What Your Peers Want You to Know About Making Docs

By Craig Phillips
Posted on May 13, 2021

Experienced documentarians offer advice gleaned from their own journeys as filmmakers.

Hao Wu filming People's Republic of Desire

Hao Wu filming People's Republic of Desire

If you're looking for advice on being the best documentary filmmaker you can be, who better to ask than fellow documentarians who have charted their own paths and been through a wide assortment of struggles themselves? We asked a number of ITVS-supported filmmakers—some of whom are also teachers and producers/supporters of other projects—if they could offer advice to peers on producing documentaries. They had some choice things to say: from how to stick with it when it all seems so overwhelming, to the importance of finding your own support network, to how learning all the latest technical tricks of the trade will make your project stronger.

They all come from a wide cross-section of backgrounds, each has had their film air on the ITVS-produced series Independent Lens on PBS, and all were inspired by the idea of passing along some wisdom gained from their own journeys. If you're a filmmaker or producer, we think you'll find this illuminating and inspiring, too.  


Patrick Sammon, Cured"Curiosity is the most important trait for any documentary filmmaker. Look for stories that have universal appeal, develop knowledge about the business side of filmmaking, and find production partners with skills that complement your own. Also, learn to be a good listener if you aren’t one and learn to be an even better listener if you already have a keen ear. Words I’ve always lived by: if you listen, people tell you things."

Bennett Singer, Cured: "It’s tempting to go into a project thinking you know exactly how your story will unfold and how you will tell it. But keep an open mind. During the research and production process, you may make discoveries that shift the focus in major as well as subtle ways. I’ve found that developments that felt like crises or daunting challenges when they were happening ultimately led to a stronger film."

Beth Levinson, Storm Lake"Jerry [Risius, co-director] and I teach at SVA’s School for Visual Arts in New York City – in fact it’s how we met!  There is so much advice to give for aspiring filmmakers; it’s hard to know where to start.  But, we think a very important piece for all filmmakers to think about in their filmmaking process is … their team.  We had the most extraordinary group of people working on this film and it wouldn’t have been possible without them. Jerry directed/DP’d and I directed/produced, but the film would not be what it is without our incredible editor Rachel Shuman, our co-editor Leah Boatright, our assistant editor Caroline Berler, our sound recordists Judy Karp and Mike Jones, and our AP’s Lauren Evangelista, Evan Neff and Jessica Bermingham.  The film would absolutely not be what it is without the genius of our graphics team at Work-Order and our beautiful score by Andrew Bird.  We were so lucky to have the collaborators of our dreams and the support of ITVS and Independent Lens.  Every film has its lessons, and on Storm Lake, we were reminded every day how the right team makes it even more worthwhile."

Ursula Liang, Down a Dark Stairwell [Diversity Development Fund; Open Call]: "Directing a documentary is much harder and more exhausting than you can ever imagine. Be sure to care enough about your subject to be deep in it for years.  Also, watch lots of documentaries. Know the conversations that have already been had, and make yours a film that honors and adds to the legacy of great work that has come before you."

Dierdre Fishel, at left, shooting Women in Blue next to her cameraperson

Dierdre Fishel, at left, shooting Women in Blue

Deirdre Fishel, Women in Blue [Open Call]: "I teach documentary filmmaking and run a BFA program, so I think about this a lot. First, believe in yourself, believe in your own vision, and then work very hard. Watch a lot of films and study the ones you particularly love so that you can deconstruct them for structure and visual approach. A scene always reveals POV, but really make that intentional. How can I shoot this in a way that visually expresses my take on this world? Practice shooting and taking sound and edit scenes. Let your editor self tell your shooter self: 'hold that shot longer or get more coverage or be more daring or expressive.'

"And if you have a passion and this is what you want to do, don’t give up. Getting films made is not easy, so find a community and support each other and keep striving to make better films that express your take on a particular world."

Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini, Feels Good Man: "Write. Write a lot. Even if you’re making a documentary. Write your summary. Keep updating it as you film your subjects and as the world changes around you. Allow yourself and your film to adapt. Don’t be afraid if the natural progression of the story deviates from your initial idea. Never force something that isn’t there in the footage. Let the story tell itself. Also, read. A lot. Experience other people. Other cultures. Be curious. And try and connect the dots. See the world for what it is, as an interconnected system of vibrating emotions, each playing off each other."

