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The Best Documentary Filmmaking Advice from Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

The Best Documentary Filmmaking Advice from Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival isn’t just a longstanding showcase for the art of nonfiction film. It’s also where the people who make those films gather, and where aspiring documentarians can bend their ears without fighting a crowd. It’s a place where you might sit down to grab a quick bit between films and find Albert Maysles doing the same at the other end of your table, or where you can run into an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who tells you that “Giovanni and the Water Ballet” a half-hour documentary about a 10-year-old boy trying to make it to Holland’s synchronized swimming championships, is the best narrative he’s seen in years, and the next day it wins the festival’s audience award.

READ MORE: Barbara Kopple, D.A. Pennebaker and Other Documentary Filmmakers on the Film Preservation Crisis

The “Give It to Me Straight” panel, which gathered experienced documentary filmmakers to share the wisdom of their long careers, was, in a sense, a mere formalization of Full Frame’s ongoing open exchange: Filmmakers talking to each other with microphones instead of over barbecue and vinegar slaw. It was also like a living version of Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit’s book “Tell Me Something” which tapped documentary legends like Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese for filmmaking tips that tended to double as life advice — advice that, Edwards, who moderated the panel, said, came in handy when making her first feature, “Mavis!” 

As at True/False, Maysles’ spirit was felt all through Full Frame, so Edwards began by asking the panelists — Maysles’ daughter Rebekah, “Black Panthers” director Stanley Nelson and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Marshall Curry, the subject of the festival’s career retrospective — about Maysles’ influence on them and their work. That kicked off a freewheeling discussion in which practical tips and more far-reaching guidance flowed freely. We’ve boiled it down to a few takeaways.

Follow Albert Maysles’ example: Be generous and open, whether with subjects or other filmmakers.

“When he passed away, my mother and I were reading all these articles, and we realized there was something about his generosity and the way he was open with people that’s not replicable,” said Rebekah Maysles. “He was able to be open to anyone, whether that was good or bad. I spent a lot of time trying to push people away a bit that I didn’t think were as good people, but he could always figure out the good part of it.”

Curry recalled how he came to Full Frame before he had ever made a film.” It was the kind festival where you could see D.A. Pennebaker and Al Maysles and go up them and say ‘I like your work’ and start a conversation about it. It was extraordinary for me, and one of the reasons I decided to make documentary films,” said Curry, who went on to tell a story about bringing his infant daughter with him during his first visit to Full Frame. “I was out in the courtyard and started talking with Al, and he picked her up and put her on his lap…. I found that picture recently, and it’s just him looking straight into her eyes, which is exactly what made him an extraordinary person and an extraordinary filmmaker: His ability to talk to anybody and to coax the humanness out of them, and to encourage people who were curious about this work to come on in, the water’s great. See what you think.”

READ MORE: How to Win an Oscar for Best Documentary (Or At Least Try)

Never put the camera down.

Curry said that Maysles gave him great advice: “always point the camera, even when you’re not shooting. If you put the camera down when nothing’s happening and then when something interesting starts to happen you start pointing it again, everybody senses it and it changes the dynamic. But if you’re constantly pointing it at people, even when you’re not rolling, it makes them accustomed to the fact that there’s this piece of glass in the room and a person holding it. People can be on their best behavior for an hour or two, but not for five or six.”

Love the process of making a movie, not just the result. 

“You have to enjoy the journey,” said Stanley Nelson. “That’s something a filmmaker said to me when I was just starting out. That’s the most important thing.”

If you don’t enjoy the steps of the process, you likely won’t be a documentary filmmaker for long. Nelson continued: “What you remember are the moments in shooting, the moments in the edit room, the experiences that you have with people. You can’t remember after a while if you put that shot in the film or not that you’re agonizing over now. There’s no red carpet for us as documentary filmmakers. People aren’t throwing rose petals in front of us as we walk. People don’t say, ‘Come on into this restaurant, we have a seat for you.’ You get so wrapped up in everything about the film, raising the money or this cut or that cut. If you don’t enjoy the journey, the day-to-day parts of making the film, then why are you doing it? I genuinely like making films. That’s what’s sustained me. That’s also what makes your films better. If you like doing it, you’ll want to go that extra mile.”

