Shooting any story for television is typically filled with dramatic highs and lows. For every great scene that will be used on the air, there are often interviews that fell through, events missed because of delayed flights or luggage. The team may go into the field with a plan, but life unfolds in ways that no amount of pre-planning can take into account. The best stories often take shape when producers and hosts put down their clipboards and carefully watch and listen to what is unfolding around them. Carefully mapped-out plans often end up as crumpled pieces of paper at the bottom of a suitcase.
Working with the Raw Material
After shooting a story in the field, producers and hosts return to the fifth estate
with dozens of 20 or 30 minute tapes. These contain formal sit-down interviews with a story's subjects, sequences showing subjects in action, "scenics" of the places visited to add context to the piece, and other visuals. Usually the producer sits with a tape editor to go through the footage, making the first attempt to shape all of the material contained on the tapes.
"As a producer, you have to constantly think about how you will translate all that you have learned into a coherent story on the screen," explains executive producer Jim Williamson. "It means many late nights going over the tapes again and again, writing down key words and images, developing a rough structure for your piece."
And even when a documentary is coming together in the edit suite, it is never really finished until the day it goes to air. New information may come in, or events may change the context. Old scenes can fall away as a new focus emerges.
Shaping a Story
"Television is a harsh mistress, and it demands a powerful, unwavering storyline," says contributing producer Julian Sher. Sher was the producer of His Word against History the story of Steven Truscott who, on the strength of tainted evidence, was convicted and nearly sent to the gallows for murder at the age of 14.
Though his first documentary on Steven Truscott ran on the fifth estate
in the spring of 2000, it has since been rebroadcast with some new elements. Even so, Sher could not begin to fit all that he had learned into a tightly focused documentary, and so has turned his findings into a book entitled; Until you are Dead
Revealing the Key Moments
Sometimes in the screening room, where field tapes are carefully scrutinized, the true essence and magic of a story is revealed. In 1993, award-winning producer Neil Docherty wanted to shoot a parenting course to document the progress troubled families would make over time.
His plan: to place sound and motion-activated cameras in the houses of several families and follow them through a period of several months. In recognition of how sensitive the process might be, the families would have the power to turn off the camera or withhold the tapes if they wished.
Unable to get enough volunteers from the parenting course, Docherty extended the offer to several families on the waiting list. One couple, Karen and Mike Desjardins, wanted help and thought that by cooperating they would get it sooner.
When the tapes started coming in, everyone involved knew that the Desjardins' story was so powerfully dramatic that it would illustrate all of the issues they wanted to explore. Theresa Burke was hired to help out on the project when Docherty became overwhelmed by the hours of material arriving each week. Those tapes were showing a young Evan silently enduring the taunts and threats of his parents.
"The material was riveting," says Burke. "Sometimes, late at night, you got the feeling you were in someone's house. There wasn't a sound in the office, just you and whatever was happening onscreen."
Burke remembers long discussions about the effects the story might have on the family, especially whether eleven-year-old Evan would understand the irony implicit in the title - that much of Evan's trouble was Karen and Mike's lack of parenting skills. "There was always a recognition that this wasn't just a story, but people's lives. This wasn't just like watching those reality-based web channels we're so familiar with today. The show was going to be more meaningful than just saying, 'here's a shabby family from Hamilton not treating their son very well.' It was going to make a statement about an aspect of our society that really matters."
The Art of Interviewing
To understand how the fifth estate
works, it's important to recognize the ability of its hosts. They become highly skilled at reading faces and body language, at the art of human psychology. "Sometimes the truth is revealed by the flicker of a muscle in the cheek," says former host Trish Wood. "Or sweat over a lip, and you know it's not the TV lights because you're not hot."
Hana Gartner, who, despite her warm, open manner can be a steely, indomitable interviewer, says about some of her famous subjects: "There's something about a movement, an action, that suddenly convinces the audience of who they are."
