For the millennial, certain gigs these days are trending -- tiny soft taco impresario, wine bar purveyor, aspiring Lena Dunham/Beyoncé/Ira Glass, blogger, fashion blogger, food blogger, artist, indie filmmaker, documentary filmmaker, and so on.
Like millions of others, I'll admit that I belong to the latter category. And like jillions of others, I am a first-time documentary filmmaker.
There's no denying it -- docs are hot. Between HBO's high-gloss productions, Netflix's rise in documentaries, the influx of Kickstarter/Indieigogo campaigns, and the democratization of filmmaking gear via iPhones and cheap cameras, docs are everywhere.
So you dream of making a doc?
What a coincidence.
Fresh out of my novice brain, I present How to Make a Doc: 5 Simple Considerations.
First up: this stuff takes time. Takes up your time. Takes away your time. It's 24/7; hold on tight to that DSLR.
So far I have been working on my film for four years. And I'm right on schedule. Apparently, for most first-time doc makers it takes around seven.
Keep this in mind: The Act of Killing was Joshua Oppenheimer's first film. Time? Ten years. First-time filmmaker Alison Klayman, who semi-permanently relocated to China to create Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry? Six Years. Searching for Sugarman, whose Oscar-winning success may literally have killed first-time filmmaker Malik Bandjellou? Three years just in the editing room -- that's not even including production.
Lesson learned: you will be a spendthrift of time.
2. Subject Matter
You want to make a doc. On what, though? You can pick a topic in your own backyard, or you can pick a topic as outrageously far from your own existence as humanly possible.
This is a matter of personal choice. I am biased towards going as far from yourself to learn about yourself and the human condition, plus I like to give myself ulcers. This is why I eat sea snake, deep sea dive, and chill on tiny hand-carved wooden boats lost at sea with nomadic Moken sea gypsies off the coast of Burma while filming it all for my flick-to-be.
But maybe you have a weird friend, or a kooky family, or you yourself are nuts enough to make a compelling film about your nutso self. That's fine -- just stick to your subject matter, find your angle, and realize that since it takes so long to make your first documentary, you had best reeeeaaalllyy dig your subject matter.
3. Be Chill
So you know this stuff takes time, and you've zeroed in on what you want to make a film about... and then you realize you hate putting yourself out there; you can't stand making conversation; the thought of approaching strangers makes you a bit ill.
In order to make a doc, you've got to be open, chatty, patient, and chill. You have to be able to put yourself out there. You have to genuinely be curious and know how to manifest that curiosity. You have to suffer through the awkward 'trust building' stages. Your subjects aren't the monkeys in the zoo -- you are. With all that naïve curiosity and ridiculous-looking film gear, you are nothing short of a freak and you've got to be comfortable with it. Every documentary film is stamped with the voice and aesthetic of its creator, and if you're a douche with your subject matter, your film is going to be douchey. Be cool, be open, be curious, and hopefully remember to press record.
Speaking of pressing record, let's chat gear. In this day and age, gear can seriously range from a $15,000 RED camera to a $50 flip-phone camera. When Searching for Sugarman director Bandjellou ran out of money for Super 8mm film, he downloaded a vintage film app on his iPhone, pressed record, and that shit won a bleeping Oscar.
The bottom line is that gear is important, but your story's even more important. Regardless of what gear you get, tell a good story -- you may want to hire a good editor -- and regardless of what gear you get, know how to use it. This is especially important when it comes to audio. Shitty audio is the dead give-away of an amateur, whereas if you're image is crap, people will assume it's your oddball-possibly-genius-anti-aesthetic aesthetic.
5. Ca$h Money
Here is where we talk about funding options, and I inevitably plug my own film-in-progress. Funding in Canada in a conservative era is like trying to get your pet dog to swallow a pill. There are times you actually think you'd rather the dog just die and learn its lesson.
There are grants, though, through Canada Council, Bell Media, Shaw Media, Doc Ignite, and your province/city worth checking out. There are also private foundations like the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and Fledgling Fund. If you get far enough along, you can try for the Sundance Institute. You can also try selling your idea to places like HRW or Amnesty if it's an important human rights issue. Then, of course there is the loved/hated concept of crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding sucks and it's tough, but it's also incredible, inspiring, and provides your project with a community of supporters before the thing remotely sees the light of day. Here's my own almost-funded campaign (see what I did there?)
Importantly, if you crowdfund, realize how much work it's going to be. That part earlier about not liking to reach out to people? Get ready to hand-type 600+ personal and heartfelt emails, many of which are to strangers and some of which are to personal heroes asking for support. If you're good to do that, you're probably ready to let your GogoFactor shine.
So, dear aspiring documentarian, those are my five simple considerations for making a doc. Still want to make one? Yay for you. Now comes the fun part -- actually making the thing. Relax, enjoy, and don't fuck it up! We can't wait to see your film in a decade's time, and I know you can't wait to see mine. ;)
Molly Willows' IndieGogo Campaign can be foundhere.
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