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The Reel School, Part II: Deconstructing the Documentary

The Reel School, Part II: Deconstructing the Documentary

by Liz Mermin

Jonathan Judge founded The Reel School a year ago to teach aspiring
filmmakers what most production courses don’t: the practical realities
of independent filmmaking. The harshest realities were likely to be
found in this fall’s “Deconstructing the Documentary” course, which met
over five consecutive Wednesdays this fall at the Filmmaker’s

By the end of the course, it seemed like the last thing any documentary
filmmaker in their right mind would want to do is deconstruct the
documentary filmmaking process. The truth is just too depressing. “We
don’t want it to be a bitch session,” says Judge. “We all know it’s
hard.” Fortunately, a few valuable tips and interesting anecdotes did
emerge amidst the familiar warnings about dried up funds, endless
production schedules, and a dismal market.

Though classes were structured to take students progressively through
the basic steps of production, each one inevitably wandered into other
stages. The first class, about choosing a subject, was taught by Heather
MacDonald (“Ballot Measure 9”). After leading the class through an
extremely quick history of the American documentary, from Grierson to
DV, MacDonald handed the floor to Rea Tajiri (“History and Memory”) and
Tim Kirkman (“Dear Jesse”), her guest speakers. Most of what they had
to say was about research (Do a lot of it). MacDonald’s description of
the making of “Ballot” was like a parody of the pitfalls of low-budget
verite filmmaking — four months spent logging three hundred hours of
footage, shot by dozens of different camera people, and edited secretly
at night — and by the end of the class, her film (which is powerful and
coherent) seemed like a miracle.

The next class (slightly out of order, due to a scheduling conflict) was
on shooting, and was taught by Doug Block (“Home Page” and “The Heck
with Hollywood!”). Most of his tips about camera work would be familiar
to anyone who has taken a basic production class — hold several seconds
at the beginning and end of any moving shots, don’t make a camera move
unless you know where you want to end up, pay attention to framing. His
most definitive statements were about production and distribution. “All
you need to know about funding is that there is none,” he said. “You’re
going to wind up shooting before you have the funding.” His overall
advice was to buy a digital camera and start shooting.

The fundraising class was taught by Esther Cassidy (“Hearts that Broke
the Sword”). The grant-writing advice was pretty obvious (tailor the
grant to the recipient, send relevant press clippings), but her
demonstration lesson on how to cut a sample tape was more interesting.
Citing her own experience, Cassidy emphasized that real money will only
come your way if you have a big name attached as an executive producer,
consulting producer, or at the very least, member of the advisory team.
The more you pay the big name, Cassidy said, the more seriously funders
will take their attachment. True enough, no doubt, but not the most
helpful advice for people just starting out.

David Van Taylor and Mona Davis (“A Perfect Candidate”) taught the
editing class. They outlined the stages of the editing process, from
transcribing to logging to index cards to fighting over the story to
cutting the film down to length. Van Taylor offered this three-phase
account of the mindset of editing: first, “put it in,” then “less is
more,” and finally, “less is shorter.” Davis argued that documentary
films, or at least verite, are made in the editing, and compared the
editor to a writer who’s vocabulary is the footage. Using clips from
“Candidate,” their film about Oliver North’s senate campaign, they
demonstrated editing cheats and ways to make up for missing cutaways or
create continuity that the footage lacks. Van Taylor, a former assistant
editor, urged the students to listen to their editors: “Frequently the
editor knows a lot more about filmmaking than you do.”

The last class, on distribution, was taught by Jonathan Burman (“My
Friend Paul”). At this point, a lot of basic distribution concerns had
been discussed in previous classes, and by far the most interesting part
of this class was Burman’s reel from “Paul,” a documentary about his
childhood friend who grew up to be a bank robber. Burman’s first piece
of distribution advice was to close your eyes and imagine where you want
to be when the film has it’s premiere: at Sundance? Or in your living
room? He urged people to contact distributors in advance and to bring
on a publicist early, even if its only a friend (so that you aren’t
plugging your own work). He ran through various outlets, including
television, theatrical distributors, and European TV, and said that you
should always get a rental fee for screenings. But ultimately his
message was that you can’t expect documentaries to pay. All through
production, he said, “You feel like you’re always begging for money,”
and things don’t get much better when the film is finished. In the end,
Burman said, “It’s like, get a job!” Maybe that should be the title of
the course.

The most valuable thing about “Deconstructing the Documentary” was
hearing production stories from established documentarians. (Though
three of the highest profile filmmakers were replaced at the last minute
— Jennifer Fox, Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger never showed up.) The
course structure – one week on each major aspect of production —
combined with the wide range of experiences of the students, kept things
at a basic, how-to level. In response to this problem, Judge said, the
Reel School is planning more Master Classes — intensive weekend courses
that bring people together at the same stage of development or
production — and a doc course in that format could be valuable to
people further down the line. “Deconstructing the Documentary” would be
useful to someone thinking about making their first documentary, but it
wouldn’t be enough to prepare them for the process. And it might even
scare them off.

The Reel School is located at 29 Green Street and can be reached at
212.965.9444 ext. 240.

[Liz Mermin is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New
York City.]

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