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.

Bernard Bull

I'm excited to get started on my first documentary that will give people a new perspective on the modern letter grade system in education, its limitations, and alternatives to it. I'm looking forward to offering a deeply thoughtful, provocative, and wonderfully human side to this story; and my hope is that schools and communities will use it as a discussion starter.

With that said, I'm completely new to documentary filmmaking. However, I want to be as hands on as possible as this is a means of storytelling that is an important part of many future projects for me (I already have tentative outlines for the next three). I'm a writer, author, and University professor whose work focuses upon the future of education, educational innovation, and critical issues in education. I've been humbled to give keynotes and invited presentations around the world, well over 150 in the last decade, which has also allowed me to build a solid network in the field. I published three books in 2016 and am on track to publish three a year for at least the next few years. I also have decent and ongoing following through my blog at, which I hope gives me a bit of a head start when it comes to a future distribution strategy. In addition to that, many of the themes that I explore are well-suited for the screen, and I believe that the documentary is an excellent venue for telling these important stories in education. I'm also a designer and storyteller at heart (probably more than a traditional academic) and I love the challenge and opportunity to use the documentary as a way to delve into a new form of research, inquiry, and storytelling. To tell the truth, even if people told me that this is a terrible idea and tried to discourage me from it, I would still move ahead. I've an incredibly driven person when it comes to critical issues in education and I am absolutely convinced that the documentary is a near-essential means of expanding the conversation in important ways. This is just too important to me, the well-being of future learners, and the well-being of societies near and far.

I'm sure to have many challenges with this first project, but I started out by reading a half dozen books that seems to be common required reading in film schools. I've also watched and tried to learn from a growing list of about 70 educational documentaries over the years. Actually, I started by doing intensive research on the topic of letter grades for almost four years, running a successful MOOC on the subject, and writing a book on the topic that I hope to release in the next six months. I also enjoyed the Werner Herzog's MasterClass and several other online classes that address various aspects of filmmaking.

I'm deepening my knowledge and comfort with some of the technical elements of lighting, sound, and video; but I am definitely a novice on all fronts. I've acquired some basic equipment to experiment. I have a general outline / storyline for the documentary, although I am excited about how interviews will reshape some of that. I also have an impressive lineup (with more to come) of well-known and provocative interviews for the next five months.

I am taking a sabbatical from January through May of 2017 where I will serve as the Jonathan D. Harber Fellow in Education and Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University. I will be teaching one class on education as social entrepreneurship, writing two new books, doing research for this documentary, and capturing footage for the documentary. I am not at Wesleyan until the end of the month, but I know that it has an incredible film program, and I hoped to possibly connect with some students who might be interested in helping with the audio and video for my interviews. I would love to a complete first documentary in hand by the end of August. 

So, I'm not leading with a question, but I would love some initial thoughts and tips as I venture into this new and exciting project. 

Doug Block

Welcome, Bernard, and thanks for all the background.  You seem to have done all the preparation you possibly can and at this point I'd simply say it's time to leap in.  If you think you've found a compelling character to follow, you might start there.  I often like to start with a few interviews.  I'm assuming you have the resources to afford to start shooting.  That's a whole other story, of course.  

Best of luck. Tips are all well and good but making documentaries is always a trial by fire endeavor :)

Cody Meirick

In reply to Bernard Bull's post on Thu 29 Dec 2016:

 I agree with Doug. You'll learn a lot in the first few interviews and learn even more after that. I'm glad to see the research side seems to be your strong point, same here. The topic seems great. I don't know that it has been done before and I'm sure it is interesting enough to fill a documentary. The documentary I've been working on for years is about censorship in schools... luckily I haven't had to worry about consenting or filming kids much, but if you do, I know that can be a tricky area, so good luck. Engaging subjects would be nice, but hearing how much you've been involved, you may immediately have some in mind. I'm sure you have, but looking at comparable docs out there is always important... "Waiting for Superman" is one of the main ones that come to mind, but perhaps you want to purposely take a different direction in how you go about the subject, don't know.

