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Filmmaking (Actually) Ep. 6 "How Do You Documentary?? With Ansley Sawyer (Part 2)"

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Join Koura Linda in part two of a two-part series as she discusses the ins and outs and ups and downs of making documentary films with award-winning producer and director Ansley Sawyer! Along with director Brandon Li, their films Hong Kong Strong and Nomads of Mongolia were featured as part of the National Geographic Short Film Showcase. And Ansley's directorial debut "Like We Don't Exist" focuses on a refugee community along the Thai-Burmese border, and the uncertain future they face amid the longest ongoing civil war in the world. Want to learn from the perspective of a seasoned documentary filmmaker the way to approach making docs, whether locally or globally? Then listen to this!

If you want to ask a question or just want to say hello, you can write to us at filmmakingactually(at)gmail(dot)com! You can also sign up for our mailing list through the "Contact Us" section of our website, for filmmaking tips and tricks, along with all the latest projects and updates on what we are working on.

For full access, you can also join our Patreon where we host exclusive virtual panels and workshops and share other behind-the-scenes content.

Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:

How Do You Documentary?? With Ansley Sawyer (Part 2)

Hello, my name is Koura Linda, and welcome to my podcast, "Filmmaking (Actually)"!

This is part two of a two-part series featuring a very special guest, award-winning documentary filmmaker Ansley Sawyer. Enjoy!

KOURA: So, this is what I'm thinking. A lot of the people, so far who I found, who are listening to this are newer filmmakers, are people who are trying to get into filmmaking, who want to start for the first time. And for a narrative, you know, you have to either have a script, or a story, or an idea. And then you have to find funding. And then you have to find a cast and a crew. And then you have to do a shoot schedule. There's very exact sequences because you need a certain amount of money. You can take your script, do a breakdown. How many days is it going to be? How many people? How much food? How much for hotels? How many accommodations? But for a documentary, I guess, if you were to walk through the whole process —

ANSLEY: I think I've got an Ansley Sawyer process, that's derived from a Brandon Li process, that's been informed by my life experience and my theories on how to humanize any subject into an interesting and compelling short story. If I had to give you why I tell stories and how, that would be it in a nugget. And I think a lot of people could agree with that motivation. But my processes wouldn't work for them, and my workflow wouldn't necessarily be a part of theirs, and so I think it's really important. I was interviewing a little kid last week for a video about a non-profit that works with little kids and arts and crafts. And I did not expect this bit of wisdom, it really struck me! It was a question about creativity, and I was like, "How do you respond to people who say that arts and crafts isn't important?" And she said, "Well, if you're not feeling creative, that means that you haven't made art in a long time." And I was like, “Oh my God, that's genius!” That's so freaking cool. Because I constantly, as a creative professional, overthink everything. And get in my own way constantly about, should I budget for six days, should I budget for five days, you know? Or should I should I make this choice, should I hire a fixer and a driver, or should they

KOURA: What's a fixer? Sorry for cutting you off.

ANSLEY: It's okay. A fixer is a local guide who speaks the language and can introduce you to communities that you're trying to gain access to, and or help integrate your questions about — It's more than being a tourist, and they understand that you're there trying to capture a story, and they're there trying to help connect you to the story because they're from the story.

KOURA: Right.

ANSLEY: That's a fixer.

KOURA: Okay.

ANSLEY: So I constantly, constantly overthink things. And especially since a lot of this is destination-based, all I can do is think before I get there. And what I would recommend is, don't overthink it. Just make art so that you can feel creative. And what that looks like is, go out and do a camera test. Like, let's go back to the ballet dancer in New York example. Okay, go and film people doing ballet in rehearsal. Not even the full sequence, not even a scene, not even a story. Just take your camera out as part of your research and your development, and say “What camera motion is interesting to me here”. Again, this is the Ansley Sawyer practice, so I'm the director and the producer and the shooter so this isn't going to translate well to a lot of people, but use your analogous minds.

KOURA: Well, I think that, actually, the people who — I mean, I don't know, I have no idea who listens to this podcast, I only — like the analytics I see, I know numbers, and rough geographic locations. Like in Canada, this many people or this many listeners —

ANSLEY: This is true of telling a story, whether you're a painter, or a singer.

