When I first met Chad Gracia, I was a 17-year-old college student moonlighting as an occasional journalist. I penned fastidious articles for his Actor Tips email newsletter, not knowing that years later, we would again cross paths.
Fast-forward nearly two decades and my path would lead me to inclusion on the first-round Grammy ballot for my song “Falling Leaves” in 2018. Gracia’s path would take him deep into the radioactive bowels of Ukraine — plummeting head-first into conspiracy theories on what exactly happened at Chernobyl — as he explored the dangers of an authoritarian regime.
His widely acclaimed documentary film, The Russian Woodpecker (2015), would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. More importantly, his film would become a global cautionary tale of what happens when people lose trust in their government.
The impact of the Russian Woodpecker
Gracia’s film has the chutzpah of Paris is Burning (1990) — the explosive Jennie Livingston documentary that explored a now long-gone era of LGBT life in New York City. It was a time when LGBT expression soared through drag balls. Gracia directs with the same grit and determined eye.
Yet, there is another element in Gracia’s work — a sense that the viewer is somehow committing a crime just by watching. He takes us on a journey that is designed to uncover the secrets of one of the most clandestine governments in the world, often utilizing secret cameras and other guerilla techniques as he and his team interviewed former Soviet officials in Ukraine and Russia.
“That is how the cancer of conspiracy gains a foothold,” Gracia explains, bringing to mind iconic images from The Russian Woodpecker (2015) of soldiers brandishing batons and wide plumes of rising smoke — all set to the deafening backdrop of explosions in Ukraine’s square.
The filmmakers could never have imagined that the revolution would quite literally rise up around them. Most would have run away, but Gracia and his crew continued capturing run and gun style — memorializing every detail.
“The government will fall tomorrow. A government against its people can’t survive,” warns Fedor Alexandrovich, the documentary’s protagonist. Fedor is reminiscent of Yves Klein — the French artist who is perhaps best known for his conceptual work (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).
Perhaps more importantly, Fedor’s artwork clearly extends into the behavior of his daily life. There seems to be no obvious border between the two, and the audience is left wondering if their hero is perhaps a little bit mad.
In one scene from The Russian Woodpecker, Fedor tries to convince a line of soldiers in riot gear not to use violence against the protestors. It is a moment that brings to mind the iconic image of a single man stopping a deluge of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The moment is steeped in incredulity. Could one man really stop a war? Are we really watching this?
Fedor’s moment holds potential. The atmosphere is electric.
There is deep poetry in this cinematic image. Thus, Gracia utilizes the language of cinema to its fullest. The moment brings to mind thoughts of David against the behemoth, Goliath, who in today’s world is not one man, but many — a dangerous ideology with many faces.
The soldiers meet Alexandrovich’s plea for peace with silence. It is as though the artist has not said a word. Still, the camera continues to roll, and thus Fedor’s words have been captured for all time.
“The Soviet Union absolutely wants revenge,” Alexandrovich pleads eerily, facing the camera from the heart of the Euro-Maidan battle. “It is pushing the world towards World War III. If we don’t stop it here. If we don’t stop it now, it will be too late,” Behind him, there are more rising plumes of fiery smoke.
The sense of danger is palpable, and it is not a danger that feels worlds away, but ever-present in the here and now. The warning is real. This could be us. This could be anyone. In fact, Fedor’s best friend and the film’s cinematographer would soon be shot by a sniper.
I could have never predicted Gracia’s meteoric rise to fame following The Russian Woodpecker (2015), which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 31stSundance Film Festival in 2015. So, how in the world did all of this happen?
It started in Washington Square
“It all comes down to story,” Gracia notes. “My first ‘job’ was in Washington Square Park as a busker, telling stories for twenty-five cents each. I had a sign and a little basket.”
Gracia has a reverence for the ironic, and a knack for all things poetic — more importantly, he has a talent for telling fascinating stories. The consistent characteristic of his work is his ability to cut directly to the heart of the matter. Gracia finds and disrobes layers and layers of untruth, which is the goal of any solid documentary filmmaker. He somehow manages to find stories no one would even think to look for.
