The Mentoring Room - Ask the Working Pros

Mentoring Room

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This is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. Professional members of The D-Word will come by and answer your questions about documentary filmmaking.

Julie Hudnall

In reply to Russell Hawkins's post on Mon 20 Mar 2017:

 Hi! Thank you so much for your comment!  I LOVED Harlen County,  I haven't seen Bruce and Me, I will go watch it though.  I have thought about a follow up trip because someone recommended going to the library there to do some research on the camps and my family.  I don't want to spend the whole time in the library, I want to talk to as many people as I can. 


Russell Hawkins

Shooting a film that you are also in sounds pretty difficult to me, but I know people do it!  For example, how to approach meeting a relative for the first time and needing to engage as a family member while shooting and being in the film?  Moments like that really need to be caught in that moment, there is no second take.  "Don't look at the camera" isn't going to work.  Hugging someone with a camera in your hand is awkward.  Will you appear on camera, or will you wear a lapel mic and record your voice?  I would watch other films and talk to people who make those films to better understand which approaches work.

Doing the library research on a separate trip is a good idea.  Also you could use that opportunity to get some landscape/town footage, establishing shots of people's houses, people doing their regular thing... all of which may be difficult to get whilst you are in the midst of the family stuff. 

If you intend to look at other films it could be worth searching or posting in the "Recommended Docs" thread.

Jill Woodward

In reply to Russell Hawkins's post on Wed 22 Mar 2017:

 I have seen at least one, if not more films, in which the filmmaker is meeting family for the first time. I am either thinking of Daughter from Danang, or possibly Chac by KimChi Tyler from 2000. There is definitely a scene in my mind exactly like what you describe Russell, where the filmmaker kept filming and also hugged. As a filmmaker watching, I was fascinated to see how she would handle it.

Daniel LaBarbera

Hi everyone! First time documentarian here. I've been in the video/production field for 10 years but I'm taking my first stab at making a documentary. The project is about the life of an eccentric 26 year old man (Stevie Blatz) who has owned his own entertainment business in PA since he was 16 years old. The business has been losing money the last several years due to Stevie's lack of education (high school dropout) and questionable business decisions. Aside from his business life, his personal life is a mess. He has endured a lifetime of bullying, personal failures, and mental issues. The bullying he goes through is constant and it's beginning to wear on this man. After a very long chat with him, we decided the direction of the documentary should be about Stevie bettering himself as a businessman and finding a girlfriend. He is extremely outgoing, but has had almost zero success with the ladies in his 26 years. 

I'm comfortable with the interview process and we already have 5+ subjects that are willing to be interviewed for his documentary. That's the easy part, in my head at least. What I can't wrap my head around is everything else that will be in the documentary. The footage of Stevie going about his life. He has a large personality and I know following him around for a period of time would create amazing content. 

To understand the personality I am working with, check out this interview he did for the local news station a few years ago:

Now for my questions:

1. How can I film Stevie in a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, mall? What's the process? He LOVES to dance. I imagine it being very difficult to obtain permission from any of these establishments. His personality is huge so I know there's opportunity for great content in establishments like the ones I mentioned. Can anyone offer some guidance to this approach? 

2. What's a good approach to capturing the content that is NOT an interview? Stevie living his life. Stevie working on improving his issues. My current plan is to spend approximately 2-3 full days, every week for about a month or two with Stevie. Production would begin early in the morning and commence very late. Thinking 10-14 hours a day. I'm wondering how organic this should be...Do I literally roll the camera and let him make his bed? Do I give him direction? I'd love any advice to point me in a better direction for this. 

3. He's an entertainer (mostly kid parties). If I want to include footage of him performing at an event, can I use any of the audio captured at the party? Almost all of the songs he plays and performs to are not licensed by him. Without obtaining music licensing I imagine including any audio from these events would be difficult. Is that the case? If I am filming him in public and there's pop music playing in the background, do I need the rights to that song? 

4. If he's performing at a kid's party, do I need signed consent from the parents of every child that might appear in my frame? 


I have so much more to ask but I'll start with this! If anyone can lend advice, personal experience, words of wisdom; it's very much appreciated. 


John Stanton

Not sure if this is the correct place to post this. I have been shooting a documentary about the rise of the foodie culture. We have not raised a penny of budget yet, but I was able to convince my team to chip in two shoot days on the cuff, just to get the ball rolling. One of the chefs we interviewed, who I think might be a major character in the film, offered to hold a special event -- basically one night at his very high end restaurant, with the night's proceeds going to the film. This is not any sort of investigative piece, just a small doc celebrating this part of local culture. I can see the obvious problems -- mostly the worry that he might want t influence the storytelling -- but just wanted to throw it out t you guys to see what else can go wrong.


Nigel Walker

Offer to cut a 1-2 minute promo piece for his website... maybe hold back some of the best moments.

Paul Szynol

In reply to John Stanton's post on Mon 27 Mar 2017:

i would have him sign a release that makes it clear you have full editorial control and ownership of the film, so that it's clear that you have no obligation to heed his creative input (if he offers any).  that said, i think the risk is that it will be seen as an advertisement of sorts if one of the main characters in the film partially sponsors the production... 

