward films?

    Focus Forward's 3-minute format is hardly longer than a 2:30 commercial film trailer. To pour big ideas into minuscule containers is immensely challenging. I chose to include two characters and story lines. To juggle these, I had to pre-think much of the photography. Even so, my best efforts yielded a four-minute cut. To compress this to three minutes, I had to experiment with form, namely splitting the screen. It was exhilarating when I made this breakthrough in editing. Learning new things is exciting.

    4. What are the 3 most important things for a documentary filmmaker to know/do to attract a  general public that might be convinced that documentaries are "educational" or "dry." 

    This premise is old hat. We're a decade into reality TV and five years into YouTube. Nonfiction narratives and shorts are ubiquitous, on cable and the Internet, wrapped in social media. Anyone can capture and edit full HD on a smart phone. Revolutions can start as a result. I don't think "the general public" has a bias against the documentary form or nonfiction media. Can't blame them, however, for spurning works that are dry or pedantic to begin with.

    I'll counter your question with a question: why should documentary filmmakers be carnival barkers? Why not instead do stellar work and trust the audience to be discerning?

    5. Come on, you can tell me the truth...just between you and me... You really want to be making narrative films in Hollywood, don't you? 

    I wouldn't mind the paycheck‚Ķ seriously, I've produced, directed, and photographed both documentary and dramatic features. When I originally studied film history and theory at Cornell, I made no distinction between documentary films and dramatic films. Chalk it up to youthful naivet√©, I thought films were films, period. The same basic dramatic principles apply to both, as any editor can tell you. 

    That said, the best documentary makers bring special gifts for recognizing the dramatic potential in real situations, just as the best dramatic filmmakers bring a gift for motivating great performances from actors. 

    6. Who parties harder: documentarians or narrative filmmakers?

    I'd say documentary and narrative filmmakers who are bicinematic like myself party the hardest. More opportunities.