KOURA: Sure!

ANSLEY: Or a visual artist, or a filmmaker. Play around with the subject matter, and figure out why you got into it in the first place. And that's going to inform your process. Because if you figure out that, like — actually you're supposed to be studying a ballet dancer in Congo, and not in New York City — then that's massively going to influence your production process. And so that's why I keep saying, Be story forward, especially as you're going from pre-production to post-production, because, I mean, you could way overthink everything and be like, "Okay, we're gonna be there for 40 days, and I need six cars," and it's like, yeah, at that point you're not focusing on the story anymore. I have a very specific process, I think, and when I say specific, it's completely dependent on what I find. And a lot of it is daily re-writing the general script that I'm laying out for myself as the production goes along. The storyline necessarily needs to change fundamentally from pre-production to post-production. Like, that's just part of the process.

KOURA: Well let’s talk about that! Yeah, no, that makes sense, let's talk about that!

Okay, so let's take this ballet dancer in New York. So you're Ansley Sawyer, you're a person. You're not a big network, you're just one person. Or maybe you're a person and a friend, or whatever. So you maybe met a dancer in New York, or you've always wanted to be a dancer in New York, maybe you're curious what it's like. For some reason, this is the story that you want to tell. So if it's just you, you're starting -- Let's say, I was going to make a story about a dancer in New York and I was going to make it up. Like, I know that, to do that, I would need to — Okay, why am I making this story? Am I doing it for festivals? Am I going to sell it? Do I want to raise people's awareness about stuff? Why am I doing this? Am I gonna fund it? Am I gonna get an investor? Am I gonna crowdfund? Do I have a script? Am I gonna hire a writer? Like, there's an exact sequence. I get the script, I do a breakdown, I do a budget, I get it through pre-production, I figure out how much time I'm going to spend on it, I go out, I shoot it, I get it through post, I do the sound design and the edit, I do all this stuff, I submit it to festivals, I send it out for distribution. Like, there is a kind of beginning, middle and end process.

So if I was sitting here and I was like, "I want to tell a story about dancers in New York," what would be the kind of, like, ABC steps? Like, broad stroke, you know? This is how you get started, this is the first thing you do. And some of it could be different, like for narrative, I could be someone with money who wants to make a movie, I need to find a filmmaker. I could be a filmmaker who needs to find money. I could be a writer who needs to find a filmmaker. There's kind of, like, these pieces of this triangle. How does that work for documentaries? And Yeah!

ANSLEY: Yeah, no, that's a good question. So, for the sake of answering your question, I'm going to make a couple of assumptions. The first assumption is that I have power. Meaning, like, I can just come up with an idea and go out and make it. Which I think anybody is capable of, with, you know, cameras on our phones it's really a question of motivation, or feeling of preparedness. So that's my first assumption, is like, I can just go out and ideate and manifest something. And the second assumption is that, like, you know, I have free time. Like, I can — which is never true by the way. It's never true! You will never have enough time. And then, the third thing is that I'm motivated to get it done now. Which is a crucial assumption that all creatives should endeavor to undertake, like as soon as possible. Not in a guilt-ridden kind of way, not in like “It should be done yesterday!” because that's the kind of thing that never lets you publish or, like, forgive yourself for being far from perfect. So those are sort of the overarching assumptions.

So the first thing is, if you're going to tell the story, (this is the most crucial part) just find your story. And don't put anything else first. Because you don't know what you're budgeting for, and you don't know what you have to present. And this is challenging, this is a little chicken-and-eggy because, depending upon your subject, you might be waiting for things to come through, so you just need to understand and control as many variables as you can. Like the ballet dancer in New York example, that would be researching the community, researching and understanding. Like, when is sun up? When is sun down? Who are the people, what are the common demographics, and depending on the angle that you're interested in taking, like, what's what's the log line that you think that your film is gonna take. And it's okay that it's gonna change from beginning to end, that's also gonna impact your purpose for making the film. So it's okay to make a film and try to make money off of it. A lot of people do it, and you are worthy, and it is not a problem, and that is a really great reason for wanting to make a documentary or a film.

