Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself ). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell
Good storytelling is the key to a successful documentary. Whether you are profiling a person, investigating a crime or documenting an event, telling an engaging and thought-provoking story is imperative in order to capture your intended audience. In a short or feature-length documentary, ‘characters’ give a face to the story you are telling. A character can not only be human but an animal, an object, a location, or the filmmaker can choose to be a character in his or her film.
Documentary filmmakers approach their material, and find inspiration and ideas in various ways. The documentary shorts presented at the Tribeca Film Festival were no exception. Joe’s Violin, Mulberry, Starring Austin Pendleton, Taylor and Ultra on the 60s, The Factory and Being a Warhol Superstar and Dead Ringers centered on some element or reflection on New York’s past, delving into themes of chaos, survival, and a glimpse into a life of the city that forever evolves and a time that cannot be forgotten.
After the screening, the filmmakers joined in for a Q&A.
About the Film: Joe’s Violin
A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor donates his violin to an instrument drive, changing the life of a 12-year-old schoolgirl from the Bronx and unexpectedly, his own.
About the Director: Kahane Cooperman is the director/producer of Joe’s Violin’ She has also directed several other documentaries. She is currently the showrunner/executive producer of The New Yorker Presents. Prior to that role, she was a co-executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She began her career at Maysles Films.
Kahane Cooperman talks about Joe’s Violin
Cooperman began by introducing the two subjects of her film who were seated in the audience, the violin owner Joseph Feingold and Brianna.
“The way I got this idea was very simple. My car radio was on and I tuned on the classical radio station WQXR and I heard a promo for their instrument drive; it said donate your instruments and the instruments are going to New York City school kids. They mentioned the donations they already had gotten and one of the instruments was Joseph’s violin. I just thought, I wonder if there’s a story there with this violin and if the student who gets the violin will know the story. I got in touch with the radio station and they allowed me the privilege of pursuing the story and this film is what unfolded. It was a very moving experience. I do love music but I don’t play an instrument. I think music is incredibly powerful but I’m also moved by the idea of how a small gesture can make you dream and change someone’s life. Somehow the idea of this was very compelling to me and that it might play out in the context of this one instrument shared by two people who were born 80 years apart.”
About the Film: Mulberry
This cinematic portrait of Little Italy explores how a working class neighborhood of tenement buildings transformed into the third most expensive zip code in the United States. Part funny, part sad, the film investigates how gentrification and rent control are affecting the neighborhood’s long-term residents.
About the Director: Paul Stone
Brooklynite Paul Stone started his directing career in the edit room at Ridley Scott & Associates. In Tales of Time Square, Paul recreated 1980’s Time Square. The footage was often mistaken for stock and went on to be screened at over 50 festivals in the U.S. and abroad. His previous short Man Under( TFF 2015) explored the rise in NYC subway suicides.
Paul Stone talks about Mulberry
“I saw my neighborhood disappearing, changing. I have no problem with gentrification, but it’s gotten to a point of hyper gentrification. Little Italy in New York is known for its soul and its people, and it was rapidly disappearing. I wanted to tell the story about who inspired me in terms of my friends and that Little Italy is still alive and well, and that there are still a lot of characters left.”
About the Film: Starring Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton is that quintessential character actor you might recognize. We follow Austin as he reflects on his life and craft, while his A-list peers discuss his vast influence, dogged determination, and what it means to be an original in today’s celebrity-obsessed world.
About the Directors Gene Gallerano and David H. Holmes
David H. Holmes has studied and acted under the direction of Mr. Pendleton. His film and television credits include Birdman, Law and Order, Girls, Mr. Robot, and The Following. Gene Gallerano is the co-founder of The Neboya Collective, and has produced and starred in works including, Occupy, Texas, Fireworks, and The Talk Men, which he also directed.
Holmes and Gallerano talk about Starring Austin Pendleton
The directors met ten years ago in an Off-Broadway show and studied with Austin Pendleton for about five years. They consider him a big mentor.
“We look up to him a lot and we wanted to make sure in the end that we could look him in the eye. He was very happy we made the film. At the Tribeca Talks the other day it was the first time Austin saw it. Someone asked him if he had any input into the film and he said no because then you start manipulating it and controlling it; particularly his stutter, he said I would have told them ‘cut that’’. He wasn’t preventing us from making art.”
About the Film: Taylor and Ultra on the 60s, The Factory and Being a Warhol Superstar
Warhol superstar Ultra Violet (Isabelle Colin Dufresne) and Lower East Side icon Taylor Mead (poet/actor/artist) share their stories of Manhattan in the 1960s.
About the Director: Brian Bayerl
Brian Bayerl’s documentary work includes 8: The Mormon Proposition (Sundance 2010), and For Once in My Life (SXSW Audience Award Winner 2010). This is his third collaboration with producer Michael Huter, including Datuna: Portrait of America (London’s Raindance Winner 2015) and Full Circle.
Brian Bayerl talks about Taylor and Ultra on the 60s, The Factory and Being a Warhol Superstar
“Our producer came across photographs of Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol, Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet and a lot of other figures of the sixties Pop Art. When documenting those photographs we met Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet and instantly fell in love with them; they were just so captivating and charismatic and fun that over the next four years we had opportunities to interview them and gather footage. When we lost both of them, we were approached by the Warhol Museum about putting something together and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We put this film together as an homage to both of them.”
About the film Dead Ringer
There are only four outdoor phone booths left in all of New York City—this is a late night conversation with one of them.
About the Directors: Alex Kliment, Dana O’Keefe, and Michael Tucker
Alex Kliment is a filmmaker and musician from New York. He is also a talking head. Dana O’Keefe is a filmmaker based in New York and Stockholm. Michael Tucker is a documentary filmmaker who lives in upstate New York.
Alex Kliment, Dana O’Keefe, and Michael Tucker talk about Dead Ringer
“Our film started with learning about the statistic that there were only four outdoor telephone booths left in New York City. The city’s replacing them with Wi-Fi hotspots, We thought, ‘What’s a fun way to dramatize the changing urban landscape that also reflects a lot of other changes of the human landscape and how we relate to each other. We thought about how to impersonate and put ourselves in the mind of a pay phone. This film was an opportunity to visit with very tragic heroes of our sidewalk — the payphones of New York City.”
There are many techniques and modes from which writers can choose to convey your story. Keep in mind why the subject matter of your intended documentary is important to you and who the main characters are and their goals and/or possible agendas. Watch other documentaries that share your style and sensibility and subject matter, to find inspiration.
Sign up for one or more of Susan’s next set of classes:
June 22 Webinar: Developing the Premise for Your Documentary 1:00 – 1:45 PT.
June 2: The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
June 9: Writing the Documentary
June 16: Writing the Family Feature Film
June 30: The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
June 30: Writing the Animated Feature Film
Check out all of Susan’s Upcoming Classes!
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature Film
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into