A few directors of rock documentaries - an emerging genre that covers the music world - offer us some insight into how they were able to get their dream off the ground and into production using alternative financing and non-traditional means.
A quick click around your cable stations is enough to tell you that the rock documentary is as alive and well as it ever was. Films about rockers as popular as Tom Petty or as cultish as the Minutemen are quick finds. So, you say you want to make a rock doc, too? But you have more story ideas and shooting ideas than money Or experience? It's common... and rock docs are often casual, so this is a good genre to get your documaking feet wet.
A number of filmmakers who made their documentary dreams come true had the same uneven ratio of burning passion-to-expertise at one time. They, too, were once just fans. With a camera and a dream, they managed to fulfill that dream. Videomaker spoke to four directors about some tips in their bags of budgeting tricks that help keep the production running as well as keep the finances manageable.
If you want to learn about making a documentary on the cheap, you want to listen to Gorman Bechard. As he finishes editing his doc about alternative heroes, Archers of Loaf, and continues to reap acclaim for, Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements, this director is happy to share with tyro documentarians everything he's learned on the set and about crowdsourcing - finding funds through fan-based sites like Kickstarter. "Did I do a Kickstarter campaign? I did nine of them. People sent me money for the movie and created buzz before and after The Replacements film was done. Just average people. But like my film crew, they did a great job.
Do you know what I love most about doing a Kickstarter campaign? It eliminates the concept of the producer. Kickstarter means you get, like, 30, 40, 50 'producers.' And not one of them tells you what you should do. It's just a beautiful thing."
Bechard told us about how he raised the money for his two recent rockumentaries. This form of crowdsourcing, of raising money through the Internet from the fans, has spread like wildfire. From rock musicians who find fans to fund their albums to filmmakers as 'big' as Hal Hartley - the word is out, people will buy-in to ideas they like. Berchard loves this fan/crowd-based concept.
Kickstarter and Indiegogo.com are the two most well-known sites for crowdsourcing funds for producers. Since 2006, when crowdsourcing started to become popular, many video producers have had great success using this type of alternative assistance, from financial backing to finding talent and crew. The idea is to get the community involved by outsourcing tasks or gathering funds when traditional methods won't work. When the stodgy bankers turn up their noses at the notion, and Hollywood movers-and-shakers slam the door in your face, community members with like-minded interests might be willing to step up for a producer's credit or a percentage of the profits.
"One of the beautiful side effects of Kickstarter is finding 'angels,'" says Bechard, "people who want to go above and beyond what you're asking for.People who believe in either you, your project, or both. With Color Me Obsessed there were definitely a number of truly devoted Replacements fans who stepped up because they really wanted to see this film get made. One, in fact, Diane Welsh, became the main executive producer. This film would have been much different, especially the attention we've received, if not for her. Her generosity really helped in getting us out to film festivals, and setting up screenings, which, as anyone who's played the indie game knows, doesn't come cheap."
Plus, Bechard feels this form of crowdsourcing allows him to bethe maverick he's always felt himself to be.
"The true joy of Kickstarter for me is about the freedom it gives you. With Kickstarter there are no notes, there is no payback. And as long as you know how to work within the confines of a microbudget, then you get to make the film you want to make...without interference. There's nothing better than that."
Maverick: Gorman Bechard
Bechard has another essential idea he likes to pass along: even in the seemingly improvised world of rock docs, structure is essential. Without it, he thinks, you're lost before your trip begins.
"Even a rock documentary must have three acts," says Bechard. "What seems to throw off a lot of movies is bad structure. If you don't know your three acts in advance, the thing is going to fall apart. Before you start, spend time sketching out your narrative. You may find in editing your film, that footage you've shot gives you some new ideas and changes the story. That's okay, if you had three solid acts from the start. Then, you can improvise, if you want to."
And he learned the hard way about working with newbies, wannabes or inexperienced crew.
"The first thing I tell anyone who's making a documentary? Whatever the size of your crew? Cut it in half!," says Bechard. "All you need are four people who know what they're doing. Also? Don't use film students. You want people who know about lighting, sound, have good instincts, and have worked on other films. Whenever I've employed a dilettantish student, I've regretted it."
Bechard, who's self-taught, says he learned things the fun, old-fashioned way: through hands-on training.
"From lighting to sound, you should know everything technical, too," he says, adding that by knowing every step in the process, he's been able to take over a crew position or many positions when the need was there.
Minimalist: Joseph Quever
Although his documentary about singer-songwriter, Jesse Malin, is in the can, Joseph Quever, took a different approach to his subject than Bechard. He found his story, by letting the narrative tell him where it was going; opposed to the other way around.
"I've been a rock photographer for years," says Quever, "but when I met Jesse, I thought there might be a story only a documentary could tell. I didn't know much about filmmaking, or its obstacles. I dealt with story changes, lost footage and filmed gigs on both coasts, to get where I am now. I'm glad I did."