I have a different workflow. I tend to make films that, like, are really high quality, that attract attention from brand managers or CMOs or other directors or agencies that are, like, "Oh, we have an upcoming project, and we want to hire this person because they did this incredible video!" so that's kind of my way of attracting new business. And that's not for everybody. A lot of people, like, everything that they want to make, they want to convert it into income, and that's cool! Everybody has their own lead generation workflow, or business development workflow.

KOURA: Let's focus on a story-driven one, because I have to say, I totally get it, that filmmaking is a business and people want to make money. But it's my opinion — and you can tell me if you've observed this to be the other way — It’s my opinion that if you're going into a documentary with the sole intention of making money, I personally think it tends to lean the filmmakers in a direction of scandal and hot topics and snazzy headlines and reality TV and…

ANSLEY: It can. Yeah, it can.

KOURA: So I would rather talk about, maybe, a process of a story for the sake of the story, because —

ANSLEY: As long as we can acknowledge that they're not mutually exclusive. Because I feel like it took me years to unravel this tangled ball of guilt, which is, like, as a storyteller or as a documentary filmmaker, I don't deserve nice things, or like, I'm not allowed to try to have this, at base level, serve as something that can lead me to bigger and better things. Like, "Oh, as an artist I should only ever actually be a barista living off of tips." Like, no, f that! Like, they're not mutually exclusive, is all I'm trying to say. But yes, yes.

KOURA: Oh, I agree. Yes, you should be able to sell your work, and you should be paid for your work. I 1000% stand by that. I just mean, like, if you had telling a story and making money as two items on a list, I would rather talk about, maybe, the angle of where the story is number one, and the money's number two, versus where the money's number one and the story is number two.

ANSLEY: Me, too, me, too. Okay! So you find your story, and you do ultimate service of the story. So whatever that means. So you move to their neighborhood, and you budget what's in that neighborhood. Or you're like, okay, I need time to build trust with these people, they have busy schedules, they're young people, they're constantly in rehearsal. I don't want to burn out my contact with them, I'm going to make sure that I do pre-interviews, I understand their schedule, I maintain excitement and passion, and I don't make false promises to them. I make sure that I'm really upfront about what I think this story is going — what kind of life the film is going to have, and how that's going to impact them, so that they don't get unrealistic expectations of, like, “This film is going to make me huge”, especially if your subject is a 20-year-old ballet dancer (laughs) —

KOURA: (laughs) I picked that because it's kind of benign, that's why I was trying —

ANSLEY: It is! But it's also a nice subject. And so, I mean, again, your process is totally gonna depend on, you know, who your subject is. But my recommendation is just to go in deep, as fast as possible. Again, with the assumption that, like, you don't have a two-year-old kid and you can just, like, go for two weeks and go film and just completely dedicate yourself. Like, make your own contingencies, like, figure out your own life. But as much as possible, spend as much time filming and building your relationship with your subject. Both in advance of production and also in post-production. I mean, it's — and I want to get too ahead of myself — but it's really important to maintain that contact because, and I know that you probably experienced this with narrative, but especially with documentary, once you leave, you can be silent for a year, and people start talking to themselves, and they're just, like, “This person used me, they're gone, what happened to this film?” and you can't let those thoughts take hold, like at all. You need to maintain your contact and send people stills from the film as you're editing.

But not to get too ahead of myself. So in pre-production, for me, I'm thinking about, what's the fewest number of people who can be on my crew? Because the fewer people in the room, especially editing, or filming with these people, the more at ease the quote "talent" is gonna feel. The more that you can mimic their day-to-day life, the better. And so, if you have a bunch of booms and gaffers and, you know, riggers and people standing by with audio equipment, that's gonna freak them out! Now, that's my process. Like, I don't like having too many people on my team. I like working on extremely small teams. So I'm gonna prioritize more time with fewer people. That's not everybody's process, but that's gonna change all of my math! So sometimes when I'm looking at my friends' budgets or something, they're like, “Is this good or bad?” And I'm like, You have to be the judge of that. You have to know what are your inefficiencies, and what is the thing that you're gonna really stake your claim on? Like, that you're not gonna back down from, having a chase vehicle and a follow vehicle. Like that's, you know, it totally depends on your process.