John Burgan

In reply to John Stanton's post on Mon 27 Mar 2017:

 All good advice, but as it says at the top, this is a Public Topic geared towards first-time filmmakers. As you're a Pro member, John, in the future such questions could go in the Pro Topic on Production. 

John Stanton

Oops. Thanks. I did not notice. Although even after being involved with a dozen films I often still feel like it's my first rodeo.

Jill Morley

In reply to Daniel LaBarbera's post on Thu 23 Mar 2017:

 Hi Daniel,

I recommend you see the film, "The Cruise." It's about an eccentric young man who does bus tours in NYC. I haven't seen it in a long time, but it was filmed in a way that you were rooting for the subject. It was funny and really an interesting window into who the character was.

Think in scenes rather than just "following" him in his life.  What has the potential to be dramatic? Yes, give him direction sometimes.

Just ask the establishments if you can film there. I see you are in New Jersey. Hopefully, your subject has a relationship with a manager or owner. 

Be charming. :-)

As far as the music goes, I kind of forget that one. You might want to ask in legal. I would err on not using anything that you don't have the rights for.  I do know that if you edit with the music that is playing in a scene that it's not kosher.

Yes, parental consent forms are a must.

It sounds like you might need a more dramatic story than what you are shooting for, but it also sounds like you could very well discover it along the way.

Good luck!




Dino Reyes

Hello my name is Dino and I'm a first-time film maker and a documentary I made was recently stolen. 

As far as the backstory, there was one main subject in the doc and I was working with the family on this project. We had much disputes, despite our contract and after the film was completed I was cut out of the project on a whim and the son, the only living heir, decided the film did not have enough of his acting (it's a doc for heaven sakes!) and his music (he was a part-time music hobbiest), so he found a rogue editor to take mine and the production teams work, re-edit and give themselves credit. Because he had the family name, he was able to influence distributors that he was in fact the director of the film and able to make agreements. 

So my name removed as director (and my editors name removed as well) replaced and placed on many sites such as Amazon, Hulu, Youtube etc (for example here: ).

You can still see I'm listed on IMDB as director for the project  (this could not be changed by the offending party).

I don't know much about the industry but I'm curious how often this may happen? Do people know about this? Since all contractual agreements have been shattered is there any recourse? commiseration or any random thoughts would be fine also...

Russell Hawkins

"all contractual agreements have been shattered" - I'm not a lawyer but I think that is the key right there.  Presumably you have a release form and a music contract, but the son has no contract that states that you have assigned ownership of your intellectual property to him. 

If your aim is to regain control of the film, you probably need to engage a lawyer and seek an immediate injunction to prevent distributors from selling the "rogue" film while you pursue negotiations or legal proceedings with the son.

Is the son an integral part of the film?  If he tries to withdraw his participation you may also want to seek legal advice about whether you can release your original version on the strength of the existing release forms and music contract.It may become murky if the son/family have invested in the film (prior to the theft).  If you raised the funds independently of them you probably have a very clear cut case. 

Have you looked into any arts/law organisations that offer legal advice?  You should be able to get at least an initial phone consultation with a lawyer free of charge.  There are several filmmakers on this forum who are also lawyers, hopefully you will get more responses.

I think these instances are pretty rare, it takes a certain kind of personality to just take something like that!  For what it's worth, I am aware of a documentary where the fixer stole all of the exposed film after the shoot and the film was never made. Hopefully your setbacks are only temporary.

John Burgan

What Russell said. Just for the record, this is a Public Topic, hence this discussion can appear in a Google search, whereas all the Pro topics are private. This is aimed at Fans, not Pros, as stated at the top.

Doug Block

In reply to Dino Reyes's post on Tue 28 Mar 2017:

As John said, wish you began this discussion in the Legal topic where it's not public. However, since it's here, I'll just ask: how did your subject get access to the material in order to re-edit?

Bill Jackson

Doug, I wanted to ask the exact same thing. I held off, knowing this wasn't the correct topic, and it might be moved to another topic. It seems the power to stop this was lost when they were given the  material.

Daniel LaBarbera

In reply to Jill Morley's post on Tue 28 Mar 2017:


Thank you so much for the advice! I will definitely check out "The Cruise" today. I am desperate for good references so thank you!  

I did a test-run with Stevie a few days ago, filming him while he trained a new employee for his company. I have about 2 hours of uneventful footage, with a few decent soundbites here and there. I think discovering the story will hopefully unfold as the process continues. 

Kristal Sotomayor

Hi everyone!

My name is Kristal and I'm a senior studying film at Bryn Mawr College! I'm going to be graduating in May and wanted to get some advice on documentary filmmaking labs and fellowships for aspiring filmmakers. I also really want to get into a graduate film program to gain more experience and contacts before starting to make my own feature length documentaries. Mostly, I'm going to graduate soon and I want to spend a year or two honing in on my skills before going to graduate school so any advice that people can offer would be amazing! Thank you so much!


Kate Prendergast

HI, I have wrapped shooting and nearly done editing my first documentary. I was hoping to get some advice from more experienced film makers on post production work flow. The nitty gritty of what the year ahead might look like. I am in the NYC area and hoping to connect with other independent film makers. Thanks

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