“The American dream is raising way up above what you started with…”
From the promo trailer The Queen of Versailles
You know, it’s common to think that the great stories to be found are out there somewhere —”out there,” places far from where we live.
I remember taking a photography class my first year of college in Central Florida and a teacher asking a student where his assignment was and the student said he hadn’t done it yet but he was going up to St. Augustine that weekend and was going to get some great shots there. You could understand his theory. A good deal of the Orlando area in the 80s was a balance of strip malls and strip clubs, sprawling suburban subdivisions and mobile home parks, Sea World and Disney World, while St. Augustine was a historic European-like waterfront city that was centuries old with a mix of architecture from the countries where seven flags have flow over the years.
But the photography teacher went into this diatribe about how you didn’t take interesting photographs just because you went to an interesting place. He talked about the fine art photographer Jerry Uelsman and others who made the common uncommon. He then gave us an assignment to photograph only in and around our homes. It obviously had an impact on me to remember it all these decades later. And he was right, there are things in your own backyard that are worth exploring.
And while he was talking about our literal backyards, from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective I’d like to expand that backyard to mean the general vicinity of where you live. That worked for Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty and hundreds of other writers who’ve told stories from unlikely places.
I was reminded of all of this back in January when the documentary The Queen of Versailles made a splash at Sundance. The film’s director, Lauren Greenfield, picked up Best Director of a Feature Film–Documentary Competition at Sundance. And she did it with a film that was shot in my former backyard so to speak in Central Florida. The film centers around David & Jackie Siegal and the 90,000 square foot home they were building in the Orlando area. No typo there, 90,000 square feet.
I remember living in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park when Orlando Magic basketball player Horace Grant was building a massive 20,000 square foot home. But as I would drive by it every couple of days while it was being built, I never once thought, “I bet that would make an interesting documentary.” Maybe it would have and maybe it wouldn’t have, but the point I’m making here is to have your story antenna up. That’s what took Errol Morris did for his first documentary,
“In 1978 [Morris] was inspired to direct his first nonfiction feature after discovering a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: ’450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’ The resulting documentary, Gates of Heaven, follows the surreal startup story of two entrepreneurs—through the launch of two competing pet cemeteries—and makes for an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”
The Art of the Documentary
From the trailer I’ve seen of The Queen of Versailles—which will be released in theaters next week— it looks as if it too is, “an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”
P.S. A couple of weeks ago I got to meet Megan Cunningham when I was in New York City for a shoot. She heads up Magnet Media who I’ve done some field producing and shooting for in the past year. Check out her book, The Art of the Documentary, which has wonderful interviews with Ken Burns, D A Pennenaker, Albert Maysles and others.