When casting the leading characters for documentary films, it is their stories that count the most — and sometimes you must work hard to find the best ones. Film director Joonas Berghäll travels all around the world meeting people and listening to their stories, which he captures in his compelling documentaries.

We recently received another extremely interesting guest for our weekly Okimo Pause, when Joonas Berghäll — film producer, director, and one of the owners of the Finnish production company Oktober — came to tell us about his work. Joonas has produced and directed dozens of documentary-style commercials as well as documentary movies, including the critically acclaimed 2010 film Steam of Life, which was the first documentary to be selected to represent Finland in the Oscars. During a wintery lunch Joonas introduced us to his best practices for unravelling exceptional stories.

Don’t be afraid to throw yourself into unexpected situations

Casting is extremely important — and demanding — in all productions, but even more so in documentaries, as it is the people and their actual stories that make the whole film. For Steam of Life, which introduced the stories of 16 Finnish men in saunas all over Finland, the initial pool was around 2 million people, from which Joonas had to find 16 compelling stories. But for a typical documentary-style commercial, Joonas may only have the chance to interview four people, out of which he must find three good stories.

But in order for interviewees to really share their stories, the director needs to establish trust with them — which may be built in just a few hours for commercials or over the course of up to a week during film productions. According to Joonas, the most important element of achieving trust is to be yourself and truly put yourself out there in casting situations.

“You have to find some common ground with the people you meet. One of the hardest and also most rewarding experiences of my career happened in Kenya, where we visited a shelter for girls for two and a half weeks for the documentary Mother’s Wish. At first, the people were really sceptical towards us because of our skin colour, but after we participated in their games and dances — even though we were really bad at them — they started to include us in their community. The thing that finally sealed our relationship was when the girls saw me cooking — they had never seen a man making dinner before”, Joonas thinks back with a smile on his face.

He continues with another example:

“Back when I studied documentary film making, one of my teachers used to tell a story of how he went to interview a farmer in Eastern Finland. The farmer was a bit prejudiced towards the director coming from Helsinki and asked him to shovel a pile of manure before the interview. My teacher was happy to help and worked on the task for an hour before the farmer came laughing and told him that they actually do the job with a tractor in five minutes. Afterwards, they had a sauna, and the project kicked off from there.”

Follow your intuition

How should a director then identify the most thrilling stories? Joonas has learned that in many cases, you just need to trust your gut feeling.

“Sometimes I sense that the best story is not from any of those who came to audition, but it is from the cleaner in the facility or the friend of a person auditioning who just came as support. My tactic is to have a nice little chat with that person during the break and casually ask if they would also like to come in and tell their story. It usually takes a few rounds of persuading, but then they give in and share their story after everyone else has left, and BOOM. I instantly know that’s the one”, Joonas reveals.

Develop your interviewing skills

The third important element of making a strong documentary is good interviewing skills. For Joonas, the key is to just be calm and be himself. However, in the casting interviews it is also crucial not to let the interviewee go too deep into the topic just yet.

“One of the biggest lessons of my career has been learning not to ask too much in the casting, but just scratch the surface. If the interviewee starts to go too deep into the topic you have to quickly find a way to stop them because people won’t tell a story as powerfully the second time. You need to save the big moments for the actual interview that will be recorded for the film”, Joonas explains.

Indeed, when watching Joonas’s tranquil appearance and listening to him speak in the kindest and most pleasant voice, it is no wonder that he gains people’s trust and gets them to share their stories on film.

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