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So You Want To Make a Documentary: Tips From First Time Filmmakers at Hot Docs

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire May 4, 2012 at 11:0AM

So you want to make a documentary? A panel at Hot Docs this week showed just how two team of first time filmmakers did just that. Led by True/False's David Wilson, the panel was essentially a case study of two films -- Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet's "Only The Young," and Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright's "Call Me Kuchu."
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"Call Me Kuchu"

So you want to make a documentary? A panel at Hot Docs this week showed just how two team of first time filmmakers did just that. Led by True/False's David Wilson, the panel was essentially a case study of two films -- Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet's "Only The Young," and Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright's "Call Me Kuchu."

Both docs -- coming off celebrated premieres at other fests (True/False for "Young"; Berlin for "Kuchu") -- are quite different in topic. "Young" depicts three American teenagers -- Garrison, Kevin and Skye -- over their last summer of high school. "Kuchu," meanwhile, is set in Uganda's LGBT community -- focusing primarily on David Kato, a veteran activist who has since been murdered.

But the films have one thing in common: Both are feature film debuts by duos of filmmakers who worked pretty much solely as a team, without very much money. So how did they do it? Here are a few pointers:

You have a film in your head, you want to do this. What's the process?

Tippet: We made a short film before we made this, and it kind of helped us figure out our style. We wanted to shoot everything on tripod, for example. I think with making the short it was a great calling card. We went on to play Sundance and SXSW with it, and it was there we met Derek Waters (the man behind "Drunk History) who decided to help us produce this. We just needed a little bit of money to get our own camera and get sound equipment, and no one really wanted to take a chance. Which was very frustrating -- the pitching process. But then Derek bought us harddrives, and we saved up money and bought our own equipment. At the end of the day, I don't think I'd want to do it any other way. We got to make the movie we wanted to make. No one bothered us about it.

Fairfax Wright: It's funny because in ways our process was very similar [to Tippet and Mims'], and in other ways very different. Part of it was just the urgency of this scenario. We were convinced we'd missed the story. So we just were trying to get all our equipment together. We had very little time. So we divided and conquered. Malika focused on research, and I focus on getting equipment. But we didn't have a chance to talk about style, and we also didn't know each other very well before we went. We knew that we had a lot in common and a mutual respect. But I had no idea what kind of films she liked. We'd never been to a movie together or even talked about movies together. Once we were in Uganda, it was just madness. We were shooting from seven in the morning until like 8pm everyday. And then we'd come back to our hostel and try to ingest all the footage. So that first trip, it was more about content and not so much about style. When we got back and started editing that footage, we had more time to think about things a bit more.

You want to apply for grants. How do you go about that? Do you do it before you start shooting?

Fairfax Wright: When we decided to do this, we were on planes four days later. So we didn't have time to do any of that stuff. But initially because I had all the equipment; it was just harddrives and plane tickets. We used our own money for that. But immediately once we got back we started cutting some scenes and writing to every grant under the sun. It was kind of fortunate because the previous film I'd worked on was about rape in the DRC and that was almost entirely funded by grants. It was kind of the only way I knew, and this was also a big social issue film. I think a lot of people don't realize what a resource those grants can be. Although they are very laborious and difficult to get. It can be kind of a distraction. We spent so much time cutting different trailers for different grants. It's like, this is a human rights grant so we should cut something that reflects that. But on the other hand, it allowed us to continually revisit scenes which is very helpful.

Zouhali-Worrall: I think even though it felt laborious at the time, it all ended up contributing to the edit of the final film.

"Only The Young"
What kind of budget does a film like this have, before the post-production costs?

Mims: Just the expenses of the harddrive and the equipment initially. So probably about $12,000.

Fairfax Wright: We had the expense of 8 round trip plane tickets to Uganda. So probably $12,000 plus another $10,000? We kept expenses down everywhere we could. We had no crew, we took public transit everywhere. Everything was just the cheapest way humanly possible.

What's the advantage to working in teams of two? And working primarily without a crew?

Tippet: Liz and I really wanted to figure out how we could make a movie and tell the story with just two people. So many other people seemed to need a large crew and a big camera and two people to help AC, etc. It seemed like a larger process than I was interested in doing. So we figured out that she could do sound, and we could work with a smaller camera, and do everything double system.

Mims: It was such an intimate way to make a film. We would have never made these kind of relationships with these kids otherwise. They always knew it was just going to be us.

Fairfax Wright: I think that dynamic was very important for us, too. Once we did have another person working with us and it totally changed the dynamic. I didn't like it at all. Although it was easier, I think there was something about the intimacy of it being the two of us day in and day out made all the difference.

Zouhali-Worrall: Although the guy that helped us was very muscly and often wore tank tops just to show his arms. Everyone fancied him. All of the gay community there was obsessed with him. So it kind of helped. I think he still gets chatted up in Facebook by most of them.

So pro-tip, bring really hot crew members to the field with you.

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival continues through Sunday.

This article is related to: Hot Docs , Filmmaker Toolkit