Filming Fahrenheit 9/11

Whoever said you have to be based out of New York or Los Angeles to be associated with the Palm d’Or-winning film at the Cannes Film Festival? Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, I started a video production company fifteen years ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the DP of the most controversial film of 2004. The majority of my work is day-in-the-life documentaries. In 1999, I shot a documentary in HD that captures the final emotions of the fans as the city of Detroit closes the century-old Tiger Stadium, No Stats, Just Memories. Back then I knew High Definition was the way I wanted to go.

Kurt Engfehr, co-producer and editor of Fahrenheit 9/11, initially brought me on board to do some camera work on Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling For Columbine. Engfher and I had worked together on previous films, including A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, (which won the South by Southwest Audience Choice Award this year), so we have a strong working relationship. Then Fahrenheit 9/11 came along, and so did the DP credit.

24P HD looks great in digital projection but also awesome in the film transfer. With HD, changing film stocks is not a problem—I change the look internally and always take into consideration the different colors of light. Personally, I prefer a warmer and softer look. The viewfinders can always use some improvement but they are continually getting better. Back focus is always crucial and needs checking.

From the start I knew this project was going to be even more sensitive than Bowling For Columbine, given the 9/11 title. Mr. Moore is one of a few who had the guts to take it head on. You may not completely agree with him, but look at the effort. Getting Fahrenheit 9/11 on the big screen was no easy task. During each of the shooting periods, the days flowed into the next with only minimal hours of sleep in between. Mr. Moore is very hardworking and he demands the same from those around him, which I think is clearly reflected in the end result.

Two days in particular stand out that I will never forget. Lila Lipscomb from Flint, Michigan, lost her son in Iraq and wanted to voice her concerns on camera. Losing someone close always hurts, but maybe more so when that person is so young. HDcam is my desired format and I like to shoot in 24P ENG style. Handheld camera is what I enjoy the most, and it works well with Mr. Moore’s style. Michael Moore is a man of few words—he lets me know what he wants and leaves it up to me to get it right. I light for the amount of time at hand and the appropriateness of the moment. Keeping things “as is” and true to form are very important to me when doing a documentary. For this scene, I decided to light softly so the look would be as if we, the camera crew, were technically not there. Being able to trust the audio allows the cameraperson to get the shots. Cues for positioning the boom are eas-ily conveyed. When I shoot, I let the audio person do his thing, but I listen and help with hand cues as to what I plan to do next. The motto of my company,, is “No Matter What the Angle”—so no matter what the project, we always get in and get it done.

Mr. Moore’s interview with Lila went on for a few hours, but seemed like only a short time. Even though I was handheld, the emotions and importance outweighed any discomfort. Listening—real listening—is the most important part of doing a documentary. This is as important for a cameraperson as it is for the director or producer. I always listen intently and try to anticipate the key thoughts and emotions of the moment. Also, I stay aware of the surroundings outside the lens so I can visualize the other shots or angles of interest. With single camera coverage, I have to choose when it is important to get close ups, wide angles, and the reaction of other people in the film while still staying on the main subject. By the end of Lila’s interview, everyone in the room, including Mr. Moore, was silent and visibly moved.

Now, jumping ahead in time to another day with Lila—a visit to Washington, DC. The only plan was to see if Lila could deliver her message about the loss of her son directly to the president. Everything else went unplanned and moment-to-moment. As we got closer to the White House, Lila starts talking and you can see that her usual sense of calm and self-control are deeply affected by what’s going on. We reached the front of the White House and saw a woman who lives in a tent. This woman has been there for years and is the last person allowed to tent and protest permanently in front of the White House.

As you see in the movie, Lila starts talking to the woman in the tent about President Bush, and they agree with each other that the president was wrong to invade Iraq. All of a sudden another woman, who happens to be from the area, jumps into the conversation and shouts: “You’re wrong!” She tries to block my shot of the two of them, but I just kept rolling, which ended up adding a great element to the documentary. All three women had their own unique story and vantage point—Lila lost her son in Iraq because of the war, the interjecting woman had lost someone in the 9/11 Pentagon terrorist attack, and the woman tenting has been standing for world peace for years. (After wrapping up the film, we went back to the location to find that the woman had been burned out of her tent. DC firefighters said that it was definitely arson. Some local people pitched in to help set up her tent again.)

By agreeing to disagree, the women went their separate ways, and Lila was ready to state her concerns directed toward the president to the camera. As she started speaking, her emotions began to pour out, and it became harder but also more important for me to get the shot. As she let go of her grief, we reached a point when I decided that we’d shot enough. I wanted to leave her alone, and so I turned the camera off.

Having a good editor who is also a producer working your shots is very important and fortunate. I always ask questions of the producers and editors so I can get a feel for what they want. Working on Fahrenheit 9/11 allowed me to be creative while still getting what the producer wanted. Though I never did know Mr. Moore’s whole story—I had no idea about the details of his case against the president. But I think not knowing worked, because I just went out each day as if it were any other filmmaker looking to tell a story.

Another moment from the shoot that hits home for me is in the beginning of the film with the woman who lost her husband on 9/11. She tells us that she doesn’t know what she would do with her life if she were not investigating why her husband was killed and why 9/11 occurred. I knew she had told us all she wanted to, I pointed the camera down and away from her. Most camera ops and editors cringe at the idea of leaving a shot “unclean”—but Mr. Moore saw that by showing the camera pointing down and away, we respected her opinion and more importantly, her privacy.

Fahrenheit 9/11 goes way beyond politics. I am in awe of the attention and press the movie has received. Going to the Cannes Film Festival and walking the red carpet was great, and the film not only won the festival’s most important award, it won for every documentary ever made and those still to come. Fahrenheit 9/11 grabbed the attention of big screen audiences, and it was nice to be in a theater and not hear, “Oh—It’s just a doc.” Working on documentaries is and always will be what I do.

About :

Mike Desjarlais is a true Detroiter and has been a DP/Camera since 1987 on film/video including Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Stevie Wonder: Detroit 300, Kid Rock: HBO Reverb, NASCAR, ABC Sports, ESPN, Detroit Auto Shows, VNRs for GM, Ford and Chrysler and the last three presidential campaigns. Sony premiered his HD documentary, No Stats, Just Memories, at NAB in 2001.