KOURA: So, all right, this is what I'm hearing. You have your idea of what you want to tell the story of. And then you have to kind of decide how many people you have that you want to bring with you, how many things you want to have with you. Where do you, like, obviously funding for a documentary, that would be things like, everyone needs to eat, you need to maybe buy lunch for the person that you're interviewing. What do you think about documentaries that pay people to speak, as far as being interviewed?

ANSLEY: It depends on the story. If you're more of a journalistic approach, that's considered unethical because that's considered — There's, like, a journalistic code of ethics. And I don't consider myself to be a journalist, and there have definitely been times where if you held me to the standards of being a pure journalist or, like, broadcast standards, I would have broken rules. Like, being in a refugee camp and sharing my extra bottle of water with a thirsty kid, like, I'm gonna do that and —

KOURA: Wait, that's against journalistic rules?

ANSLEY: Well, I mean, okay so — Yes. So that's considered, sort of like, influencing your subject. And so a good example is, I have a friend here in New York who works at Now This, and she was following the caravan in Mexico. And she would, like, drive up with her team of, like, five people, like, the boomers and, you know, all that.

KOURA: And to be clear, that's mic boomers, not baby boomers, but go on.

ANSLEY: We embrace all ages on Koura's podcast! But no, they would drive up alongside the caravan and get out and walk and interview people as they're walking and then get back in the car. And, like, they're driving alongside these people who've been walking for hundreds of miles. And they're eating alongside people who are carrying food on their backs, and they're not supposed to share. Not because they're cold-hearted and mean, but because they're supposed to have that journalistic distance and professionalism that isn't compatible, in my view, with a long-term documentary approach.

Now, you still do want to have a professional distance between yourself and the subject, as I've experienced, because things get really personal really fast, and you might say, "Hey, I don't have a problem with that, I'm trying to build trust here," and it's like, actually, you do. Because questions of money start cropping up, especially when you're dealing with instability or, you know, fragile communities, and especially your status as an outsider of any identity, female, male, white, person of color, aged, you know, younger, like, whatever it is, abled or differently abled, like that, it's all going to come into play. And so you do need a little bit of distance and professionalism, certainly not just to convince them that you're going to do justice to their story, but also to maintain their story beyond the immediate awkwardness or intimacy of the relationship that you're generating. Because, once you're out of production, you can't go back into the interview room and create that safe space ever again. That's it, you've got it. What are you there to do? Do justice to the story, that's what you're there for.

KOURA: I could never be a documentary filmmaker!

ANSLEY: Sometimes that means sharing some food with some kids. And sometimes that means giving somebody a ride. And sometimes, that does not mean Western Union-ing somebody 50 bucks to help out their brother who is being detained and harassed by the cops. It's tricky.

KOURA: Oh my gosh, yeah, that — obviously, like I said, I know very little about journalism. Like, I know very little about documentary, and I know even less about journalism. But yeah, I actually didn't know that, and I —

ANSLEY: Neither did I until very recently. (laughs)

KOURA: Like, it makes sense to me, you know? If you have someone and you're doing an expose on some big company that's, like, dumping chemicals in the water, and somebody's giving a testimonial, and they find out that you paid that person, like, a thousand dollars. It's like, well, is that person telling the truth, or did you buy them off? So I get that.

ANSLEY: Right, right! And you have to be above reproach, because people will come out from every direction and say you weren't forceful enough, you were too forceful.

KOURA: Right.

