Behind the Lens Outtakes: Advice for Filmmakers

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Over the years, we’ve conducted hundreds of Behind the Lens interviews with POV filmmakers. These interviews air during the broadcast of the films on PBS, and are made available as podcasts and edited interviews via the POV website. But in the interest of brevity, a lot of fascinating insights, materials and advice end up on the cutting room floor. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be featuring excerpts from these Behind the Lens outtakes on the POV blog. Read on to see what our filmmakers have had to say when we ask them, “What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a first-time documentary filmmaker?”

Don’t Do It! No, Really. Don’t Do It!
Half-kidding but half-serious, many of our filmmakers cry, “Don’t do it!” and burst into laughter. Ross McElwee, the filmmaker behind Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves (POV 2005), says “Quit. Go to law school. You’ll be much happier in the long run. Making films is hard.” Susan Stern, who made The Self-Made Man (POV 2005) chimes in to say “Get out of the business. It’s way too crowded.” It’s not that our filmmakers — who have each devoted years, sometimes decades, of their lives to making films — are down on the profession. But as Anne Makepeace, the filmmaker of Baby, It’s You (POV 1998) and Rain In A Dry Land (POV 2007) says, “If there’s anything else that you can think of [besides filmmaking] that you’d be happy doing, do it. Because [being a documentary filmmaker is] a really hard life.”

Or, Just Do It
Many of the same filmmakers, though, turn around and say that if filmmaking in your blood, then you just have to go for it. After talking about the difficulties of being a filmmaker, Makepeace notes that “…there’s nothing like the euphoria when it works.” Zach Niles, whose first film (made in collaboration with Banker White) Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars aired on POV in 2007, says that “…the glib advice is don’t do it…but my real advice is just do it.” Ralph Arlyck who made Following Sean (POV 2007) relays what legendary documentarian Al Maysles said to him when he asked for advice: “Just make films.” Thomas Allen Harris, the filmmaker of Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (POV 2006) gets even more specific: “Get the camera and start to shoot,” he tells filmmakers, “…shooting and writing are things you can do without money.”

Finding and Following Your Obsession
“If I had to give advice to a first-time filmmaker,” Jesse Moss, the director of Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (POV 2004) says, “I would say follow your obsession. Because that’s what is going to make it possible for you to make your film … You have to fall in love with your subjects. You have to fall in love with your material. You have to believe in them, because that’s the only thing that can sustain you.” Many filmmakers echo Moss’ words: Adele Horne, who made The Tailenders (POV 2006) advises aspiring filmmakers to “…find a topic or theme that absolutely fascinates you … because it’s so much work to make a film … [and it involves] a lot of risk and a lot of sacrifice.” Suree Towfighnia, who made Standing Silent Nation (POV 2007) with Courtney Hermann, says, “If you can answer the question ‘Why [am I] making this film’ 15,000 times, then go for it, because filmmaking will take up every bit of energy and blood cells and brain cells that you have. First time filmmakers should think: Can I live with the idea [for this film] for five to seven years? Because that’s the average time it takes to finish a project.”

The Beauty of Collaboration
With new technologies, it’s possible to pick up a camera, shoot a film, edit with Final Cut, and be a one-man show, but is that always advisable? Some of our filmmakers discuss the collaborative process of filmmaking, and quite a few POV films were made by two or more filmmakers working together. Carlos Sandoval, who made Farmingville (POV 2004) with Catherine Tambini, says, “Find some talented people to surround yourself with, recognize their talent, but at the same time, hold true to your vision.” Nelson Walker, whose film Lumo (POV 2007) was a collaboration between four filmmakers, says, “It’s nice to have four different minds that think in four different ways approaching one single goal and one story.” Zach Niles, who made Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (POV 2007) with Banker White, whom he calls his “best friend” says that “… having a collaborator is a helpful thing. It gives you strength and courage when you feel like things are daunting.”

Persevering, a.k.a. Never Taking No For An Answer
Legendary filmmaker Michael Apted, who has made a host of films ranging from 49 Up (POV 2007) to James Bond: The World Is Not Enough to Amazing Grace, simply says, “Just stick at it and keep going. That’s what I always did.” Apted points out that “success and failure” are “…not much use to you. The thing is just to keep going and … not get down if you don’t do anything that works too well [and] don’t get full of yourself if you do things that people like … Just keep at it.” Roger Weisberg, the director of Waging a Living (POV 2006) and Critical Condition (POV 2008) says “Never take no for an answer. No is never the final word, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s just the beginning of a conversation.” Weisberg goes on to say, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been turned down for funding by funders that have ultimately funded our films; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been turned down by broadcasters overseas and in this country who ultimately carried our films; and how many countless times we’ve been turned away from institutions where we wanted to film where we ultimately found a way to convince them to allow our cameras in. No is never the last word.” Helene Klodawsky, the Canadian filmmaker of No More Tears, Sister (POV 2006) agrees. “You have to be your own fan club and keep pushing yourself to do what you want to do and not give up no matter what. I always say to filmmakers: Be aware that for every one hundred no’s, you might get one yes, and it’s that yes that you have to wait for.” Finally, take heart from the words of Marshall Curry, whose first film Street Fight aired on POV in 2005 and earned an Academy Award nomination. He says, “There are going to be obstacles … There are hundreds of obstacles that will come up. The most important thing is just to keep your head down and keep going. Street Fight took me almost four years to make and I’m glad that I got through to the end.”

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.
  • V

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    FOREIGNPARENTID:
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  • V

    FOREIGNID: 15355
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I will be creating a film cooperative. Have u heard of such a thing? How can filmmakers live together while working on a project.. ??

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  • tyler

    FOREIGNID: 19901
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    V
    A Film-makers co-op exsisted in Sydney Australia in the 80′s perhaps you may like to research this..