Just before we were approved for the Longueville house, while we were househunting and life was on unsure footing, Judy rang one evening to introduce a disquieting possibility. She’d had a phone call that day from a long-time friend, Sandra.
“You remember her?” Judy asked. Yes, I knew Sandra; she had been friends with Judy since their sons had attended primary school together. “Well, I’ve been telling her about what we’re doing with The Shed project and how we’re looking for a house to rent together. And Sandra was at dinner with some friends, and got to talking about us. It turns out that among the guests was a couple who run a film-making company – Rod and Lesley are their names; they make documentaries…” Judy paused. “You still there?”
“Yes, I’m here,” I said with some apprehension. “So…?”
“So they said they were interested in our project, and would like to talk to us about doing a documentary on it.”
“No, serious. And then Lesley, the film-maker, rang me, introduced herself and asked if we’d be willing to get together to discuss the whole thing. So I thought I’d see what you all felt about it. You don’t mind that I spoke to her, do you?”
“Of course not,” I replied, with no idea of whether I minded or not. It was alarming, but also vaguely flattering and exciting.
After a hurried phone-’round, we all said, sure, why not explore this further? Can’t hurt to meet them.
Perhaps we were secretly thrilled that someone was interested in our project. Wouldn’t it be something if the whole world got to see what we were up to?
A meeting with the film-makers was set up.
Scene 1: Exploring the possibility
Rod and Lesley were obviously used to walking into situations like this – they knew what they were doing and radiated confidence. Rod was a tall, lanky guy with a bit of greying beard; he had smile lines around his eyes and a quirky sense of humour to match them. Lesley was action-packed, spiky-haired, quick to interject, sure of herself, sharp and very warm at the same time. I liked them both immediately.
Lesley started by explaining that she and Rod’s imaginations had been captured by the idea of our Shedders project. From their personal point of view, she said, in a few years they too would be retiring and had always been attracted to having a self-selected community around them when they did so. From the point of view of creating a documentary, they felt our project was timely, addressing the concerns of baby boomers moving toward retirement and demanding a more active, rich life than previous generations had.
They mirrored back my own sentiments about the project, expressing more articulately than I ever had what the opportunities in store for us were.
They explained what it would be like to be filmed. They said they’d be in our faces at exactly the times we’d prefer they weren’t, wanting to catch us warts and all. Sometimes they would be interviewing us individually; sometimes they’d be filming our meetings; sometimes they’d be filming us as couples. They wanted to establish for an audience who we were, what we did and how we interacted to make things work – or not. They said they didn’t care if our project succeeded or not, though they were very sure it would. Either way it would be a story worth telling.
I digested it all. Although it all felt vaguely flattering, I wasn’t sure I could bear the scrutiny of the camera. I’d been filmed a number of times in my working life, but hadn’t ever been comfortable with it. I had a mental image of a little sea creature, an anemone perhaps, folding up tightly when you touch it – that would be me in front of a camera crew.
At this point, they asked us each to express our reaction. Did we have questions? Concerns? Reservations? Could we commit? Would we be willing to open up in front of the cameras?
One at a time, we each talked through our sentiments about the prospective documentary.
Michael went first. He was short and to the point. “Fine by me,” he said. “I don’t give a damn if anyone sees me with holes in my underwear, and if people get something out of our experience, well, terrific.”
Eve was guardedly enthusiastic. “It might be a little uncomfortable at times,” she said, “but, what the heck, that’s just wanting to look good. It might give people the courage to try something similar themselves, if that’s what they’ve been dreaming of doing.”
“Or dissuade them completely,” Michael said with a laugh.
I went next. I kept quiet about my personal fears but expressed another concern I had. “I agree with what Eve and Michael have said – if our experience can make a contribution to people, fantastic. But with the cameras on, we might make some decisions we wouldn’t otherwise make. The process of being recorded will have a life of its own, with the camera becoming another influence in our decisions. I don’t imagine Rod and Lesley will attempt to sway us, but I reckon the camera will, whether it tries to or not.”
Nods of understanding.
