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Documentaries are hard to make

Like so many of us in the couch-bound world we currently inhabit, I have been digesting streaming documentary films by the bushel lately. I’ve seen probably 40 or 50 since the fog enveloped our globe.

My viewership has a dual purpose: to mentally escape from the gloomy circumstances of these times, and to learn what works and doesn’t work in assembling a multi-part series. That’s because I’m part of a team producing a seven-part true crime story, and we are determined to get it right.

Among the docs I’ve viewed with notepad and pen in hand are the obvious ones: Tiger King; Making a Murderer; the Jeffrey Epstein story; the Jinx (the Robert Durst story), Killer Inside: the Aaron Hernandez story; Don’t F--- with Cats; Gone in the Dark; and dozens more.

I’ve found when I mention these shows to friends that a remarkable percentage had watched one or more of them. These contemporaries are eager to share their likes and dislikes, which is also helpful in my assessing what appeals to them.

I’ve written before about the central character in our drama, the late drug kingpin Jimmy Chagra, who gambled and laundered tens of millions of dollars of marijuana smuggling revenue through Las Vegas casinos. I won’t rehash his story here. Suffice it to say that my work on this saga has gone through a few different formats over the last dozen years.

Once we had purchased the rights to Jimmy’s life story, I wrote a full-length screenplay. For reasons that are confidential, I never sent it to any studios. It just gathered dust on a bookshelf for a decade. Then, in late 2018, I started to read how Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and other cable channels — networks awash in millions of investment dollars — were producing and purchasing single and multi-episode documentaries. They were paying top dollar for the rights, up to 20 times the amount spent on the productions.

It occurred to me that the many hours I had spent filming Chagra’s story had a more logical outlet in these channels than through a major studio. So I set out to interview other principals in the story, from various regions of the country, with the intent of making a two-hour documentary, or possibly a longer version.

Once I reached an agreement with a production company to film the story, the principals convinced me that with the wealth of filmed interviews I had done — over 40 hours — our story would best be told in seven episodes. That would require a serious amount of work, in effect the making of seven small movies. Each episode also had to follow standard story structure, with a clear beginning, middle, and ending.

Of course, that would be the fun part. That process is not unlike assembling a huge jigsaw puzzle, finding the proper place for the thousands of pieces I’d acquired, stretching over a 13-year period.

Because the task of shaping the story into seven separate shows was primarily a writing challenge, the pandemic didn’t keep us from working on it every day as the world was hiding behind masks. It was not unlike what I’ve done most days for the last four decades: get up, swill coffee and other energy drinks, dress so shabbily that my wife won’t let me out of the house, and get intimate with a keyboard. Because I haven’t collected a regular paycheck since the early 1980s, everything has felt relatively normal to me. And for that I am eminently grateful.

The last major task in front of us to complete our work is 18 days of filming reenactments of the most dramatic scenes in the story. We’re scheduling that for January, in hopes that the virus will abate somewhat by then. If it still has us by the throat, we’ll wait it out, just as the rest of the world has been doing since March.