ANSLEY: You brought in your feminine identity to this masculine room, or you didn't stand up to those men enough. And I've definitely experienced this as a documentary filmmaker. It's not so much about covering your bases as it is — all the rest is noise, and I need to get my noise-cancelling director-vision headphones and just look at the story. Because it's not that nothing else matters, because it all informs your approach and it all informs your ultimate relative success or failure. But that's the other thing to keep in mind is — honestly? (The dark and dirty secret life pro-tip of documentary filmmaking) Nobody's going to come along and tap you on the shoulder and be like, "I can see that you really care for these people, and that you really empathize with them, and that you really feel their struggle, and that makes all the difference." It doesn't. It really doesn't. Did you clearly tell their story, or not? Did you mess up the ISO in all of your interviews, or not? Was your shutter speed correct or not? Like, were you there for that crucial moment, or did you go home because you were tired? Did you budget for the extra week that you ended up needing because something happened, or not?

And that's what I'm saying. It's so hard to have a hard-and-fast, like, even between productions that I've done, the approach is consistent, but the workflow almost never is. Because sometimes I'll spend two weeks in production, sometimes I'll spend two years returning to the same subject matter and saying, "Yeah, there's still something new to taste here, and there's still something useful to opening my camera back up again." And it's understanding: How does the beginning feel? Do I have a good introduction to who these people are? Can I succinctly sum up the issue that they're facing? And, very often, the answer is going to be no! And it's very hard at the end of the day when you're exhausted and something went wrong or broke or somebody said no to you when you thought they were going to say yes, to say to yourself the bitter truth of: My work's not done yet. And I thought it was going to be done by now, and I am over budget and past my deadlines because that's going to happen. (laughs)

KOURA: What?! (laughs)

ANSLEY: Yeah! Especially when you have unpredictable talent or, you know, especially when you're in unstable circumstances, like a war zone where there's so much that you can't control. Like, we got calls at 4am threatening us not to do an interview with this Burmese general. I mean, when the health and safety of your local talent is being questioned, like, "Okay, yeah, looks like our film is gonna be a little bit more biased now because we can't interview that dude, but I'm not gonna put my local fixer in harm's way." So that's kind of — I know that this must be a little frustrating, but hopefully what your viewers are hearing is: There are no answers. There isn't the right camera or the wrong camera, or, this is the best lens or the worst lens. I mean, those are headlines that you see on YouTube videos —

KOURA: To get you to watch the Youtube video. (laughs)

ANSLEY: Go watch the YouTube video! I mean, go do your own research. And whenever people used to tell me that. It was really frustrating, but really, return to these basics of, like, If you're not feeling creative, maybe it's because you haven't done art in a while. Go do a camera study. Go hang out with refugees, even if they're not the refugees that you want to make a film about. Find out something about their experience that you didn't know before. Because that's your role as a creative storyteller, to be a vehicle by which you can explore something that, ideally, hasn't been explored before. Or create something that hasn't been made before. Even if it's a common theme such as, you know, a ballet dancer in New York, or a couple falling in love in Paris. I mean, there's always something new to explore, and that's the best part about documentary, because reality is so often so much stranger than fiction, or so much more interesting than fiction. And if you try to make fiction reality, it's gonna come across as disingenuous.

KOURA: Oh yeah, there's some fiction author who said that the difference between reality and fiction is that people expect fiction to make sense. (laughs)

ANSLEY: Yeah. (laughs)

KOURA: And I just always replay that in my head whenever I'm writing a script or working on a narrative film. I always tell myself, like, "Okay, this has to be believable, it has to be something people are going to accept, it has to be real to them, it has to make sense," and whenever I'm going through something in life where, if I were to turn it into a movie, nobody would believe me that's what actually happened. I have to remind myself that it's fiction that people expect to make sense, and reality, just, it's not gonna happen.

ANSLEY: I mean, that's really interesting, because then you're starting to speak to sort of the expectation that storytellers have not only of themselves, but also of, like, the impact that they hope that their story is going to have on the global audience, or whoever they think their audience is going to be. And I'd say, like, don't sweat it too much, because — I mean, sweat it, sweat it a lot, like, make sure that it's an interesting story, like, do your due diligence. Actually work hard to deliver and craft and curate an honest true to life authentic story. I mean, really sweat the production — but I guess what I'm saying is something that I experienced early on in documentary was, "Ugh, but my point of view isn't gonna be shared by everybody. Like it’s my point of view" If you don't have a point of view, that's a problem, and if you had a point of view and you're watering it down because you're afraid of isolating an audience, or on the other side of the spectrum, if you are afraid of being called biased, or if you have these fears of being called this or that, especially from the creative community, I mean, let that inform your process. Don't be biased. Try to use those insecurities to actually have a deeper exploration or self-reflection of, how could this story be expanded? But don't also be afraid of having something to say, because if you don't have anything to say, people are going to pick up on that, and it becomes very boring, very quickly, and it's just kind of like a half-assed approach at telling what should be a very empowering story I think.