Daniel was even more wary. He’d been involved in a documentary process before, where a course he’d done, called “Money and You”, had been featured. It turned out the whole point of the film had been to bag the course and its producers, and participants like Daniel had been caught in the crossfire. “You guys don’t look the type who’d go out of your way to make a fire and brimstone film, but I know enough about film-making to know when push comes to shove, you’ll take the road that satisfies the audience craving for drama.”
Lesley’s spiky hair stood up even straighter. “I can assure you we don’t do sensationalist drama.” She waved a finger at Rod, who fished a pair of DVDs out of the big briefcase he had beside him, then tossed them to Lesley. “Here’s some examples of our work. Have a look. We don’t do drama,” she repeated emphatically, giving the DVDs to Daniel.
Daniel accepted them and nodded, retiring graciously from the field. “I’m fine to go ahead,” he said, “but I reserve the right to complain if this devolves into scandal and melodrama.”
Rod chuckled: fair enough.
Rick was next. “Sure, why not? Sounds like fun, and I like the thought of getting to know something about the documentary process.”
Judy followed, speaking carefully. “I think this idea is great or I wouldn’t be here. My concern is about what might happen if this film gets made and is successful. A lot of people will have opinions about people who get involved in this kind of thing, you know: flaky, free-love, ageing hippies. I’m building a career here. I intend to become a CEO or board director within the next two or three years, and I don’t want anyone’s opinions about this documentary to get in the way.”
Eve shrugged a shoulder and smiled. “Well, you can’t stop people having opinions. And here we all would be hoping this doco is successful. So – no guarantees.”
Lesley took the opportunity to do her equivalent of reading the riot act, an artful manoeuvre which I watched her use on occasion over the next couple of years. “That’s right, the only guarantee is that people will have opinions. And we’d like you to be clear about that right now. If we get into this process, and start spending serious amounts of time and money, Rod and I would be horrified if you changed your minds sometime down the track.”
I digested this, as did the others.
She sat back and regarded each of us in turn. “So, are you all in?”
We looked at one another, and all signalled our agreement.
Lesley turned away from us to regard Rod. “Are WE in?” she said.
Rod met her eyes and leaned forward, rubbing his palms together. He nodded, his eyes sparkling. “For sure,” he said. “I’m even more enthusiastic than I was when the meeting started. Let’s do it.”
Their brief exchange took me slightly aback. I caught a glimpse of how we were handing our precious project over to the larger world. It wasn’t just ours any more. It had slipped out of our complete control.
Perhaps that was exactly where it should be.
Scene 2: A new look at my old life
When you are being videoed by a film crew, a lot of things are embarrassing. I mean, you’re just going through life doing your ordinary routines, and you don’t see how weird they are until you realise it’s going onto film to be viewed by others.
We had a lot of possessions. We’d raised our children in a sprawling house in the suburbs, and over the sixteen years we lived there had accumulated enough stuff to fill a house, garage and garden shed.
And now we were in transition. We couldn’t predict what the kids might want and need; we didn’t know if we’d end up on an acreage somewhere and have to manage lawns and gardens again; we didn’t know if we’d need to fill a basement with old furniture – so we had held on to things. We had a little garage in our townhouse in Wollstonecraft, not quite big enough for our car but just big enough to accommodate all the odds’n’sods that we weren’t using.
Under the opinionated glare of the camera, I felt an urge to justify myself, which I resisted. But why were we keeping this weights machine? These three fans? This old computer and printer? These four filing cabinets? It all seemed a bit lame, but what can you do when you might need that something again some day?
At any rate, we were filmed looking at our stuff, writing down our stuff, rationalising about why we were keeping our stuff, repacking our stuff and actually putting a lot of our stuff on the nature strip for a council clean-up. I wasn’t sure any of the film footage would make riveting viewing. But the key message for me was that looking at myself through other’s eyes isn’t necessarily agreeable.
The experience also reinforced my view that I was not a camera natural. Even though I would have loved to be someone who danced with the camera, who became animated and playful, clever and spontaneous – I was not. It was hard work. I struggled with self-consciousness. My inner control freak was freaking out.
Scene 3: Just your normal day at work
One morning the film crew showed up at 7:00 a.m. to follow Rick and me to work. We walked down the lane toward the train station, while fellow commuters swivelled their heads trying to integrate what was going on, then stole out of the way to avoid being filmed themselves. We waited for the train, attempting to make normal conversation. We rode the train into the city, our film-makers standing across the carriage from us, cameras on us as we hung onto the handrails trying to look casual.
