Rona Edwards shares her interview with Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Barbara Multer-Wellin, discussing her passion for making documentaries and uncovering the compelling true stories told by real people.
In my line of work, I meet incredibly interesting people who really walk the walk and talk the talk. It takes so many talented people to make a movie but one of the hardest things to produce is a documentary. Mainly because you may start out with the subject matter you want to highlight, or the person’s story you want to tell, and it can turn into something completely different just by virtue of real life. And you have to be ready for it, and be flexible, if it leads you on a totally different path.
A good documentary gives you a bird’s eye view, a perspective of a topic, life or lifestyle as if you are a witness… and you are. Docs are getting more and more respect. They even garner successful box-office results. But it can take years to make one. Also, it’s not quite the same as making a narrative film though there are similarities. There are many factors to consider.
With so much interest in documentary filmmaking, I wanted to talk to someone about the ins and outs of making non-fiction documentaries.
Barbara Multer-Wellin is an award-winning documentary filmmaker as well as a non-fiction/reality show writer/director/producer. She has won Emmys and acclaim for her work. A few of her accomplishments include: PAUL CONRAD: Drawing Fire and Taking the Heat; The First Women Firefighters of New York City (with Bann Roy directing). She has also worked in reality TV with such shows as Fabulous Cakes and Over Your Head. Recently, she completed another documentary, Orchestrating Change (co-produced and co-directed with Margie Friedman). We recently sat down to discuss documentary filmmaking, teaching documentary filmmaking and how documentary has really come of age. Here’s a snippet from my interview with Barbara:
RONA EDWARDS: You have such a vast background in nonfiction and reality programming and films, it’s hard to know where to start.
BARBARA MULTER-WELLIN: I’ve been writing and producing documentaries and nonfiction TV for a very long time. So long, that I can remember being told never to use the “D” Word (Documentary) when pitching a project because no network would be interested in funding one. Now, the “D” Word is the name of a blog devoted to the ever-growing community of documentary filmmakers. People are talking about “now” being the “Golden Age” of documentary. I heartily agree that this is a great time to make documentaries. There are more outlets to get work seen than have ever existed before. Plus, it is possible, with a lot of work, to self-distribute a project. Short docs are being posted by virtually every major publication and non-profit Organization. Also, the definition of what constitutes a documentary is being prodded and pulled and widened, and I think that’s very exciting.
“…this is a great time to make documentaries because there are more outlets to get work seen than have ever existed before and it is possible, with a lot of work, to self-distribute a project.”
RE: Yes, but documentaries used to be too much like “being in school”—today it’s different.
BMW: The old concept of a documentary was basically an illustrated lecture with a “Voice of God” narration. Today, documentaries can and do include recreations, animation, Virtual Reality, first person narratives, non-linear storylines, etc. All in all, it’s a wonderfully exhilarating time to be making nonfiction media.
RE: I know you’ve also taught documentary filmmaking and was chair of the documentary program at New York Film Academy in addition to teaching an online class for ESE Film Workshops Online. So, how do you teach people how to make documentaries?
BMW: I like to take a practical approach to researching, developing and shooting a short documentary. Starting with a short doc that focusses on a subject (person) in the student or filmmaker’s life, who is available and consents to being filmed. Learning how to interview and ask the right questions is also an important part of documentary filmmaking—and sometimes you get it right away, other times, it comes with experience to learn to ask the right questions which in turn begets more questions, and sometimes some surprising answers.
RE: So, Barbara, I’ve watched you over the years and it’s hard making documentaries. It takes a lot of research, a lot of patience, a lot of time and, also, just getting funding to make them. Why do you do documentaries?
BMW: I make documentaries because I have always felt that true stories told by real people are more compelling and more meaningful than fictionalized accounts performed by actors. I also believe that nonfiction media opens our eyes to people, places and things most of us would never experience in our everyday lives. We can’t include everything there is to know about any subject in a documentary—even Ken Burns’ multi-episode epics need to leave some aspects out—but we can inspire curiosity and encourage further investigation on the part of the viewer. Also, most documentaries try to be transparent about where the information presented comes from. A good doc may try to persuade you to believe in a cause or issue but it shouldn’t fudge facts or present false information. That’s the definition of propaganda. At a time when our news media seems more interested in proselytizing for one side or the other than trying to report the news objectively, that transparency possible in documentary seems more important than ever.
RE: I mentioned a bit about your background but it’s always good to get it from the horse’s mouth so to speak. So, tell us a bit about your background.
BMW: I graduated from CalArts back in the last millennium with a degree in theatre.
RE: That’s where we met – we were both theatre majors and went to California Institute of the Arts.
BMW: Yes, we were both in theatre. I had trained with experimental theatre troupes like the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Bread and Puppets Theater and Mabou Mines and I wanted to use theater to address political and social issues. Soon I realized that this was going to be a very tough way to support myself. So, I used what I had learned about narrative and storytelling in theater school and threw myself into filmmaking classes at NYU and the New School. I started out working for a company that made public service announcements for TV stations. You know, the spots that usually run at 3:00 AM?
RE: (laughs) Yeah. That’s called paying your dues.
BMW: I spent part of one very unhappy year working as an Associate Producer at an ad agency working on commercials. Then, I got a job as a researcher for Sheila Nevins, the legendary head of documentary at HBO. I spent years there moving from project to project and rose to a Co-Producer on my last several documentaries there. I will always be grateful to Sheila, who knows more about documentaries than anyone on the planet, and all the phenomenal directors, producers and editors I worked with at HBO for teaching me so much.
