With this doctor it won't hurt a bit
"Dear Doc Doctor, My film has three possible endings. How should I choose one of them?" asks a reader of "Independent," an American magazine about indie films.
"Dear Doc Doctor, No one likes my film. Everyone says it is unclear. Why don't they understand it?" asks another desperate filmmaker.
"Dear Doc Doctor, I'm going overseas to film, and I want to make sure that I won't miss anything. Is there a way to know the 'story' or the 'script' of my film ahead of time?" wonders another artist.
The popular "Doc Doctor," whose advice is sought by these three readers and many others is a 39-year-old New Yorker, Fernanda Rossi, who is currently visiting Israel. She has earned a reputation for providing expert advice on documentaries and advises filmmakers on how to construct their films, offers workshops on the structure of documentaries and wrote the book, "Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making Your Documentary Fundraising Trailer (Megafilms, 2005)."
Circles and Squares
In a weekend interview in Tel Aviv, Rossi explains that her career as a "story consultant" was forged almost by accident. She never dreamed that film studies in the city of her birth, Buenos Aires, would lead to a career as a consultant to documentary filmmakers. But a brief vacation in the United States turned into permanent residence, and a New York winter triggered profound depression.
In the winter of 2000, Rossi was sick of her work as a film editor, mired in depression, and groping to find a new career path. One day, she responded positively to a friend who needed help with the film she was working on. "I need you to help me draw those circles and squares you are always drawing," the friend beseeched.
Rossi watched her friend's footage, drew graphs and flow charts on a piece of paper, and the two of them reconstructed the film. Her friend was so happy with the results she suggested Rossi earn a living by using this talent. Rossi expressed doubt: "People would agree to pay me for drawing on napkins?" But her friend insisted, says Rossi.
After a while, Rossi says, she got a call from a legendary journalist. Walter Cronkite contacted her. "I hear you fix films," he said, and asked her to "go over a documentary he was working on."
Of course, Rossi agreed. She reedited with the filmmakers. "I sat down and put all of my drawings into a Power Point presentation, so it would look serious enough, and they agreed to pay me," she smiles.
In a meeting with another filmmaker, who did not know how to shorten a three-hour film, she upgraded her work method. "I developed a Socratic method of asking questions, with an emphasis that wasn't on me and what I was thinking, but on the filmmaker sitting in front of me, their intentions, and the choices they were making. The structure of a film always depends on the filmmaker's intentions - what they want to do," she explains. This time, the client was so happy, he decided to mount a massive email campaign to recommend Rossi's services. And Rossi has been continuously flooded with requests for her assistance.
For years Hollywood "script doctors" have advised and assisted filmmakers on how to improve their films. But the names of these consultants are typically absent in the film credits. However, in 1973, Francis Ford Coppola took film doctors out of the closet when "The Godfather" won the Oscar for Best Screenplay-Adaptation. Coppola thanked Robert Towne on stage for his assistance in amending the script. Rossi says that because Hollywood script consultants usually work on narrative films rather than documentaries, she discovered a nearly empty niche when she began to work in the field.
Need for her services increased as advancing technology cut the cost of producing documentary films. The advent of digital cameras and home-editing systems vastly increased the number of would-be documentary filmmakers. But many of them made overgenerous use of raw footage, and access to home-editing equipment led many of them to forgo the services of professional film editors. They thought they could edit their own films.
"Suddenly, lots of people needed help, or got lost in editing or were drowning in the raw material that they had filmed," Rossi says. The abundance of choices available induced profound creative crises among many of them, she adds. "People didn't know what story they wanted to tell."
But many careers are built on crisis, and Rossi quickly became a successful consultant in high demand. To date, she has advised the makers of more than 150 documentaries and served as a judge at several film festivals. She also travels and lectures.
Rossi emphasizes her clients' marketing plans in her work. She appears to be a highly-skilled professional in this arena. She registered the title "Doc Doctor" as a commercial trademark. Her Web site (www.documentarydoctor.com) is exceptionally well-designed, and a photograph of her, dressed in a lab coat, is flanked by the amusing caption, "With this doctor, it won't hurt a bit." An enthusiastic testimonial appears under Rossi's picture. It was written by Leslie Iwerks, the director of "Recycled Life," who was nominated for an Oscar last year. Iwerks says that "a personal story session with Fernanda is a must."