With their dysfunctional families, awkward array of guests and wide-ranging emotions, weddings are "the best interactive theatre ever" says Doug Block, who's been to a truckload of them.
Block, a documentary filmmaker, has supplemented his income with stints as a wedding videographer for two decades. Amassing reams of intimate footage, Block grew curious about how the marriages he had filmed turned out. So he tracked down nine of his more memorable clients and sat them down. What flowed out was startlingly candid, and forms the substance of his new documentary, 112 Weddings.
An inquiry into modern marriage, the film starts with the wedding day instead of ending on it, as so many Hollywood romcoms do. Block rings up Sue, the first bride he ever shot, only to find out she had filed for divorce a day earlier.
"She was near hysteria and wanted me to interview her right away," says Block, who instead waited for Sue to cool off somewhat. (Block uses no last names in the film.)
Other couples talk about surviving amid hardship – gravely ill children, floundering careers – and general disillusionment. Teasing barbs are tossed, wives cry easily and everyone's generally more clear-eyed than in the giddy wedding footage interspersed in the film. With all that, Block still catches the couples exchanging playful, knowing glances throughout their interviews. Marriage, these spouses will tell you, is about work – hard work: "You marry each other every day," says one woman. Block, who's been with his wife for 28 years, spoke with the Globe from New York.
A lot of these conversations come off like couple's therapy.
I was surprised how willing they were to talk. They were talking as much to each other as they were to me. They seemed really eager, as if they hadn't had much opportunity to get into these matters.
It becomes awkward to watch one spouse glaring as the other one speaks.
With audiences, we got the biggest laughs from the facial expressions and body language when one spouse says something, and the other one goes "Ugh" and rolls her eyes at the camera. Their whole dynamic plays out. It was so revealing that in many cases we had to protect them from themselves and leave things out. I would ask, "Do you think you have a good marriage?" If there was a pause, it became a statement about them. When I asked one couple what they'd say if they were to write their vows today, there was a pause of 22 seconds. The wife whispered, "Next question." It was so painful.
Although there were one or two cases where there was clear tension, even then, there's just still so much affection. I think all of them are moving love stories – even the divorces.
These people use the words 'hard' and 'work' a lot to describe marriage.
It will put lines under your eyes: That's definitely the message of this movie! It's about the impact of time on relationships and how you keep it going, the ups and downs and the hard work it is to keep love alive. I wanted to celebrate the work that goes into it. I don't know of any good marriages that don't take work, as Ben Affleck would be the first to tell you.
How did the film reshape your views on the institution?
I was fascinated that so few in the film thought they'd married their "soulmate." Most people wake up after a while and realize the person next to them in bed is not the perfect person. And then what? A huge challenge in so many marriages is accepting that this person is not an ideal, because no one is. In a way, it's counterintuitive that one person is the right match for you forever. What about the idea that people change over time – that you might grow apart?
It's only the past 200 years that we've married for love. Historically, marriage was for economic security, protection, to link families for the purpose of status.
We readily dole out advice to friends who are dating. Once people marry, it's way more fraught to weigh in on their sacred union. There's a defensiveness to these couples as you probe them.
It's like giving parenting advice: Nobody wants to go there. But we're always curious about the marriages of others, aren't we? It comes out of an insecurity that we're not doing it right – that others know better. We also love to see the train wrecks of other marriages to make ourselves feel better.
For those getting hitched this season, any sage advice from your film subjects?
I found the rabbi really profound. He made the distinction between the wedding and the marriage, and talked about the role of money and alcohol. He said there are three things behind failed marriages and infidelity is only number two. Number one is money, number two is sex, and number three is time.
What did the featured couples make of your film?
We did something unusual and we had a screening for just the couples. I thought it would be helpful for them to see it as a group and see how vulnerable everybody else was. They loved it. They were very proud of it. I love them.
Do you still shoot weddings?
I do. My rate has gone up exponentially.
Can you tell by now which couples will make it and which won't?
In my younger and more arrogant days I used to think so. But a lesson I learned firsthand was: You just don't know; people are always surprising you.
My previous film, 51 Birch Street, was about my parents' marriage. They were married 54 years, everyone thought quite compatibly. My mother died suddenly, and three months later I got a call from my father announcing he was in Florida and about to move in with his secretary from 40 years ago. They married and sold the family house on Long Island. I went a few weeks before the movers came and discovered three cartons filled to the brim with my mother's diaries going back to that time.
This marriage that had been in front of my nose my whole life turned out to be quite unhappy. The film was about how mismatched they were and why they felt this need to pretend it was better than it was.
This time, I wanted to look outward rather than inward.
112 Weddings screens May 23 to May 30 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, and in Winnipeg at Cinematheque, Aug. 8 to 14.
This interview has been condensed and edited.