One man. One camera. That’s Doug Block’s documentary speed.
For almost 30 years, Block has harnessed his curiosity in the form of personal documentaries, including but not limited to 51 Birch Street, The Children Next Door, The Kids Grow Up, 112 Weddings, and his 1999 classic (celebrating its 20th-anniversary rerelease) Home Page. He is a man of many hats: a director, a producer, a writer, and, on the side, a wedding videographer, for which he utilizes his documentary process just the same as on his films.
Not only is Home Page celebrating a milestone anniversary this year, but so is Block’s website that was born out of its production, The D-Word. What started as a place to discuss the trials and tribulations of making his own film evolved into a worldwide community of documentarians congregating and sharing knowledge, tips, resources, and even film recommendations from the pros themselves.
For the occasion of the Home Page rerelease and The D-Word’s special birthday, I spoke with Block to hear firsthand a multifaceted take on the world of documentary and its web of connection.
Nonfics: Did you start with wedding videography or documentary?
Doug Block: Documentary. I was on this track of editing, I was doing some assistant editing. Then I wound up at Newsweek when they had a video division. I mean long stories. But just they needed a cameraman one day, and I said I can shoot and I didn’t know how; I had never shot a camera my life! But I got a very quick lesson from the staff camera guy like “Here, this is how you turn it on, this is the filter wheel.”
One day somebody called me and said, “I don’t mean to insult you by asking if you shoot wedding videos but do you know anybody who would do that?” And I just had happened to be at a wedding recently for a friend that had the god awful worst video camera person I’ve ever seen… blinding lights and just very lazy shooting, you know, and I just thought, well, I gotta be able to do this. It would be really interesting to shoot a wedding. So I doubled my day rate, and there I was shooting.
If you see it as documentary, it couldn’t have been a hard transition at all.
No, it was so much fun. I mean, you know, our big thing is getting access to the subjects, and here they’re paying you. A couple going through the most important day of their lives together, as a couple, at least to that point, are inviting you to hang out with them pretty much for the day, even when they’re alone together, to shoot them. Like, are you kidding me? This is nirvana. It was just fun to watch on just a human level of being around people going through that experience, but the fact that they’re paying me and they’re paying me well to do it was just thrilling.
Is having your subject forget you’re there a skill that you have also acquired as a director of documentary? Because obviously, you would hope that your subjects don’t act as if they’re in front of the camera, right?
Oh, totally. I think that’s the most important skill you can develop as a cameraperson, to make people feel comfortable when the camera is pointed in their direction. I just try and make it seem like it’s no big deal. And it’s easier now. The cameras are smaller and look like home video cameras, these camcorders.
I’m curious as to what compelled you so much to document the web in such a way with Home Page. And that’s celebrating its 20th-anniversary rerelease, which is awesome. Congratulations, by the way.
Thank you. It’s amazing. By the way, we’re on the front page of iTunes right now. It’s awesome. And for a 20th-anniversary rerelease, too.
So, what fascinated me about the web… Well, we started shooting at year three of the web. It was this new thing, email was just starting to catch on. From my own experience, the dynamic of people responding to emails and going back and forth, I just thought this is a whole new way. A total game changer. I don’t know how, I don’t know much about it. I was interested in exploring how this new medium was going to change how we see human behavior, how we interact as human beings. I could just sense that it was going to profoundly impact that.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the business side of it, which companies were going to be the biggest, I just wanted to see who was doing the most interesting work on it. What is the beating heart of the digital revolution? That’s what I was looking for.
When you shoot in the style that I do, as a one-man band, I don’t need to raise money to go out and shoot. I don’t need a crew. I just pick up my camera and I start interviewing people, and when the third person I interviewed told me about this kid Justin Hall, I arranged to do an interview and do some shooting with him. He opened the door, then I saw his hair. I took one look at him and just went, “Holy crap. I found him.” Just from one look at him, I could just tell. I had already read his site and had found it profoundly interesting.
