A documentary can be a powerful way to tell a true story, seek truth and justice, shed light on an unknown issue and even enact social or legal change. However, they also require a lot of research and might pose a challenge for filmmakers who only have experience with fictional films or shorts. Follow the below steps to get started and learn how to make a documentary.
Study what works
What documentaries have inspired you the most? Before you set out to make a documentary, you should watch a few to get a sense of documentary approach and structure. Ask yourself why you are interested in the subject and how the filmmaker has structured the story. Below are the top-grossing documentaries of 2017:
- Born in China
- I Am Not Your Negro
- An Inconvenient Sequel
- Is Genesis History?
You can also study the Oscar-nominated feature-length documentaries of 2018:
- Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
- Last Man in Aleppo
- Faces Places
- Strong Island
- Edith + Eddie
- Knife Skills
- Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
- Traffic Stop
Find the right subject
What are you passionate about? What stories haven’t yet been told? What will viewers be interested in? These are all questions to consider as you tackle your first doc. Betsy West and Julie Cohen, co-directors and producers of the hit documentary RBG, about Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, say that there was a lot about Ginsburg that appealed to audiences.
“It’s a combination of the serious side of it and the joke side of it,” Cohen explains. “To a certain extent, the whole thing is ironic and Millennials do love irony. This little 85-year-old with the quiet voice and a grandmother, here she is doing push-ups and being compared to a famous rapper. It’s funny. But there is a serious side to it, too. The seriousness of her as a defender and a symbol of that.”
Research a ton – and then edit
Don’t rush through the research process when you make a documentary. Find out as much as you can about your subject and be open to interviewing anyone and everyone. However, you won’t be able to use everything. “I think I did 30 interviews and we needed up using less than 15,” says Morgan Neville, who directed the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about TV icon Mister Rogers. “I think part of my process is casting a wide net and then just skinning it down to the bone at the end.”
You may set out to inform your viewers of something, but don’t be beholden to what originally attracted you to your idea. Don’t try to cram a particular plot or message into your doc if you ultimately discover that the issue is more complicated or another element is more important. Don’t try to force your interview subjects to say what you believe instead of what they believe.
Also, avoid interviewing only people who agree with your position. “As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you,” says documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. “That is what is really interesting. We learn so much more by you training your camera on the guy from Exxon or General Motors and getting him to just blab on.”
“Don’t make a documentary — make a MOVIE,” says Moore. “Stop making documentaries. Start making movies. You’ve chosen this art form — the cinema, this incredible, wonderful art form, to tell your story. You didn’t have to do that. If you want to make a political speech, you can join a party, you can hold a rally. If you want to give a sermon, you can go to the seminary, you can be a preacher. If you want to give a lecture, you can be a teacher. But you’ve not chosen any of those professions. You have chosen to be filmmakers and to use the form of Cinema. So make a MOVIE.”
Think about finding the truth or finding the best story instead of sending a message. A documentary should not be a lesson for its audience. Although many docs include information and research, you should think of them as stories, not sermons. Moore warns that audience members who’ve worked hard all week don’t want to go to a theater and be lectured. “They want to be entertained,” he says. He also warns filmmakers not to tell viewers what they already know.
Submit to festivals and competitions
Many film festivals have special programs and competitions for documentaries, both short and long form. Look into which ones are best for your doc! You might also apply for grants to help you with funding.