Not a How-To Post on Documentary Filmmaking

In order to spark conversation, I thought I’d take a quick run through my process of making the documentary film, For the Love of Books. I invite questions, requests for more of an explanation, and most of all suggestions for improvement.

documentary filmmaking, how to, step by step

  1. As a longtime fan of documentary films and a writer of scripts, the catalyst that sparked me into action to try and make my own film came as I attended the Rhode Island International Film Festival.  
  2. While watching a block of shorts, I saw a film called Two’s a Crowd. It was about a Manhattan Jewish couple who had maintained separate apartments during their marriage but because of economic circumstances, they’d decided to finally move in together. I remember a line: “I can get married or move in together, but I can’t do both.”
  3. Two brothers made the film. I thought it was funny and interesting about relationships. I turned to my sister and said, “We can do this.”
  4. A plan was hatched to do a short film about my father and his morel mushroom hunting buddies. (now in progress)
  5. I have a MacBook from St. John’s University I use for work. My wife has one too. I decided I would be an Apple guy and that I would look for a camera that worked well with Apple and the company’s software program, Final Cut Pro X.
  6. I purchased an iMac with the largest screen possible. I purchased their video editing software Final Cut Pro X. 
  7. I might use the wrong computer jargon here, but I’ll do my best and correct me if you find mistakes. You’re going to need a lot of RAM. I think of this as working memory.  The iMac often comes with 4 GB of RAM. I have since upgraded to 16 GB.  It was very easy to do this myself. Just involved a few screws. Apple charges a lot for their RAM. Buy it and install it yourself.
  8. You are going to need an external hard drive. Final Cut Pro X will work much better if your video is stored on an external hard drive so the desktop processor is free to run the video editing software.
  9. Sometime after I bought my computer and before I bought the camera, I started to think about the crazy costumes of the Pulpwood Queens. I thought they’d look great on camera. I emailed Kathy Patrick and asked her if I could bring my camera down to Jefferson, Texas and film some of the events.

my camera: the JVC GY-HM150U

  1. A couple days before my trip to Jefferson, I purchased the JVC GY-HM150U from B & H photo. I purchased memory cards, a bag to carry the camera in, and an extra battery.
  2. I read Anthony Q. Artis’s book, Shut Up and Shoot. It gave me a lot to consider before I began shooting.
  3. I thought a film needed a through story, something a viewer could watch from beginning to end. The only story I could think of (maybe the only story I had access to) was my own story of being nervous and travelling to Jefferson for the Pulpwood Queens’ party. 
  4. I decided to shoot at 24P. I kind of wish I would have just shot in HD.  I may not have even described this right.
  5. I did what I could to shoot footage of the journey. This included still photos and video of airports, my rental car, the state line, sites along the way, and the “Jefferson” sign as I entered town. Except for when my battery ran out, I videoed everything that happened at Girlfriend Weekend.
  6. What story are you telling? How can you “show” it? I tried to feel out a story as the weekend passed. I knew I had to have an ending. I was on the lookout for it.
  7. It wasn’t long until I wished I’d bought a tripod. 
  8. Other mistakes? forgot to white balance the camera, didn’t know my camera had a “stabilization” button, ran out of battery in the middle of great footage, and I once had the mic facing the wrong direction.
  9. As you fill up your memory cards, where will you put the video? I had a MacBook and an external drive that I put footage onto at night. The files are enormous.
  10. Kathy Patrick introduced me to the crowd as a documentary filmmaker. I had a camera. As far as anyone knew, I was a documentary filmmaker. I tried to start acting like one. I focused on trying to capture the experience of the Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend. The more I filmed, the braver I got and the more I was willing to stick my camera into the action. I asked people questions and filmed their answers. 
  11. I wasn’t determined to make a documentary film. I wanted to learn to use my camera and get some experience. My experience with the Pulpwood Queens motivated me to see the film to completion.
  12. Having been introduced as a documentary filmmaker,  (rather than a guy who bought a camera) I was approached by Brooklyn-based photographer Natalie Brasington.  She offerred her still photographs to the film. I believe this is one of the key events that allowed the film to be completed. 
  13. I connected via Facebook with my old high school basketball rival and friend Jeremy Vogt. He offerred his music to the project.
  14. I took Apple workshops on Final Cut Pro X  at the Apple store on West 14th Street in Manhattan.  It was during these courses that I also learned about Larry Jordan and his book Final Cut Pro X: Making the Transition.  
  15. I essentially wrote an essay about the Pulpwood Queens. I cut it in half and read the first half of it to open the film. I used Natalie’s photographs to illustrate it. I added Jeremy’s music. I did the same for the end.