KOURA: I think that makes sense. Would you say, to maybe temper that with, decide what you want to say once you see what's there, versus deciding what you want to say before you've even begun to shoot?

ANSLEY: No, that's a great question. And I think sometimes what you want to say is different from what the film needs to say. Because sometimes what you want to say, isnt really, it doesn't really matter. Like, for me, it's like, “Refugees are humans too”, and it's like okay, that is true, and a lot of people could agree with me. But what really matters is that we need to raise so much awareness that it becomes embarrassing for the Burmese military to continue these operations. Like, if nobody's talking about it, that's only helping the perpetrators of these crimes. And so the ultimate purpose of this film is to get people talking about this issue, and that was extremely specific to "Like We Don't Exist," so that's not the purpose of every documentary film. But that was our mission for that particular film. And so that informed our point of view, which was: This cycle of violence and poverty is bad. It's been going on for 70, 80 years, here is the history of it. Now, looking forward to the future, if these people want to have any success whatsoever, the ending of the film was suggesting that refugee youth education is the, is the crux, it's the path out. And if we are preventing 16-year-olds from dropping out of their very difficult-to-access education opportunities, then they're going to enter the poverty cycle, and it's just going to take another generation to attempt to develop the leadership to fix their own problems internally, because foreign actors haven't been able to figure it out. So to take the ballet dancer example, maybe as a director I'm like, "Oh I love ballet, and I want everybody around the world to love ballet!" That might be a misguided goal. If your goal instead is to say, "Anybody can do ballet!" That's different from you saying, "I want everybody to love ballet!" Personally, me as a director, me, Ansley Sawyer, I want an excuse to go film ballet dancers —

KOURA: (laughs)

ANSLEY: But the goal of the film should be more call-to-actiony. It should be more specific. And by the end of the film, you should develop something that does service to the story. And the story might be, Ballet is beautiful, but it should also, especially in the realm of documentary, I believe, (My opinion) speak to a greater truth that humanizes the story in a way that hasn't been done before. And, you know, you have to go through a process that is extremely specific to the subject that you've chosen. Like, I could make up a million endings right now. Like, okay, it's a trans ballerina and, like, their experience is valid, or this person broke their leg and had to get a transplant, and now they have a bionic leg and they're differently abled, and they can do it, too. Or maybe it's a 49-year-old housewife who never had the chance to go and study ballet, and finally she's taking a second lease on life. I could just sit here all day and spit those ideas out at you. And the ending of the film would change so much based off of what you discover through the process of empowering their story.

KOURA: I like that you look at documentary as an empowering of the subject story. And I think that's probably an important thing to highlight, as far as — you know what I mean? Like it's not about, like, I want to tell a story about ice cream because I like ice cream. So you all are gonna see how much I like ice cream! Like, ice cream's high in sugar, and sugar's really bad for you, and that's just a scientific fact. I can't slant the world to fit my documentary and call it a true documentary. So I like that you, you know, focus. I think that's really important.

ANSLEY: Aw! Well, I think where that comes from, just to flesh that out for just a moment, for me, I've seen a lot of stuff. (laughs) I have —

KOURA: (laughs) Really??

ANSLEY: Yeah, well, I mean, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I've believed a lot of different things. I've been through a lot of things in my life where I've had one experience — I'll be very specific. I used to be very Republican. I was raised in a gunsmith house. Like, my family used to work for Reagan, like, ultra-conservative. And it's not even, like, I moved away from that because those are all bad things. It's just, like, through exposure to different voices, different experiences, different languages, different countries, different stories — I've learned that nothing really matters. And I call this "positive nihilism," not like, if I just maxed out all my credit cards on my next documentary and, like, rolled over in a ditch and died — like you, Koura, might be upset or, like, my family —

KOURA: I'd be horrified!

