Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Ties That Bind


All Those Assumptions

I used to believe in free will — forging my own path, every obstacle a problem to solve. But years ago, I learned we’re all bound by fate. No, not some divine puppet master pulling strings. The strings that bind our thoughts and actions are subtle. They travel with us — all those assumptions about who we are and what we’re about. That discovery changed my life. It all began 35,000 feet in the air…

     The No Smoking sign goes off and I light up. Nervous? Yeah. I’m flying into uncharted territory.

A Dream Assignment – or Nightmare?

     A week ago, I’d just met Leo and he’s down on his knees, imploring, “Don’t f___ it up.” Serious or kidding? I just laughed and said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” Now, I’m winging my way to the land of the rising sun and NHK Japanese television.

     Here’s the background: Leo’s PBS station (MPT), NHK, Film Australia and BBC’s Channel 4 are partners in MiniDragons, an international documentary series about emerging Asian nations. They’ve all agreed: each partner focus on three or four main characters and unfold their stories with no talking heads and minimal narration. Fashion each program like a drama.

     The problem, Leo explained, is NHK documentaries are structured like TV news – all narration and talking heads. So, I’m flying there to show them how to craft their program as an American- style feature documentary. That’s the challenge.

     What do I know about NHK? Leo showed me some of their docs. Unwatchable. Going for the lowest common denominator, their narrators rehash the content over and over. My job is to steer them in a different direction.

     Thinking about it, I have no role models, no mentors, no well-worn path to follow. Just instinct and my gut to guide me. Well, they’re all seasoned professionals. I hope that glue will bind us together. Plus, they’re paying my way.

     Yeah, but. How will they deal with a Gaijin (foreigner) telling them their work won’t cut it? That they have to blow up their tradition-bound style and follow my lead to create something totally different? I wonder, what did I get myself in for?

 First Meeting

     I land at Narita airport after a 15-hour flight. I just want to go to my hotel and sleep. Instead, I’m whisked away through Tokyo streets to NHK studios. I’m led to a conference room with eleven men and one woman seated around a thirty foot table. One by one, they introduce themselves and present their credentials. Of course, it’s all in Japanese and translated for my benefit. They’re highly experienced, many have international production credits. Heavy hitters, all. And more years on the job than me.

     As they speak, I conjure Commodore Perry and his Black Ships sailing into Endo Bay. Perry and his Gunboat Diplomacy — demanding Japan open up to the West. I look around. Are they seeing another Gaijin arriving on their shores to dictate terms of surrender? I know why Leo got down on his knees. A lot at stake.

     To gain a moment, I take out a cigarette and light up. Then they all do, too.

     There is something going on here, but what? Why did no one smoke until I did? Are they being polite or wary of Gaijin ways? Am I about to step into some kind of cultural quagmire?

     I take a deep drag, let it out and say, “I’d like to thank you for inviting me to NHK. I want to be clear: I’m not here to tell you what to put in your piece. This is your program, not mine. I’m just here to help you make the best program possible. That’s all.”

     That night, we’re all out at dinner. On the flight over, I thumbed through a guidebook about Japan. So, I’m careful to pour beer for the team members to my right and left and use the back of my chopsticks to put food on my plate.

     Nobuku, the only woman on the team and my translator, starts to giggle. I ask her what’s funny and she says, “you’re so polite. We’re not doing that with our chopsticks like you are.”

     Despite our different cultures, as professionals we have a lot in common. We’re observers, curious about the world. We’re task oriented, problem solvers and proud of our skills. Production creates a tight community, with its own set of rules, roles and behavior.

Crossing a Line

     At NHK, the day starts at 10 and wraps around 8 or 9. Then we all go to dinner. Each day we visit a restaurant specializing in a different Asian cuisine. I ask them to order for me. I’m served eel, squid, snails, flying fish (a delicacy) and other sea creatures. They like challenging my taste buds. I’ll try anything. I think we’re bonding over food.

     They check out my hotel room. It’s a typical Japanese single, just enough space to turn around without bumping into anything. I’m okay with it, but they move me to a larger room. I take it as a good sign.

     Shuniya, the producer, and I go to a Shinto temple to pray for the project’s success. He’s a lovely guy, very friendly and has good English – probably why they chose him to lead the team. But after I review their roughcut, I see he doesn’t’t get what we’re trying to do. I’ve got less than two weeks to move them in the right direction. I see only one option: he has to be replaced. I explain to Leo. His advice: “don’t screw it up.”