READ MORE: Making a Living at Documentary Filmmaking is Harder Than Ever. Here’s Why

When is the right time to screen your rough cut? And who should see it first?

“You need to be very idealistic and very wide-eyed when you’re making a film, and when you’re meeting people and you need to encourage your creativity and chase moments that are outside of what you expect,” said Curry. He added: “At a certain point, you have to stop being precious with your material and be cruel and harsh and judgmental, particularly in the editing process. It’s easy to fall in love with your subjects and scenes, and that love is a huge part of what makes it successful, but it’s also important to be cruel, and to get people who aren’t your friends or family to tell you what’s good and what’s not working.”

Nelson said, “We do screenings somewhere between rough and fine cut, five or six people at most, whose opinion I really trust. Some of those tend to be filmmakers, some of them are not filmmakers but just people I think are really smart. I’ll show them the film like it’s finished, we’ll get some takeout food, and have them talk about the film — and try not to talk too in response until the end. One of the things I try to do is wait until I feel like the film is there.”

For “Iris,” Maysles said they did rough-cut screenings. “What was very helpful for us was making sure certain things were clear, but also to see if there was an overall issue. Finding out people’s different questions and issues really helped us figure things out.”

Curry said he does rough-cut screenings, but he also “drags people in front across the hall to spot-check.” He’ll ask: “Is this funny? Do you know what you’re looking at here?”

READ MORE: Full Frame Film Festival to Honor Marshall Curry as 2015 Tribute

When do you let the subject of the film see it?

“I avoid showing it to the characters in the film as much as humanly possible,” said Nelson. “One of the things as filmmakers we all want to think is, ‘They’re gonna love it.’ I think what you have to think about is, What if they hate it? Until you’re ready to show it to them or you contractually have to, you have to think, what if they don’t like it? Then what?”

Masyles said it’s all about timing. “You have to make sure you show to them at the right time, at a point where there’s no going back. You’re open to talking about things, but you’re very strong about it.”

You want to leave yourself time in case you need to make changes, said Curry. “I do show my films to the subjects almost always before it premieres. If you did make a mistake or something’s wrong or out of context, I want to know what with enough time to fix it. But also I reserve the right to make that decision myself,” he explained.

Don’t quit your day job. Or do.

“It’s different for men and women,” said Edwards. “Not quitting your day job is probably a good idea, but hopefully the day job is something inside the documentary world, or informing you as a filmmaker.”

Certainly, having a day job that’s related to filmmaking is beneficial. “If you have a film that takes seven years, you can’t be working on that the whole time. For me, it’s more just ‘Take everything you can.’ If you can, try not have a day job that’s completely different than working on films.”

Of course, everyone has a different path. “One thing to be clear about when you go to these panels is that the advice you get is just the way we did it. Everybody does it in a different way. It might be great for you to quit your day job. It might be the worst thing in the world,” said Nelson, who added that it’s wise to learn to do as many things as you can in the film industry. “There’s no reason why you should not know at least the rudimentaries. It’s important that you learn how to edit, how to do sound, how the camera works — there’s no excuse not to at this point.”

Edwards said that working as a film publicist allowed her to better understand the business. In fact, she was a publicist for Curry’s “If a Tree Falls.” “It taught me so much. I would go to every festival, work with amazing filmmakers, and it taught me everything about the business that I didn’t get in film school. And I was making shorts the whole time,” she said.

Ultimately, Edwards joked that Frederick Wiseman gave the best advice in the book. “It was two words: ‘Marry rich,'” she said.

Watch the full panel below:

READ MORE: 5 Key Takeaways from the Documentary Film Preservation Summit

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