Black Maria Essay Series

What I Learned Making My First Documentary Film

by Christopher Upham

Writer, Actor, and Director


Filmmakers S. Smith Patrick and William Farley forced me into making my first documentary film. Well, not really, but when I found out on the Internet that the men I had fought with in Vietnam had believed that I had been dead for 30 years, their encouragement and my own narrative instinct told me that a good story was lurking in there somewhere. So I went for it. Smith Patrick agreed to shoot and so we got on a plane to upstate New York for a reunion of the 299th, Engineers, my old Army unit.

Quite frankly, I didn't know what the hell I was doing and knew next to nothing about documentary, despite having performed paid work in the film industry for years as an actor, screenwriter, assistant editor, PA, producer, etc. I did have a decent notion of story and a romantic idea of being a director, mostly from the narrative side of filmmaking. I read what I could about documentary, tried to outline my ideas and formulate a vision.

Our first interviews were a bit of a disaster ' inadequate sound made worse by my first directorial insistence - that we shoot outside on the grassy banks of the Niagara River, beset by roaring speedboats under a terrible blinding light that made the sweating interviewees squint and screw up their faces. But the characters had opened up to me about Vietnam in a way they hadn't before to anyone else, including their wives.

My intent was to try and make a film to let an audience feel like they had gone to Vietnam and then come back after the war. I didn't know what that entailed, how I was going to do it, how long it might take or how much money it might cost. If I had known those things, I might not have made the film. But something inside told me that I had to tell this story. I slowly realized that I was also driven to find out whether I really was capable of learning and practicing the many skills ' financial, technical, psychological, emotional, physical as well as the raw courage - that it takes to finish any film.

At that 299th Engineers reunion, we collected stories and many photographs from a dozen men and their wives. As I looked and listened to the footage, I realized that I wasn't just telling my own story ' but that of our 600-man battalion, abandoned by the American Army up at remote Dak To firebase, which became surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese Army regulars. Eventually, our unit suffered 50% casualties, mainly because President Nixon wanted to 'prove' that the South Vietnamese Army could run their own war, which never happened.

As I read and researched and tried to figure out a way to make the film, I also set about collecting more images. At the next reunion, I talked about my film and in passing, mentioned that it had really helped me psychologically to return to Vietnam, which I had done in 1992 as a guest of the Hanoi Writer's Union with acclaimed poet Bruce Weigl. I must have struck a chord, because four veterans agreed to go back with me - our Colonel, Newman Howard, Duffy Dubendorf, John Marcoulier and William Christie. All of a sudden, the film's structure came clear ' I would tell the 299th's story as we journeyed back to Dak To firebase.

Six months later, we five American men were back in Vietnam, touring in a large Mercedes van with two Vietnamese guides and Smith Patrick on camera and sound. All of the men paid their own way and I financed the rest, figuring this gamble was the best chance to capture the images and sounds that I needed for the film. We spent three weeks together in Vietnam, filming and traveling the length of the country from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The journey was emotional and thrilling and fun and scary and wrought with all the daily pressures and joys of film production. I think we shot 45 hours of footage and took thousands of still photographs. What we came away with, was run and gun footage of Dak To where we had fought as young soldiers as well as chance street encounters in Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi and Hanoi. We also shot numerous interviews with the principals along the way.

Upon our return, I spent the next few months digitizing and logging footage, marking up good takes and making a three-hour boxcar cut. The story was far rougher than I had imagined and the sound and picture were not of the quality of the Hollywood film in my imagination. Still, there was something powerful in the footage and all the characters had been visibly moved during the trip to Vietnam. But the project needed a lot of work. I learned a lot ' chiefly that I should have hired a sound person, but intuitively I felt that at least I had come away with the emotional spine of a movie. My logistical choice in having Smith and I live and travel with the principals on a long road trip had fostered a rare trust and a deep intimacy that a larger, more professional crew might easily have ruptured.

I hired editors and together we produced a very rough hour-plus cut. We also cut a seven-minute sample reel, which became critical for securing two seed grants, one from the Pacific Pioneer Fund and another from the Fleishhacker Foundation. The grants were a much needed pat on the back for what looked like and would prove to be a long, arduous but ultimately rewarding post-production.

While any journey film inherently has a strong structure, the downside is that these stories can easily devolve into an episodic travelogue. An old friend and wonderful editor, Traci Loth became involved with the project and Heist Films and then filmmaker Amanda Micheli (Double Dare, La Corona, Haveababy) generously gave us office space. As we began to assemble sequences and scenes, complications emerged. We discovered that we were actually telling three substantial stories ' our present day return to Vietnam, the 1969 story of what happened at Dak To and how we five soldiers had been personally affected by combat. As a war film and a Vietnam film, we had to objectively present a complex history underscored by narration to add context and clarity to the interviews and the verite footage from the Vietnam trip.

