Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Behind the Screen: The Suicide Disease.

Note: Moving Pictures is featuring the filmmakers from the CSWE 2014 Virtual Film Festival sharing the stories behind the making of their films. Contact us to learn how you can see the films and vote for the Virtual Ovation Award. The award consists of a $500 prize and will be presented to the top-ranked film in the Virtual Film Festival, as determined by the audience. 

Filmmakers Katie Mattie, Vincent Moore, and Will Neal explain below the story behind their film The Suicide Disease, which portrays the effects of Trigeminal Neuralgia on the life of Notre Dame alumnus Frances Shavers.

From left: George Horn, husband of film subject Frances Shavers;
filmmakers Katie Mattie and Vincent Moore;
Shavers (with service dog Hannah); and filmmaker Will Neal
Vincent: As a former graduate and employee of Notre Dame, Frances Shavers has long-time ties with the university and was acquainted with Ted Mandell, a documentary filmmaking professor at Notre Dame. In mid-2013, Frances approached Ted in hopes of assembling a team that would help to document her story as she underwent treatment for Trigeminal Neuralgia (TN). When Ted asked us to be a part of the project, we jumped at the opportunity. The production process was a learning process in itself; not only was this the first time we had made a true documentary but also it was the first time that we had heard of the disease.

Will: In the beginning, we knew as much about TN as a Wikipedia page could offer.

Vincent: We had to do a good amount of research on the disease. Because of the uniqueness of Frances’s condition, it was difficult to find relevant information through conventional sources, so a lot of our research was in the form of one-on-one interviews with Frances and her doctors. 

Will: First, we wanted to build a friendship with Frances and George to establish trust and let them know that, above all things, we wanted to respect their privacy. Frances helped us through every step of the process, especially in helping us understand the nature of her disease. We knew simply showing Frances’s attacks weren’t enough for the audience to understand TN. We also understood that we didn’t need to explain every medical detail as well, so the challenge was finding a balance in order to keep the facts simple, yet informative. Thanks to Frances’s confessional video (displayed throughout the documentary), we were able to elevate the audience’s comprehension of TN as well as form an emotional connection.

For the first several weeks of filming, we never had the opportunity to see just how severe Frances’s attacks could be. Within her home, this was a very different story. We quickly found that Frances not only tried to hide the pain when she was out in public but also the severity of the attacks increased at night. In the privacy of her home, she wasn’t afraid to let the pain from each attack show. We wanted to step out from behind the camera and help her, but she wanted us to stick with the task at hand and properly document her attacks. We understood that, in many ways, this was an incredibly private matter for Frances and her husband, George Horn, as it put her in a very vulnerable position with each attack. As a group, we wanted to wait as long as possible before filming in her home. 

Vincent: We filmed over 8 nonconsecutive days, with production taking place throughout the 2013 fall semester. Although filming the project was relatively easy, editing was perhaps was considerably more difficult. We accumulated hours of footage and had to condense our raw footage down into a 15-minute film. Although we cut a lot of material from the film throughout the editing process, the final version of the film is best representative of the struggles and the joys that Frances faces on a day-to-day basis.

Katie: We tried to split up each of the filmmaking roles as evenly as possible. We traded off the camera on each of the shoots, with one person filming, one holding the boom pole, and one person free. The camera operator was in control of framing the shot and filming whatever he or she believed was most important. However, because the other two partners weren't solely focused on filming, they could watch the entire scene play out and let the camera operator know if something worth capturing was going on. This usually happened with reaction shots or cutaways. 

For the editing process, we initially divided the film into three sections, with Will taking on the beginning, Vincent carrying the middle, and me piecing together the ending. Each of the sections looked great individually but didn't flow together. Our best work was when all three of us would sit in the editing room and go scene by scene together. The process was a lot slower, but our different strengths helped shape Frances's story onscreen. Ted helped us in shaping the piece by giving us advice on how to structure the film and pointing out which of the scenes we edited that he found to be most compelling.

Will: Frances completely opened her life to us to tell her story, and we will be forever grateful to her. 

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