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The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

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David Felix Sutcliffe
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

My film is about Adama Bah, one of two 16-year-old Muslim girls from New York who were arrested by the FBI in 2005 after they were accused of being "potential suicide bombers." The FBI made no attempts to reveal what evidence they had on these girls and only released them after the New York Times published a series of articles about the 2 girls that led to intense scrutiny and public pressure. One girl was deported, and the other-the subject of my film-was allowed to stay, albeit, with an ankle bracelet and a gag order.

For the past two years her life has pretty much unravelled-her father was deported, her mother has suffered several nervous breakdowns, children's services is constantly threatening to place Adama's four younger siblings in foster homes. The government is now also trying to deport her. On top of this, Adama has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for the family. Her friends all graduated last spring and left for college this past fall (her best friend is at Smith right now) as Adama works, what she calls, "immigrant jobs-" babysitting, house-cleaning, etcetera.

I'm looking for an executive producer (as well as editors) and wondering if there's any interested parties out there, or someone who might be willing to pass on contact info of a good EP/editor fit. I've been shooting for almost two years and am ready to begin post-production. As far as fundraising, I have a fiscal sponsor and am preparing my grant applications, but would like to have a partner help me secure a reasonable budget. This is my first-time working on a full-length documentary and although I've been tempted to downsize it and produce it as a 30 minute piece, I think the story demands to be given at least an hour, if not feature length. My editor is based in California and hasn't been able to work much with me, and is eagerly waiting for funding to come through so he can come to New York and get to work. In the meantime, I'm looking for a New York based editor to help me with my sample. (So far, the sample seems to get such a wide range of responses that I think it's time to begin a new approach. Maybe I could post it here and see what people think...)

Anyway, I know this is a lot to put out there but I thought it would be best to put it all in one place rather than attempt to think of all the relevant topics where these issues could be posted. I would be supremely grateful for any advice veteran doc bystanders are willing to sling my way.

Thanks.


Christopher Wong
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

david, your doc sounds fascinating, and definitely deserving of more than a 30-minute treatment. it really helped me out on my doc to get an executive producer on board... before you proceed, however, have you answered the question of where you want the piece to be broadcast? On PBS? Theatrical? Non-PBS TV? This will dictate what kind of grants you go after, and thus, what kind of EPs will be best for your project. For instance, my EP is Renee Tajima-Pena who has done extensive work with POV, which is exactly the place I want it to air after festivals, theatrical, etc.


Katya Myer
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

In reply to John Burgan's post on Mon 12 Nov 2007 :

Dear John,

Thank you for your response. You are right, it's definitely not meant to be just an exercise :) I will need approximately 2.5 terabytes of storage space.

With respect to the shooting, I agree too - the only problem is that I want the film to have a very specific visual atmosphere and so far my DP and I haven't reached a complete agreement on it. Also, I won't be able to have the DP with me every day and sometimes I go to places in Israel where one just needs to pick a camera and capture a unique moment. I wanted to try and prepare myself for that as best I can.

Thank you for the advice!


David Felix Sutcliffe
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

Chris,
I really love the extensive work that PBS has done to create a strong web-partnership with their films, and although it would be great to have a more mainstream tv audience (via HBO, Cinemax, etcetera) I think PBS has such a strong outreach program that the issues I'm addressing in the film will have a real landing pad, and a chance to significantly and substantially affect an audience, rather than briefly triggering a flash of guilt/sympathy/pity in people's frontal lobes, as seems to be the case with mainstream films that make a splash but aren't sustained by any broader effort to create change.
That said, I think I'm aiming for PBS as well after festivals (and, hopefully, theatrical release). How did you make contact with your EP?


Christopher Wong
Mon 12 Nov 2007Link

through a great seminar at the WGBH Producers Academy, i made contact with a really helpful person at PBS (Kathy Lo). When I told Kathy that I was looking for an EP, she then introduced me to a bunch of different people who would make sense for my project (e.g. Freida Lee Mock, Renee Tajima-Peña, Steven Okazaki). After she made the intro, then I made contact with them through email. Renee turned out to be the best fit.

what i might suggest for you is to find a PBS film (or 2 or 3) that you really like, do some research to see how it was funded, and then if it's a good fit, go and track down that person. if you need help, i can always give Kathy Lo a call on your behalf.

lastly, are you applying for Sundance's next funding round? they are really good at giving first time filmmakers a shot at the money. if your footage is really compelling, and you get funding from them, that really makes it easier to get an EP on board.

i'm sure the more experienced vets here have better suggestions than i.