RE: She is certainly a legend and how fortunate you were to have had her as your mentor. To be able to work for someone like that who basically is “the person” for documentaries and even single-handedly put docs on a prestigious network like HBO regularly, gaining traction for what would become the golden age of documentaries. What a great experience!
BMW: After HBO, I moved to Los Angeles where I have written and produced nonfiction TV series and specials for most of the major cable networks. I also produced three independent documentaries. Two of my films, Taking the Heat: The First Women Firefighters of FDNY and Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire, were broadcast on the prestigious PBS documentary series Independent Lens. Margie Friedman (Conducting Hope) and I just finished a feature documentary called Orchestrating Change. It’s about an orchestra that was started by, and for, people living with mental illness.
RE: I can’t wait to see that one. But let’s get back to teaching documentary filmmaking. What exactly do students learn and how do they go about it?
BMW: The first step is that we always talk about how to identify a solid idea for a documentary. Many first-time doc-makers have told me they want to make a film about a huge topic like homelessness or global warming. But good documentaries, like good narrative films, are all about specific stories not huge overarching topics. So, I talk a great deal about how to find a true story about real people that can give the viewer insight into a topic like the ones I mentioned above. Even for the short personal profiles, it makes a better film to present a story or an experience the subject has had that exemplifies his or her life rather than tackle the person’s entire history.
“…good documentaries, like good narrative films, are all about specific stories not huge overarching topics.”
RE: Even in narrative film, it’s impossible to tell a whole life story – it’s too much and better to focus on a pivotal moment—possibly one of enlightenment or a moment that may have changed their perspective.
BMW: Precisely. Once the idea of the film is set, you can then break down the visual elements needed to tell the story. Some of those elements are—how to formulate effective interview questions; how to schedule shoot days; prepare for editing and re-evaluate their material as they edit. And much more.
RE: I may want to take a class with you (laughs). Even though I’ve done documentaries myself, this is good practice and technique. It’s like playing the piano to better yourself with exercises before going into the full-blown Sonata. Can you talk a bit more about some of the principles of documentary filmmaking?
BMW: I think there are two basic words and one motto that express the heart of a documentary code of ethics. The words are:
TRANSPARENCY (make sure the viewer knows where the information you present comes from so they can make an independent assessment)
HONESTY (present the information in the clearest, most truthful way possible.).
The motto: DO NO HARM. We work with real people, not actors, so we have to be mindful of the effect any project may have on our subjects. More about that in class.
RE: Words of wisdom, for sure. Wish our politicians were as transparent and honest and “Do No Harm” as a good documentarian does. So, what are some of the pitfalls and challenges for filmmakers?
BMW: “Golden Age of Documentary” though this may be, it is still very challenging to complete independent documentary projects that are good enough to sell or distribute. Knowing what you are doing is, of course, very helpful. It’s so much easier to do it right the first time than to try to go back and correct easily avoidable mistakes. As much as the bar has been lowered (due to so many people who can get a hold of a camera and editing software), the bar has also been raised. So many more people are producing non-fiction content right now. But I do believe that good work rises to the top.
RE: I always think cream rises to the top. What’s your greatest triumph so far in making documentaries?
BMW: Seeing two of my films on Independent Lens was an incredible thrill for me. One of the two, Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire, is about the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. Conrad was in his early 80s and not very well when we started making the film. It was about five years from the first time I met with Conrad, and his family, to the night the film debuted on PBS. My determination was that the film would be finished while Conrad was still around to see it and we achieved that goal. When Conrad died several years later, one of his sons approached me after the funeral and thanked me for making a film that captured his father’s considerable legacy. I really treasure that memory.
RE: That is the reward, isn’t it? That you were able to illuminate someone’s life and memorialize it forever? And then have the subject of it appreciate what you did, warts and all. You know you’ve done your job. What do you think filmmakers should know when it comes to making a documentary versus a narrative live action?
BMW: As I said before, documentary filmmakers must have very different relationships with their subjects than fiction directors have with their actors. We often have smaller crews and much smaller budgets to play with. But I think in most other ways there is not that big a difference between documentary and fictional films. In both genres we are telling stories and we must pay attention to narrative structure, pacing, etc. Documentary stories just happen to be true.
RE: Yes, but narrative storytelling can be based on true stories, too. I guess you can say documentary is “real life” as it’s happening versus a rehearsed scene previously written by someone else. Actors act out the scenes and base their character on the real life person the story is based upon. They bring a little bit of themselves to the role but the character’s foundation is based on a real person. What we watch in documentary is unscripted (except maybe for narration) and that’s a big difference. It’s rare you get to do a lot of takes in documentaries. But in thinking about it, is writing a part of the nonfiction process?
“If you don’t like to write, documentary is probably not the right field for you.”
BMW: Dialogue is not generally written for documentaries (although recreations can be an exception to that rule) but writing is a huge part of the nonfiction process. We write proposals and treatments to flush out our ideas as well as entice funders and broadcasters. Then we’ll write narrative structures and scene breakdowns. And we also write letters and emails to elicit participation, get the needed cooperation or information, and solicit funding. If you don’t like to write, documentary is probably not the right field for you.
RE: There is no magic bullet but there is a step-by-step approach that filmmakers can use to blueprint their documentary. Barbara is certainly an expert and veteran of the genre. We’re proud to have her teach a class for ESE on Producing the Short Documentary. I can’t thank her enough for taking the time to speak with me and sharing her thoughts on documentary filmmaking with all of us.
2018 Copyright Rona Edwards – No reprinting without permission from author.
Learn more about the documentary filmmaking process with Screenwriters University’s online course, Writing the Documentary Film