Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Re-enactment and Specialty: Trust and Imagination

Unbreakable from E60 on Vimeo.

Part 1

          E:60 producer Martin Khodabakhshian set out last year to make “Unbreakable”, a feature on Jordan Burnham, a 21-year-old who survived a suicide attempt in the throes of depression.
          But there were no photos, or video, of Burnham’s attempt, which had occurred in 2007.  Nor were there photos or video of the events that had led up to it.
          Khodabakhshian had a few photos of Burnham as a high school golfer and pitcher at Upper Merion High, near Philadelphia.  He had video of his high school graduation, and of him, at 21, speaking to incoming freshman at the University of Miami.  He had video shot by Burnham’s family during his rehab, and some film from local media.
          But the heart of the story – Burnham’s protracted descent into alcohol and depression and his plunge from a ninth-floor bedroom window – was bereft of actual images. 
          “How do you illustrate a battle with depression?”  Khodabakhshian asked himself.
          “How do you represent the fall – and make people feel what it’s like to fall out of a ninth-story window? How do you tell about the moment when his father found him under the window?  Or the moment his father confronted him with a duffel bag of alcohol – the straw that broke the camel’s back?  How do you play that out beyond the family telling you about it on camera?”
          Thus began an effort that pushed the creative and journalistic envelope, even for E:60, which prides itself on bold storytelling.
          A producer relies on an array of storytelling tools – among them re-enactment and the B roll ‘specialty’ shot.
          Re-enactment is a literal interpretation of something that happened in the past, but was not filmed.  A specialty shot is a subjective or metaphorical interpretation.  Khodabakhshian used both, in unusual fashion.
          Typically, actors are in re-enactments, because the protagonists are deceased or unavailable.   But Khodabakhshian made his with the actual characters – Burnham, his father and mother - with their full cooperation.
          “The biggest thing to me was building trust with the family members,” Khodabakhshian said.
          Re-enacted scenes included Burnham’s father laying a duffel bag of liquor at his feet, Burnham’s sullen reaction and subsequent locking and barricading of his bedroom door, and his mother’s anguished pounding on it.
          Khodabakhshian asked Burnham to fall backward, as if he were dropping out of a window, into the arms of the production crew.
          “Open your eyes and mouth like you just jumped,” he directed Burnham.
          Burnham complied. Khodabakhshian understood that Burnham, now a motivational speaker, perceived the E:60 piece as a potential tool.  Burnham knew the more powerful the image, the greater the impact on an audience.
          In one specialty shot Burnham dropped a beer bottle in a stairwell and watched it shatter at his feet.  Then he dropped two.  Then nine.
          “We wanted to create a theme of falling,” said Khodabakshian.
          In another specialty shot, Burnham pushed athletic trophies – made for the scene – out the window.  As they toppled, the trophies, labeled with “pain” and “hopeless” and “empty”, were shot in slow motion by a Phantom camera.
          A $200 flip-cam was protected in bubble wrap, with the lens cap open, and tossed out of the window.
          “We got two incredible shots spiraling downward, in real time,” Khodabakhshian said.
          “I shot the ground where he landed at several angles.  I put the lip of the lens at grass level – it felt ominous.  I shot tilt-downs from the building to show how high it was.  I shot POV shots from outside the window.”
          Exploding golf balls were shot, at Burnham’s feet, to symbolize how depression had detached him from the sport.
          One scene combined re-enactment and a specialty shot.  It depicted Burnham’s father arriving at the site of the suicide plunge, moments after it occurred.  In reality Burnham’s crumpled body was rushed to a hospital as he clung to life.  In Khodabakhshian’s version, the father sat down next to his son and hugged him.
          Khodabakhshian directed:
          “Mr. Burnham, can you remember how you felt when you saw your son on the ground? Can you do that face?
          “One more time?
          “Can you go up to him and put your arms around him?
          “Jordan, close your eyes.  Earl, keep yours open.
          “Jordan, open yours and Earl, close yours.
          “Both open your eyes.
          “Both close them.”
          The scene, shot in muted colors to impute starkness and cold, connected to old footage shot when Burnham, barely able to walk, received his high school diploma, and hobbled toward his father.
          “You can’t be afraid to take those educated risks after you build trust,” Khodabakhshian said. “Explain to them what you’re doing.  Don’t rely on spontaneity.  You need precise direction, and you need to control the situation where you can gauge how much is enough.”
           A fine line – between enough and too much -  is discussed in Part 2.

posted by Steve Marantz, February 9, 2011


  1. I have a hard time believing that this is ethical. It seems like it is right on the line. I suppose if the subject consents, then it becomes more clear.