ANSLEY: My husband would be upset, but my absence would have no great impact on the universe, and this is an important mental exercise, I think, to go through, because once you realize that, like, inherently nothing matters it's very, very —

KOURA: Okay, wait a minute, hold up, I'm sorry, I just, wait wait, hang on, I have to throw this out there cuz I —

ANSLEY: No, no, it's an "if/then," it's contingent on the then! You gotta give the then!

KOURA: I'll let you say the then! I'm just, I was about to say —

ANSLEY: I'ma let you finish, but — (laughs)

KOURA: I'ma let you finish, but — Have you seen — oh my gosh, why, this is embarrassing, I'm forgetting the name of the movie. The dude with the angel, it's in black and white, and it stars Jimmy Stewart, and he dies and he's —

ANSLEY: "It's a Wonderful Life"?

KOURA: Yeah! Have you seen "It's a Wonderful Life"?


KOURA: Like, don't ever — I just have to say, just because this is something I feel very passionately about, and because I just feel like it's so important for people to know that, you have no idea how much the universe changes by your presence. And you have no idea what you've done for people, what decision someone else has made, and what has happened because of that person. I mean, in "It's a Wonderful Life," he was nothing and his little brother went off to war, but he saved his little brother's life, and when his little brother died, his brother wasn't there to save the entire legion that got killed in a battle because his brother had saved them when he saved his brother, so —

ANSLEY: Butterfly's wings, man!

KOURA: Right?! You're a butterfly, Ansley, don't let anyone tell you less! I'm sorry, go on. I'm so sorry for shooting that down, but I feel so strongly about the importance of individuals.

ANSLEY: I don't feel that you shot it down because I think it was an important thing to say. So yes, absolutely. And..

KOURA: Okay, I'm so sorry, I love you so much, I don't want to talk over you, but I talked over you.

ANSLEY: You don't need to be sorry! Because I don't think that they're mutually — I think that they speak to two different points.

KOURA: Okay.

ANSLEY: And everything that you just said, and, in another way — and of course I'm oversimplifying. I hope you know that, like, I don't think that I'm worthless, and that's not the point that I'm trying to make. What I'm trying to say is, Nobody is more special than anybody else.

KOURA: Agreed.

ANSLEY: Like, we're all really, really special. And so when I go out for street photography purposes, and I'm looking for a subject, I'm looking for people who look interested. Not beautiful. Interested in what they're doing. Sometimes that's working, and I'm looking for diversity, and a lot of the time I'm going for people who, in any other circumstance, could be described as, like, ugly or stressed or, like, the worst day of their life, and that extends to my documentary process, and the reason why I'm taking their photo is not because I'm trying to "poverty porn" them. That's, like, "It's just a sexy photo”. Or it's not because I'm just looking for diversity in my headline and I just need to check off a bunch of boxes. It's because legitimately I truly feel like every human story has value. And if you can't find the interesting nugget of wisdom in their experience, no matter who they are, then you haven't done your job well enough.

And so, to go back to the positive nihilism point, what I was trying to say is, yeah, it's a little bit like Memento Mori. It's like, I am going to leave this world, you are going to leave this world, the people around us are going to leave this world. Whether we like it or not, and none of us asked to be here. We're all just doing the best we can. I didn't ask to be here, and you didn't ask to be here. But now that we're here, we can recognize that we all have something valuable to contribute, and we all have a really interesting story to tell. And so what I'm saying is, before I die, which is inevitable, I might as well give my life's work to empowering every other person's right to tell their equally-fascinating story. And sometimes, it just takes a couple of extra hours or days or weeks to peel back the layers, to get them feeling comfortable so that they can tell it the way that they know how.

KOURA: I love you. No, that's wonderful, and —

ANSLEY: Aw, I love you too!

KOURA: (laughs) I truly am sorry for cutting you off, and I'm not saying that as, like, Oh, I'm sorry-not-sorry.

