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Hot Docs: 9 Tips On How To Make Your First Documentary

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire April 30, 2014 at 3:41PM

Not sure how to get started with your first documentary? At Hot Docs 2014, Academy-Award nominated documentary director Marshall Curry led a panel of documentary directors discussing how they got their start.
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Director Marshall Curry
[Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute] Director Marshall Curry

You've got a great story idea for a documentary, but aren't sure how to pursue it. Today at Hot Docs in Toronto, Academy-Award nominated documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry, who is at Hot Docs with his latest project "Point and Shoot," moderated a panel discussion featuring first-time filmmakers with films screening at Hot Docs: Amar Wala ("The Secret Trial 5,") William Westaway ("Writer With No Hands") and Clare Young ("From the Bottom of the Lake"). 

While the focus of the panel was on creative and funding challenges, Curry steered the discussion to provide helpful hints for aspiring documentary directors in the audience wondering how they can get their project off the ground.

Here are 9 Tips for First-Time Filmmakers:

1. Hire People Who Are In the Same Position As You Are.

"The Secret Trial 5"
"The Secret Trial 5"

"When you're a first-time filmmaker, you have to find people for the various craft positions who are in the same position you are in, who are trying to make a name for themselves. You have to take the time to find talented people who are at the same position in their career as you are in your career because it's hopefully mutually beneficial in the longterm." -- Amar Wala ("The Secret Trial 5")

2. Find a Supportive Community at Film Festivals and Other Industry Events.

"Film festivals are a great way to find that community - especially documentary film festivals. I went to Full Frame when I was first starting out, and Hot Docs is also one where you can go up to people and talk to them and ask them for advice. To some extent, it's unique to the documentary world. If you go to Sundance, which is a great festival, it's not the same as a documentary festival. There's something special about the kinds of people who make documentaries compared to some of people who make fiction films.  In fiction film, there are all of these byproducts that attract the wolves - glamour and money - none of which apply to the documentary world. There are no supermodels and cocaine in our world. The people who make documentaries like documentaries and are curious about other people and just like to help." -- Marshall Curry ("Point and Shoot")

Read More: Advice from the Masters on Finding Your Documentary Voice

3. Accept That The Process is Going to Be Difficult…and Then Try to Enjoy It.

"I didn't really enjoy any part of the process… there's moments in a shoot or if you have a really good editing day, those are the things that keep you going. For the most part, it sucks. Part of it is you're going through the process for the first time, you just think you're the worst filmmaker on the planet and everyone is going to hate you. [...] It's okay to think you suck when you're making a movie. I think we have to learn to enjoy the process. You spend so long making it, if you don't enjoy that part too, it's going to be hard to keep making it. I have to learn to embrace the craziness and enjoy the actual process more." -- Amar Wala

4. Be Open to Feedback, but Be Clear In Your Own Vision.

"It's great to get feedback, but you're constantly questioning your own choices. You've got to be clear about 'what is my vision? what are my intentions?'  -- Clare Young ("From the Bottom of The Lake")

"We had no investors, so there was no risk. I've got loads of credit cards and loads of debt. I'm worse than poor. I'm in debt."

5. Find Mentors.

"It's really important to have mentors who have been doing this for a while who you can bounce ideas off of. It's very easy to make mistakes on things (like insurance). We thought 'we're never going to come out with Hot Docs with a massive money deal, but we will come out of it with friends and support and people who can help us.'" -- Amar Wala

"Working with Jane Campion was an opportunity to learn from a filmmaker who I admired." -- Clare Young

Read More: The Keys to a Successful Documentary Pitch at Hot Docs Forum 2014

6. Don't Let Self-Doubt Get To You.

"I remember I was sitting in my apartment with the manual for Final Cut Pro, and my mom would call and say, 'So... how's it going...?' And she's wondering, 'You didn't go to film school. As far as I know, you have no idea what you're doing.'  And that was hard.  As everyone knows, every film is terrible until it's good, and most of the time-- until the end-- it's terrible. I was mostly driven by a fear of death. I decided, though, that I'm not going to assess it or judge this process until I have finished it. Once I finish this movie, I'll ask, "Was that fun? Was it something I'm good at? Is this a viable career?" But I'm not going to ask those questions until then because I'd go down a rabbit hole….Every single film I have ever worked on had those moments where I thought, 'Why did I pitch this? Why did I pursue this?' On your first film, you don't know that's part of the process." -- Marshall Curry

7. Don't Wait Until You Have Funding -- As a First-Time Director, It Likely Won't Happen.

"We had no investors, so there was no risk. I've got loads of credit cards and loads of debt. I'm worse than poor. I'm in debt... In between filming, I was dong corporate work which enabled me to do it. -- William Westaway ("Writer With No Hands")

8. Funding Is Great, But It Can Complicate Things.

"I was employed through the production as Jane Campion's assistant. After the shoot was over, I had all this footage, I showed it to Jane and we applied to funding….It changes things. It starts out being your idea and then all of the sudden, you've got all these stakeholders on board and deadlines and expectations. Whilst it's wonderful to have a little bit of money to make a film, it does change the environment. Autonomy is very wonderful - especially when you're starting out and finding your voice as a filmmaker. it's wonderful to have funding -- and I'm very grateful -- but there are challenges both ways." -- Clare Young

9. Stop Making Excuses. Just Do It.

"I was always focused on writing and storytelling and wanting to be director…in order to prove you're a filmmaker, you've got to make a film." -- Amar Wala

"I always loved documentaries, but it seemed like something other people could do - like playing professional football. It wasn't until I turned 30 where I thought here's this thing I always wanted to do. I don't know if I can do it, but I don't want to be 90 and look back on my life and think 'too bad I never tried to do that documentary film thing. So I bought a camera, found a story that was interesting and just started shooting. To me, that kind of leap just completely changed the trajectory of my life." -- Marshall Curry

This article is related to: Hot Docs , Hot Docs, Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Marshall Curry





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