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Tribeca Talks®: Docs Doing It Right

If you are serious about doing documentaries, skip the overpriced workshops, forums and MFAs, and listen to these remarkable filmmakers who speak from experience.

Producer/director Jon Small, filmmaker Alexandra Codina, director Michael Madsen, director Thorkell Hardarson and The Hollywood Reporters' Georg Szalai

Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival


There must be an abundance of underemployed documentary filmmakers, as quite a few made it out midday on Monday for an in-depth panel discussion where four peers spoke about filming subjects ranging from Billy Joel to salmon. The panel explored the quandaries unique to documentarians, whose work straddles creative storytelling and investigative journalism. The Hollywood Reporter's Georg Szalai moderated the discussion with filmmakers Alexandra Codina, Jon Small, Michael Madsen, and Thorkell Hardarson, who all showed films in TFF 2010.


Hailing from Florida, Codina never attended film school, but instead learned the trade by jumping right in. The result is her first feature-length documentary, Monica & David, a love story about a couple who happen to have Down Syndrome. Her moving depiction was anything but amateur, and just won the competitive Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary Feature Award.


While Codina may be breaking out as a film director, the two European directors could be considered mid-career: Thorkell Hardarson, who hails from Iceland, presented his third feature-length documentary Feathered Cocaine at TFF 2010; the film examines the illegal falcon trade in the Persian Gulf. Michael Madsen, who is also a respected Danish conceptual artist, offered up his documentary Into Eternity in the Festival as well.


Producer and director Jon Small, who has eleven Emmy nominations and dozens of concert films under his belt, rounded out the panel. Small mainly features about famous rock stars (he's working on one about Kenny Rogers), so he brought a unique perspective to the discussion, as he works on well-funded productions which are, in turn, profitable. Small recorded the concert footage for the documentary Last Play at Shea, starring Billy Joel, which was a Festival crowdpleaser. The documentary turns the spotlight on both the stadium and Joel, who was the last performer to grace Shea's stage. Millions have stood in its stands cheering on sports teams, rocking out at concerts, and praying with the Pope, and the film pays tribute to an American-style house of salvation.


Even though their subject matters, years of experience, and aesthetic style differed, the filmmakers shared one thing in common: variables. Whether it is time, money, weather, government clearance, or one of a zillion other logistical issues, they each came back to the need for a director to be prepared for the unexpected.



When an audience member asked why it took these filmmakers so long to get their films made, Madsen explained that there is no quick route. Madsen, Hardarson, and Codina's most recent docs took between five and six years from start to finish. Codina, who spent five years on Monica & David, mused, "You might not even know what exactly your movie is about until you've been filming for a while."


Jon Small has a different clock to beat. Filming live performances requires him to be quick on his feet as performers are often in constant motion. He also has to ensure everyone on the crew is also fast on the draw. That said, Small's contribution to Last Play took only six months, and he explained that his films are documentaries that serve a different purpose. "My job is to entertain. I work in the entertainment industry, whereas these people are making a labor of love."


Filming non-actors brings its own host of conundrums. Codina remarked, "Real life can be boring." Hardarson, whose film examines such polarizing issues as overfishing, trade embargos, and terrorism, mines murky waters as he seeks out interviews with those involved, like the CIA.


Logistically, filming is a production, and the only way to learn these lessons is on-the-job training. Jon Small's role could be likened to a puppeteer, as he oversees seven cranes, several helicopters, 21 cameras, and a massive crew while filming. Codina, on the other hand, laughed and said she only had one camera.


Funding seemed to be a neverending sore spot for audience members and the panelists alike. Madsen said he was lucky that his wife is a breadwinner and supports his "hobby, a more expensive one than golf." He jokingly referred to Hardarson and himself as "trophy husbands." A European filmmaker in the audience suggested that European countries have traditionally provided government resources for the arts and education, including film.


In the U.S., Codina recommended small non-profit organizations that specifically fund documentary projects, such as Chicken and Egg Productions. (She also received support from Tribeca All Access, an initiative of the Tribeca Film Institute.)


Small commended his fellow panelists for sticking it out, as he had worked on low-budget documentaries before working in the music and feature industry: "I take my hat off to you all."


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