Making The Last Truck – WIFV Doc Roundtable

On April 28, the WIFV Documentary Roundtable was pleased to welcome two exceptional filmmakers, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who graciously shared a lot of “lessons learned” from their life in documentaries. Julia and Steven briefly introduced their Academy Award-nominated doc, The Last Truck, and then we watched the film. We were hosted by Interface Media Group, and we are very grateful.

The Last Truck focuses on a GM plant in Moraine, Ohio, outside of Dayton. (Watch the trailer) The plant closed just before Christmas in 2008, which had a huge impact on the economy. Julia and Steven spent time with the workers, and the film portrays the pride they have in their work and the trucks they produced. Over the course of about 5 months, they filmed the workers going to and coming from work, and pondering what the plant’s closing will have on their life and their town. The ending of the film is poignant, as the last truck comes down the assembly line, and the workers, as they finish their part, follow the truck until it is ready to roll out the door. Those gathered around all signed it inside the body, bringing home the ownership they feel towards the product they make with their hands.

Many of the interviews were filmed in local bars, after shifts had ended. Our members had many questions about how Julia and Steven got the great audio in such a noisy environment. They used two microphones, a lavalier and a shotgun. The latter mic was placed on a boom and attached to a C-stand; the microphone was aimed at the speaker’s mouth. Surprisingly, the lav turned out to give the best sound. Another trick was facing the speaker away from the hustle and bustle, so their body blocked much of the ambient sound. A few of the interviews were filmed in a quieter side room. As the bar patrons (and owner) became used to the filmmakers, the bartender was comfortable turning off the music while they were recording their interviews.

For lighting in the bar, the interviews conducted early in the production were filmed in the daytime, and the subject was placed near some big windows. The lighting was mostly natural light. Later interviews, however, were done at night, and the filmmakers needed to set up lights. (This required a certain level of familiarity and comfort on the part of the bar owner.) The lighting kit was not too elaborate: a Diva light with a bounce card, and an LED “brick” for a side light.

They ended up using several different cameras and formats. Some of that is because new options became available toward the end of production, but another reason is that you sometimes have to use what equipment you have on hand. All of the cameras worked well for the specific situations in which they were used. Steven wrote an article for Documentary magazine discussing their camera choices. It is available online, and well worth the read. They stressed that The Last Truck was their first film in high-def.

Steven mentioned a few items during the Roundtable. First, they used the small Canon HV-30 (an HDV camcorder) for a number of the interviews and it worked great. The camera was unobtrusive, which was a very big deal for this film. It made it easy to fit into the bar and put their interviewees at ease. The bulk of the film was shot using a Sony Z7U, on tape. The Sony EX-1 (using SxS cards) and the Panasonic HVX-200 (using P2 cards) were used at times as well. At the very end of production, they used the Canon 5d Mark II for some specific shots. Lastly, three of the autoworkers took little Flip Mino cameras into the plant to document the last few days. The footage from the Flip camera was of, let’s say, different aesthetic quality than the rest of the footage. But since it carried a lot of emotional impact in the film – candid shots of the workers in the final hours of the plant – it fit in to the film very well.

Much of the footage inside the plant comes from the workers themselves, plus what the filmmakers were able to get during a local “media day” when they were able to tour the facilities. The workers volunteered to gather the footage; a direct result, Julia said, of spending time with them and getting to know them – and letting the workers get to know the filmmakers. They did not approach the workers as journalists or reporters, but simply as people. They were outside of the plant gates nearly every day, in warm and cold weather, sometimes with signs of support (such as “Hang In There!” or “You Rock!”). In the bars after shifts, they would set up their lights and just talk to people who were curious and stopped to chat.

The film was edited on a standard iMac, with 4 GB of RAM. They used Final Cut Pro and did have an assistant editor for part of the time to help organize files. Steven was the main editor, and they hired a consulting editor to help shape the piece. At the end, they went through a color step and hired a local musician to write the score for the film.
Part way through production, they received interest from HBO, who ended up financing and broadcasting the film. The whole production was short. They started filming as soon as they found out in July the plant would close, and filmed for 6 months. They had another 6 months of post-production, and then it was on air by Labor Day. Just over a year total, from start to finish.

HBO sometimes does co-productions, if they acquire a doc that has already been made (or mostly made, I assume). But for The Last Truck, HBO bought all of the rights and owns it all. Julia and Steven point out that in return, they were able to pay their staff and themselves full salaries, which was a nice situation. As the comissioning producers, HBO wanted to see rough cuts, but not raw footage. They watched about 8 or 9 versions, giving notes after each one. In general, they were very good notes and not demanding. There were a few points that the filmmakers fought for, and some of those they won. Julia pointed out that it is possible to stand firm and prevail, but that HBO’s advice was often very good and helped the film.

One note about the content of the film: the plant is always in the background. Whenever they interviewed people, outside of the bar, they tried to position the speaker so the plant was visible over their shoulder. The plant is the central element, even a character of the film, so they wanted to keep it on the viewer’s mind. They did not delve into politics, or the history of GM and the plant (which was a Frigidaire plant before GM bought it), nor did they get into the worker’s personal relationships. For the most part, they didn’t go into homes or meet kids or anything like that. They had shot all of those items, but dropped them out of the final edit, to keep the focus on the plant and its closure.

For those who couldn’t make the April Roundtable, Steven will be teaching two master classes on using a DSLR camera. He will cover both technical and aesthetic aspects. Julia will be leading a Master Class on Editing.

Thanks once again to Julia and Steven for sharing so much with our members. They will both be at Silverdocs, so be sure to say hello when you see them.

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