Filmmaker and editor Jill Beardsworth gives Film Ireland some personal insight into making documentaries.
Coming up with any number of tips on documentary making is a tricky task, as it is such a dynamic medium to work in, where boundaries are constantly shifting and the genre ever evolving. Almost every tip you give has a counter tip that is just as valid. However, here are some guidelines from my experience making documentaries, both shorts and features:
It might seem obvious but the initial idea is key. Work on your idea and then work on it again and then do another bit of work on it. Think of why it is relevant and why it should be made now, or ever. Why should it be you who tells this story? Why should somebody want to watch it? And what do you want them to leave the cinema with? These are all questions that you should be asking yourself at the idea development stage. You have to be a little bit ruthless with yourself at this part of the process and really, it is worth the cruelty.
Proposal writing and pitching are like the dark arts of documentary making, and if you want to make films and get paid to do it or get anybody to invest in, or fund, your film, you are going to have to master them. Practice pitching your idea to your friends in the pub, your Mum, your neighbour – anybody who will listen. You may be surprised at the challenging questions they come up with. One of the best questions I was asked when describing a documentary that was at the editing stage was “but do you have a point?”
It can be a good idea to bring a prop into a pitching environment. That could be the main character from your film, it could be a piece of fruit, a pair of shoes, a sod of turf, a packet of cornflakes, whatever. It will make you memorable and bring your idea to life for those listening to your pitch.
As for writing proposals, keep it simple, keep it about the film (not about the background story) and stick to whatever word count or guidelines you are given.
Write well and write visually. Be detailed when describing characters, say what they look like, describe a scene with them in it, give a line that they might say. All this brings your documentary to life on the page. Remember you are writing a documentary proposal so write what you will see on the screen, why you will see it and why you should be the one telling this story. Do not be afraid to show your passion (assuming you have it in spades).
Work hard. Learn as much as you can about technical stuff, so you can become as self-reliant as your circumstances require you to be. But don’t get bogged down in it because what you are doing is trying to tell a story with some kind of truth and humanity and that is what is most important, not being an expert in resolutions or software applications.
4.Be open. Trust yourself. Make sure to live life as well as work, as it is here, in the abundant meadow of existence that you will find stories, characters and ideas.
It is important to become as good as you can at listening to, talking to and reading people. Be humble, empathetic and kind. Read the newspaper.
Be ready to adapt. You are dealing with real life when you make a documentary and real life doesn’t stay the same for long, or turn out as you expected, or wait around forever. So it’s important to be able to work with spontaneity and not to be too prescriptive. Have a well worked out plan, but do not be afraid to deviate from it if it feels right for your film. And wear comfortable shoes.
Trust your audience. Spoon-feeding an audience with information, over prescribing how they should feel about an issue, ‘manipulating’ their emotional responses with the likes of music, voice over, etc., is to underestimate your viewers. Present them with something, a story, an idea, a character or situation, and give them the respect to do some work themselves. If they leave your film with questions, that might just be a good thing.
Give lots of time for editing. I believe that all documentaries can really benefit from spending a long time in the edit room. If you can give yourself space to view cuts, leave some time to let things sink in, go back and make changes, watch again and wait, your film will be better crafted as a result.
Get feedback before you finish. I always enjoy this phase of documentary making. When the film is ready to let go to some chosen people to view, but not yet ready for the rest of the world. It’s a twilight period and I look at it as the last chance to listen to questions, suggestions and advice and really consider your film, before you unleash it to the wolves.
Know when to let go. It’s always difficult to know when to finish but sometimes it just has to be done. Over a five-year period I’ve had a death, a birth and a marriage in my life while one feature documentary was being made and it just felt a bit long to have a project around.
When you think it’s all over, it’s not. Keep lots of energy for the arduous task of trying to get your film seen. Endless festival submissions, choosing artwork, organizing a trailer, creating an online life for your film; there’s a lot to do and it can feel like an uphill struggle when you would be forgiven for thinking that the hard work has all been done. Or better still, get a distributor to do it all for you.
Embrace your regrets. They are inevitable but will teach you valuable lessons that you can use for your next film.
And, finally-enjoy it, embrace it and mean it.
Jill Beardsworth is an experienced filmmaker and editor who has made documentaries for RTÉ, TG4 and the Irish Film Board in Belarus, Kosovo, Ireland, India and Syria. Jill has had her films officially selected for several international film festivals and her most recent feature, Apples of Golan, which she co-directed with Keith Walsh, won the Jury Prize at the 2013 Baghdad International Film Festival and was chosen to tour universities of the UK & the US in 2013. Analogue People in the Digital Age, Jill and Keith’s recent short made under the IFB Reality Bites Scheme, is currently touring festivals.