Hope this gives you an idea of my process

Love to hear questions and suggestions

Thanks for reading!

Intellectual Browsing in the Library / Reading Groups

Intellectual Browsing in the Library

(reading groups next class)

Why Bother With This?

  1. I hope you can make one or more of the following discoveries:  information you didn’t know, a journal that interests you, or a topic that seizes you with desire for reading and writing.
  2. To experience how reading can serve as a catalyst for writing and thinking.
  3. Get introduced to your fellow writer and thinker’s work.
  4. You might begin to see how a personal blog, the NY Post, People Magazine, and the New England Journal of Medicine differ.  Who wrote these texts?
  5. To get acquainted with what I consider an exciting and intellectually stimulating place.

The Activity:  (take notes in your daybook)

  1. Walk over to the library with someone you don’t know very well, and chat with them about their intellectual interests.  What might they write about?  What is their major?  What are they really interested in?  Note your partner’s name and write down some of what they say to you.
  2. On the third floor of the library, you’ll see the most recent copies of publications St. John’s subscribes to.  I want you to GO SLOW and read the names of the journals and pause to flip through some of the pages.  These journals may first appear boring but end up being interesting.  When people miss the point of this activity, they go fast and just try to get it done.  Stay away from what you’d consider intellectually easy (for example, Sports Illustrated) and move toward something you’d say is more complex.  In your daybook, write down the names of three journals that look interesting to you.
  3. Next to the names of the three journals you’ve written down, choose 1 article from each journal that you might want to read.  Copy down the title of the article, the author’s name, and the page numbers that the article appears on.  For example, pgs. 13-43.
  4. Read at least 6 pages of an article.  If the article isn’t 6 pages in length, then read an additional article.  Copy down lines from the article that you find interesting.
  5. Using money on your Storm Card, photocopy at least one page of the article for reading groups next time.
  6. Be sure to note all the bibliographic information from the article you choose to read:  Author/s, Article Title, Journal Title, Volume, Issue, Date Published, Pages.


  1. For this week or next week, do a Reading For Writing (RFW) entry on your blog over the article you found in the library.  See the syllabus for a full description, but this means you’ll choose golden lines from the article.  Type up those lines in bold, and then free write after the quote sharing whatever the writing gets you to thinking about.
  2. Somewhere in the piece, tell us about who you visited with on the walk to the third floor.
  3. Be sure to use the “son of citation” website (or something like it) to give the full MLA works cited entry at the bottom of your post.
  4. Copy and paste that works cited entry into your “Reading Bibliography” tab on your blog.
  5. Print out a copy of the entry for reading groups next Wednesday.
  6. Be sure to bring your writing and the photocopied page to class next week.

Get the handout at TheTorg.Com

Homophobic, Chauvinistic, or Just an Inside Look?

Warning: Rated R Material.  Do you know Tosh from Comedy Central?  The first 13 pages of Wally Klam’s Sam the Cat and Other Stories had me feeling as if maybe Klam had channeled the comedian (or vice versa) for the narrator’s voice.  Yes, very funny, and yes, sometimes appalling.

Sam The Cat Wally Klam Tosh

Tosh From Comedy Central

I get that some people are addicted (or some other word) to having sex with as many people as possible, and I get that it’s eventually a very lonely lifestyle, but like a lot of other unhealthy habits (snorting lines of cocaine comes to mind) I don’t need to read hundreds of pages for this feature of a character to be established. Even if that’s all Matthew Klam’s book, Sam the Cat and Other Stories, was going to be (it is a lot more) it might have been worth reading anyway.

Klam can be irreverent in the voice of his characters.  He’ll give it to you straight, right from the mouth of some of the most sluttish (and what else?) men you’ve ever met.  Here’s the commentary of one character who suddenly finds himself sexually attracted to his girlfriend’s male friend:  “I made myself fuck Louise.  I didn’t want to—and she was the very picture of unconscious—but I had to…. Was I all of a sudden gay?  I went to sleep one night and woke up a homo?”  The voice of this particular character is the one who gives the collection its name.  “Sam the cat,” he tells us, “he bad and naughty.”

Prof. William Torg Torgerson  Wally Klam Sam the Cat

Sam The Cat and Other Stories

Beginning the second story, I was thinking maybe I was hearing from the same character.  Seeing as how I’d just read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and that I’m in the middle of the publication of my own collection of overlapping stories, my mind has been stuck on looking hard for connections and making sense of them.  The narrators are different in each story.  This one’s in a slightly more serious relationship, and here he listens to his brother who speculates as to why he might be sterile:

“I smoked pot.”

“Pot doesn’t do anything.”

“Think about all those gay guys out there with good sperm who don’t even use it.”

“They use it.”

“How do you know?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Each story in the collection seems to contain a male narrator (except for the last one) who is in a more “serious” relationship with a woman.  We are taken from “Sam the Cat” on the prowl doing as many women as he can—perhaps as a way of proving to himself that he is NOT gay—all the way to a marriages and couples attending marriages.  The pages of this collection provide an uncensored peek into several male characters’ psyche, especially as pertaining to sexuality and emotional intimacy.  There’s also quite a bit about men not being able to perform sexually.  After all—as my wife had to point out to me (duh!)—there is a guy’s crotch front and center on the cover.

Bowery Poetry Club – Love, Lepers, and LA:

Click on the title of this post then the Facebook “share” button below to spread the word.

I’m planning on making my first-ever visit to the Bowery Poetry Club this weekend (Sat. Sept. 25) to listen to my former professor Laura Newbern read from her new collection of poems.  That she used “purple” as a verb always makes me smile.

Bowery Poetry Club – Love, Lepers, and LA:.

Hey English Teachers and Writers, any suggestions for a class that looks like this?

When I begin to write a syllabus for an upcoming class, I usually first think about the course’s goals and what the assignments should be.  Once that’s decided, I try to plan a schedule that will help us reach the objectives.  As I began this process for my upcoming summer courses, I was feeling kind of bummed out thinking about diving back into that same old work.  Class never ends up much like my ideal writing day, and so I’ve decided to mix up the structure for how I think about planning a course.  I’m starting with what is closer to an ideal writing day for me, and using that routine to give the class structure.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Daily Course Structure for Prof. Torg’s Composition Class

For me, to be a writer and thinker means to live within a mass of habits. I believe there might be as many ways to write and think as there are people engaged the acts.  By living in this routine three days a week for six weeks, I hope you’ll begin to think about how to craft your own routine for thinking, or it might be that you’re more of a person who will create an anti-routine.

(20 minutes)    Writing Studies / Annotating a Text

Let’s see what other people have to say about writing.  When I say annotate, I mean that I want you to try and have a conversation with the writer on a copy of their text.  After that, let’s practice using MLA guidelines to integrate the thoughts of others into our own texts.

(5 min)           Warm Up with Rich Language (I provide or you choose?)

Read something that will challenge your intellect, the sort of text that might introduce you to a new word.   Log the word, the context, the title of the work and the author into your daybook.  I think I’ll start you with Poetry magazine.

(10 min)          Teacher as Text.

This is like the first twenty minutes, but you’ll do this on your own with a text of your choosing.  Read something that you’d say is among the best of the sort of text you are trying to write.  I recently adapted my novel and so early each morning I tried to challenge/inspire myself by reading from Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Diablo Cody’s Juno. Look for one writerly observation of which you might make use.  Log the example in your daybook.  Make sure you take good enough notes that you could quote from this text and cite it in a works cited entry for your Writer on Writing Paper.

(20 minutes)    Write a Draft of Something you Need to Write.

Most, if not all of us, write on a computer screen with lots of distractions.  Here, we’re going to try something different:  we’ll write on paper ignoring our cell phone, instant messages, and the latest email to come dinging into our inbox.

(20 minutes)    Small Group Workshop.

Here’s something you might not be used to:  a real audience.  You can share what you just wrote or something that you’ve written and brought in.  It’s best that we all have a copy, but it is also fine if we don’t.  Readers should annotate the text:  underline phrases that get your attention, challenge the thinking, explain what you learn, and ask questions of each other and the writer.

(10 minutes)    A Lesson From Prof. Torg. Usually, there’s something coming up that I need to explain.

(10 minutes)    Work on Your Group Technology Project.

Your group is to make a movie and write a paper that focuses on one aspect of writing studies.

(5 minutes)      What happened worth mentioning today?

Let’s hear from a couple of the writers in the room.  What happened today that you can share?  Is there something you’ve written or read that you are willing to read to us?

(10 minutes)    Prof. Torg on a Text for Grade.

For this portion of the class, I want to show you the best I can what goes on in my head as I read a text written by someone I’m going to have to give a grade.

(10 minutes)    Research at Work.

I’m going to show you clips from a variety of documentaries and/or the work of previous students.  I see these films/texts as examples of those who are asking meaningful questions and pursuing answers.