I attended a crash course in film making at the Brave New Foundation campus in Los Angeles. The three-day "filmmaker's boot camp" was the cliff notes version of film school and was geared towards giving the five Operation In Their Boots (OITB) film making fellows, all Iraq and/or Afghanistan combat veterans, a basic foundation that would allow us to write/produce/direct our very own documentaries. I left the course with binders full of notes, tons of legal forms, and a new found respect for documentary filmmakers.
I am now knee deep in the film making process and it hasn't gotten any easier. This is hard work. On this short journey of mine, I have learned a number of things about making documentaries. I am by no means an expert, and don't have a background in film, but perhaps the following will give insight into this jarhead's OITB journey.
1) Executive Producer Richard Ray Perez preaches the importance of fleshed out treatments and thoughtful shooting scripts and each of the OITB fellows has had to write several drafts of each. This tedious and unglamorous work is, in my opinion, not an option. My shooting script and treatment were my best friends when I was filming in Philadelphia and all the time I spent on those two documents saved me a lot of heartache and a ton of money.
2) "Art for art's sake" only applies to rich directors. Making movies is freaking expensive and unless you are footing the bill yourself, you have to answer to someone. Film making is a business and the sooner you learn that, the better off you will be. Once you get rich and famous, which probably won't happen making documentaries, you might be able to do what you want.
3) In the Marine Corps we would say, "Semper Gumby, always flexible." This applies to documentary film making as well. I put a lot of effort into crafting my shooting script only to arrive at my shoot during one of the worst storms of the year. Needless to say, that took away from some of the filming I had planned. During the same shoot, I also had the wild idea of taking an unplanned, multi-state road trip. Richard crushed those dreams as soon as he caught wind of them (see #2) and I am grateful he did.
4) Batteries aren't cheap and your DP/sound person will burn through them at an unbelievable rate. When I was first told that I would need to budget so much for batteries, I thought they were joking. They weren't.
5) I always envisioned directors as loud dictators who barked orders at everyone on set and thought I would get the chance to revert back to my days as a Marine Sergeant a few times during my film shoot. However, that never happened. Making movies is a collaboration of many experts rather than a one-man show. Therefore, it is imperative that you trust the people you are working with, especially your Director of Photography (DP).
I was lucky Brave New Foundation paired me with Jon Dunham, a talented DP and documentary filmmaker. We talked about the planned shoot beforehand. He also studied my treatment and shooting schedule and knew what I was looking to capture on film. After that, he was on automatic pilot. Because I trusted his instincts and understood that he didn't need a newbie bossing him around, I was able to focus on the story and shooting schedule. We left Philly with hours of great footage.
6) A professor of mine at Arizona State University West used to say that every sentence you write should do one of three things: enlighten, inform, or entertain. While editing my film I realized that, for documentaries, entertainment is not enough. Every scene needs to entertain and enlighten or inform.
7) Maybe the most important thing I have learned on this journey is that I am extremely lucky for this opportunity. It isn't easy to find funding for a documentary and newbie filmmakers are hardly ever given a network of professionals who are willing to break their necks to help them succeed. The OITB fellows have both.