While interviewing Donald Lavoie, a Montreal hit man-turned-informer, Gartner probed for a entry point into the man's psyche. Having told her that he'd killed 15 men not for money but for power and respect, Gartner asked: "Well, how did it all end up? You wanted respect, you wanted power. Now you are a man in jail, afraid of being killed. You are a stool pigeon. What respect do you have?"
"Well I was..." Pausing, Lavoie looked away. "A stool pigeon? I'm not a stool pigeon first of all, okay?"
Sensing an opportunity, Gartner pressed on. "Was it difficult? Was it difficult for you to go to talk to the police, to tell them what you know?"
Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Lavoie said: "Madam, I know you are trying to, you're skating away from that. Now let me think about it." Turning to stare directly into the camera with an icy look that may have been the last thing some of his victims saw, Lavoie pointed and said: "Cut it."
Former host Adrienne Clarkson has her own formula for coaxing the reluctant witness to talk; it's all a matter or persistence she says.
Of course, asking the difficult question can be hazardous to a host's health. In 1982, the fifth estate
investigated whether the many nature documentaries interfered with nature for dramatic purposes. Bob McKeown reported how a Disney documentary showing the phenomenon of lemmings plunging to their death over cliffs had in fact been the same film footage spliced together to give the appearance of mass suicide. When McKeown interviewed zoologist Marlin Perkins, host of Wild Kingdom about truth and fiction on wildlife programmes, he clearly hit a raw nerve. The octogenarian Perkins firmly asked for the camera to be turned off, then punched a shocked McKeown in the face.
The late Eric Malling was a host with a reputation for pulling no punches. Kelly Crichton, a former executive producer who worked with Malling in the field in the late '70s and early '80s, says: "He was a very interesting person to work with, to say the least. He pushed the envelope wherever he went, almost always to good effect."
Crichton recalls a story on Nicaragua in which she and Malling spent time with the country's brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia. They were shown through Somoza's underground offices, where the regime's political torture chambers were located. In the course of their inquiry, they met Somoza's son, the dictator-in-waiting.
He was, according to Crichton, a coarse, dislikable man given to braggadocio. "Eric led him along, in wonderfully glorious Eric fashion, getting out of him all sorts of details about his training in U.S. camps and his accomplishments as a warrior fighter. I was somewhat appalled by Eric's ability to cozy up to this creature, but he was getting marvelous film."
"We're not supposed to have opinions in our reports," continues Crichton, "but there was always a little chit-chat among the hosts at the end of the show, adding a colourful anecdote or two about the stories.
Co-host Adrienne Clarkson couldn't resist asking Malling what it was like to meet Somoza, and he said: 'You can imagine him coming back from a hard day dropping peasants from helicopters and going for a Big Mac.' That was a typical Malling remark, and it captured the whole scene perfectly."
The Gotcha Moment
Sometimes the decisive moment is as basic - yet delicate - as a skillful host enticing a subject to do something very simple. For a story on the involvement of the Jehovah's Witness in the kidnapping of a young Toronto girl, Victor Malarek had convincing circumstantial evidence of the organization's role, but lacked concrete proof.
Waiting for a key interview with a Jehovah's Witness official at the organization's headquarters, Malarek saw a file that contained a letter referring to the girl from an official with the congregation in Santiago, Chile, dated four years before the girl was found there.
Realizing it belonged to his subject, Malarek put it down but during the interview wanted the official to open the file and produce the letter himself. Casually asking whether national headquarters had any correspondence from the congregation in Santiago referring to the girl, the man replied: "Not that I know of."
"Your files wouldn't indicate anything?" Malarek asked.
"Not the files that I have."
"Could we see the files?"
"This is the extent of my files..." the man told Malarek, opening the folder and shuffling through the pages one by one. "And that was '86. And that's from... where's that from?" Leaning forward, Malarek said: "This is from Santiago."
Without being overly aggressive, Malarek orchestrated a perfect example of the kind of confrontational journalism that has earned the fifth estate
the nickname, "the gotcha gang."