Originally, Quever planned to do a shot about Malin's new band. Good thing Quever kept talking to his subject, because a more profound story emerged as a result.
"I made two videos and some side stuff with Jesse. Then he told me he was planning on performing a 10th anniversary show for his record, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction. The more Jesse told me about the struggles of going solo, how hard it was to make that album, I thought, 'We have another more interesting story here, than just stuff about Jesse's band. I'd already shot a lot of footage. But the more Jesse told me about the background of the record, how Joey Ramone lent him money to keep him going, how he became friends with Ryan Adams (who produced Fine Art), I got fired up. Months into the project, I found I had a brand new project."
This decision involved several, extra cross-country trips. Negotiating with clubs like Manhattan's City Winery about where he could shoot (and what the house HD camera shot that Quever had to negotiate for).
"As I thought I was nearing completion of my story about Jesse and he told me about making Fine Art, I joked with him that this would make a great film. And it did. That's my tip to filmmakers. Follow your instincts about what the story really needs to be about. There'll be more work. But you'll know you got the most important stuff."
Planner: Ondi Timoner
Time is relative. Joe Quever taking a year-plus to shoot his Jesse Malin movie, has nothing on Ondi Timoner. Her Sundance-decorated doc, Dig! was seven years from inception to completion. Not only did she learn a lot about her subject, but also about cameras, funding and distributing. And this veteran documentarian is happy to share the knowledge she gleaned during her own tribulations.
"One of the ways I financed the movie," says Timoner, "was by doing about 10,000 music videos for anyone who wanted one. It really served a great purpose. Since I hadn't had much formal training, I learned to shoot and edit, as a necessity. I even did one of the first EPKs (electronic press kits) for the band, Fastball. It all helped pay for Dig!"
Still, there was one thing that Timoner couldn't prepare for: the way the intended story of her documentary morphed into the dramatic story that got her documentary so much attention.
"Most people don't know that the original story was going to be about the friendship between [rockers] Courtney Taylor and Anton Newcombe. What was amazing, was, as we shot and shot, the friendship turned into a bitter rivalry that made the story much more compelling. That's an important thing I learned about making a documentary. You've got to give yourself over completely to your subject. If it starts to take a different turn than the one you'd planned - go with it!"
Timoner also has some very important advice for filmmakers who have finished their movies, then can't believe their good luck, when buyers come along. Be careful, she says. Don't let flattery blind you from common sense.
"If there's interest in your movie, be cautious about who you're selling it to. Lots of companies want the rights for a long time. Go for a nice, short licensing period. It's something young filmmakers neglect, because they're so flattered that a distributor even wants it. I learned the hard way."
Heartbreak: Sam Jones
"It's true about keeping your crew small," says Sam Jones. "Some of the best stuff I got for my movie was just me, the cinematographer and the sound guy."
Jones is talking about I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, his now-legendary documentary about rock legends, Wilco. Like Timoner, Jones was blindsided by some dramatic events when he decided to do a simple story about how a band records a title song. It ultimately proved to make his movie more gripping than intended. But, only because the director stayed flexible in the wake of real rock drama.
"After making the deal with Jeff [Tweedy, Wilco's leader] to document the song, I Am Trying To Break You Heart, upsetting stuff started to happen. The day I first showed up, Jeff told me that [guitarist] Ken Coomer was fired. Then during the recording of the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, guitarist Jay Bennett also got sacked. Then the guys finished the record and handed it in. And got dropped from their label. Consternation reigned, to say the least."
Although it makes for great drama now, Jones says these changes were "upsetting and unwanted. They really made me re-think how I was going to tell the story."
Still, said Jones, these changes are what he feels make his movie magical. And what, in the age of information, he worries, are the very things missing from rock documentaries these days.
"First, you have to pick a band you love. And you need to transmit that love to the audience. Don't worry about wrapping things up too much, or giving the band's history. You should be looking for the mystery, the poetry, the vibe of the group. The documentary that made me want to make music docs was 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. You'd have one section that'd tell a story about Gould. Another that would contradict it. By the movie's end, you got more of a feel for Gould then a thousand biographies could tell you."
Jones claims that with the information explosion, too many facts are known about bands these days.
"If my film is any example, there's always stuff that happens in a rock documentary that's totally unexpected. Leave space for stuff you stumble over. And make sure it gets into the movie. If it moves you and it's something you didn't know going in? Chances are, it'll have the same effect on your audience."
Crowdsourcing is hot for producers right now. Watch for more stories on Videomaker.com about this subject and how to make it work for you. Learn about financing, funding, planning and making your own documentary, in this three-part How to Make a Documentary series: Planning Your Documentary; Finding Your Story; and Sharing Your Dream.
Peter Gerstenzang is a screenwriter, humorist and director. Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor.