A Conversation with Debbie Glovin
By John Rosenberg
Producer and writer Debbie Glovin has worked on national and regional Emmy-awarding winning programs for PBS and many others. We met at her home in Malibu to discuss the process of documentary filmmaking.
As a cultural historian by training, I found that documentaries, which take great intellectual curiosity, research and an interest in people and the world was a natural fit. Both the people who make documentaries and the people who are the subjects of documentaries are often fascinating people.
How did you get into this field?
I was down from the Bay Area for a birthday weekend, visiting friends, when I heard about an ABC reality TV show which was interviewing. I went in and they said they wanted someone educated. With my Masters Degree and research background I was hired on the spot and given one week to move to Los Angeles.
Are documentaries a form that all filmmakers should try?
Yes! You learn a lot about approaching a subject honestly. You also develop skills, such as research, flexibility and storytelling which help you in dramatic projects as well. If you can make a compelling program and story about something that audiences may not normally find engaging, it can help you later when the only limit is your imagination. In dramatic films you may have George Clooney, but in documentaries you have to make a rock sexy.
Is it easier or harder now to make documentaries?
Technologically, we have lighter, more portable equipment and we’re not relying on film which is vulnerable to temperature change, x-rays and intensive laboratory processes. For instance, I produced a segment for a show entitled Day in the Life of America, where we did more than twenty locations in two states over a 24 hour time period. The lighter equipment would have been a great help. Logistically, however, I’d say it’s more difficult. Today I would be hard pressed to keep that kind of schedule. Sometimes, I took several flights a day, had to literally run through Security carrying equipment and black bags with film inside that could not be checked or examined. And the airlines were a huge help. The flight attendants knew you so well that they anticipated even getting you a different meal for the same route each time. That great support is no longer there.
What are some of the best aspects of documentary filmmaking?
Making documentaries has brought me in contact with extraordinary people and organizations, such as NASA, the NAS, NOAA, USGS, NCAR, DOD and professors, some noble laureates, from major universities. I’ve particularly enjoyed that documentary filmmaking has allowed me to travel worldwide, working in exotic locations that one wouldn’t normally visit, such as the Arctic, equatorial coral reefs, naval ships, copper mines of Cypress, and oil platforms of the North Atlantic. One of the most interesting aspects is interviewing experts. You have to be a quick study. You absolutely cannot skimp on research. You must be prepared to acquaint yourself with their work and their subject matter. Even if you don’t fully understand the nuances of their specialty you have to be prepared to interview them intelligently.
Do you have a particular approach to making documentaries?
A good way to approach making a documentary is to create a mission statement about the subject so you know what the film is going to be about and what your throughline is, generally from beginning to end. Research it, outline it, and then find stories that reinforce your general proposition. At the same time you have to remain open to opportunities which will change your project. When a friend of mine went half way across the world to film a particular subject for a documentary, he found that the reality on the ground wasn’t what the production company had scripted back in L.A. He was nimble enough to rewrite the story on the spot, which made an excellent documentary and was well received by critics and audiences. But it did not endear him to the suits (executives) who had to approve decisions and schedules. As a filmmaker you have to be honest and adaptable enough to tell the true story, not the anticipated one.
Can you say a bit more about developing a documentary?
You essentially need a beginning, middle and end for each segment with several segments that interrelate as they develop together throughout the program. You should be as prepared as possible for the shoot, even though it won’t necessarily go exactly as planned. This can cause difficulties but it’s also a great opportunity. When you get your production footage back, you edit it, keeping in mind the story, the structure, and the theme that you’ve developed. After you put everything together with the talking heads and b-roll (the footage that will illustrate what your interviewees are talking about) it means you can write the final voiceover to camera while watching the rough cut. This way the project grows organically into the film it was supposed to be. It might not be exactly what you set out to do, but it has the integrity of your initial intent.
What do you see for the future of documentaries?
It’s clear to me with the excellent pro-sumer equipment and democratization of information through the Internet, almost everyone coming up through the educational system will, at some point, make some kind of documentary video at some level. Just as it has been a standard to write a persuasive essay, one will have to be able to create a visual persuasive essay. This will become more and more important for students. People may not necessarily work at a professional level, but everyone will have to be proficient in expressing themselves visually in media. It’s a very powerful tool to have.