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Five for Filmmaking: A Quintet of Documentarians Discuss Career and Life Choices

By Suz Curtis

Making a documentary film often requires years of effort, with no certainty of profit upon completion. With the abundance of affordable technology and proliferation of online platforms, anyone can make and share a film, so funding and distribution are more competitive than ever.

What's a filmmaker to do? Is a "career" in documentary film even possible? If so, do any proven strategies exist to support the leap from aspirant to professional?

The 2014 GETTING REAL Documentary Film Conference will give the community an opportunity to explore these questions together, sharing experiences and solutions to challenges faced by filmmakers at every stage of their careers.

To begin the discussion, Documentary asked five established filmmakers to share their hard-earned wisdom, success stories and practical tips about forging and sustaining a filmmaker's life. These five are:

Joe Berlinger (Brothers Keeper, Paradise Lost) is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning, Academy Award-nominated director. He also directs commercials and Web content for corporate clients, through He lives in upstate New York.

Julia Reichert (A Lion in the House, Seeing Red) and Steven Bognar (The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, A Lion in the House) are Academy Award-nominated, Emmy Award-winning filmmakers, and are life partners. They teach at Wright State University and are based in Dayton, Ohio.

Nina Gilden Seavey (The Matador, 4th and Goal) is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and the director of The Documentary Center in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda, Music by Prudence) is an Academy Award-winning director/producer. He has also worked in broadcast journalism and has produced numerous television specials. He lives in upstate New York.


Documentary: What does it mean to have a career in documentary film? What does it take?

Steven Bognar: The best way to have a career in documentary is to make great films. That sounds so obvious, but it needs to be said. If you are going to make a documentary about a subject you care passionately about, you cannot let it out into the world until it is as good as it can be. You find trusted allies who are willing to be brutally honest with you. You shoot more. You re-edit. You need to be ruthless about making it a good movie. And that will allow you to then raise support for the next movie. 

Joe Berlinger: On one hand, it's easier than ever to make a film; on the other hand, it's harder than ever to sustain a career. 

Julia Reichert: I never think I "have a career" in making films. It's just the life I live and what I do.

Roger Ross Williams: I think it is impossible to sustain a career in documentary if you don't have something else that's supplemented by corporate videos, commercials, whatever it is. 

Nina Gilden Seavey: You have to find something other than the completion of a film that defines success—career satisfaction, life success—in ways that are outside just the one narrow goal of finishing a film. 


D: If great work is the career priority, what is your approach to making films?

NGS: Technology suggests that anybody can be a director. It defies the notion that this is a journey and that the more you practice—like with an instrument—the better you're going to get. The technology does not drive creativity. Rather, creativity drives the use of technology. Make the film that is in your heart. Ask yourself, "What is it that I have to say?"

JB: Films have a life of their own and can change; you should not lock yourself into a preconceived notion of what your films should be—just as I didn't lock myself into a preconceived notion of what my career was going to be. The greatest example for me is Paradise Lost. We went down to cover three bad teenagers and that's what was being reported. We got down there a week after the arrest, and to everyone it was a foregone conclusion that these guys were guilty. Had we locked into that preconceived idea and not understood what the actual story was, that these guys had been wrongly arrested—that's been my beacon: You have to stay open to what the story is, so you can discover the real opportunity. 

JR: Every time I start, it's like a whole new ballgame. There are so many things to learn. You know some basics. You're like 20 again, every time you start a film.

SB: You never get to a point where you've got it down and where it's easy. Any good movie is hard-earned through hard work. Epiphanies are the result of many hours of small acts of work.


D: What moments or lessons during your career's "emergent" phase feel most significant now?

RRW: When I was named a Sundance Fellow and got a development grant, they had those sort of speed-dating meetings (with funders). Every single person I would pitch to would say, "You're so passionate!" The funders recognize that. Even places you're afraid to explore within yourself:  That's where you're going to get the most passionate work. 

SB: When you're younger, in your 20s and 30s, you've really got to prove that you've got what it takes. I think for a lot of us, that means you're really hungry. Everything is about the film. And everything, like life, relationships, takes a back seat. It's all about getting established, getting your name out there. Or making a film that is going to be seen or will have an impact on the world. 

NGS: Before I had children and a family, I was on the road all the time. I was always in production in network news. I made a decision, which I made even before I had a husband: I knew that I didn't want that life for a family. I began to think of filmmaking, rather than the news. When my kids were really little, I worked on other people's films. I did a lot of things that didn't have my name on it. 

JR: For us, the few times we've done work because people asked us to do something, and we were paid for it, over all, those were not happy experiences. Not that the films or work didn't turn out well, but it felt too compromised. 

