The first time I saw a reenactment was a battle scene at Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg. I was five or six, and I remember it pretty fondly—the men in costumes charging up the hill toward the fort, smoke billowing out through the muzzles of old cannons and gradually a growing sea of bodies motionless on the ground.
I remember watching one of the “dead” guys very closely, semi-horrified, a bit confused. After a few moments, he moved. I was so glad he did because, in that instant, the spell was broken. It was no longer real. All of a sudden, he was just a guy in a costume, lying on the ground.
Now, I’m in Rhinebeck, NY shooting reenactments for the documentary that I’ve been editing and producing for two years. I know, I know, I know; two years is a long time to be working on the same project, and reenactments can ruin an otherwise great documentary. I will say that the decision to include them was not made lightly.
In a documentary, reenactments are when you get actors to replay what happened. It’s often done when there is no footage of a particular event. It’s challenging because you are recreating moments that the audience may accept as truth. They are often moments of passion or crime, and so the performances are hard to believe.
In those cases, they have the potential to drag the whole piece down into TV True Crime territory. Not that I mind those shows, but they are made very quickly and the reenactments often feel like a lazy solution to cover talking-head interviews.
That was a big thing in thinking about our reenactments—why are they there? Do they have a real purpose? Are they necessary? If they are only for mood, it’s a tougher sell for the audience and has the potential to feel extraneous.
In “The Thin Blue Line,” for example, reenactments are integral to the telling of the story. The film examines the story of Randall Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. By seeing the same events replayed in different ways, the film shines light on discrepancies and problems within the story, something that eventually reveals Adams’ innocence. There are a few times in the film when the reenactments get a bit overly dramatic and cheesy (the cop throwing the milkshake... eesh), but it’s impossible to imagine the film without them.
In “The Imposter,” a doc about the 1997 case of the French con man, Frédéric Bourdin, who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who had disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994, the reenactments are super stylized and cinematic. They bring you into the story in a narrative way and they elevate the whole piece to be more cinematic.
Some sequences, however, particularly the ones where you see actors’ faces, take you out of the story completely, and I found myself wanting to see more of Mr. Bourdin, whose interview is by far the most interesting part of the film. (Both of these films are on Netflix Instant and worth a watch.)
We are trying to accomplish both of these things—reenactments that feel integral to the story and that make the film more cinematic.
Our plan is to hide the actors’ faces with a variety of tricks—super-wide shots and shallow depth of field to keep things out of focus—as well as other creative techniques.
This particular part of our story deals with a day/night in 1982 when our main character’s wife went missing. It’s her disappearance and possible murder that begins the saga of the film. Everything stems from this one night. Whatever we can do to heighten the importance of this night in the audience’s mind will help.
The film goes through several different versions of what happened that night. The first one comes from the original detective reading his notebook, the second from our main subject and the third throws a wrench in what you think you know.
Being on a period-1982 set feels a little bit like a time warp—old appliances, clocks, pill bottles; you feel the time period. Yesterday, an old Risk board unlocked a memory for me of an afternoon with friends that I hadn’t thought about in years.
Over this three-day shoot, footage is shot, transcoded and then cut back into the sequence. I have already roughed out with placeholders the scenes that we are shooting and it’s a very rewarding process to switch out the placeholders with the real footage. It feels a lot like paint by numbers; the hard work has been done. Now it’s just a matter of plugging in the pieces and watching it come alive.
The main goal is avoiding, at all costs, the moment I experienced as a young boy, seeing the re-enactor move. That relief, that break in tension, is not something I’m interested in letting the audience experience.