David Felix Sutcliffe
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

I am planning on applying to Sundance but I thought that Sundance was rolling. is there a deadline coming up?

As far as your other comments, I have been looking at a few PBS films and eyeing the EP credits, although my experiences in the past with cold-calling people has been a bit frustrating. Perhaps I'll update my list of potential EPs and run them by you to see if Kathy would possibly be willing to be a middle-(wo)man. Thanks for your advice Chris.


Christopher Wong
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

as far as i know, the sundance documentary fund has two funding cycles per year. though they don't have any official deadlines, they usually issue funding announcements around January and in June -- which is obviously around the time they have their committee meetings where they make the decisions. just make sure you have a good 20-30 minutes of continuous edited footage before you apply... if you want, the D-Word is a good place to get some feedback on your work-in-progress.


Niam Itani
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

David, Chris, I suggest you carry this to the WIPs because many others do not read this thread.
And, David, if you want to try and contact some of the Muslim Associations in America or something of that sort for funding, probably I can link you to a friend who can help.


Jo-Anne Velin
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

David - bearing Niam's words, meet me in WIP


Leah Cameron
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

In reply to Doug Block's post on Thu 11 Oct 2007 :
Hi Doug,

So, it's taken me a while (shooting, good old grant apps), but here I am. I like the 10 Rules of personal documentary filmmaking, especially the how-much-to-put-yourself-on-camera debate. Gahd. I'm already in mine more than I had hoped and looking kind of bleary-eyed at that.

Say, Doug, did you or anyone else who has made a personal doc ever feel like the story is really about what goes on when the cameras are off (i.e. how difficult it is to make a doc about your family?)

I'm having a bit of trouble seeing the larger picture with this one. Think I need the help of a good editor!

Sigh,

Leah


Reed Thompson
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

Hi Leah. Saw your post here and couldn't help but want to respond. I think that "losing site of the big picture" is just a normal part of the process with doc making -- particularly, if you are going it alone and with minimal collaborative feedback. My advice would be to simply put the project away for a period of time (the longer the better). Take an extended break from it. You will be amazed at just how much more of a refreshed perspective you will have (with respect to your story) once you return to working on it. Good luck!


Leah Cameron
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

Hey Reed,

Good to meet you and thanks for the advice. The trick is, the doc is about my father learning to fly airplanes again after 40 years. He hasn't had his license all this time, there is a long stoy behind why. The idea was that I would follow him until he got his license again and dip back into some of the issues behind why he was barred from flying - encounter with mental illnes, loss of two loved ones in plane crashes. Good idea in theory.

It turns out that he contacted transport Canada and they just reinstated his license. They send it to him in the mail, just like that. Gahd. This despite the fact he told me it would be a long process to get it again. Then I find out today that he's been booking classes behind my back! Sneaky devil. I think he's tired of having film crews around poking into his life. Fair enough.

So the thing is, I do feel a certain pressure to follow the story.

What's keeping you busy right now?


Doug Block
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

Leah, for sure there's a story about my family's reaction to being filmed, but I don't think it's nearly as interesting or significant as the story at hand. That's why I saved it for the dvd. But nobody wants to hear the filmmaker whining about how hard it all is (other than fellow filmmakers). Because it's a whole lot harder for your family members dealing with a lens in their face.

Edited Tue 13 Nov 2007 by Doug Block

Reed Thompson
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

Oh, my mistake, Leah. Something about your post caused me to think you were in post-production.

In regards to your circumstance:

I think so much about [verite/direct cinema] doc making is just placing yourself in situations and circumstances where your gut tells you a compelling story might take shape. It certainly seems to me that your idea for this doc was a good one. Obviously, it is difficult (if not impossible) if your subject is reluctant.

As for me, I am patiently chipping away, one tiny little baby step at a time, towards completion of my humble little doc, Blue Devils. Thanks for asking! :)


Brian Boyko
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

Okay, this is a big one.

I've got enough material together to start cutting together a 6-12 minute promo of a 55-minute piece, and I want to start shopping it around to get development grants for post-production. (I have found that it takes more than final cut pro and hope to master the nuances of video editing, and that I should probably get some help...)

However, even though I'm not a member of the Writer's Guild, AND I only work with unscripted non-fiction, if I'd be crossing the picket line by pitching.

Now, I don't intend to sell the movie until the Writer's strike is resolved, but I don't know if it's okay to move forward with it.