Matt Wolf, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project: "Finish what you start, even if it isn’t perfect or it’s bad. If you don’t finish, you’ll never gain the confidence to make something else and to learn from your first film."

Zeshawn Ali, Two Gods [Open Call]: "Trust the collaboration in the process, with your subjects, your team, and your support systems. They will help you find your voice. It’s not easy getting a film made and we certainly found a lot of doors closed for us before we even had a chance to open them: you’ll have to find ways to keep going and that takes time. Especially as a person of color in this industry, there are a lot of roadblocks. It takes a lot of resources to make a film and during a lot of the early process of making this film I had to work a full-time job outside of film just to support myself and filmed this project on nights, weekends, and days I could take vacation. It’s hard to navigate film spaces because sometimes there’s this perception that films just get made out of nowhere but it actually takes huge sacrifices just to get your foot in the door. Don’t be afraid to be transparent in the resources you need to get a film made and make sure you’re supported financially in the process.

"The last bit of advice I have is don’t be afraid to put the camera down. There’s this weird perception in the documentary world that we always have to film and keep the camera rolling. For me, it was important to stay connected with my subjects and a lot of times that meant spending genuine time with them without the camera. Be present, be open, and be honest with your subjects and with yourself." 

Yu Gu, A Woman's Work" The NFL's Cheerleader Problem [Diversity Development Fund; Open Call]"Learn about distribution, it’s where power is most concentrated in the industry. Become a student of these systems so you can change them. Specifically to women of color filmmakers, it’s going to be hard whether you tell stories from your own communities or otherwise. In some ways, the industry is more ready to get on a tour bus of your marginalized community and say, 'look at their struggles, how sad,' then get off the bus and go back to their lives. The industry is less prepared to greenlight your worldview, your lens as a whole that you use to tell any type of story. People will question you and your ability like they question no others. 

Yu Gu, at right, setting up a shot for A Woman's Work, with cheerleader putting on makeup and film crew all around them

Yu Gu, at right, setting up a shot for A Woman's Work

Yu, continued: "Learn to listen to your deepest self and do it early on so you build up immunity. Take care of your mental health, because as Vice President Kamala Harris said, 'when you break barriers, you bleed.' Lastly, fight for those who fight alongside you. Find your filmmaking community who’s going to support you, inspire you, and challenge you. Join organizations like the IDA, A-doc, Brown Girls Doc Mafia and IDD." 

Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin, The Providers [Open Call]: "Find a great collaborator who shares your creative vision when making your first film. The process of making a feature-length documentary is long, exhausting, and inevitably strains the resources of new filmmakers not only financially but also in terms of time and emotional energy. As new filmmakers without an established track record, it usually takes longer to find that first crucial piece of funding. Whether you work as co-directors, a director/producer pair, an editor/DP pair, etc., we highly recommend building a team that shares a commitment to the film. We found that emotionally, creatively, and practically forming a strong partnership based on a shared creative vision and approach to documentary was invaluable in getting The Providers off the ground."

Sasha Neulinger, Rewind"Telling impactful stories requires being real with those around you, and most importantly, it requires being real with yourself. I think honesty is imperative if you are looking to make an impact with your documentary. With honesty you can’t hide from what’s uncomfortable, and that not only leads to better content, but I think it leads to much more effective collaboration with your team, which is essential."

Sasha Neulinger films himself, for Rewind, his image in camera display and blurred in the background

Sasha Neulinger films himself, for Rewind

Sergio Rapu, Eating Up Easter [Diversity Development Fund]:  "This industry is always changing, now even more than ever before. Ride the waves of change as best you can and look for new opportunities to sharpen your skills and tell the stories you feel are most important. But overall, understand your audience and what you want to say. The film you make will not only compete against other films for your audience’s attention, but also any other media ever created. It’s a daunting task, but as long as you stay true to what you want to say then your audience will listen."

