Recap: How to Shoot a Documentary Film in 3 Weeks

I couldn’t have asked for a greater way to finish 2016 and begin 2017 than with an opportunity like the one we are currently pursuing: a documentary film based on the musicians featured over the years on the Aloha Got Soul blog (as well as artists soon-to-be-released on the label).

Almost all filming finished last Friday, although there are still a few things left to shoot before the remaining crew flies home to Brazil and New York.  The crew consists of myself, my wife Leimomi, and three Brazilians: Pedro Ramos, Filipe Zapelini, and Pedru Carvalho. Filming began on December 26, 2016 and wrapped up (with a few exceptions, as mentioend) on Friday, January 13, 2017.

Needless to say, these three weeks were a whirlwind of events, including more than a dozen interviews, a bit of hiking, lots of driving, and traveling inter-island to the Big Island, where we only had enough time for the east side. We’ll have to go back another time and explore the west side and the musicians living there.

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Mike Lundy.

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Howard Shapiro.

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Gary Washburn.

Alice Wise.

Alice Wise.

We took a big leap of faith when we decided to do this project. We didn’t know each other outside of our emails and two Skype calls. We didn’t have any financial backing — all of the expenses over the 3 weeks were to come out of our own pockets. None of us had ever really worked on a documentary film before. And for some of our interviews, it would be the first time I would be meeting musicians in person after years of phone calls or emails (or Facebook messages).

I really didn’t know what to expect in working with these guys, but I knew that they were willing to take a chance on life and travel 8,000 miles from Porto Alegre by way of Houston (Filipe traveled from Brooklyn, where he currently resides) to do something out of passion and love for music and film, for new experiences and meeting new people. They arrived Christmas Day. We invited them to Christmas dinner at my grandparents’ AirBnb in Waikiki. We shared a huge meal and drinks under the sky of a setting sun. Pedro and Pedru had traveled for 38 hours, but they weren’t tired. When they landed and walked into the open-air Honolulu International Airport, Pedro said he felt a wave of energy awaken him. “This is crazy, so surreal,” he told us more than once. Already he and the others felt the unique vibrations of the islands. All our concerns fell by the wayside and collectively we knew, just by the look in our eyes, that something special was about to happen over the next three weeks.

The idea, as you might know, came in September 2016 when Pedro, a DJ and record collector, put the thought in front of me. During Filipe’s visit home to Porto Alegre, Pedro introduced him to Aloha Got Soul. Filipe liked the idea; they also liked the challenge of creating a documentary. Pedro was back on email the next day. I had always wanted to create an Aloha Got Soul documentary but never had the resources or time, so the thought of collaborating with others who were as enthusiastic as I am about telling the stories of veteran and “obscure” musicians of Hawaii made me seriously consider this idea.

I was worried about time, to be honest: they wanted to fly over in December and film through mid-January. I didn’t think three months was enough time to prepare. On Skype, we worked out the idea with the help of two other New York-based friends, Guto and Beto, and what I realized is that what we would be producing in December/January could be just the preliminary work towards a fuller production. In other words, we won’t have to get everything done during these three weeks. Instead, we could get what we needed to create a solid “pilot” and use this to pitch around for support that would allow us to put more time and effort into the film later on.

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At Kirk Thompson’s studio.

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At The Dragon Upstairs.

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Nick Kaleikini.

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Howard Shapiro.

Looking back on the past three weeks, I’d say we have almost everything we need to create the full documentary as we intended. I’m glad we decided to do this now instead of waiting.

Actually, I shouldn’t use the phrase “as we intended”, because we came into this project with an open mind and somewhat malleable vision. “I just like to let things happen and it will take us in the right direction”, Filipe would tell me when we first met.

The initial idea was a documentary about how the nature of Hawaii influenced these musicians. The volcanoes, the forests, the sea, the mountains. A lot of imagery catching their eyes as they researched from their homes in Brazil and New York were of the incredible natural beauty of the islands. They wanted to see the hundred-plus-foot waterfalls, the active volcanoes and lava pouring out, the massive waves of Oahu’s North Shore. But as we completed each interview — first on Oahu with musicians like Mike Lundy, Kit Ebersbach, Robin Kimura, Pierre Grill, Kirk Thompson, Maryanne Ito, and Nick Kaleikini — we realized that this documentary would not be about nature’s influence, but about the influence of the spirit of aloha.

