Top 5 tips in producing an independent feature documentary.
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I've been asked quite a lot over the last year about what are my top tips in making a feature documentary on an independent budget. So I thought I'd write a blog about it! I should preface all of the below with the fact that this is my first feature documentary, though I've been working in feature documentaries and TV shows since 2014, for various networks like Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Channel 9, SBS, ABC etc. My number one piece of advice is look around you, what do you have access to? Who do you know in the industry already? Who might want to join your film community?
If I was starting my journey again now as opposed to 5 years ago, I would have done things very differently (for starters I probably would have strapped a Go Pro to my head for the entire adventure.) Below I've listed my top 5 things to make sure you have in place to ensure your film is completed in a timely, engaging & efficient way. This blog will be part of a series.
1. DEVELOPMENT - WHAT IS YOUR STORY?
Develop your idea, concept or story and question whether this is a story YOU should be telling or if it's something better suited to someone else. Sometimes shooting countless hours of footage is not the best way to discover your story. It's great to have a plan of what the story is from point A-B-C. Think of narratives that have an embedded structure, a cooking video is a great example, as it begins with a written recipe and then the audience follows the making of the recipe until it is completed. This is often seen as a cheat code into audience engagement because audiences become invested in the process over the story. There always needs to be a balance between the process, story, characters and emotions. If your story is devoid of human interest it might not be the best fit for a documentary. This is often the hardest part of the process, finding the documentary, finding good talent and your connection to the source material.
A.) What is your personal connection to the story?
My personal connection to my subject matter was that I was always told to go pursue something that "put bread on the table", like a good Jewish boy, like going to be a lawyer. When I had to confront my own mortality I realised that I wanted to make movies and follow my passions. I wanted to know who else around the world wanted to follow their heart and desires. Find your personal connection, if there isn't one, that's okay, but you better get off your butt and make something!
2. DEVELOPMENT - FUNDING -
HOW CAN YOU GET THE FINANCES TO TELL YOUR STORY? Find out what funding is available to you BEFORE you set out on your amazing adventure. For example in Australia there is Screen Australia and Create NSW, government funding bodies. These bodies have criteria your project has to meet for it to be eligible for funding. Head to their sites above for more info. Check out Documentary Australia as well!
If you're in America you might need to find some private investment. In Europe find out which co-producers are open to you and which European countries offer co-production incentives and whether your documentary project could be a viable pathway to funding!
3. COMMUNITY & ACCESS - DO YOU HAVE RARE OR NOVEL ACCESS?
What access do you have? Access may refer to your ability to interview people or individuals in a certain community and the trust that both parties share for one another. For example if you had a friend or colleague involved with a particular arts organisation that is closed off to the public traditionally, or perhaps a cultural group that has historically been quite difficult to film and document. Your access could be one of the major draw cards of your project.
For example Alison Klayman's 2019 film 'The Brink' which premiered at Sundance in 2019 had rare access to Steve Bannon, because the producer used to work for Bannon. The film screened primarily because of how rare the access was and how compelling Klayman's coverage of Bannon's globe trotting adventure became. Klayman's strength as a filmmaker is that she became a fly on the wall, quite short in statute, Bannon eventually forgot she was in the room!
4. BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY FROM THE BEGINNING
In the same breath of air, every new crew member or participant you involve in your project is a new collaborator and member of your community. If you're planning on crowd funding through kickstarter, pozible, or indiegogo this is even more important.
Each member has their own social networks and contacts. You need to have this community set up from the very beginning, set up social channels, get a good behind the scenes photographer or carry a camera with you to development meetings and every shoot. It should become like a snowball, getting bigger and bigger and gaining traction! Document the development of your project as much as the project itself. Often the development of the project may end up into the finished documentary! Depends of course if you're making a Louis Theroux style / Vice style piece, an Errol Morris type of piece or a Catfish style piece or a film where the documentarian is absent from the material like 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'
The story of Jiro Ono is a great case study for all of the above. David Gelb's documentary is set inside a tiny sushi restaurant, and the film had amazing access to Ono and his family of chefs! I'm not entirely sure how the film was financed but it did incredibly well on the festival circuit and can be streamed all over the world now on Netflix and other streaming giants. It's also a terrific example of process driven documentary cinema, in that many of the scenes follow the process of making an ornate and elegant dish. If you have info on how the film was produced leave a comment below!
5. EMBRACE YOUR LIMITATIONS
Like Lars Von Trier proves in 'The Five Obstructions' limitations enhance creativity. If you're told you can only make a documentary about one person inside a stairwell, you might have to rethink conventional methods of storytelling! If you're given all the money in the world to make your film it might still fail! You might not be thinking creatively about what it is you're making and you might focus on expensive technical things rather than the heart of your story. The trailer to Von Trier's fantastic doc about filmmaker Jørgen Leth is below and is a great illustration of embracing your limitations.
If you can't get the perfect documentary access, look what Louis Theroux & John Dower did in 'My Scientology Movie. They couldn't get interviews with any of the main players in Scientology, so instead antagonised them...indirectly. It's a slight gonzo journalist tactic but it makes for entertaining viewing & a harrowing portrait of what may or may not have taken place inside the church. Their limitations in not being able to interview David Miscavige meant they settled on casting an actor to play him and use re-enactments of what former Scientologists had stated took place.
There you have it! My top 5 tips for self producing your own independent feature documentary! There are of course hundreds more tips, but I thought I'd make a start here. I hope to do another few entries in this series of top tips so stay tuned to this blog and sign up for updates :)
What are some of your tips in making documentaries? What have you learned while trying to make your film? Let me know in the comments below or share this blog with a friend whose making a film!
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