“I love telling stories that surprise people…stories they can’t believe are true,” Gracia states. He focuses on narratives that have some kind of importance and valuable lesson on what it means to be human and how to live. Along with The Russian Woodpecker, his more recent project, Sex in the Soviet Union (Gracia, 2019), is packed with dramatic twists and turns. He explores the story of the first Soviet sexologist, who turns out to have an unbelievable secret and an unforgettable demise.
“Something you already know, it isn’t a headline,” he insists. In short, Gracia believes that great documentaries delve into the heart of a human being or subject matter, picking apart a truth that transcends the political left or right. He believes that great documentary filmmaking starts when you pick apart the contradictions and, in Gracia’s words, “start looking for the gray areas.”
Yet, Gracia’s work is more than a simple study of contrasts. Much like Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), there is tremendous social urgency in the stories he tells. Also, Gracia’s timing is often impeccable. He both follows trends and starts them. He reminds viewers of relevant social issues, and more importantly, issues that should be at the forefront of our minds, but aren’t.
“Batteries only work with a plus and a minus. In the same way, for a film to electrify, it must pull the viewer from one place to its opposite—from ignorance to knowledge. The best stories have the greatest contradictions — that gives them their power,” Gracia adds.
Obstacles to filmmakers
Gracia’s current work includes the upcoming documentary King Trump and Sex in the Soviet Union Both films will include unexpected twists and turns that not even Gracia predicted. In fact, he notes that “one of the biggest obstacles that documentary filmmakers face is when the story doesn’t fit your vision, you must psychologically adapt and let the story be the master.”
According to Gracia, this can be especially difficult if you’ve relied on grants and others who might offer only conditional funding. You might end up with something entirely unexpected because real life unfolds in the moment. Thus, investors may not like your final product — which can happen. For this reason, Gracia self-funds all his films up to the start of post-production.
The second obstacle he mentions is in letting the material organically follow its own trajectory. “When you’re editing, it’s difficult to let the material speak for itself. Your original ideas can be in conflict with what the material is actually trying to tell you,” Gracia muses.
Yet, Gracia wants filmmakers to know, “the world is more interesting than your ideas.” He’s right. Who could ever believe that Putin has plans to clone and thereby resurrect the Woolly Mammoth? Gracia is making a film about that, too. However, he notes that fans might have to endure a long wait time because filming can move no faster than the gestational period of the Asian elephant. According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Biology Institute, gestation can take as long as 22 months (Smithsonian Institute, 2019).
Gracia edits his documentaries as well. “I edit my own films. These films are so personal and complex. It would be like having a marriage and asking someone to take over your role as a spouse. Editing is the hardest part because as the cliché goes— you have to kill your babies.”
In short, filmmakers must understand that each documentary film will take on its own life. As a filmmaker, you must best support the story — not your idea of where you’d prefer the film to go.
Just hurry up and fail
If things are going badly, Gracia recommends the quick death, whether a scene or an entire project. “There’s a line in venture capitalism: fail fast. If something isn’t working, kill it and move on,” he says. Though some might disagree, Gracia’s approach makes sense. Rather than spending years and years on a film that isn’t working, he recommends cutting your losses and making space to give birth to a more powerful idea.
If things are going badly, Gracia recommends the quick death, whether a scene or an entire project.
“The material is the master. We can only act as a conduit. We are only midwives—not the parents of ideas,” Gracia notes.
“Nature is in charge. We are trying to capture reality but we can’t control it. And worse, the audience is incredibly smart, we can’t fool them. They are bloodhounds for inauthenticity,” he adds. Thus, as a filmmaker, he touts the importance of being both compelling and truthful.
As filmmakers, the goal is to give the audience something compelling and valuable. So, how do you reach them?
Market like a small organic bakery
Gracia has some sage advice for those planning to market their documentary films. For one, he suggests that filmmakers start by creating a marketing plan, as they would for any small business.
“We were lucky with the Russian Woodpecker. We started filming before the revolution in Ukraine — we were standing in the square as the revolution literally rose up around us.” Although the release of The Russian Woodpecker coincided with related world events, he doesn’t advocate just winging it. He had a clear plan.
