NOTE: Stanley Nelson’s acclaimed new documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” will begin its theatrical run at Film Forum in NYC this Wednesday, September 2, with a national roll-out to follow. In this installment of Shadow And Act’s “Frame By Frame” series, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Laurens Grant, who produced ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” discusses the process of research, cold calls, and funding for historical documentaries.
The Hunt for Red
October / The Hunt for Archives
Working with archival documentaries often feels like
searching for a needle in a haystack. I hear countless stories of how local
news stations threw out film footage because there were no funds to preserve it
or retain an archivist. Or how local libraries don’t have the funds to preserve
local artifacts. The amount of material that has been lost over the decades is
But there are treasures that remain out there and they are
bountiful, and that is where the excitement and good detective work come in.
Working the phones is probably the best way to find archival material.
Working on premium historical documentaries is a joy, but
also the pressure is great to find something new or rare or unique or all of
the above. People spend years raising funds for these films and if you have
high expectations for yourself, on top of working with A-list filmmakers such
as Stanley Nelson and broadcasters like PBS, this really demands such tenacity
and an ability to not give up.
There is a fable that we chase in the historical documentary
world: the story of someone who found a hidden box of footage in a closet or
attic and the film was magically saved. Of course, that doesn’t exactly happen
but I’ve come close.
I find some of my best clues are in books or news articles
from the era in which I’m working. Reporters’ interviews often include names,
dates, ages and locations, and photographs often accompany these articles. So
you’ve got the blueprint for a great search right there. And government
documents – trial transcripts, county records, maps, legal briefs and FBI
documents to name a few – also include lots of clues.
Riders,” we did a lot of research and author Raymond Arsenault also
opened up his thousands of pages of research to us. And among the pages of
research was an FBI document that mentioned how some FBI agents confiscated for
evidence a man’s camera who had been filming his son’s birthday party, and then
heard a ruckus outside, and ended up filming the freedom riders’ bus on fire.
I tracked down the family but the man had died and his
family no longer had the film. So I submitted a FOIA request with the FBI. Some
nine months later, I’ll never forget when I learned that FedEx delivered the
package. I was literally in knots. I imagined shaky cam amateur footage: shots
of bus wheels or the sky or shots of grass, after waiting nearly a year for the
package to arrive. When we discovered it was footage of the bus on fire that
had not been seen in nearly 50 years, that was an incredible moment.
For “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the
Revolution,” it wasn’t just one source that was a gem, but multiple. It
was literally a global search for every second. For one scene, there was a
pioneering morning talk show that had interviewed Huey Newton and Eldridge
Cleaver nearly 50 years ago. I tracked down the host of the show but he no
longer had any footage. And neither did the station, nor his producer. But
after digging, I found an early clip of the show. Someone approached director
Stanley Nelson after a speaking engagement and gave him some “old”
footage which turned out to be shots of Eldridge in Algeria calling into the
same talk show, and a former Panther also had an audio recording. I won’t spoil
the details of the scene, but with all of these seemingly random bits, we were
able to put together a riveting scene.
I also found photographers and cinematographers who filmed
Panthers throughout various stages of the movement. Some are well known but
many haven’t had their work seen in decades. To me, they form part of the
post-World War II generation of photographers who captured a unique and
riveting time in American history.
Every second counts in historical documentaries. And with
each frame, you can literally recover history and make a great film.
The Cold Call /
I think my journalism background was a great training ground
for “the cold call.” One of my first jobs as a rookie reporter after
graduating from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was
writing obituaries or what we call in the news biz: OBITs. I had to call family
members who had just lost a loved one, get quotes and write an article.
It was one of the most painful times in someone’s life and
here comes a reporter calling. Understandably, most family members are not
happy to hear from a reporter during their moment of grief. But that taught me
to get straight to the purpose of my call, and how to listen. Sometimes people
would be angry and yell or break down and cry. My editors weren’t interested in
excuses; I had to deliver copy. So I had to learn how to speak to people – or
keep quiet and listen – during very emotional moments.
These experiences gave me an interesting blend of toughness
but also empathy. And quite frankly, people are interesting. Both the people
who left their mark and the survivors they left behind.
Since I’ve worked on historical documentaries about
turbulent times in American history, I have found that these skills have really
come in handy, especially since many people do not want to talk to me.
Some people ask, do I leave messages if they don’t pick up? I
do leave messages with the basics of the importance of the call but I also feel
it’s important for people to hear your voice. Sometimes I’ve left half a dozen
messages before a person has called me back. They could be traveling, busy or
not yet ready to talk. Instead of guessing, I just continue to call. And once a
man said he returned my call because he was “in love with my voice.”
It doesn’t always go that well. I’ve also been called so
many names: bulldog; tenacious; relentless; nuclear weapon; but also graceful
under fire. I accept them all as complements. But of course, if people do not
want to speak to me – I respect that and move on.
Show Me The Money / I
Wish I Could
I wish I had an easy answer for funding. In today’s
marketplace, I think it’s both easier and harder. I think the best advice is to
keep your day job, or look for one. It’s hard to raise funds for films and even
harder to make a living while doing so.
Yes, we now have Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding
sources, but it really does take an army to run a successful campaign,
especially if you’re trying to raise a decent chunk of change. And you need
some secret weapons. [Spoiler alert:] Many filmmakers who’ve had successful campaigns have already
identified a list of their funders ahead of time and saved the bigger donors
until the last days of their campaign.
But no matter your fundraising journey, everything takes a
plan, whether you’re approaching equity investors, launching a crowdfunding
campaign, asking friends and family, applying for grants or approaching
broadcasters. It takes a lot of long hours and you will most likely get a lot
of no’s before a yes. But let that make you more resilient. I look at it as a
dare: Oh, yeah?? Watch me.
A long time ago, a documentary filmmaker told me it would
take an average of five years to complete a documentary – how prescient. So the
first step in this long journey is your subject: is it something you really
want to live with for that long? And spend many heartbreaking hours trying to
raise cash for it? And what do you want to say that’s different?
Once you’ve answered some of those basic yet compelling
questions, then it’s time for what I call the battle plan. Identify key
benchmarks and give yourself deadlines to meet them. When feeling overwhelmed,
I take a deep breath and reassess what I’ve done and where I still have to go:
Research and treatment; who will you interview or talk to; shooting the
trailer; editing it; who do you want to see your trailer in order to raise
funds? How much time and resources do you need to reach rough cut; and where do
you want to show the final film? It sounds obvious, but you’ll be constantly
asked these questions because – shock – people will not just give you money.
You need to prove why you and your project are worthy. And there is a long line
ahead of you.
Broadcasters are the number one funders of documentaries,
including blue chips PBS, HBO, and Showtime. But now streaming services and
other newer channels are getting in the game. So that’s good news for content
makers but also harder because they often turn to similar or “trusted”
veteran filmmakers in order to fill their time slots and assuage any fears from
their higher ups.
For first-time filmmakers, think about partnering with a
more experienced filmmaker. And if you can convince that person to come on
board, then you’re doing ok and can take those arguments and tools to convince funders.
Above all, get busy, and don’t give up.