All people and characters have a backstory—a history that has brought them to the opening scene in a film or to the moment they walk down the aisle. Some may argue that filmmakers who produce films without a backstory are simply documenting rather than telling a story.
Not all brides can afford to have a production with their backstory researched, recorded, and then weaved with interviews and photographs into their wedding film. But there are always stories to tell, and we can find them if we are only willing to look.
Spend just 1 day with a giant oak tree. Even a tree has a backstory. As a seed, was it carried by a river or a bird to a faraway land? Did it lie dormant for years before germinating? What struggles did it overcome to reach into the sky as a massive organic umbrella? Though we don’t know what brought the oak to this moment in time, there is a story to tell—through quiet observation.
Did the sun refract through droplets of dew on its bark at sunrise, or did its branches strain and break under the weight of winter ice? Did it provide a safe haven for a nest of birds? Did young lovers embrace under its canopy, or did a homeless man sleep in a drunken stupor sprawled at its roots? Were its leaves tattered and torn by the wind and left on the ground to be stomped on, or did they survive to glow orange-gold at sunset? If we can find a story in a day in the life of a tree, we most assuredly can find one at a wedding.
Hollywood’s version of story is a strict paradigm in the form of a screenplay. There is the beginning (setup), the middle (confrontation), and the end (resolution). Two plot points, at very specific times in the film, propel the story forward.
Storytelling is an ancient art that works in many ways far outside of Hollywood’s formula. Documentary storytelling, though structured, fortunately provides a bit more freedom. In Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films, author Sheila Curran Bernard (www.harborproductions.com) writes, “Story helps define documentary and separate it from visual material that simply documents an actual person, place, or event. You might shoot a wedding or town meeting or a series of interviews, for example, but even if you edit the raw footage for length, what you create is not a documentary. You might set up a camera to record a ‘day in the life’ of a local barbershop and end up with some interesting footage, but until it’s been shaped and given meaning by the filmmaker—until it tells a story in some form—it’s not a documentary.”
Brides have a preconceived idea of exactly what their wedding should be. Filmmakers, likewise, have preconceived ideas of exactly what our wedding films should be. Sometimes life has other plans.
Recently, a bride came to us, and she was quite distraught. Her wedding had been scheduled to take place more than a year later at a beautiful cathedral and resort hotel. She had just been given the unbearable, and incomprehensible, news that her mother’s illness could no longer be controlled and that she had to have her wedding within a month for her mother to attend.
Her church and hotel were not available for the new date. She scrambled to find a new church, and a kind friend with a lovely home offered her backyard for the reception. She wanted her day recorded, but she was afraid because everything was happening so fast. She didn’t know how it was going to turn out or if everyone would be able to cope. I told her that—no matter what—there would be beauty and special moments, and I would find them.
On the day of her wedding, I arrived as she was getting ready. It was like any other wedding, except, before me on the dresser was a perfectly coiffed blond wig. The bride’s mother sat in a chair having her makeup applied. I went to work filming around her. Time ticked by. I worried. I desperately wanted to get some shots of her before I had to leave for the church. I filmed the bride’s dress going on, laces being strung through loops.
Then, I turned around to find her there, standing behind me. She was beautiful, draped in blue with ash blond hair, as delicate and fragile as a fine china doll and as pale as porcelain.
Though beautiful, this woman, who once lovingly placed Band-Aids on the elbows now being covered with gloves, wasn’t feeling well, and I could see it. I worried. I wanted some of that Hollywood formula script—some magical reprieve given to her for the day so she could feel fine for her daughter’s wedding. I wanted the bride to be able to watch her wedding film and see her mother well and happy. Good memories.
I worried the day would be a flood of heartbreaking emotion. On the contrary, there was barely a drop. There was laughter, a little too much. It was as if the slightest display of any emotion might lead to the breaking of a dam.
I watched and waited for the special moments I promised the bride there would be and that I could capture. When the bride’s father gave her away, he quickly walked back to his seat without kissing her or giving her hand to the groom.
As I began the edit, my fears were confirmed. It was evident the bride’s mom was ill and was struggling just to get through the day. One or two shots I would have gladly cut out; but to create the illusion that she was feeling well, I would have had to practically eliminate her from the film. I felt devastated for the bride, and I resigned myself to a film I never envisioned. And then I looked closer, and what I saw revealed another story.
Plodding through the edit, at the end of the mother/daughter dance as mom walked back to her table, a figure bolted past my lens: the bride’s father. It was awkward, and he seemed rather panicked, almost knocking his daughter over as he rushed past her. I clicked the icon to cut it out. Then I realized what he was doing. He was running to his wife—to her side—to take her arm and help her to her seat.
Other images came flooding, and I began to scrub the footage with a new eye. That morning, as she, beautiful in blue, left the dressing room, her husband was the first to greet her and tell her how lovely she was. He gingerly helped her down the flower-veiled staircase. Standing for prayer during the ceremony, with his arm tightly wrapped across the small of her back, he gave her support. Before the grand entrance—her arm laced through his—he covered her hand with his large palm, rubbing it gently.
Once she was dressed, there were only two times he wasn’t holding her: as she danced with her daughter and as he escorted the bride to her waiting groom. Could it be that he forgot to kiss his daughter and offer her hand because his love was waiting? Because she needed him and he didn’t want to let go? I believe so.
This was a story about two loves, one shiny, new, and just beginning and the other as steadfast and reassuring as the embrace of a favorite chair that has stood the test of time. I hope the bride will watch her wedding film one day and see how very much her father treasured her mother, and how he treated her as delicately as the wings of a moth; and though fragile as an eggshell, her mother was brave and strong and grateful to see her lovely daughter begin a new life.
In answer to Bill’s question, “What is story?” it’s the momentum that draws viewers outside of themselves into the experiences of others. Every wedding has a story, even the perfect and predictable ones. And sometimes, a story is not what we expect. It’s up to us to look closely to see what’s being revealed. Only then can we shape it and give it meaning.
Laura Moses (info at vppvideo.com) is half of Vantage Point Custom Films of San Dimas, Calif. She and her husband, Steve, are winners of multiple international awards and were selected to the 2006 and 2007 EventDV 25. The Moseses are featured in the June 2009 edition of Studio Time.