Erika Cohn, The Judge [Open Call], Belly of the Beast [Series and Special Projects; Diversity Development Fund]and In Football We Trust [Open Call]"Rejection is raw and real. Fear is a huge component of that. Our lives as creators, as artists are in constant turmoil...the ebbs and flows, the trials and tribulations, the successes and the failures. For me, the rejections sort of fuel persistence and passion. My advice is to feel assured in who you are, the skills you possess, and your goals for the future...then don't take no for an answer moving forward, no matter how many times you have to hear it." 

Alice Gu, The Donut King: "Practice your craft any chance you can. We have so many ways to just get out and get creative—start shooting! Find your creative allies and help one another. It takes a village."

Treva Wurmfeld, Conscience Point [Series & Special Projects]: "Be thoughtful about who you chose to work with; make sure they are in it for the same reasons you are."

Treva Wurmfield while making Conscience Point, in conversation with her main subject while at a table

Treva Wurmfield while making Conscience Point

Hao Wu, People's Republic of Desire [Series and Special Projects; Diversity Development Fund]: "Think outside of the box. Find stories that are refreshing, that have been untold, and that challenge the way we normally look at the world."

Chico Colvard, Black Memorabilia [Series and Special Projects]: "Apply yourself, be disciplined and approach the craft of filmmaking like a business. Having a good story idea is necessary to carving out a path in film, but not sufficient. Paying attention to the non-sexy side of filmmaking (research, writing, accounting, technical and political) is essential to shepherding a good story across the finish line.

"To launch a project, I strongly believe in bringing on a key advisor, as soon as possible. This requires a strong topic summary and [a] clear understanding of your aesthetic approach. With a key advisor on board and strong treatment, you should be in a good position to apply for grants. I encourage dedicating 1-2 hours a day to this endeavor—treat it like going to the gym, yoga in the morning or drinking at night."

Stanley Nelson, The Black PanthersTell Them We Are Rising, and A Place of Their Own [all Series and Special Projects]: "Make sure you learn the equipment. Now more than ever filmmakers have access to a wide array of cameras, lights, mics, and other items. There are tons of editing programs from Premiere to Final Cut Pro to AVID and beyond. Filmmaking is a real craft and the more knowledgeable you are about the tools of the trade, the stronger your work will be."

Stanley Nelson interviewing Kathleen Cleaver for Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution

Stanley Nelson interviewing Kathleen Cleaver for Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution

John Scheinfeld, Chasing Trane: "Documentary filmmaking is a noble profession. It is capable of nurturing your soul, challenging your intellect, and touching your heart. It doesn’t pay nearly as well as film or prime time TV, so as you’ll be spending months or years on a project, you’d best be passionate about your subject and do right by it."

Nanfu Wang, I Am Another You and One Child Nation [Series and Special Projects]: "Making independent films require perseverance. There will be many obstacles at every stage of filmmaking, but it’s always possible if one can be brave enough to make the first step and then be determined to finish it."

Shaleece Haas, Real Boy  [Open Call]:  "Don’t do it alone. Filmmaking is challenging work and the process can be both exhilarating and heartbreaking. Connect with your community of fellow filmmakers, especially those whose style and approach resonate with you. Support other filmmakers whenever possible and seek out colleagues and mentors who can share their own experience."

Alex Jablonski, Wildland [Diversity Development Fund]: "Make a lot of work. For the first big stretch of your career, you should focus on quantity over quality, obviously try to make good work, but the only way you’ll get there is by making a lot of work and trying a lot of different things. Also, watch a lot of movies. [Co-director] Kahlil [Hudson] and I both teach filmmaking and I can tell if a student has the potential to be a strong filmmaker simply by getting a sense of how broad their movie-watching is."

Alex Jablonski filming Wildland while wearing firefighter gear alongside fire crew, and looking through camera

Alex Jablonski filming Wildland (from Alex's Instagram, 2018)

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, 9to5: The Story of a Movement: "Look for stories only you can tell. Be patient. Seek help. Do not rush the editing process. Ask for feedback on your cuts."

Jennifer Kroot, Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin"Get lots of hard drives and back up your footage at least 2-3 times. Also, don’t skimp on sound recording. Bad sound ruins any image." 

Andrés Caballero and Sofian Khan, The Interpreters [Open Call]: "If you have an idea, go for it now, don’t sit on it for too long. One door will lead to another and before you know it you are in the middle of production and hopefully with funding to focus all your energy on it."


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