I remember attending a panel discussion by documentary filmmakers at the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, NY, in 2005. I was working for a video production company in Northern Virginia at the time, was new at the documentary game, and was eager to hear what other filmmakers had to say. I had a personal documentary in mind and figured with a little info from them I’d be well on my way to getting my film done, no mess no fuss.
What I remember most about the panel–Rebecca Dreyfus, the maker of “Stolen” was one of the participants–was that all of the filmmakers said that the filming of their documentaries took much longer than they originally had anticipated. This would not happen to me, thought I, full of bluster and quite naive.
Well, my video team and I are almost in the third year of production for “Concerto for Two Brothers” (www.concertofortwobrothers.com), a feature-length documentary I started producing in early 2008. I have spent a great deal of my own money and time to get us to post-production, and we are still scrambling for funding.
I have sent out almost 10 proposals in the past two years, and have not gotten awarded a single dime from any grant funding entity…yet. We have received generous donations from friends and family, but are far from getting the amount of funding we need to complete the film.
As I was writing a grant proposal recently, I had a mild panic attack. If you are a documentary filmmaker, you may have experienced one of these as you struggled to find funding. I looked at my budget and my heart sank. The voices in my head started to crowd in on me (mostly my mother’s voice, and other critics from my entire life) saying, “YOU’LL NEVER MAKE IT!!!!”
Immediately, I got on the phone with a friend who is a fellow documentary filmmaker. I asked for his help in reviewing the budget for my proposal and got his input as to how much I should ask for in this particular case. At the end of the conversation he asked, “So, have you been having any sleepless night when you stare up at the ceiling and keep asking yourself, ‘Why did I ever start this project’?” There was a silent pause…and then we both started laughing hysterically. It was as if he had been reading my mail. What a relief to find out that I am not the only filmmaker who contemplates throwing a rope over the rafters from time to time! Of course, I never will. I just close my eyes, take a deep breath, and recite my favorite phrase, “Leap, and the net will appear” over and over and over again till I calm down.
The truth of the matter is, I will never give up until this film is done. It is a complete labor of love. I’ve been wanting to make it for years. To be completely honest, I did it ass-backwards, and I’ve learned sooooo much, every step of the way.
I know it is a hard sell. When I first started pitching the documentary and would mention that it was about classical musicians, people’s eyes would glaze over. It took awhile to figure out how to hook them into being interested in the film. I knew when I showed the trailer to my hairdresser–a woman who had never listened to classical music in her life–and with tears in her eyes, she asked, “What happened to these poor boys? How did they ever get over their horrible childhood?”–I knew we had a great story.
I’m still struggling with how to find funding. It’s a constant search. And I’m still waking up at night worried about how I’m going to pay for everything, but I also know that I have a film that is unique, moving, and beautifully shot. It’s going to take a lot of time to find the right backing for this film, and we may not get any recognition or money for it until it is done, but I will never give up.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because if you are a documentary filmmaker with a project that you know is worth making, you need to make it. I’m not suggesting that you rob your family’s piggy bank to pay for it, or get into massive debt. I’m saying that, even if it takes years to complete, don’t give up if you think you have a great story.
Of course, you need to check with other people to make sure that you do. That’s why I have friends who are filmmakers, and why I showed the trailer to my hairdresser. I need to get feedback from other people, especially those who aren’t invested in me. Sometimes friends and family will tell you are a genius, when in reality, you need to get objective criticism for your work.
Where can you find the right kind of critics? You can check at a local university and see if they have a film curriculum. You might want to screen some of your work for classes, or talk to a film teacher. Check out www.meetup.com for a film group that meets in your town. Maybe there would be folks who would be willing to give you some feedback. Look into local professional film groups in your area. I lived in Northern Virginia for many years, and even though I moved to Charlotte, NC, I still belong to an organization called Women in Film and Video in Washington, DC. They offer all kinds of venues to have your work viewed. And you don’t have to be a woman to belong to group.
In the end, though, you have to go with your gut. Yeah, your documentary, especially if it is your first, may not end up being the “winner” you thought it would be, but having completed it, will matter. You will have the satisfaction of having told a story that is important to you, and hopefully, will have learned much from the experience. If you are hooked, like I am, it will be the groundwork for your “next” project.
Remember, feeling afraid is normal for a filmmaker. Just shut your eyes, take a deep breath, know that you’re not alone, open your eyes again, and keep plugging away at your film.
I hope this article was helpful. I’d love your comments about your documentary project and what your journey as a filmmaker has been like. In the meantime, keep up the good work!