Q&A With "The Beginning" Documentary Director Jon Shenk
Jim Ward (VP of Marketing at LucasFilm), Moderator
Friday September 7, 2001 - Skywalker Ranch, CA
JIM WARD: OK. The next gentleman I'd like to bring up here is a gentleman by the name of Jon Shenk. And I think now you know Jon was both the DP and Director of the documentary film that you saw called "The Beginning". Jon.
(Jim Ward & Jon Shenk)
JIM WARD: The question is, why no narrator in the documentary?
JON SHENK: It's funny, I think in the realm of a "making of" it's a real unusual thing. But there's a whole history of cinema verité -- observational docs that have this style. And that's just something that I sort of fell in love with when I became a documentary filmmaker. And it just always seemed like a very direct approach. You know, sort of a human approach to making a film.
JON SHENK: And we had discussions from the time when I started work on this project that we wanted it to be an honest take on what it's really like to work on these films because we hear it all the time through making ofs, various formats, the rosy picture and kinds of things that Rick was talking about, how funny it was that certain quirky things happen. But we knew we were going to be around for a long time, and we had the luxury of collecting these scenes that allowed us to tell the story well. Without a voice of God narration to come between.
JIM WARD: The question is, how long did the process take?
JON SHENK: Well you have to understand I was shooting the documentary footage over the course of almost three years. I had so much time to think about a finished film as I was going along that it's really almost impossible to count. We would shoot scenes, and there are certain scenes that you shoot and know immediately that that's going to be in the film, you start working with it right away. The actual editing time once the DVD came around and there was sort of this idea that there was going to be this hour long documentary that we were going to put on the disc, that editing period was about three months or so.
JIM WARD: Jon in fairness he's being humble. We didn't give him a lot of time, (?) the decision was made to do this it was like Jon, "the good news is let's do what we've always talked about. Bad news is you've got like a couple months to do it," and he, talk about living it as a lifestyle, that's what he did.
JON SHENK: But by that time, to be fair we had had and I had shown to Jim sort of what they call in the film world a rough assembly. Which is a really rough kind of almost an assembly of best stuff. It was probably three or four hours long, and Jim had seen that and so we were starting from a place where we kind of at least knew the basic structure of the film.
JIM WARD: The question is, how did you log all this stuff?
JON SHENK: My brain. It's a copywritten database by now. Yeah actually we did. We knew very early on, actually when I started the job in November of '96 there was already a stack of tapes a mile high that other people had shot from the day that George had started writing the script. So I knew right away that a logging system was something that we would need. And I actually ended up working with a guy who had helped create the logging system for Episode I to log their dailies. And we modified it and I told him the kinds of things that I would need for documentary footage and it was a Filemaker Pro based thing.
JON SHENK: And during busy times we would actually have an assistant do nothing but watch the previous day's tapes that I had shot. Because sometimes I would shoot five, six, seven hours of footage in a day. That guy was going through it the next day typing in detailed logs so if I thought or if Jim said to me "hey do you have anything where you know the guys at ILM are really freaking out," we could just type ILM freaking out and hopefully get some shots that we needed.
JIM WARD: The question is, how do you narrow down 600 hours of film basically?
JON SHENK: It's a painful job. But partly you make an early decision about what the through lines are going to be, and that immediately knocks out half the footage or two thirds of the footage. Because you know that you're only going to be dealing with certain characters and you know they have a certain through line. And also you have to understand that while I was making this (thing?) that's on the DVD, I had other things to do.
JON SHENK: So I was shooting for electronic press kits and we had a whole series of short documentaries that were on the web. So it's true we did shoot 6 or 700 hours of footage but a lot of that stuff was specifically for other things. So when it came time to do the verité piece that we put on the DVD, it was already honed down. I mean still it's a lot to go through, but then it's just a matter of diving in and it's part of the editing process.
JIM WARD: Was the scene with Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg something that you knew was a keeper?
JON SHENK: Definitely. When you know that you're not going to use a narrator in a film, you know I'm trying to avoid sit-down interviews that allow you to tell the story in hindsight how it happened, you basically depend on being a sniper, being in the right place at the right time to capture what you need to catch. And so there was always talk on set that summer that Spielberg was actually shooting this movie called Saving Private Ryan a few miles down the road in England and that eventually he'd probably come to the set. And you know he and George are pals and that they would have some kind of something on set. And I wanted to be there when that happened.
JON SHENK: So I just made it my business, and that was just one example of a lot of things I did, I sort of had to constantly be a private detective asking people when things were going to happen. So when I found out that that was going to happen I just made sure that I was standing in the right place, and in the film there's five or six minutes of that scene probably but you know the tour of George taking Spielberg around the set was just, it was just a magical thing. You know there's always sort of a magical experience of working on Star Wars because it was just such an exciting project to be around.
JON SHENK: But to have these two giants in one place, and to have the rapport that they have just felt really great and yeah, it was definitely one of those things where we turned to each other afterward and felt like we got something good there.
JIM WARD: The question is, was there a day where you didn't feel welcome Jon.
JON SHENK: Was there a day where I did feel welcome? That's the question. I mean you know, I'm trying to think of a specific example. It's, as Rick kind of alluded to, it's very difficult to do your job with a documentary film crew in your room. Especially if you know it's very delicate work and you already are feeling kind of nervous about trying to do the best job that you want to do. And suddenly you have a camera and a sound boom and you feel like you're on national television it's difficult.
JON SHENK: And so I constantly had to tread a line between getting what I needed to get and trying to hold back because I knew I was going to be involved with this thing for a number of years. And I knew that I had to maintain working relationships and become friends with these people to get what I needed. So really probably the on-set stuff was the most delicate. Because you know when they say OK everybody shut up and be quiet, we're going to shoot this take, you really have to do that.
JON SHENK: But as a documentary shooter you have to be in the right place, and you're constantly tripping over things, and when there's light stands and cables everywhere it's really an awkward thing. So probably the shooting period is the most difficult.
JIM WARD: The question is, is there a personal piece that you liked that didn't make it into the film?
JON SHENK: Maybe someday there'll be a DVD release of the documentary and you should see the hours of outtakes. I mean there's a million things that are in this library of footage that probably will continue to get mined over the years as Lucasfilm does more projects. It goes back to what I said before. It's mostly a matter of kind of basic editorial decision. Once you decide what the story is, a lot of stuff just doesn't make sense. So you know there's wonderful stuff, in the movie business there's a whole world of crafts work that gets done.
JON SHENK: And there's wonderful stuff of British painters talking about working on the initial Star Wars and getting invited back to do this one, sort of the whole old world/new world debate that was going on -- would certain things be sets or certain things be done digitally that, for example it would make a great film unto itself. But we only had a certain amount of space so we had to make the decision to leave that for another era.
JIM WARD: The question is, was the last scene staged or was that real?
JON SHENK: No, I mean George, that's just sort of a sign of how integrated we were on the project. We would make sure that we were in the right place at the right time when things were going to happen. I can't say that there's no shot in the film that I didn't say do you mind doing that again, or something like that occasionally. But yeah, we tried to be in the right place at the right time.
JIM WARD: It's kind of come full circle if you look at one of the initial web documentaries that Jon did, and Lynne Hale actually shot this footage was the very first day George sat to write down Episode I at his desk. And it's the exact same kind of thing.
JIM WARD: What was the stuff that was your favorite in the film?
JON SHENK: God that's a hard question. I really love small, intimate moments. The whole idea coming into this is, of course I knew what Star Wars was and I knew who George Lucas was, but you don't really know that much about the details of the process. So the moments we did rough cut reviews, or the times on set when he's revealing himself to have sort of nervousness about the project, those are the kinds of things I really like because I just feel like that, everybody has those feelings no matter what you do in life. And they feel the most real to me and they also feel like kind of a victory for who is ever shooting because the camera becomes invisible in that moment and suddenly a real thing is revealed.
JIM WARD: What kind of camera did you use to shoot it?
JON SHENK: I think this camera right here is the camera I used. When I started working on the project I think that a lot of the footage had been shot in Hi-8 mini-DV. And one of the first things I did when I got here is I started lobbying right away to shoot the material on essentially the best format that we could possibly use. And at the time, it's still a great camera, they had a digital betacam Sony makes, it's a digital version of basically a very common EMG format, beta SP. And Lucasfilm had been using it to shoot little inserts for Young Indy and they had a camera around and I lobbied to make it a part of the documentary package.
JIM WARD: Anything that you didn't get on tape that you regret?
JON SHENK: That's a good question. I can't think of, again I'm sure if you had asked me a couple of year ago I would have a million things. You always feel like you're missing way more than you're getting. You know it's like in the cast read through for example it's like the fact that the entire cast could not be there, it's kind of a, well God this kind of sucks. I'm here to do the cast read through and only part of the cast is here, and I really regretted it at the moment. But then in hindsight it became kind of charming that the whole cast wasn't there, that they had these other players who were playing the parts and it actually became kind of a plus. So in the end once it's together and once it's working, a lot of those regrets kind of fall away because the good stuff sort of rises to the top.
JIM WARD: When Jon was doing this the real reason he was shooting this was really for archival purposes. There was never an issue in the beginning that we're doing something for DVD and therefore it needs to be (?) this. It was archival purposes and at the end of the day there may be something put together for some use. So he was being as honest as he possibly could.
JON SHENK: I was never told when I first started that we were going to do an hour long documentary that was going to end up on the DVD. I don't think DVD even existed as a format when I started doing this. So I was told a lot of things. Lynne Hale the Publicist said I need you to collect footage so that we can use it for press reasons. And you know Jim had ideas that he wanted to do for marketing things. And George Lucas had this idea that maybe someday this would be used for an online digital film school, where you could go in like Rick said watch a couple hours on costumes, or a couple hours on stunts or special effects. So I had this idea that I just had to essentially shoot anything that seemed interesting.
JON SHENK: And it's a pretty broad charge to get, you know as a documentary person usually it's much more honed. And because it was kind of this top down project where George and the people around it really wanted it to happen, there weren't many closed doors. Pretty much any door I knocked on and explained who I was and who wanted this thing done was open to me. And I shot tons of things. And to answer your question, the irony is there is stuff that I really wanted to get but couldn't because it was sort of an inside job, was that when Jim called me up to hire me to do the DVD part of the thing, I actually hadn't had this frank conversation like you know what should be the tone of it and do you have any feelings? And he said Jon give me the dirt, show me the stuff that's really going to make this thing seem real.
JON SHENK: Do you have anything where people are screaming at each other in the trenches and that's kind of in the spirit in which it was made. We really tried to flip on it's head the idea of a "making of" and try to bring out the juicy stuff that we have.
JIM WARD: What's up for you Jon? What have you been doing? You got sick of us so... (laughter) ...said look I've done this, I'm moving on to bigger and better things.
JON SHENK: Right. You have to understand, for a documentary filmmaker I was involved with this project for two and half years shooting it, and then another three, four, five months in the editing stage - that's a long time to be on a project. And the reason I became a documentary person is that probably, a lot like you guys, I like to move from story to story and have my life constantly turned upside down. It's sort of the nature of the business. So I felt like when I got to the end of it I was really ready to move on. Not because I didn't thoroughly enjoy it, I did. I just felt like for a documentary person I was ready for somebody with fresher eyes to take over. So actually since then I have a small documentary film company in San Francisco called Actual Films and we do PBS documentaries and all sorts of non-fiction film stuff.
JIM WARD: OK, well Jon thanks so much.
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