     At NHK, every ask starts, “is it possible to do such and such?” I light up, blow out a stream of smoke and say, “the rough cut does not work and it’s not possible to use it. I’m sorry we must start over, but it is not possible for Shuniya to continue as producer.” It’s early days and I’ve already crossed a line.

     Commodore Perry’s ghost…

     They have to accept my decision, but ask not to change the roughcut. I ask to see the raw footage. That ask is production’s worst nightmare, meaning big changes ahead. Their documentary should show how Taiwan became an economic dynamo, told through the stories of three main characters. That’s what I’m looking for.

Stuck in the Muck

     For the next few days, Nobuku and I review all the footage. She talks me through the people they filmed, explains their issues and tells me their stories. I see great material there but they’re not using it well. Everything is flat and boring. Bottom line, I might have to restructure the program myself.

     The next day, I buy packs of index cards and, back at my hotel, start to work on story structure. I make a card for each scene, color coded for each person, and write down how the scene might advance their story. Then I create a timeline for the cards and put them in best order. Now I have a backup plan, but keep it under wraps.

     The team is not happy. They’ve all lost face. In their eyes, I speak softly but carry a big stick. What to do?

     They ask me to edit a scene, show them what I want. More challenge than request. Now, I’m on the spot. Well, maybe it can be a path to get us back on track.

     Here’s my problem: their Taiwanese footage is almost entirely in Chinese. Then I remember, one story features a local factory owner. They filmed him pitching a Japanese company to manufacture their tennis racquets. In their meeting, the owner and the company men speak English. A lucky break, I can work with that.

     The footage is well shot, but focused on the mechanics of a meeting. You see the factory owner prep the room, the Japanese businessmen enter, all shake hands, the owner makes his pitch, the Japanese ask questions, they shake hands and leave. All by the numbers and not very interesting.

     But I see potential. If played right, it could be a pivotal scene. Their body language tells me the Japanese businessmen are skeptical that the factory owner can meet their demanding quality standards. He has a lot at stake – he wants to expand and the outcome of the meeting could make or break his business. I have to edit the footage to strengthen that tension.

     In a documentary, drama is created or heightened in editing: how shots are put together, what we see and what we hear. When I look at footage, there’s a running commentary in my head as I search for moments to show drama and action. That internal dialogue informs my decisions: when to come in to a shot, when to leave, what to see next. If I can verbalize these thoughts as I work with the footage, the team can understand my process and hopefully view their footage in a new light.

     I get to work. I talk about the strength of each shot, what might work, what might not and how to approach creating a scene. I continue, as I put down each shot to create drama and move the action forward. When I finish, you can feel the tension between the businessmen and the factory owner. To help the audience feel his plight, the last shot falls on the owner’s worried face. The scene ends up in the air, you can’t tell if he’ll get an order or not.

     I stand up from the editing console and everyone applauds. Nice. But what did they really see? Did I show them something useful or did they just see me showing off? Maybe, they’re just being polite. I can’t tell.

Out of the Quagmire

     They introduce their new team leader, Jun. He’s directed NHK dramas and will be Shuniya’s replacement. Where Shuniya was shy and thoughtful, Jun is flamboyant and confident. He says they don’t understand how to proceed and I should explain how to create a feature documentary in this new style.

     Seems like I’m being tested again. But, if I can give them key concepts, then they can plot a way forward.

     NHK makes programs where the narrator tells you everything and tells you everything again just to make sure you get it. In a feature documentary, you see things unfold, as in a drama — a totally different approach. Still, I’ve never tried to put the process into words.

     I start at the beginning — how to think about ideas visually, how to show rather than tell. I describe the elements of drama, talk about creating tension, what makes a scene. I explain how to see when a shot works and when to leave it. How to order shots to create an impact. I bring in my index cards, put them in order and make Xerox copies I’ll hand out later, to show how we can structure the scenes and interweave the stories.

     For the first hours, with Nobuku translating, I just get polite stares. But as I talk about editing scenes for dramatic impact, Jun realizes I’m talking his language. He starts talking to the team really fast in Japanese. I assume he’s explaining what I’m trying to communicate. Then he looks over my proposed structure and asks, “Would it be possible to change the order of the scenes?”

     Meaning, am I willing to bend?

     I say, “It’s your program, not mine. If it makes sense, fine. Do it!” There’s a lot of back and forth in Japanese, as Jun takes the lead. I see their relief, now he’s is in charge. I hope we’re all finally on the same page.

     That night, we go out to drink and do Karaoke. At a tiny, private bar, we sip scotch and sing American songs. Everyone lets loose, the tension is gone. Now we know the way forward, we’re bonded for sure.

