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'The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making': Commitment Trumps All

By Cynthia Close

The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making
Published by Praeger from the collections of ABC-CLIO 2012
By Jeffrey Friedman, Robert Epstein and Sharon Wood
239 pages

Great filmmakers don't necessarily make for great authors or teachers of their craft, but in the case of The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making, Jeffrey Friedman, Robert Epstein and Sharon Wood manage to bring all their expertise as award-winning filmmakers and weave it, seamlessly, into this excellent and practical guide to documentary-making. If you were unaware of Friedman and Epstein's pioneering contributions to gay identity and history through films starting with the Academy Award-winning The Times of Harvey Milk (1984; directed and produced by Epstein), moving on to Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (1989), then the groundbreaking study of gay stereotypes in Hollywood movies, The Celluloid Closet (1995), followed five years later by the deeply unsettling Sundance award-winning Paragraph 175, by the book's conclusion, you will feel as though you have experienced all the ups and downs in this complex process of moviemaking right alongside some of the best in the business. (Wood was one of the writers on the latter two films; her writing credits also include the Academy Award-nominated films Super Chief: The Life And Legacy Of Earl Warren [1989], Straight From The Heart [1994] and Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press [1996].)


Artwork from Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein's The Celluloid Closet, written by Sharon Wood. Courtesy of Telling Pictures

The filmmakers' decision to include in the book their more experimental 2010 film Howl, honoring the 50th anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginsberg's poem of the same name, allowed them to, as stated by Epstein, "transition from documentary to scripted narrative using a lot of documentary techniques." This was a great way to segue from all the traditional aspects of doc filmmaking up to the fusion of genres, often practiced by the next generation of filmmakers (those most likely to read this book) that we are seeing more of every day.

The hardcover version that I was lucky enough to review was well designed, following what I consider the most logical structure for a book conceived of as a "How To" manual for making nonfiction films. Organized to mimic the actual step-by-step process in bringing a film to life permits the information to build organically and logically from "Part One: Development," to "Part Two: Pre-production," to "Part Three: Production" and wrapping it all up in "Part Four: Post-production," which also includes advice on launching your film and all the vagaries inherent in distribution today. Having taught many workshops on the business of documentary film, I have found this way of presenting my material most effective. I was also pleased to see that when photographs were used, they were clear, good quality reproductions, an area surprisingly neglected in most other books I've reviewed covering filmmaking techniques.

There are plenty of books on the mechanics of filmmaking, but as evidenced immediately in Chapter One these author/filmmakers explore, in depth, the answers to some frequently ignored questions such as, "Where do documentary ideas come from?" In the section titled "The Idea," we are told that "Documentaries emerge from the world around us." This may seem obvious, but to illustrate this rather broad notion, the filmmakers take us back to 1986, when they happened to be in Washington, DC, to witness the first unfolding of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. When there, filmmaker Peter Adair, a mentor and friend, said to Friedman and Epstein, "Someone should make a movie about this." That was all that it took to set them on their journey that resulted in Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. For me, this section on dealing with the genesis, quality (What makes a good idea for a documentary?) and fundability of an idea, as well as the "worthiness" of the idea is perhaps the most valuable part of the book. So many potential filmmakers never get past the notion of "I want to make a movie about..." without ever asking themselves why, and figuring out if there may or may not be an audience for such a film, only to find out at the end, after months and sometimes years of effort and money, that the idea was simply not worth spending their energy and time on.


From Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein's 1989 film Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Courtesy of Telling Pictures

In each section the filmmakers use their own work as valuable case studies to either prove their points when things went as planned, or, more often, to illustrate how they managed to deal with adversity, persevere and find success at the end. The book is full of sage advice such as, "A very large part of producing and making films in general is talking people into things--convincing your subjects, your funders and your crew that you are trustworthy and that your project is worthwhile." If you have difficulty in the art of persuasion, you should perhaps rethink your career, or work with a partner who does possess those skills.

A thread that runs through the book is the necessity for your absolute commitment to making your film--which, as the authors point out, "comes through when you pitch it to funders and collaborators, and keeps you going during hard times, as well as a willingness to adapt your concept to the circumstances in which you find yourself."  Another strength of the book is in giving you a clear path to follow to make the transitions from one stage of the process to the next. Once you have convinced yourself that the idea "has legs," the next thing is to gain entry into the world that your subject occupies, whether it's a historical event or a situation that unfolds as you film it. The best way to do this is through thorough research: "Read everything, talk to everyone (within reason)," the authors advise. One thing that this chapter points out is the fact that different types of films call for different approaches to research--. an aspect of the filmmaking process that I had not considered before. Rights and licenses are also covered in this section, and sample contracts such as on camera release forms and deal memos are included in the appendix.


From Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein's 2000 film Paragraph 175, written by Sharon Wood. Courtesy of Telling Pictures

The authors also delve into such subjects as writing for film, storytelling strategies, defining style, developing proposals and budgets. At the end of each chapter there is a comprehensive conclusion and summary, reinforcing the basic concepts that you discovered by reading the case studies, and pithy advice that went before. This book is the best example I've seen of truly combining the "Art" side of filmmaking with the more pedestrian "How To" side. While both are important, the authors leave us with the thought that commitment trumps all: "If commitment is there, with perseverance, blind faith, commitment to craft, and direct, honest storytelling, you can make your dream a reality." 

Cynthia Close is the former President of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.