Brian Boyko
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

One more thing - I'm thinking about applying to ITVS for finishing funds, but this is my first documentary. Where can I find a documentary co-producer that I can apply with in my area?


Monica Williams
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

I will be starting the dig for archival materials for my historical documentary. I'm noting which archives the historical docs that I love use, but does anyone have any other advice on where to start and how to avoid archives that require a Ken Burns budget? My film looks at four events in modern history - The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and September 11th.

Thanks Katya for your advice on advisors!


Monica Williams
Tue 13 Nov 2007Link

One more - There are about three songs that I really want for my film. I've seen many documentaries with popular songs and I know that we don't usually have the budgets of hollywood. Are there any tricks to gaining the rights to use these songs without breaking the budget?


John Burgan
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link

Brian - what's your film actually about? Also, what stage are you in now - it sounds as if you have shot already.

Monica - archive and music rights can be very, very expensive - that's exactly why Ken Burns has those $$$$ budgets.

Edited Wed 14 Nov 2007 by John Burgan

Danielle Fautrat
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link Tag

Monica - Re archive footage, you'll pay an awful lot if you go the traditional route of archive libraries/banks. Your best bet is to either find private collectors who own the rights to the footage and would be happy to let you use them for free or a small discreet donation. Other than that, you can also try to approach small local museums/trusts/organisations/TV stations that would not be as greedy as big commercial cos.

Music - check this D.I.Y guide: http://www.clearance.com/get_yourself.htm

Alternatively, you could get someone (friend/student in need of portfolio) to create something for you that sounds "similar" for your film, and sign the rights off to you.

In any way, budget constraints always send you on long and tortuous roads.


Erica Ginsberg
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link

Brian, since you are in Austin, recommend you join the Austin Film Society if you are not already a member. There have a healthy doc membership and it would be a great way to network and potentially find a more experienced producer who's interested in your project. As far as the Writer's Strike, not sure I see how you would be crossing the picket line to pitch. Unless you already have a lead, there's relatively little development money from networks or cable entities for first-time filmmakers. You'd probably be better to go the grant route. Like John, we'd want to know more about your film to advise further.


Erica Ginsberg
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link

Monica, D-Worder Robert Richter's last film was about the A-bomb in Japan. If he doesn't answer here first, suggest you look him up in the People link above and e-mail him about his experiences finding archival from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. For Auschwitz, recommend trying the National Archives and the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Edited Wed 14 Nov 2007 by Erica Ginsberg

Monica Williams
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link

In reply to Danielle Fautrat's post on Wed 14 Nov 2007 :

Thank you very much Danielle for your great advice - this is just what I needed.


Monica Williams
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link

In reply to Erica Ginsberg's post on Wed 14 Nov 2007 :

Thanks for the great tip Erica - I will be sure to look him up.


Brian Boyko
Wed 14 Nov 2007Link

John and Erica - The documentary is called "Makers."

If you'll recall, I'm doing the feature-length documentary interviewing Prime Ministers and such in New Zealand. I know I'm in over my head so I thought I'd get some experience by filming events at an event in Austin - the Maker Faire, and turn it into a 28 minute piece. I mean, I thought, it's a bunch of cool looking stuff that is strange and the people who build it, right?

But there's also an additional issue that came up - the entire thing looked like it was a countercultural movement - like Burning Man. And I wanted to examine that more, so after I got all my footage (shot in a weekend - the event was only two days long) I started working with the idea that trends in our current society are forcing what was once considered "American Ingenuity" into a counter-culture.

I got the participation of Mark Frauenfelder (editor of Make Magazine - I interview him this Friday), Bruce Schneier (Security consultant), and Adam Savage (Mythbuster) to talk about the DIY Counterculture.

(Savage takes the point of view that eventually the DIY counterculture will, like rock and roll enthusiasts, become the culture, while Schneier takes the point of view that since 9/11, underqualified security personel are treating "different as a stand-in for dangerous because no one knows what dangerous actually looks like."

They're all willing to let me film them, but without development funds I can't afford to fly out to them, so the rough cut I want to shop around to grant-making solutions will simply have their voices recorded on the phone. Additionally, I've got some pretty unique stuff - for example, the Star Wheel, a pedal-powered moving ferris wheel. Sure, other cameramen were there filming it, but I don't think they got the moment that the thing ran into a powerline. (No one was hurt.)

I've put up a couple of promotional preview clips - one of them has already gotten 5000 views due mainly to a link from Fark.com. You can view them all here in 720p H.264 streaming.

http://www.vimeo.com/channel1257


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