     With Jun in the lead, they work furiously to re-edit their material. With the new structure, the show is coming together. Somehow, they “lose” my cut of the scene with the businessmen and factory owner. Just another little passive aggressive moment. But by then, with everyone moving in the same direction, who cares. I leave Japan to come back in a month and review the new roughcut.

* * *

The Word is Courage

     On my return, I see they’ve made great choices. Now the documentary has heart, drama and easy-to-follow storylines. They ask me to write some short bridges to help with transitions. I spend a few days with Nobuku pouring over the scenes to amplify the drama with a well-chosen line or two.

     With everything moving so swiftly, the station is promoting the series. It makes the news. They set up a crew to shoot my arrival and meeting with the NHK team. They film me shaking hands with a station VP. He says, “Tell me what the program is about.”

     I know he’s only being polite, but it makes me think. How to sum up an hour program in just a few words? I say, “Courage. The program is about courage.” A flutter of comments floats up behind me.

     I explain, “The central characters all face challenges. With the Japanese contract in hand, the factory owner must expand, but can’t find enough skilled workers in Taiwan. Officially, he cannot do business in China. Even so, he flies to the Mainland to set up a factory to meet the new demand. Another character, a much-admired actress, protests government policies, risking her career to fight for the environment. Her uncle agrees to support her efforts in the Legislative Yuan, knowing it may put his career in jeopardy.” I sum up, “Against the odds, everyone finds the courage to meet their challenges.”

     “I nailed it,” I think, and feel pretty good to encapsulate all the issues bound up in their program with one powerful concept — courage.

It’s All How You Look At It

     At dinner that evening everyone in the NHK team is buzzing. Still feeling proud of myself, I ask Nobuku what they’re talking about. “Oh,” she says, “they’re talking about the difference between the American way of making a program and the Japanese way.”

     “Well, what are they saying?”

     “They’re saying we would never make a program about courage.”

     “What do you mean? Courage is a fundamental human value. Our president, John Kennedy wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, that helped him get elected. Almost every movie you see has courage as a central theme. It’s a basic belief — people standing up for what’s right. Our country was founded on courage.”

     Nobuku smiles. “Well, in our culture,” she says, “a similar value is cooperation. It’s important we all work together in harmony. If someone is not up to speed, the group must help them catch up. As you value courage, we value harmony.”

     I’m stunned. I’ve passed through this entire experience with blinders on. In their eyes, when I said,“ It’s not possible for Shuniya to lead the project,” I was defying a basic value and breaking the bonds of trust. By working alone to fashion a structure for their program, I created disharmony for the group. I thought we shared values that bound us together, but I’m just locked in the frame of my own cultural assumptions.

     The last day, a few of us go out for a beer, including Masaharu, their editor. We haven’t talked much, but I feel a bond between us – we’re both editors. After a few beers, we get to talking and he tells me that America is a weak country because we’re all so different. “In Japan,” he says, “we’re all the same. Same background, same heritage. That makes us stronger than your country.”

     Another zinger. Of course, I object and say, “America is a melting pot — our different backgrounds and points of view make us a stronger nation. In American, diversity is our great strength.”

* * *

Ties That Bind

     It was easy to say back then, almost 30 years ago. But now? We’re in a different time and I wonder. What really binds us together?

     Were Masaharu’s words metaphorical or personal? In production, teamwork is fundamental — a strong team creates a strong outcome. Together we produced a powerful documentary. But what about our underlying assumptions, those values we don’t even question, that define our world view and how we relate to each other? I saw the project as a great success and a significant growth opportunity. How did they view it?

     A few years after the program aired I got an answer. Leo invited me to a roundtable on international co-production. Heads of key PBS stations were there, as was Mr. Ninomiya, an NHK Senior Producer who was present, in the background, for much of my time with the team. I never heard him speak a word of English, but when it was his term to speak, he said in perfect English, “Our approach is different than the American approach. We work together as a team to come to decisions and plot a way forward.” Then he looked at me, “We would never just go to our hotel room and come up with a plan to present to the group. It’s not our way.”

     So here’s the fundamental question: are we so bound by our culture that we’re forever locked within its confines? Is that our fate? I’d like to think we can break through those bonds, but given all the conflict, all the divisiveness that now pervades our collective consciousness, I don’t know.

     To find our way forward, we’ll have to reach across boundaries, fear and ignorance and honor what we have in common. Can we do that? Can we look at what we take for granted and respect others who see things differently? I hope we can. So much depends on it.