I made my first doc while in film school, and have been doing it ever since.
Documentaries are flavour of the month now – people love real and true life stories. Docs are an easier way for emerging filmmakers to break in as the production costs can be lower than with a narrative film.
I’m now an advisor on the Raindance MA and specialise in docs even though I have made three features. It really pains me to see new filmmakers attempting a documentary and making the same mistake over and over again.
10 Big Mistakes Documentary-Makers Make
1. Making Worthy Films That No-One Cares For
Michael Moore recently reminded us that there’s no harm in making entertaining documentaries that an audience want to watch: “If you want to make a speech, join a political party. If you want to give a sermon become a priest. Make a movie! If you make a movie people might go and see your documentary!” This doesn’t mean that your film should be dumbed down schlock. The Story Of The Weeping Camel (2003) is a documentary set in Mongolia about the creeping influence of modernisation on nomadic life – and yet it’s both intelligent and wonderfully entertaining.
2. Bad Sound
If I had a pound for every first-time documentary-maker who has sunk a load of time and favours into their film only to come up with something that sounded like the audio was recorded inside a sock then I’d have my own yacht by now. Your film can be shot on an old phone and look scrappy (if there’s a creative reason for it) but there is no artistic justification for less than great sound. Ever.
3. A Film With No Question
A great piece of advice to film-makers struggling with their film is – What question are you asking in the process of making it? If you already know the answer to that question when you set out then you don’t have a proper question. A film-maker should set off on a real journey of discovery when they go out to make a film and having a great question that they are answering along the way gives their film dramatic tension aswell as offering the film-maker creative inspiration.
4 No Conflict
Whenever I discover that a film-maker has no conflict in their film then I know that their film is probably going to have problems reaching out to an audience. Conflict doesn’t have to mean a fight between different people – the conflict can be something as innocent as ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as in Oscar winning Man On Wire (2008).
5. Not Having A Great One-Liner
When film-makers struggle to give a succinct and compelling one sentence summary of their film (like you might get in a film festival catalogue) then I know there’s probably trouble ahead. The great thing about coming up with a compelling one-liner is that it helps you discover whether you really have a film (as opposed to a piece for radio) and gives a sense of how you’re going to make it.
6. No Story
When people talk about what they love about their favourite documentaries one of the main things they mention is a great story. This is probably one of the main reasons that people choose to watch a £100,000 documentary at the cinema over a £20 million blockbuster. Concentrating on a story that excites you not only helps give your film much needed structure, but your audience will be eternally grateful for being taken on a dramatic journey rather than being shown a series of unrelenting episodes.
7. Playing It Safe
What do the directors of your favorite documentaries have in common? In all likelihood they didn’t play it safe – they struck out confidentially with a real vision of their film. As Grizzly Man’s editor Joe Bini said: “Too many people nowadays produce films whereas Werner Herzog directs them.” An audience wants films with a personal, distinctive vision and you don’t get that by being one of those play-it-safe directors.
8. Choosing The Wrong Music
Just because you’ve met a composer at a party who has offered to write some music for your doc, the odds are that he or she won’t be right. Your choice of music needs to come from the overall vision that you have of your film and must serve that vision. The wrong music, or just too much music, can kill your film.
9. Not Knowing What You Want Your Audience To Feel
A really useful tip for giving your documentary a distinctive vision is deciding what the main emotion is that you want your audience to ultimately feel – ie. emotionally moved or entertained. Without knowing this, making creative decisions can be hard and is made by guess work or a vague sense of creative instinct rather than from a position of real vision.
10. Complaining About How Hard It Is To Get Finance
As Werner Herzog recently said: “The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film.”