In the recently published book ‘Tell Me Something: Documentary Filmmakers,’ Jessica Edwards compiled advice from 60 of the worlds best documentary filmmakers. POV Intern Erin McIntyre sat down with Edwards to discuss everything from the design of the book, to how she chose the participants and her advice after 10 years in the industry. To purchase a copy, visit the book’s website.
Erin McIntyre: The book was self-published and funded through Kickstarter. Can you tell me more about the design of the book?
Jessica Edwards: Tell Me Something was designed by Phillip Hubert, a New York based designer – his company’s called Visiotypen. We got together really early on, and I knew that because we were going to have so many different types of photographs in the book, we really needed something graphically cohesive to keep the book together. I also always knew that I wanted it to be a tactile cover and cloth bound. I always knew the size was not going to be an elaborate coffee table book, but I wanted it to be something that was of easily accessible, so you could leave it on your desk and grab it when you needed that shot of inspiration. Phillips took that away and came back with this colon idea. Tell Me Something was this open platform for many different filmmakers to contribute their advice. Then we elaborated from there, so inside the book there’s the strong colon on the inside page, and then of course you have the dots on the front, but the colon really acts as the anchor throughout the rest of the pages. It gives a graphic connection between all these very disparate photographs and ideas.
I always knew we were going to self publish it, I always wanted it be a very attractive thing, ’cause you hear all the time, ‘books are dead’ and ‘long live books.’ I knew were going to do an e-book version too. I don’t call it a limited edition, but we did only print a small run this first round with our eye on making something that you would really want to share, and that you would really go back to, and give to other people.
What was the process of collecting the stories from each filmmaker?
Edwards: Documentary filmmakers are the most busy, all over the place people. They’re either shooting or they’re following a story, and I really wanted to make it very easy for people to participate. I wanted to make it something people could be more reflective about, so I just had people send me stuff. In a few different cases, people actually wanted to sit down and have me record and then go back and edit what they wrote. There were more traditional interviews with a couple of the filmmakers. Predominantly, people just sent content in and we edited based on style and substance and then we printed what they wrote. I really wanted it be easy for people to say what they wanted to do, but more than that I thought that when you’re giving someone advice the hope is that you’re going to be a bit reflective, and I wanted to give the filmmakers the opportunity to not be penned in by time, or the place, or an interview style setting, so we just let them submit. Some people took months to respond, some people took five days to respond, and it really let people work at their own pace. I didn’t want there to be any barrier to participation.
The photographs are really personal, intimate and interesting. Did you travel with the photographers? How did you commission that process?
Edwards: It was really driven by the filmmakers and the intimacy. It’s really great that that’s coming through in the reading. It was always really important to us that we captured something that they had a connection to. When we were talking to Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, I said, ‘We could come to the office, where’s a good place for you guys? What do you have an affinity to?’ And Ricki joked, ‘We should just do it on the New York City subway system because we’re always schlepping stuff around.’ I totally related to that. We shot a bunch of different things, but the subway ended up being the one that we used and I really love that photograph. Jon Pack took that, and he actually did a bunch in the book and they are just beautiful. We didn’t have a huge budget for photography so I really wanted the photographers to have an experience that was meaningful and creative for them.
One of the things I really like about the book is that you have filmmakers that have a long resume and some that are just starting out. How did you choose filmmakers?
Edwards: I always came to the list of filmmakers as a fan, as people that I respected, because I really enjoyed their films or wanted to showcase [their work] because I thought it was great. That was true from Martin Scorsese, who has made a million films, down to somebody like Matthew Akers, who has directed one film. I think a person that’s just started making films has as good advice as someone who’s been making films for 40 years. When you get into things like technology or subject matter then I think the ground becomes a bit equal. Of course there’s definitely things that the benefit of experience brings, but I also wanted to see what the newer filmmakers had to say.
Something that Thom Powers brings up in the foreword that I think wraps everything up, is that filmmakers are perpetual students of whatever subject they take on. I’ve often heard documentary filmmakers refer to every film that they make as like a graduate degree in that given subject, and it kind of has to be. You become this kind of mini expert on whatever it is you’re doing, and then you move on to the next thing and you have to become an expert on that. In talking about the book and reading the advice and applying it to my own creative work, I think that’s a really important thing to remind ourselves. There is really no formula and being able to tell what a good story is develops over time, and changes from subject to subject.
After 10 years in documentary and collecting 60 filmmakers advice, what do you think the state of the industry is?
Edwards: I can say now more than ever that documentary filmmakers need to be the masters of their own craft, by that I mean they have to be business people. I think that’s a really tough thing for people to swallow, because most people just want to focus on their work. Now more than ever, the work doesn’t end when your film is finished. Filmmakers really need to be smart and educate themselves. Go to panels and learn about crowdfunding, go to broadcast TV pitches and learn about grant writing. Do all of this stuff and really educate themselves about all facets of the industry, because there is no quick way anymore, not that there ever really was. My impression is that its harder now than ever to get a film out there, where as its easier now than ever to make a film. It’s this weird gulf between people that can make films and complete them, but then don’t know what to do when they finish.
We’re really tasked as filmmakers to immerse ourselves in the options that we have and weigh them. I think that that will be different in two years, and that it will be different in 10 years. You need to be flexible in terms of who you are as a filmmaker and have a level head about the best way to get your film out. It’s evaluating the best road to go down based on what your subject matter is, and of course first and foremost making the best possible film you can.
It’s not about waiting for the fairy godmother of distribution to come and wave her wand and put you in a hundred cities, because that’s not going to happen. Just assume it’s not going to happen so you can arm yourself with tools to make it happen for yourself. We have the tools, we can be empowered and do it.
Did any themes emerge across the filmmakers advice?
Edwards: Don’t take anyone’s advice was definitely a theme! A couple of people did that, and Davis Guggenheim said that. Also, follow your own passion, rely on your own instincts. That was definitely a theme. I think that was just another way of saying that every project is different and every artist is different.
I always intended the book to not just be for filmmakers. Obviously, there’s filmmaking advice, but I intended it to be for any creative person. I feel like documentary filmmakers are students of humanity and that their advice can apply to most creative people.
What one piece of advice would you give filmmakers?
Edwards: You don’t need to go to film school. Ten or 15 years ago it may have been important, and granted, 10 years ago I did go to film school – I think back then it was fine. Now, the way that schools are structured, you’re paying a lot of money to immerse yourself in things that you can pick up on your own. There’s more effective ways to learn about making films because so much of it is intuition and luck that it’s sort of pointless to put yourself in a lot of debt to do it. Surround yourself with like minded people, work as much as you can on other people’s movies, and read and watch films. If you are going to go to school, take something like political science, or literature, something that can foster ideas.