Although outlining is great, I guess I would just make sure you film a lot more than needed and expect it to shift a lot... in many ways the story is told in the edit room... and be prepared to let it shift based on your instincts. Some interviewees could be completely bland and unusable while others could take you into exciting directions. Let interviews go off on tangents... finding a human side to the subject means finding the little worlds that people live in. Why is a letter grade important? It is kind of absurd that it is, IT'S JUST A LETTER, but it actually affects people's lives. 

My 6-year-old is in Catholic school and is subject to a crazy lettering system (besides the fact that he is even getting letter grades at this point)... 90% is like a B- or something. It's been a learning experience for us, but he is sensitive and gets upset about it. So I completely empathize. I work at Erikson Institute in Chicago (look it up) and if you're interested in getting experts to talk about early learning specifically when it comes to letter grades, hit me up... I know a lot of experts in the field.

Paige Landau


My name is Paige Landau and I am an aspiring documentary filmmaker who just moved to Salt Lake City. I am looking for an internship or job that would allow me hands on experience in this field as I want to learn all of the inner workings that go into creating a documentary film. Although I don’t have filmmaking experience, I learn quickly and am hardworking and honest. I have great interpersonal communication and organizational skills, I am very observant, detail-oriented, have high energy and great stamina. Based on these qualities, I feel I could best contribute to a production team as a Runner, Producer’s Assistant, Second Assistant Camera, Third Assistant Director or Grip. In all honesty, I simply want to be part of a production team that’s bringing prominent images of truth to the screen and if given the opportunity know I would be an asset to any team. If you have any fitting job or internship openings I could apply for or know of any you could pass my information along to, I would greatly appreciate it. If you would like some more information about me, please let me know and I would be happy to answer any questions.

With gratitude and kind regards,


Doug Block

In reply to Paige Landau's post on Mon 9 Jan 2017:

Welcome to The D-Word, Paige.  Some of the jobs you say you're seeking - runner, second ass't camera, third ass't director and grip - are all jobs for fiction filmmaking, not documentaries, which utilize very small crews.  We have nothing against folks who actually go over to the dark side to work in fictitious films, mind you.  

Paige Landau

In reply to Doug Block's post on Wed 11 Jan 2017:

 Hi Doug and Vivian,

Thank you so much for writing back! I currently have my Associate's Degree and will be applying to 4-year universities in March to earn my Bachelor's in film. Before I go head-long into the rest of that educational venture, I'd like to get my feet wet in filmmaking through an internship and/or job in the field. The advice I've been given is to be as specific as possible in the type of position I am seeking. Through doing research I found the jobs I mentioned but wasn't able to find documentary specific entry level positions.

Who is on a documentary crew?

Erica Ginsberg

Depends on the documentary. It could be as little as one person or as big as any Hollywood film. The majority of independent producers work in fairly small teams though - likely a crew of 2-5 in the field and/or back at the office. I think, rather than starting from where you want to be, it might be better to flip that on its head and think about the skillsets you already have which would be beneficial to a documentary filmmaker or production company. At the front end, that could mean help with research or setting up interviews or helping to implement a crowdfunding campaign or developing a grant strategy or setting up a website or social media. In production, it could mean helping at a shoot (if you don't have prior filmmaking experience, this may mean grunt work tasks like helping to carry or watch over equipment bags, getting releases signed, or managing media cards, but it would give you valuable observational experience seeing production in progress. In post, there could be a need for help with organizing footage, researching and applying to film festivals. 

So much of our world is word-of-mouth. I would imagine SLC has a small but tight-knit production community and that most of the doc folks make their bread and butter from other work (fiction films, commercials, nonprofit videos, etc.) - if you are not already connected, check Meetup or Facebook for gatherings and start networking.