Stretching is good for you. We stretch when we wake up in the morning. It helps shake loose the cobwebs. We stretch before we exercise; it’s supposed to enhance our performance. When we were teenagers, we faked a stretch to get our arm around the cheerleader we took to the movies because it disguised our true intentions. Hell, these days, I stretch before a perp walk. Pookie can duck and cover pretty fast when four lenses are aimed at him.
Stretching in our daily work is different. Who really wants to think hard enough tell that City Council story differently? We’ve told that crime story so many times, we could shoot it in our sleep and still have time for a full hour lunch. And what does it really matter?
About a month ago, reporter Elizabeth Vowell presented me with a story that would have me stretching every creative fiber in my body tighter than the waistband of Chris Christie’s boxers. Liz is a rare and emerging breed in the newsroom: reporter who can write her ass off and knows her way around a baby cam and a laptop editor. If she was asking for help, I knew she was on to something good.
Her pitch was simple enough. She had been talking with a mother who, 30 years ago, had been a heroin addict. She kicked the drug without an organized rehab program. Now, her 25-year-old daughter was walking in those same footsteps. They had agreed to open their home, their lives, and their hearts. It was a story I knew Liz could handle on her own, but she had me salivating to tell it. Then she hit me with the one caveat. They wished to remain anonymous.
That first day, Liz and I must have talked for close to a half hour about the importance of viewers being able to identify with “Donna” and “Anna” from the first few seconds of the story. That meant making them normal people living everyday lives just like the rest of us. They had to be real. That meant no fuzzy digital effects. Shooting the interviews in silhouette would be the easy part. The stretching would come in when we had to cover what we thought would be a 3-4 minute story (It came in just short of 6:30.) with no faces.
The bigger problem, if we wanted this to be real, would be video to talk about the drug, addiction, and counseling — none of which we would have ready access to.
Again, trying to keep it real for people in Baton Rouge, we decided cheesy network video of seedy flop houses somewhere in the Northeast was not for us. We would have to get creative. Taking Anna through her old haunts was out because those places would likely trigger her need for the drug.
What we came up with was a subtle symbolism. We would use dead trees, barren branches, and the general decay of area of town where Anna bought her drugs to help us through some of the rough patches in the story.
I came up with a few tricks to get us around the addiction and recovery talk, but it wasn’t without a lot of trail and error. It all sounds simple when it’s laid out like this, but there were many false starts and failed attempts along the way. (Like the day I drowned a GoPro LSU Lake without it’s waterproof housing.)
When the edit was done, my brain was fried, and my creative muscles ached. They don’t get a workout like that every day. But it was good to stretch them. And the end result was something Donna and Anna deserved.
But the best thing about all this stretching is that it started to rub off on the daily stories I shot while we were working on Donna and Anna’s story. Once you train your mind to stretch, it tends to want more of it. So maybe stretching does improve performance after all.