“We started out with a plan for a weekend shoot,” Gracia recalls. He notes that the production grew exponentially and unexpectedly from there.
“To market, I went and looked for which producers had been Oscar-nominated in the documentary category. I emailed them rough cuts,” Gracia shares. “Getting into Sundance was half luck, half a lifetime of dramaturgy. After the first screening, the water rose. Alec Baldwin tweeted; 128 festivals invited us.“
In addition, Gracia notes the importance of knowing your audience. “For most filmmakers who don’t win the lottery of timing, approach marketing like an organic bakery or any small business. Know your demographic, their tastes, and how to reach them. Use social media and start to collect people that will be interested in this topic even before you start shooting.”
Gracia also reminds filmmakers that, “billions of people in the world are connected to the internet and are potential viewers and buyers of your film. Find out who you’re speaking to and start global a conversation via social media.”
It helped that IMDB picked The Russian Woodpecker (2015) as a “must-see”, but even still, there was work to be done. “Directors are going to have to handle and oversee marketing, interviews, releasing parts of the film. Every film is a small business. No one else is going to treat your films with as much love and care as you would. Also, don’t start a project you can’t talk about for the next five years.”
While the director will choreograph the film’s charge into the fray, having a solid team is a must-have for every filmmaker.
Find your tribe
Gracia attributes much of his success to what he refers to as his dream-team. “When you have a great team, it’s best to keep them at your side,” he suggests.
In addition to finding a great editor, Gracia recommends finding a fantastic cinematographer and composer. “I knew an extraordinary composer from my theater days. I chose her because I trusted her. We worked and talked about emotion and then distilled the film into characters and themes. Then, Katya [Mihailova] would go off and meditate on them,” he comments. “Find a composer that adores your material.”
Also, according to Gracia, sometimes it’s better to have no music at all in certain parts of the film. “The sound engineer said ‘let’s watch this scene without any music.’ With no music that scene was much better. Sometimes the best music is no music. Let silence do the job.”
He also stresses the importance of finding an agent and a distributor who believe in you. According to Gracia, it’s best to work with people who share your passion for the material. In the end, having a tribe you can trust might be the most important tool in your filmmaker’s toolkit.
Gracia fondly recalls a moment when The Russian Woodpecker (2015) was saved by Oscar-nominated producer Mike Lerner, who covered post-production costs. “I didn’t even know that post-production was a thing. In our case, it cost almost three times as much as the production itself.”
Camera, lens & film theory
“A lot of people spend too much money on equipment like cameras. The audience does not care. We used a cheap GoPro for some of our most powerful scenes” Gracia notes. More importantly, he believes, “the technology must serve the story.”
“We got a lot of great footage because our camera looked like a tourist still photo camera. It put our subjects at ease. Sometimes a huge setup is intimidating, sometimes it serves the ego of the person you’re interviewing. The best camera is the one that captures true emotion. It’s the one that gets you there geographically, emotionally and financially,” Gracia wisely states.
Simply put, Gracia knows that more often than not, the best camera is the one you can afford, without going bankrupt or putting other aspects of the production at risk. “You’ll need to save money for unexpected expenses.” Gracia adds, noting how quickly post-production costs can add up. For this reason, he also suggests that filmmakers look beyond traditional archival options. He notes that sometimes free alternatives can provide better quality materials.
In service of the story, Gracia urges filmmakers to follow the dictates of “Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee.” In other words, the formula for good documentary film follows the same trajectory as that of traditional dramaturgy. The first rule is to find a “strong protagonist with a clear goal,” Gracia states.
In addition, Gracia notes the importance of capturing, “moments of change as they happen. Every scene must start in one state and end in a different state.” Plus, for Gracia’s own filmmaking style, there must be real value changes. “You are confined by the eternal laws. People are watching our films to be nourished,” he adds.
When asked if he had one key piece of advice to share, Gracia quoted Shakespeare: “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried; Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel” (Hamlet, 1599). He says the words thoughtfully and slowly.
Gracia’s guiding principle for documentary filmmaking holds true for virtually every other aspect of life: “When you find good people who share your values and your dreams, hold onto them.”
Filmmaking, like life, is a team sport.