DVD Documentary Director - Jon Shenk
DVD Press Conference
September 7, 2001
JW - Jim Ward
VL - Van Ling
RM - Rick McCallum
PH - Pablo Helman
RD - Rick Dean
JS - Jon Shenk
JW: 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.
JW: The question is, why no narrator in the documentary?
JS: 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. 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.
JW: The question is, how long did the process take?
JS: 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.
JW: 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
JS: 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.
JW: The question is, how did you log all this stuff?
JS: 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. 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.
JW: The question is, how do you narrow down 600 hours of film basically?
JS: 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. 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.
JW: Was the scene with Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg something that you knew
was a keeper?
JS: 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. 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. 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.
JW: The question is, was there a day where you didn't feel welcome Jon.
JS: 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. 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. 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.
JW: The question is, is there a personal piece that you liked that didn't
make it into the film?
JS: 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. 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
JW: The question is, was the last scene staged or was that real?
JS: 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.
JW: 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.
What was the stuff that was your favorite in the film?
JS: God that's a hard question. I really love small, intimate moments.
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.
JW: What kind of camera did you use to shoot it?
JS: 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.
JW: Anything that you didn't get on tape that you regret?
JS: 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.
JW: 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.
JS: 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. 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. 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
JW: 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
JS: 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.
JW: OK, well Jon thanks so much.