RRW: Leaving my day job was life-transforming. And when I broke free and took the risk, and went out on my own and made my first independent documentary, it was terrifying. But it was incredibly liberating. And I realized that I was much more creative than I even thought. I could push myself creatively so much more than I even realized when I was free from the sort of constraint of being under that corporate or mainstream media umbrella.


D: Most documentary filmmakers require day jobs to survive. How do you approach fulfilling a client's vision while staying true to yourself as an artist?

RRW: I have to feel passionate about it, even if it's a job for hire. If it is something I'm not interested in, I won't do it. You have to have some other way of supporting yourself. I'll do the occasional corporate job, creating short content for corporations. I also have a wedding business, believe it or not. I have a farm in the Catskills, in upstate New York. And I rent my barn for weddings. Barn weddings are really hot. And that's how I pay to live, really. If I didn't have that, I don't know how I would survive.

JB: I have two hats I can put on: Film, which I'm passionate about from the story or messaging standpoint. But when I do commercials or corporate assignments, then it's about wanting to do the best job possible, wanting to serve the clients and help them realize their vision and doing the best I can, as opposed to pulling off my vision. It's about serving a client's vision, and you have to be comfortable with that. It's a very different head from making your own film. It doesn't mean you roll over; you fight for what you believe in, but up to a point. You're there to execute their vision. 


D: Documentary filmmakers may face unpredictable schedules and employment as freelance artists. What lifestyle advice would you offer?

SB: Keeping your monthly cost of living low gives you flexibility and mobility. If you want to make a movie, flexibility is a huge part of it. The ability to not go to work that day, or call off work, or to move or travel. And if you're riddled with debt, it's tough.

JR: It also is important to know what your money stream is going to be. It may not be film always. For us, that meant, "How are we going to get health insurance?" If you want to have a family, a whole new set of issues is raised for you. "How are you going to have a stable income? How are you going to keep a roof overhead and keep food on the table?" A lot of documentary filmmakers also teach. Some do work like titling, special effects or editing. But you can keep that pretty close to what you love.

D: Do you have to live in New York or Los Angeles to maintain a career?

JR: Someone from the Midwest might have something different to say. Two minutes from our house are farmers, and factories that have gone fallow. We intersect with all different kinds of people in our life. We're not just hanging out with filmmakers all the time. Yes, the networking, especially when you're getting started, is a little harder if you're not in New York or Los Angeles. But you can also spend a lot of time chasing funders and chasing meetings and going to parties instead of doing your work. 

D: How do you balance a family and the volume of work on your plate?

NGS: I'm not going to have three films in production, because that doesn't fit my lifestyle. I'm not going to have a film in pre-production, production and post. A lot of filmmakers try to do that, to have things constantly that are at various stages in the pipeline. Well, that's not possible for me because I have other goals in my life. Sometimes you're making decisions that have a more holistic bent that might lead you to an immediate decision that seems not advantageous to your professional life but is very advantageous to your sort of life as a whole. If you're good, you can come and go as much as you want. I'm not worried about stepping back. I worry about being good.


D: Filmmakers often work in small groups, or even isolation, depending on which phase the film is in. How do you find peers and collaborators?

RRW: I just spent the last year and a half going to 30 film festivals all over the world. There is a sense of community. For me, it's great because I want to hear what everyone else is doing and see the work they're doing, but I also want to look for potential collaborators. I look at people's work and say, "Wow, this is really amazing." I'd like to look at this person's work and see what they're doing. It's about being out there in the community and seeing with whom you click and who's doing work that you like. 

JR: Film festivals are great networking opportunities. Always go. But hang with other filmmakers. Use that as an opportunity to do what you do. If you go to Sundance, sometimes people say, "You've got to meet all the distributors or all the publicists." All that. Well, in the long run, who is your community? Your community is other filmmakers.


D: Sustaining a documentary career requires patience, stamina and focus. What keeps you going?

RRW: I think about the power of documentary and all the people who will be helped and enlightened, and the dialogue that will come out of the work. And that really empowers me to jump into the fire and overcome the fear. It does work. If you really are passionate, and you really want to believe and are passionate about the story you want to tell, that will reflect itself in the work. It will pay off. And you'll get to the point where someone will believe in your passion. They'll notice it. And they will get behind it and join you creatively, finance you, and it actually works. Because I'm a testament to that. 

Suzanne Curtis Campbell is a Los Angeles-based writer, currently working toward her MFA in screenwriting at the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television. She has worked with Ladylike Films on the award-winning documentaries Somewhere Between and Code Black, and on PBS' Makers.