Anyone who’s ever been to a dinner party knows that people love telling stories about themselves. Once the conversation warms up, true stories of real experiences often get grander and grander, with perfectly timed details and a winding narrative. Of course, in the real version of the story, repartee was probably less succinct and sparkling and the order of events may have been different. But these stories reveal that, as humans, we relish exceptional experiences and enjoy holding peoples’ attention.
But what if this niggling thing called truth didn’t matter? What if someone said to you, "Tell me a story about yourself that isn’t true?" What would you say?
This compelling social experiment is at the heart of "Supposed Histories," a series of short interview films from Mark Waites, partner and cofounder of London agency Mother. For this personal project (Waites’ second film project—the first was a short called Seventy-Two Faced Liar), he asked subjects that simple question. What follows is a master class in entertaining bullshit. Unpacking the stories people chose to tell and the details added for flair is sure to be a field day for anyone with more than a passing interest in psychology.
Waites says that the idea for the project came from two places: a live storytelling evening called "True Stories Told Live" and an author’s quote. He says after the storytelling event, the thought of what story he would have told stuck with him. But, as he says, "I have a lousy memory but an over-active imagination."
"Also, someone sent me a quote from novelist Jeanette Winterson [below] where she speaks about how there’s a lot of reality in the world right now be it reality TV, documentary, or ‘true life’ account,s but people are not exploring their inner lives," he says. "She even calls it a ‘terror of the inner life.’ It’s not something I’ve ever been afraid of and I know I’m no different to others."
His assessment of others was correct since he had no problem getting people to be economical with the truth on camera. Waites started by asking four or five friends he knew to be great storytellers (these are ad folks, after all), and soon others wanted in on it. He says the process has become self-selecting—people get the concept right away, or they don’t.
Subjects are given little direction beyond a suggested time limit and the initial directive. Then their story was down to their interpretation of that brief. "One of the fascinating aspects for me is what stories people have chosen to put themselves at the heart of," says Waites. The stories so far are incredibly varied. Jose Molla tells of a stint as a suicide-note writer, while James Brown reveals he was a part-time investigator. Fred Stesney recounts a failed pitch for a Nazi-themed animated show in the ’60s, Julia Sandberg Hansson admits to sort-of cannibalism, and Stu Outhewaite recounts a series of failed childhood birthdays. "Everyone is given as much time as they need to think up their story, this isn’t a ‘who’s the greatest liar’ competition; these are storytellers, not liars—there’s a huge difference. I wanted all the storytellers to interpret the project as they saw fit, so there are a lot of 'Supposed Histories’ that are right out of my control, and I love that." To maintain a sense of freshness in the stories, Waites says he never wants to hear them in advance. "All the stories have come as a complete surprise. I did wonder at the outset how long it would take before someone imagined themselves in another era or crossed genders. I didn’t have to wait long."
Aside from professional storytellers, Waites had the occasion to give his brief to young adults after he was approached by Ellen Steloff, the head of a high school film program who’d heard of the project. "I never intended to film kids as they live in their own wonderful fantasy worlds anyway, he says. "During the filming I was often not sure if some weren’t using the ‘not true’ aspect of the brief to tell their true stories. A teacher has seen the results, and we’re now talking about whether a project like this might be a useful way of getting kids to talk about their lives. That would be a wonderful and unexpected spin-off."
But for now, Waites has no real formal plans for "Supposed Histories." He may organize a live event, which would require tighter control over stories, but he says it’s really a project without end. Before anything more substantial comes of it, first Waites has to film his own Supposed History.
"I’m yet to include mine, as I can’t decide which to go with—my time in the Israeli army, ‘Waites’s Law’ (the first law of time travel), or the time I made a unicorn for my daughter’s birthday." Now there are some dinner-party stories that would capture undivided attention.