I thought, okay, I’ll start following him and follow links off of him. I thought I would shoot it in a web-like structure. That whole concept really thrilled me. it influenced how I shot, how we edited, to make it seem about Justin, but then we move off of him to these other stories that he intersected with to almost create a sense of the structure of the web in the storytelling.
I found so many of your subjects in Home Page to be just so profoundly interesting. They all had so many perspectives on what the possibilities were of the internet at the time. Watching it in 2019 is even more fascinating.
They were so idealistic, you know? Now there’s so much cynicism about it, and it’s just too bad.
I’m still an idealist. I mean The D-Word started as my blog that I was keeping about the making of the film, but when the film was done, it turned it into a community site that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary now, too. It’s now one of the biggest online forums on the internet, much less for documentary, and it’s totally idealistic. We don’t charge any fees; it’s run completely by volunteers. There’s no advertising, we’ve never promoted it, it’s everybody’s. We have over 17,000 members from 130 countries, and that’s all by word of mouth. They found it by reading about it or hearing about it or doing a web search.
So it’s just never been the goal to be the biggest, the best, or the richest. It’s just to share our knowledge, encourage each other, and just feel like we’re part of a bigger community because we’re all working in isolation. Even if I feel I’m working in isolation here in New York City, imagine how people in these small towns or cities or countries without any kind of real-life documentary community must feel. From the beginning, it just fascinated me.
There’s that image that I end the film on of all the characters sitting in their rooms, alone, typing away on the keyboard. It just came to me as the ending, and I realized, you know what, we won’t do a text update like you usually do. I’ll just put their URL and you can just go to their website. It will be some interactive story that continues on after they watch.
I was really into the whole revolutionary aspect of interactivity. I made sure that whenever I shot with any of the people who ended up in the film that I got a shot of them sitting by themselves on the computer and it really works. I love that ending.
And then the end with my daughter, I was hoping that people would go, “Oh no, are you going to see a URL for her?” I kind of held on it for a long time hoping that that was sort of the hidden tension. That you see everyone with their websites, and Lucy is just really fascinated with the internet. Was she already putting something up about herself?
How has your perspective of the modern-day website, be it Facebook or what have you, changed? Do you think some of your subjects from Home Page would feel similarly?
I’ve talked to a few. I mean, Justin absolutely would not do what he did anymore. He feels like he burned too many bridges and hurt too many people by naming names. As he was writing about them, he hadn’t anticipated search engines, and then along came Google, and people would Google their names and up would come, in the first spot, something embarrassing that Justin had written about them. He wants to tell deeper stories about things, and he’s moved to video. And, he’s now a parent with a young kid, so he’s doing a lot of parenting.
Seeking connection is something that so many of your subjects in Home Page have in common. And it seems to me, too, part of what you sought with The D-Word. What kinds of connections have you made, or stories do you have from the film and from the site?
Well, the connections that I made on the film are more with people who’ve worked on the film; the editor, the people along the way, the producers I work with. I don’t know that making a documentary is so much about connection. Although you have many documentary filmmakers and their subjects staying very much connected in their lives. In Home Page, I almost intentionally didn’t want to become buddies with any of the people in it, particularly Justin. With Justin, it was that there was a subtext of a power play going on between us, like me controlling his presentation. I’m somebody who’s very used to their own self-presentation. and then the threat was always who’s going to write something cruel or whatever about me. Who knows what he was going to say about me online to his thousands of followers?
So there was this interesting dynamic going on that I thought would work for the film. Plus, I didn’t want to be buddies because I live in mortal terror that a subject I’m following is going to do something or say something amazing and I’m gonna miss it because I’m not shooting. Every second I was around Justin I wanted to be rolling or at least be ready to roll, and there are other filmmakers who work differently. A lot of them become embedded and spend a year hanging out, getting them to trust you.
I found, too, doing camera work early on, that I gain people’s trust pretty quickly when I’m shooting and there’s something about me shooting as a one-person crew that’s very unintimidating, so almost immediately people are kind of put at ease.