ANSLEY: No, no, it's good!

KOURA: Can you give me that one-minute run down?

ANSLEY: Yeah for sure!

KOURA: Okay, go.

ANSLEY: One. Beginning, middle, end. Beginning: find your subject. Don't let yourself get scared by all the obstacles that start popping up. Just make a list of those obstacles, and turn them into questions, so that they then become opportunities for you to get even closer to your subject. Do service to your subject, is your punchline for number one.

Number two: this would, I guess, be production. This would be actually filming it. Work long hours. Sometimes put your camera down. Be very, very aware of what you fulfilled and what you still need, and don't be afraid of people saying no to you, and don't be afraid to say no to other people. People are going to be very hungry for your time, saying, “You need to film this, you need to film that.” Really, very clearly identify the mission for your film, which is: What are you trying to accomplish? I mean this sounds like ABCs, but it's crucial. So figure out the mission of your film. What is your film trying to change? What space does it exist in that didn't exist before? What's the message of your film? Which must change over time and, at the end of every day, say, “Has it changed today based on what I've learned?” And then also be rigorous in your data management, because losing footage is the worst thing in the world, and nobody is going to prioritize the quality or consistency of your footage unless you do. So I think that’s one of the most deadly important parts of the production process, is making sure you take care of the footage.

And then in post-production, for number three, and moving into distribution, what I'd say is: At this point you should have your story. You should be figuring out how it changed and how that impacts not just the message of your story, but also the audience, and start sharing content and engaging directly with that audience. For the ballet dancer example, it would be inhabitants of New York, anybody interested in art, or people interested in whatever identity politic or, you know, other angle that you've undertaken. And for distribution, there are a billion options out there. Don't get intimidated. Don't get scared of the fact that you have so many options, but also don't get distracted and try to do all of the options, because then you're going to get spread too thin and you're going to genericize the mission of the film, which is a bad look in the industry, I'd say, and it just shows a lack of direction, and that you're just really there for gratification. So allow, the overarching point that I said at the very beginning, do service to your story, to be the motor that pushes your entire production along. Don't get scared when your passion starts to succumb to all of other people's frenzy. It's okay not to love your project every single day because you're gonna. It is gonna be a roller coaster ride. You are gonna go up and down, but you are not allowed to just shelve that project and put it away. You have to finish it and be proud of it. If you're not proud of it, start over, go back, get more source material, interview new people. If you lose your passion, ask yourself: Where did the story go? And find it.

KOURA: Thank you so much. You are amazing. I'm endlessly inspired by you, and I'm so thankful that you took the time to share —


KOURA: — your experience with us! Do you have any one-two punch, like, if you could say one thing to somebody wanting to start a documentary, what would it be?

ANSLEY: Just go out and make something. Just do it. Because you have this idea now and you're gonna have it in six months, and the difference between now and six months is that you could have done something about it. And just because you didn't do something about it, like, don't stay up late feeling bad about that. Just go out tomorrow, give yourself an hour, and go and give yourself a bite-sized assignment, and do it, and get some momentum. And if you aren't feeling creative it's probably because you haven't done art in a while.

KOURA: You're amazing. (laughs)

ANSLEY: (laughs) Just go out and do art! That's what it is. That's what we're doing. That's essentially our business, and everything else is talk. And talking about film is interesting, but it’s, you know, we're there to go out and make stuff. So just go out and make stuff!

KOURA: Yes! So thank you, again, to Erica for asking your question. I hope we've answered it. I hope this has been useful information. Share this podcast with your friends if you think it may be helpful for them, and let us know what your questions are. What topics we should cover next? And yeah, we've got a couple of awesome episodes lined up for you, and we're excited to keep sharing what we know. And that's it. Thanks for listening. Bye!


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Have more than one question? Set up a (free!) consultation with Koura Linda! Limited time slots are based on availability. There is no charge and no sales pitch as part of a one-time consultation. We got this far through the generous mentorship and support from friends and industry leaders who took their time to offer guidance and teaching and advice. It will always be our goal to pay it forward!

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