6 Questions: Jessie Deeter of Spark

This is the third installment in our 6 Questions series, where we email creators, curators, and other people we admire with 6 questions about their work and process, and then share their responses with you. You can read the first interview here, and the second with Jeff Ross, DocFest founder, here.  – Ali


Jessie Deeter is a filmmaker with the training of a journalist. A Bay Area local, she graduated with a Masters in Journalism, and shortly after produced both Who Killed the Electric Car? and Revenge of the Electric Car. As part of our spotlight on the upcoming DocFest, we interviewed Jessie about her work on Spark: A Burning Man Story, which she co-produced and directed with Steve Brown. Spark will be the opening film for DocFest this Thursday, June 6, at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco.


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Here’s what Jessie had to say about the project, the festival, and documentaries in general:


1. What drew you into the Burning Man project, and did it end up being what you thought it would be?


I was originally connected to Steve Brown through people who were long time Burners, like Chris Paine. What Steve had that made me really interested in this project was access to the Burning Man Organization. I thought if we could use their story as the spine of a film, with the artists’ stories as the reason why you cared, we might have something. That said, the final film is, happily, even better than I thought it could be. That is due to happy accidents like the “ticket crisis,” which no one anticipated, and a man named Chuck Cirino giving us access to all of his early ’90s footage, which he had shot very well–at that point I knew that we were going to be OK.


2. There are a lot of different people and points of view you focus on in Spark: A Burning Man Story. How did you decide who and what was important to your story?


We interviewed, and even followed for many months, many more people than you see in this film. I am proud of the fact that we did, indeed “kill many babies.” Editing this film was a very painful process much of the time, but we did it by slowly narrowing down our cast of characters and allowing the best stories and characters to rise to the top. That said, there were many things we had to leave out of the film, especially in the telling of the Burning Man Organization’s stories, that were incredibly painful–at the end of the day, if the scene or character didn’t propel our film forward it had to go.


3. What was one of the biggest challenges in making Spark?


This was an incredibly challenging film to make, although on the surface it would seem like shooting fish in a barrel–interesting topic that many people would like to know more about, spectacular visuals…should have been simple. One of our biggest challenges was really gaining, and keeping, the trust, of all of our characters. I have worked in very difficult situations, with people who had nothing more than my word to go on and no reason at all to participate in these films (General Motors on “Revenge of the Electric Car,” both sides of the story in “Death by Fire,” an intense Frontline about the death penalty, among them), but none were as consistently difficult as the Burning Man Organization–which required consensus about our project, for starters. Steve and I thought we were good to go when we had Larry and Marian on board, but we had to do an entire presentation for the board, all of whom had to more or less agree that we could film them over the course of a year, without their final say in the edit of the film.


Additionally, as a documentary film maker, I’m used to having schedules change at the last minute, but I would frequently be changing call sheets at 2 AMish for shoots that started at 8 or 9 that morning. My crew had to get used to me sending them call sheets very late–and texting them updates on the fly –often as information changed throughout the day. I would generally go out on any given shoot with an entire back up shoot in mind–and what we wound up shooting was often a combination of Plan A + Plan B–and sometimes a bit of C and D thrown in for good measure.


4. There are a few different schools of thought on how to tell a story honestly through documentary. How do you tackle the question of ethics in your work?


I have found that for me, the only way to operate is complete honesty. I never promise people money, fame or that they will be pleased with the result of their collaboration in my film. That said, I have always promised to treat everyone fairly, and I have never been accused of treating an interviewee unfairly in a film, a record of which I am proud. Things can get murky in your relationships with people, especially as you follow them through the course of a film, but I’ve found that if you try to maintain a certain professionalism with people they understand and respect that, to a person.


5. You got your Masters in Journalism. How do you think that has informed your practice as a documentarian?


I learned at the feet of a Master, Jon Else. I am part of a very lucky group of people who were required to learn the basics of shooting, lighting, sound and editing, in addition to a fundamental education on what it means to be a documentary film maker from a journalist’s perspective, which is an increasingly rare thing. At Berkeley we all learned a certain minimal standard for “truth,” such as it is, and most, if not all, of us, have a fairly low tolerance for playing with it. I would submit that yes, the process of editing is necessarily subjective. However, my goal is to always strive for the telling of “truth” in the most honest, real and entertaining way possible. I think that the journalism school, and learning from people like Jon Else, Mark Danner and Michael Lewis, taught me a way of looking for the story in the truth that has helped me greatly in my career.


6. What films are you most looking forward to catching at DocFest this year?


With three young children and finishing final deliverables on “Spark,” (in addition to working on a couple of other things) I don’t have the time I would like to see all of the films I would like to catch here. That said, I hope not to miss “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” “After Happily Ever After,” which I saw at rough cut long ago and have been dying to see since, as well as a couple of the shorts if I can. I may also need to catch “Furever” if possible, because I have a particular affinity for animal docs.