TAMPA — When it comes to documentaries, the story you fall in love may not always be the one the filmmaker set out to tell.
Just ask Camille Thoman and Tony Armer, who will be at the Sunscreen Film Festival running through Sunday in St. Petersburg.
“Documentaries are real life and real life cannot be planned out perfectly,” Armer said. “You take what is given to you and tell that story.”
Thoman will attend a screening of her documentary, “The Longest Game,” 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.
“I was such a documentary filmmaker cliché,” said Thoman, a 39-year-old resident Los Angeles. “I heard it all the time about a filmmaker who thinks the documentary will be about one thing easy to make and then years later realizes otherwise when she finally finishes it.”
Thoman knew the “one o’clock players” would be the subjects of her first documentary as soon as met them, during a visit with her mother.
Three 87-year-old male friends living in Dorset, Vermont, population 2,000, meet each day at 1 p.m. to compete in games of paddle tennis — a combination of ping pong, tennis and squash played on an court surrounded by a cage.
Their high energy, cutting banter and commitment to play every day in the spirit of camaraderie and competition intrigued Thoman. Not even the heavy snow could keep them away.
“I thought it would make a cute five-minute film I could shoot over the course of one weekend,” Thoman said. “Just a small window into a day in their life.”
Four years later, she completed the “The Longest Game,” with a running time of 95 minutes and a story line far more complicated than she expected.
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While the daily game remains the backdrop, it isn’t the story. Rather, it’s about friends on a three-year journey discussing the lessons of their past and living in the moment while facing inevitable mortality.
Living in the moment, Thoman said, is a lesson all documentary filmmakers should learn.
“Part of making a documentary is allowing your instincts to lead the way and always being open minded,” Thoman said. “Stories change as life moves forward whether it is being filmed or not.”
Thoman’s film is one of 15 feature-length documentaries showing at Sunscreen. Two movies help show the diversity of subject matter — “Last Stop, Flamingo,” about how man has irreversibly shaped Florida landscapes, and “Walk On,” about an HIV patient using an AIDS walk to educate others on the disease.
A schedule is at sunscreenfilmfestival.com.
Armer’s documentary, “Running With Demons,” was shown at the festival last year. It will be available for purchase and rental this fall through major online outlets.
As executive director of the festival, Armer will attend much of the event, in part to talk about filming real life.
“To appreciate the story a documentary filmmaker is telling, you have to appreciate how long they worked on it,” said Armer, a longtime producer of fictional films who never really appreciated the documentary until he made one.
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When 44-year-old St. Petersburg resident Armer started producing “Running With Demons” in 2009, it was the story of Todd Crandell, a former drug addict who overcame his issues to participate in the Iron Man competition and dedicates his life to helping others overcome substance abuse.
Armer and Crandle both grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and the filmmaker had long wanted to tell the athlete’s tale.
He thought he’d film Crandle training and competing, interview him, his friends, family and those he helped, and be done.
“Sounds easy,” Armer said with a laugh. “I thought it would take six months to complete from filming to final edit.”
It took four years.
“You are capturing life and life cannot be scripted.”
Shortly after beginning the interviews, Armer, like Thoman, realized the story was more complex than he thought.
Crandle had traded one addiction for another — helping others. He was putting the need to save strangers’ lives ahead of his responsibilities as a father and a husband. As with drugs, it was tearing his family apart.
It took Armer a year of filming to capture that story.
“The plot changes every day you film,” he said. “Not always as dramatically as the entire premise, but enough that it changes the story. So you have to keep filming more to flush out the important details. It never seems to end.”
Adding more time to the process are erratic shooting schedules.
And once the footage is all captured, the editing process begins.
“The success of a documentary lies in the edit,” Armer said. “Without a script and seemingly endless hours of footage, it can be overwhelming.”
The filmmaker may know what the story should be but needs to find the perfect 60 to 90 minutes of footage to tell it.
In Armer’s case, it took him three years and four drafts to edit 50 hours of footage to an 86-minute film.
Thoman had 100 hours of footage and needed two years to edit.
“Scripts are short,” Armer said. “Life is long — hopefully.”
But when the documentary is complete, all the hard work seems worth it.
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Both filmmakers have won film festival awards and are rewarded with distribution of their work — never a guarantee.
Then there is the bond they formed with their subjects.
“You fall in love with people you film,” Thoman said. “You cannot spend years following a person’s life without thinking of them like family. And you tell their important story to the world. Hopefully, you can change a few lives.”
Count Udy Epstein among those who experienced a profound impact from “The Longest Game.”
Epstein is founder of Seventh Art Releasing, a film distribution and production company specializing in documentaries. “The Longest Game” is one of hundreds of documentaries Seventh Art has signed since 1994. No distribution date is set yet.
Epstein said he had stepped away from hands-on documentary filming in 2008 to concentrate on the business side of his company.
But watching Thoman’s film reminded him life is too short to surrender his true passion.
“It brought me back to my roots,” Epstein said.
The 55-year-old Los Angeles resident is currently producing a documentary on the life and times of Seminole Indian Chief James Billy, following him around the globe in the process.
Filming started in December 2013.
Even as a veteran of the documentary industry, knowing how production time tends to stretch out, Epstein said expects it to be done within a year.
The he thought again and laughed.
“Well, I hope I finish in a year.”