Should you give documentary films a try? This Emmy-winning director says yes.
From 2008 to 2019 I wrote and directed three micro-budget feature films. They were all creatively rewarding but also very much all struggles, especially from a financial standpoint.
It’s difficult to replicate the film that’s in your head on limited resources, and although we do our best and achieve amazing things by even trying, the end result can feel frustrating and insufficient.
Cut to 2018. I decided to return to my hometown to direct and produce my first documentary. The film focused on the NBA talent produced in a small North Carolina town against the backdrop of poverty and crime. We ended up with a really solid half-hour doc called Something in the Water: A Kinston Basketball Story. After a successful broadcast run courtesy of PBS, we won ourselves a regional Emmy.
The film also received some nice press in SLAM magazine and is now streaming on Amazon, PBS, and more.
In May 2020, I decided to pull the trigger on my second doc entitled Belle Vie. This feature explores the inner workings of a French restaurant trying to survive the pandemic, along with its charming owner, Vincent Samarco. The film just premiered and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, followed by a television broadcast on KCET (PBS SoCal), and will be available on all the usual TVODS (iTunes, Amazon) and cable/satellite providers beginning April 6, 2022.
We also received a lot of wonderful press such as an article from the LA Times and fresh Rotten Tomatoes reviews. With a chance to submit for another Emmy and additional accolades, there are even more exciting things on the way.
So ever since switching to documentary filmmaking, one thing is for sure—it’s the gift that keeps on giving, so far at least. Oh, and the price tag is considerably lower than when creating narrative fiction. That’s nice.
Making the doc
Here are the key differences between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. You don't need a big budget to make sure all the key elements—a good script, capable actors, locations, design, and wardrobe, etc.—are at the level you need them to be for it to come together and just work for an audience.
With non-fiction, it’s all already real, which is such a relief from the constant push of maintaining authenticity when creating fiction. The freedom you get with non-fiction is to know it’s all already going to resonate in an authentic way, because it's undoubtedly already genuine.
Here are similarities between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Just because you’re making a documentary doesn’t mean you can’t apply fiction filmmaking techniques to your doc.
Yes, the characters are already there and so is the world they’re in, but the way you shape and present their story determines what the audience ultimately takes away from the film. Key techniques that work with docs are using tried and tested story structures, cinematic visuals, heightened sound design, and compelling editing, to name a few…
Using story structure
One thing to strongly consider is to structure and refine your interviews and overall story around a proven paradigm (i.e., the hero’s journey). For example, most of my interview questions for both of our docs were precise extensions of the main story beats in the hero’s journey.
I used the following overall structure for Belle Vie:
- Comfort zone
- Unfamiliar situation
- Get what they want
- Pay a price
- Return to familiar situation
- Having changed
I asked interview questions that I felt would connect Vincent’s existing story to the structural story beats above:
- Who is Vincent Samarco? Where does his love for food come from? How did Belle Vie come about? (Comfort zone)
- What do you want? What are you willing to do to achieve it? (Desire)
- How has the pandemic affected Belle Vie? What’s at stake if you don’t save the restaurant? (Unfamiliar situation)
- How have you adapted to the pandemic? How do you plan to continue adapting? (Adaptation)
- What are the rewards if you do succeed? (Get what is wanted)
- What will be lost if you don’t succeed completely? (Pay a price)
- What is the future of Belle Vie, for you and those closest to you post-pandemic? (Return)
- What are some key realizations you’ve taken away from this journey? (Having changed)
Why not also shoot real-life as cinematically as possible? We all know the tech is there—most of us can now get our hands on a camera that delivers more than acceptable color science, autofocus, and other bells and whistles.
It was mostly just me with a camera and mic for both projects, and I asked all subjects involved to simply try and forget I was there—essentially I was a fly on the wall trying to capture as many candid moments as possible. Every doc is different but I do feel strongly about trying to shoot in a cinéma vérité style as much as possible, trying to avoid sit-down interviews of people talking about what’s already happened, instead aiming to capture moments as they happen.
That being said, both of my docs are a mix of vérité and interviews, but I hope to shoot future documentaries entirely vérité with no one ever acknowledging the camera.
The key ingredient of any effective film
The number-one thing that needs to be in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking for it to work with an audience is an authentic, emotional experience. In my opinion, the chances it will resonate with an audience instantly increases once you shift to non-fiction storytelling because you don’t have to create the authenticity from scratch, like you do with fiction.
Can’t say this enough: using proven story paradigms will help connect your audience to the story and its characters. On top of this, shooting and editing as cinematically as possible will only elevate the viewer’s experience as well.
How to know what doc to make
With all of the amazing humans and their stories out there, how do you know which ones to focus your eye and heart on? A process that will likely take years of effort to get to the finish line. Answer: the one that just won’t leave you alone. The one you keep talking about with friends and the one you know deep down needs your attention.
Consider filming the stories in front of you. I lived two blocks from Belle Vie, and it was an obvious decision to pursue Vincent’s story. To make a film when the industry and world were locked down, staying in the doc space allowed me to continue with my craft during this period.
Doc distribution and releasing
From Netflix and HBO Max to the more accessible paths of PBS and digital distribution on iTunes and Amazon, the current doc marketplace is obviously a healthy one.
Netflix passed, telling me, and I quote: “We like it, but there’s not enough buzz quality.”
So we premiered Something in the Water: A Kinston Basketball Story at the Virginia Film Festival. We followed with a PBS NC broadcast, which qualified us to submit for an Emmy. Belle Vie premiered at the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, was nominated for Best Documentary and we just had our TV premiere with PBS SoCal (KCET). It's also releasing on VOD/cable/satellite on April 6, has forthcoming potential pay-TV opportunities, and has already sold in some foreign territories.
How to find a home with PBS
We debuted both docs regionally on PBS by directly submitting to their submission portals, then used a company called NETA which submits docs around the country to all PBS affiliates for additional broadcast consideration.
For both films, we were able to initiate a hybrid approach by carving out broadcast rights for PBS while simultaneously moving forward with a VOD release. With a TV broadcast comes qualification to submit for an Emmy, and we actually won the damn thing (along with a Telly) for Something in the Water: A Kinston Basketball Story, with another chance to do the same for Belle Vie.
These documentaries cost a fraction of our previous fiction films, are more compelling viewing experiences, and serve communities much more effectively than any of our fiction films ever did.
So if you’re considering making your first or next documentary, I hope some of this helps to inspire, inform, and increase your chances of success. I must say I finally feel like I’m on a level playing field and have been thoroughly enjoying the non-fiction form and the creative expression and freedom it offers.