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'The Waiting Room' Director Peter Nicks Talks Immersive Verite ER Documentary--On Oscar Shortlist

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 3, 2012 at 4:56PM

Most documentaries emerge through various known gatekeepers at major festivals. More and more these days, such a plethora of strong docs are being made by talent able to deploy inexpensive digital cameras that it's easy for new faces to get lost. "The Waiting Room" is a first feature from veteran television journalist Peter Nicks...
Peter Nicks' "The Waiting Room"
Peter Nicks' "The Waiting Room"

"The Waiting Room" is now on the Academy's shortlist of fifteen titles that are in the running to compete for the Best Documentary Oscar. Five films will be nominated. "The Waiting Room" is also nominated for the Indie Spirits' Best Documentary and Truer Than Fiction awards, and was nominated for a Gotham award. Check out our interview with the film's director, Peter Nicks, below. It was first published September 25, 2012.

Most documentaries emerge through various known gatekeepers at major festivals. More and more these days, such a plethora of strong docs are being made by talent able to deploy inexpensive digital cameras that it's easy for new faces to get lost. "The Waiting Room" is a brilliant first feature from veteran television journalist Peter Nicks, who was unknown by many fest programmers. Hence it didn't turn up at Sundance (which favored "Escape Fire," the health-care "Waiting for Superman"), SXSW or Tribeca, but rather at True/False, Full Frame, Silver Docs, Ashland and San Francisco fests. 

(See TOH's review here and the trailer here.)

After listening to his wife come home every night with stories from her experiences at Oakland's main trauma center, Highland Hospital, Nicks decided to shoot a film there. "The Waiting Room" looks like it takes place over the course of one crammed night, but in fact he covered the ER for months, distilling a colorful cross-section of the most dramatic stories. Some are heartbreaking, from the father distraught that his little girl is burning with fever, to the young recently married man with no insurance who needs a major life-saving operation.

At a time when it's popular to make a film with a sharp edge that advocates a strong position, Nicks made a conscious decision to go immersive with a hybrid verite approach, "not to make a polemic film," he says. "As filmmakers we didn't want to tell the audience what we thought the problem was specifically and what we thought the solution should be."

Nicks admits he's "gotten into arguments with more activist filmmakers" about his stance. "My strong belief is when you allow the story to come forward, that can have as much impact as a film with an activist agenda. As we were watching the health care debate unfold, the story was dominated by people with vested interests: politicians, journalists, policy makers. The people who did not really have a voice in the whole thing were the patients and caregivers."

Needless to say Nicks is an ardent admirer of Frederick Wiseman. "I'm not going to lie, we deconstructed 'Hospital,'" he says. "We digitized it and our editor went through the film shot by shot. We wanted to understand what he was trying to do. His films were groundbreaking four decades ago. But we felt that his detached, fly-on-the-wall observational style would not work. We wanted to bring in the audience more intimately, in full color."

The film is a composite day in the life of a typical city hospital.  Nicks was planning "to shoot the film on one day with 20 crews and do that ten times and pick the best days," he says, but for a variety of reasons that wasn't going to work. "We wanted the film to have a structural device--to have a sense that this is one average day at Highland Hospital--to weave the audience through the film."

Of course that means that the filmmakers are misleading the audience. They're not saying, we shot this story in November and this one in May. "That's where we get into debates, a philosophical analysis of non-fiction filming," he says. "No film is truly objective. We didn't want to make an advocacy film, through argument. We chose the characters we put in the film. Some of the best scenes are on the cutting room floor. We could not have every character be male or African American or Hispanic or the victim of a violent shooting."

Thus the film is not truly representative of what dominated the footage. "We spent one day with each character, never more than a day," Nick says. "Over and over, we'd meet at the beginning of the day as we met people and ask them if we could film them, quickly develop a rapport, and ended up with a basket of stories. Who made it in was based on broad criteria: thematic ideas we got at the end of filming, various ideas that were in the film, different problems with healthcare."

So you don't see as many wealthy accident victims as those of violent crimes, young African-American strokes, drug overdoses, hypertension, diabetes, he says:"We amassed an unbalanced collection of material that would not have communicated accurately what the community was dealing with as a whole."

The hero of the piece emerged early on: Nurse Johnson. "We got to hang out with her and knew immediately, she's off the charts, a customer service genius," Nicks says. "Her compassion is shared by lot of caregivers there. We wanted to tell that institutional story, a group of highly talented dedicated caregivers chose to be there. They could make more money, particularly attending physicians and surgeons. Like M.A.S.H., they're a self-selecting group with a war mentality."

Funded by ITVS, the $553,000 movie looked for a theatrical distributor. "Because we were not at any of the major 'distributor' fests, we had a difficult time getting their attention," says Nicks. What did happen is that the film started winning awards and gaining 'word of mouth' as it moved around the fest circuit.

Weinstein Co. almost pulled the trigger but didn't know how to market the film. "It's not a disaster film, it's a film with a human face on the story," says Nicks, who is cheered by the outreach from healthcare professionals poised to get out the word. "We've been inundated with emails from individuals as well as public hospitals, emergency room physicians, and National Nurses United."

This article is related to: Documentary, Documentaries, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.