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1. Convince your subject that your “film is not about sitting down and doing another interview.”
Jessica Edwards, first-time director of “Mavis,” the documentary about legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples, attributes this single bit of advice to making her film happen in the first place. Edwards explained that Staples got on board with the film because she Edwards made it clear she would have the space she wanted to talk about something important to her: her family’s legacy and their ties to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Edwards added that Mavis’ stories about “performing with Curtis Mayfield and making out with Bob Dylan” were legendary vignettes that added color to a much broader story.
2. Forget the “Wikipedia personal history.”
Edwards’ biggest worry while shooting was that she was telling the world about everything Mavis. “Early on, I had great anxiety about including all these things in the movie and all of these bullet-point Wikipedia-style checkpoints until I just got back to the feeling she made me feel performing in a park in summer at night and just the beautiful wave of happiness that washed over me.” If Edwards could give a piece of advice to all music documentary filmmakers, it would be to make a story about highlights of the musician’s history rather than a comprehensive historical documentary.
3. Make sure you’ve got the sound work down.
“Do your sound work first so that you can have a blank canvas to embellish,” said Brett Morgen, director of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” Morgen said that especially on his last documentaries, he’s concentrated on the significance of sound and then picture. While he admitted that there is a crucial marriage between the two, he said he finds that directors often forget sound’s importance on evoking tone and transition. “‘Montage of Heck’ easily had 16 layered tracks in any given scene that didn’t even focus on Kurt playing,” said Morgen.
4. Re-imagine what music documentaries can be.
Julia Nottingham, the director of feature documentary slate at London-based Pulse Films and producer of “20,000 Days on Earth” and “The Possibilities are Endless” outlined what Pulse looks for in film pitches: “There’s improvisation, there’s actors, really having fun with the form, and we never ever let story dictate form,” she said. “Make them cinematic.”
5. Develop a relationship and build trust with the artist you’re filming.
Nottingham described how Edward Lovelace and James Hall, the directors of “The Possibilities are Endless,” about lyricist Edwin Collins, viewed the film as a labor of love. They were fans of Collins in the band “Orange Juice” at university, and “they’d always had an eye on him… and then they heard his album, ‘Losing Sleep’ and they were so overwhelmed by what they heard in relation to what they’d read had taken place in his life… and they worked up a friendship for two years before even filming.”
6. Find yourself a great character.
“If you’re looking for something cinematic, you need a great character,” Paul Lee Viragh, screenwriter and executive producer on the Ian Dury biopic, “Sex Drugs & Rock and Roll.” “If you’re looking for an emotional story in a documentary and a piece of drama, you’re looking for some emotional connection. It isn’t just about the persona of an icon.”
7. But your character doesn’t need to be sympathetic.
“You don’t need to have a sympathetic character,” said Viragh, who added that Dury is considered to be the grumpiest musician alive. Viragh initially had trouble pitching his film because of speculation as to how he would access Dury emotionally. His response? “Mary Poppins wasn’t a sympathetic character, was she?”
8. Keep in mind that you’ve got to be in it for the long haul – and it won’t be easy.
“It’s simply hard finding an audience,” said Chris Wilson, director of BBC music documentaries including “Hotel California – LA from the Byrds to the Eagles” and “I Killed John Lennon.” Wilson said that the disheartening truth is that odds are that your film might never be seen by the masses. You have to decide whether it might work on television or is intended for theaters.