Each interviewee found it difficult (and understandably so) to answer our question of “What does aloha mean to you?” But the general theme in each of their answers was this: aloha is respecting others, an inclusivity of all things. That’s why, in Kit Ebersbach’s perspective, Hawaiian music so openly accepted and incorporated outside ideas into their music, from the earliest beginning of Hawaiian hymns as well as the adoption of stringed instruments like the ukulele, guitar or double bass. (An excellent resource to consult is Hawaiian Music and Musicians, edited by Dr. George S. Kanahele and updated by John Berger.)

During these interviews, Filipe operated the RED Scarlet camera, using a selection of vintage Nikon lenses with Canon adapter. He brought a beautiful Lensbaby with him for portraits. Pedro, Leimomi, and I would be conducting the interviews, although often Filipe and Pedru would have a question to ask. Leimomi would sometimes step back for a couple of behind-the-scenes photos. Pedru was in charge of lighting and audio, although Pedro started monitoring the audio since lighting often placed Pedru on the other side of the room.

The most difficult part was probably scheduling everything and subsequently communicating this schedule amongst five people. There were moments of confusion and miscommunication, for sure, but our shared Google Calendar keep us on track. If we weren’t sure what was happening next, we checked the calendar. If an interview time changed or got canceled, we updated the calendar.

I intend to follow up on the interviews that got postponed, even after production is finished. Why? Because a film can only show so much, so there’s a limit to how many interviews and voices we can fit into the film. A blog or book, however, can show so much more. So my intention is to share some of these interviews in full in written form. I’ll have more on this when I’m ready to share.

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Pedru Carvalho.

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Leimomi Bong.

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Pedro Ramos.

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Pedru and Filipe Zapelini.

I suppose I didn’t anticipate working from 9am to 9pm every day on this project, but that’s what we did. Setting up lighting and audio took a good chunk of time prior to our actual interviews. Sometimes we had interviews back-to-back, like in the case of Robin Kimura and Pierre Grill at Pierre’s Rendez-vous Studio, or Gary Washburn and Edie Bilke in Honoka’a. Perhaps we didn’t always give travel time our full consideration — the Big Island demands a lot of driving, even if it’s just on the east side! And because we had a short amount of time to prepare in the first place (all of us were working full-time in the three months leading up to this project), there was a lot of planning the night before or morning of. But at the end of the day, we needed to eat, shower, backup footage, and simply get to know each other that planning the next day and discussing the documentary’s direction as a whole wasn’t the most immediate thing we wanted to do.

One of the most important things I learned from this project is the power of connecting with other people. Meeting these guys from Brazil and working together on a project like this has expanded my view of what’s possible. If one puts his or her mind to it, anything is possible. What matters is taking the initial steps to get there. Even more powerful were the conversations we had with each interviewee. Most of these musicians are in their 60s or 70s. They’ve experience a lot in their lifetimes. To have these young documentarians arrive at their doorstep, asking them questions like “What legacy would you like to leave behind?” followed by “What is your life’s purpose?”, created deep connections between people who before this were worlds apart, but now are here in Hawaii passionately sharing stories — this was the most powerful part of our documentary film project. I am forever changed because of this. I will always hold close the connections we’ve made and the conversations we shared.

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Momi Riley and Leimomi Bong.

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Gary Washburn and Roger Bong.

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Kit Ebersbach.

Maryanne Ito.

Maryanne Ito.

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Shirley Abe-Cuskarovska.

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Robin Kimura.

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Pierre Grill.

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For those of you eagerly awaiting to see the documentary film: we plan to have an official trailer online next month. What we premiered at our screening event on Saturday, January 14th was a preview of our work over three weeks. It wasn’t a trailer, but a sampling of what’s to come. At this moment, we hope for a full release in late summer or early fall — but we’re leaving it open for now.

We will have a Kickstarter campaign up soon. Subscribe to the mailing list for notifications about that.

There’s lots more to write about making a documentary in three weeks, but for the moment I’ll leave it as so. Thanks for reading.

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