They followed me to work, where I tried my heartfelt best to look as if I knew what I was doing. They interviewed my boss Steve and a couple of my co-workers, who I hoped would attest to my sanity. They interviewed me at my desk, where I carefully articulated the purpose of our joint venture, what we wanted to achieve and what we were encountering and learning along the way.
As we caught the train home together that night, Rick and I talked about the day, and how the experience of being filmed had felt. I began to understand what was going on with my inner control freak: the poor thing was worried about what other people were thinking about our project. It was one thing to share with a few trusted workmates about the land we’d bought, our upcoming share-living arrangements and our dream for building a future with two other like-minded couples. It was quite another to have everyone in the business gather in my doorway after the film crew had left, with a raft of questions and much raising of eyebrows. I was out of the closet. My inner control freak was not going to be able to control everyone’s opinions about our venture.
I thought about the lives of movie stars. At the supermarket, when I’m looking at magazine covers while Rick pays for the groceries, I’ve often felt empathetic toward these most public of figures. They’re just going about their lives, most likely enjoying their work, putting together movies for people to take pleasure in – only to have the most bizarre things said about them in the tabloids. Hopefully, they learned how to handle that anxious inner voice not long after they encountered their first film crew.
Scene 4: On holidays with the camera
Rod and Lesley were in attendance when we had convened our Christmas holiday on Mitchells Island. While the six Shedders swapped between the apartment over the café and the Shed, the filmmakers, with their cameraman Jo, rented rooms at a B&B nearby. What could be better than to have a few days’ holiday at the beach, while accomplishing work on their favourite documentary project?
They filmed us walking to the ocean, clambering up the dune and then pausing to take in the crashing waves against the blue sky backdrop.
They filmed us watching a massive tropical storm that swept in over the river and battered the café awnings below us. For a half hour the palms bent almost horizontal while waves of water swept off the river and accumulated in pools beside the road.
They were keen to film my mother (this was the holiday where she was visiting from Canada), recording how someone from an older generation reacted to the project. Mum however patently refused to appear in front of the camera and sounded as if she’d head straight back to Vancouver Island if anybody pressed the issue. Whenever the cameras showed up, she would disappear into her bedroom with a book. So – no footage of Mum.
They filmed us doing yoga. They filmed us playing Pictionary, one of many games we enjoyed on our holidays. They filmed us at The Shed one 40 degree day, interviewing us in couples. They positioned Rick and me on the sofa, after fussing for ages to get just the right background, then turned on the lights and turned off the fans (which made too much noise during the filming). When the sweat started dripping down our faces, they would stop and let us mop up. Then back at it again. They trained us not to directly answer their questions, but rather to restate the question as we spoke. So if they asked, “When did you two meet?” you couldn’t say “1979.” You had to say, “Rick and I met in 1979.” When we’d stuff up Lesley’s eyes would tighten a little and we’d try to do better next time.
You know how it is when you watch a documentary interview, and the husband and wife are sitting on a sofa, one person talking, the other listening and nodding, both looking uncomfortable until at some point they get caught up in their theme? – Now I understood how that all felt.
What the film-makers didn’t capture during the holiday was that painful discussion we had over the future of our property, the meeting where Michael nearly walked out, where we’d worried that we’d never get our ocean liners to travel in formation, where I nearly stopped loving everyone. Somehow, Rod and Lesley hadn’t been invited to that encounter – no doubt because we were anxious enough about the upcoming conversation without having to worry about it showing up on the big screen sometime in the future. Lesley was forced to read us the riot act again when she heard later in the day that they’d missed out on a rare display of discord.
“How can you do this to your audience?” she fumed. “You think they want only peaches-and-cream? If this film is going to make a difference to people, it’s going to have to show the demons you had to confront along the journey.”
Chastened, over the next few days we wondered if we could dredge up some drama for the cameras. But our confrontation had left us feeling closely related again, with our vision freshened. The drama would have to wait.
“Chapter 10. Almost Famous” continues next post.