It's Your Story to Tell: Notes on the Filmmaking Journey | Part 1

Posted by Emma Goddard on
Courtesy of Erin Lau

The lights have dimmed and the aroma of butter-drenched popcorn fills the air. The seats are reclined and a low rumble shakes the room. Perhaps it’s the sound of a train departing the station as it heads to a secret wizarding world, or the crashing of waves breaking against the side of a ship as it makes its way into a treacherous storm. The power of film to transport you to another place or time, or to walk in someone else’s shoes, if only for a moment, is what keeps this art alive and well. It’s a complete experience — one that we all constantly thirst for and crave to share with those around us.

Yet what exactly is involved in the creation of such a production? From the first words sprawled across a page as the pen hits the paper to the flicker of an image on the screen as silence falls upon the audience, the effort that goes into the making of a film is tremendous.

At PBS, we’re surrounded by the documentary mastery of the likes of Ken Burns and the illuminating animated shorts that come to us through partners like POV and StoryCorps. So with our own curiosity for film, PBS spoke with filmmakers from this year’s Online Film Festival to get their insights into the industry. They take us through the diligent work that goes on behind the scenes to bring their films to the screen, offering helpful tips that they’ve acquired during their time on the job.

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Crafting Your Story and Characters

At 22, Adelina Anthony started her career in the film industry as an actor. Four years later, however, she left this career path to explore something new, explaining that she was frustrated by the mistreatment and stereotyping she observed of both women of color and the LGBTQ+ community. So instead, she turned to the foundation of film as an alternate way to foster her creative growth: storytelling. Over time, she worked on the art of storytelling as well as the process behind the production of a film from start to finish so she could one day share her own experiences without being in front of the camera — stories that would be inclusive and representative of all.

"One day the film industry was going to catch up to the complexity of our experiences. It was going to be hungry for our stories.” - Adelina Anthony

“I would tell my younger self to keep studying the craft of film, especially screenwriting, because one day the film industry was going to catch up to the complexity of our experiences,” Anthony says.  “It was going to be hungry for our stories.”

Ahead of her time, Anthony, writer-director and co-founder of AdeRisa Productions, didn’t wait for the industry to catch up to make her own progress. She worked hard on this art form over the years and began to “develop [her] voice as an out Xicana Lesbian artist” through the narratives she invented. Stories like this unfolded through works like “Ode to Pablo.”

“What I’ve learned so far about strong storytelling is that there is immense value in exploring characters and story in novel ways,” Anthony says. “Sometimes that means really taking time to think through a character’s wants and arc.”

Ode to Pablo 1.jpgCourtesy of Adelina Anthony

In some cases, such characters might be pulled from fictional realms dreamt up for decades by their creator or taken from pre-existing stories and re-imagined to cater to new audiences. In Anthony’s case, her character Pablo, played by Ian Vasquez, was born through her desire to help represent and grow her own awareness of the Queer Deaf Latinx community.

Similarly, others in Anthony’s line of work searching for the central character to star at the heart of their story, like Director Carlos Estrada, also find that our surrounding communities and the real people around us serve as the perfect source for the characters of a film. Estrada, who is a documentary filmmaker, explains that after you’ve solidified the story or message you want to convey, connecting with all of your resources — asking around and asking around again — is key, and can often steer you in the direction of your film lead. This brought him to the subject of his most recent documentary, “The Country Priest,” Father Roy Snipes.

“I try to focus on character pieces so that becomes the core for me,” Estrada says. “The story, to me, has to have an engaging person at the heart of it who is ready to fully share their story. Once you’ve found a character to be the anchor of the story, you still need an actual story. So if you can connect a personal, small-scale tale to a much larger and relatable issue then you’re definitely onto something that is worth investing in.”

Country Priest Stills 01.jpgCourtesy of Carlos Estrada

For Erin Lau, director and co-writer of “The Moon and the Night,” letting an idea marinate, whether that be character development or the overarching storyline, is also pivotal to success. The Hawaiian native follows the concept of “Makawalu,” a term for “eight eyes,” by looking at everything with eight possibilities, assuming that the first idea will always be the weakest or one that’s already thought of by someone else, and to work toward the fifth or sixth idea at the very least.

According to Lau, they’re “ideas that have been cooked and reflected on for a period of time that provide more depth.”

"If you can connect a personal, small-scale tale to a much larger and relatable issue then you’re definitely onto something that is worth investing in." - Carlos Estrada

Finding the Right Team

As the pieces of a filmmaker’s work begin to come together through story and central characters, finding a core group of people to work with to bring your work to fruition is an important next step, especially when casting comes into play.

“Audiences care more and more about the kinds of actors that get hired to inhabit characters, especially if they represent certain communities that have not traditionally been on screen,” Anthony says. “I’m actually happy about this current shift, mainly because I’ve experienced so many film and television works where the casting was way off. I’ve never cared for hiring a ‘name’ actor, I want to cast the right actor for the part.”

Anthony also follows this when hiring the crew that works with her behind the camera, helping her through the process, whether that’s anything from the larger picture of sharing and understanding the vision of her story to creating the set design and editing.

“There is a huge opportunity to embrace the much-needed changes in both the film industry and in our society at large when it comes to issues around gender, sexuality, and more,” Anthony says. “Why not begin with our projects? As creators we can hire people on our sets and in our productions that reflect the world we actually live in.”

IMG_5507-1.jpgCourtesy of Erin Lau

Likewise, Lau stresses the importance of creating a solid team to foster growth and a collaborative environment.

“Put your ego away…” Lau says. “New filmmakers often feel they need to prove themselves by having all the answers. Yet one of the reasons you build a great team is so you don’t have to be an expert at everything.”

Lau advises acting as a compass for the people you’re working with, guiding them toward your vision, rather than juggling all of the responsibilities involved in the creation of your film. She notes that your team should have the freedom to exercise their area of expertise in the craft as they help you bring your story to life. Most importantly, however, be kind and be respectful of one another. Lau admits that working on a film can sometimes result in a “pressure cooker” of emotions as everyone works on meeting the same end goal, but highlights how crucial it is to acknowledge when slip ups happen and to own up to mistakes and hardship over disagreements.

Anthony and Estrada also discuss the significance of not only learning from but helping your peers.

“Always lift others along the way,” Anthony says.

Read Part 2 of "It's Your Story to Tell: Notes on the Filmmaking Journey"

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