Detroit Uprising: The Action Idea

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The short film above is the culmination of a project that my colleague Scott Macklin and I had pursued last summer, as an exercise in storytelling for this book, as well as for our Storytelling class earlier this year.

Our working premise?  A conference for journalists seeking new business models, looks to Detroit’s incredible community activism (particularly urban farming) for inspiration.  We would somehow mash up what was developing inside the conference with what was happening on the outside: slow food, meet slow news.

We were pleased with the footage we gathered.  Unfortunately, after shooting the film, we sat on the material (babies were born, school started, life went on).  We commissioned a rough sequence from one of our best students, who assembled it after screening all of our material.  We showed it in class in February.  It was roundly criticized for its murky focus and overly complicated premise.

Fundamentally, we had not heeded the same lesson that we had been teaching the students: we had never established a meaningful Action-Idea.

What do I mean by that?

In Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, Michael Tierno calls Aristotle’s focus on action in stories “fanatical.” This is not the modern day “action” that we might see in a Hollywood blockbuster car chase scene. Rather, Tierno points out it’s “about action that is larger than life itself and greater than the person who partakes in it.” In many ways, it’s the kind of action that inspires historic shifts like the “Arab spring” in Tunisia and Egypt.

Tierno transposes Aristotle further into the 21st century by introducing the concept of the Action-Idea – in essence, the mission statement of a story. For him, this summary (usually no more than a paragraph or two) should be sufficient to “move listeners who merely hear it,” powerful enough “so that when it’s expanded into a film, a screenplay, whatever, it will hold and move an audience.”

The Action-Idea must not only be the launching point for the development of the actual story, it must also serve as the story’s singular path of alignment, with clear beginning, middle and end with an “Action” that sets the plot in motion (Hero With a Thousand Faces’ Joseph Campbell would call this the Hero’s “Call to Action”). It’s always a reminder that we should never stray too far from our story’s central purpose. By creating this alignment, we strike at the essence of what it is we seek to communicate.

We had partnered with Journalism That Matters, the host of the Detroit conference, to participate in their event and film some of it.  After many months had passed, they finally asked us to send whatever we had, so that they could promote their follow-up conference.  This forced me to come up with something compelling and useful, quickly.  I watched the rough sequence a number of times.  I knew that I had to establish an Action-Idea before I could proceed any further with the edit.  This was one of my earlier versions:

Recognizing that the city of Detroit is on the ropes, its residents realize that they’ve got to help themselves. After Time Magazine paints a bleak picture of the town, a group of journalists attending a conference decide they need to take matters into their own hands. They conclude that they must make a bid to take over the magazine’s city bureau.

I was getting closer to developing a tighter narrative, but it still felt uninspired and confused.

I thought about what Journalism That Matters was asking from us, and decided to consider them as “client” to help me craft the Action-Idea.  This particular organization was looking for a story solution. So the first thing that I needed to develop was an Action-Idea that actually corresponded to that organization’s objectives. Suddenly, I began to make sense of what we had, at least within this context. Here’s the Action-Idea that I ultimately printed out and taped to my computer monitor as I began the next phase of the edit:

A group of journalists are looking to create new viable models for their suffering profession. They decide to host a meeting in Detroit, hoping to find inspiration in the community-based activism sprouting up in this economically-devastated city. While there, they hear of Time Magazine’s misguided “Assignment Detroit” reporting experiment. The journalists realize that if Detroit is going to help itself, it needs to take control of its own narrative, and rely less on outsiders to tell their stories. This revelation encourages them to petition Time to hand over their Detroit bureau to the community when the assignment comes to an end.

By focusing on Journalism That Matters’ needs, I was able to put the participant journalists at the heart of the action, and relegated the urban farming element to the film’s backdrop. This aligned the story with what the client wanted (telling the story of the conference, encouraging others to register for their upcoming event), and it maintained a simple storyline with an obvious beginning, middle and end.  At that point, I engaged Scott in some of his post-production wizardry.

“We had done enough ‘deep hanging-out’ to tell the story behind the Action-Idea,” he said to me.  With the right elements in hand, he proceeded to add the music, effects, graphics, and still imagery through Final Cut Pro and After Effects. I had focused on footage mainly from my video camera, so with Scott’s perspective, and with the footage he had shot on his Canon SLR, he was able to bring a more elaborate point-of-view into the film. But the Action-Idea continued to dictate his edit decisions.

“I used the arc to drive the images, music and effects I wanted to use,” Scott said. “How we saw Detroit through the car window. How we were moving fast, shooting up to eight interviews a day. People were moving, the music had to embody that.”

We’re both strong proponents that story needs to drive the choices that we make in the field, and in the edit suite. By tying the film directly to the context of the conference, our task was greatly simplified. Whose interests are being served? Who is the content for? This focus helped us to determine scope, voice, and even the length of the film. This was not going to be a theatrical release, Journalism That Matters needed it quickly to promote its upcoming event, so the web version would suffice.  Thanks to a strong, focused Action-Idea, Detroit Uprising finally saw the light of day.

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