Since I wanted to present the most accurate visual portrait of 1969 Dak To, I decided to go to the National Archive's Motion Picture section in College Park, Maryland. The principals - John Marcoulier and Bill Christie came to Washington with me - and Newman Howard joined us from Arlington, Virginia. I roped them into going to the archives for three days, where we ended up finding a lot of Vietnam footage ' much of it from Dak To. NARA Mopic is a great resource for any war or historical film because the rights to use our government's footage are free, though you do have to pay for film/video transfers. We left with 25 hours of dirty dub low resolution duplicates from the archive. I made two more trips to NARA and collected fifty more hours of footage, which we used for the edit until final cut, when we ordered high resolution files for the final color correction, sound mix and output.

With most of the footage on hand, post-production got fully underway. Because of our low budget and Traci's availability we could only work a third to half time, so the editing process stretched out and eventually took four years. Smith and I continued to return to the 299th Engineer reunions and kept shooting interviews and gathering still photographs and Super 8 film footage that other soldiers had shot at Dak To.

These interviews proved critical to characterizing all five men. In the film, Traci cut an 'arc' of emotional growth for each man which expressed both the truth of the person and our story's needs. In a fiction film, these arcs are carefully scripted, dramatized, realized by actors and then blocked in scenes and then shot in many angles, which are carefully edited from multiple takes to enhance an emotional tone. But in a documentary, you often have to be creative in how you economically show a character's genuine self, their growth and resolutions. As you might suspect, 'real' people don't often show their emotional changes in their short time before the camera. Traci proved extremely adept at searching out tiny pieces of dialogue and picture that supported the characters' film portrayals from the raw trip footage, bolstered by cutaways to archival footage, which eventually grew to 270 hours of video.

For long, emotionally complex films, editing is perhaps the most critical craft in making a powerful documentary film. The subtle correspondence between image and sound and nuance and subtext that moves an audience is hard to define and even harder to create. A good editor is a powerful storyteller who finds surprising ways of compressing and illuminating story and character's conflict points, while underscoring critical shifts of perception and behavior and story, without compromising tone and truth. Every film is a fiction; choices are made. I believe the only truth is the final film itself ' for which audiences play a critical role by receiving and communicating and discovering meaning for themselves. It's a strange mix of truth and ambiguity and intuition that creates the marriage of film and audience and almost as indefinable and mysterious as life itself.

The cost of adequately finishing a film is often shocking, but not as shocking as how unrealized the film will be if you don't do it. All the subtleties of story and image and character are nuanced into the audience's perception through powerful sound editing and mix and the intricate layering of music and dialogue and effects and the way color plays with and enhances the themes. We were very lucky to work with some very talented collaborators, Luciano Chessa the composer, Jim LeBrecht of Berkeley Sound Artists and Gary Coates, the colorist ' all worked closely with Producer/Editor Traci Loth. As we moved through the finishing process, the depth of understanding and craft that professionals infuse into final output went far beyond my expectations.

There's an old saying in the story consulting field that in a successfully realized film, the protagonist's journey in the film story mirrors the screenwriter/filmmaker's struggle while making the film and reflects a psychological change that deepens the work of the maker. Since I had experienced the Vietnam war along with the main characters, it fell to me to narrate the film to clarify and expand and deepen what we discovered in the images and sounds as we created Return to Dak To.

I have been blessed with a decent voice and have narrated a number of films and played on stage and film many times as an actor, but never in my own story. It was a challenge, trying to express the emotional changes that I experienced in making the film, but I hope they are carried by my voice. I don't know if creators are ever fully satisfied by their creations, but I have had the satisfaction of audiences telling me that Return to Dak To allowed them to express long buried emotions about the Vietnam War, a very difficult subject for most Americans.

As writer Michael Herr ended his landmark book, Dispatches: Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we've all been there.

Christopher Upham is a writer and visual storyteller. He has collaborated with filmmakers Paul Saltzman, Ellen Perry, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Tom Schlesinger, Hisham Bizri and playwright John O'Keefe. On staff at the prestigious Squaw Valley Screenwriting program, he has also taught Documentary Structure and Visual Storytelling. Christopher's fiction has been anthologized in Maxine Hong-Kingston's 'Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.' His documentary film 'Return to Dak To' was his directorial debut.