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Programmer Roundtable: First Time Documentary Filmmakers

TFF Programmer Genna Terranova sat down with some talents new to the doc world to get their thoughts on their work and the industry at large.

Tribeca Senior Programmer Genna Terranova had the chance to ask some of our very talented documentary filmmakers (Alexis Manya Spraic, director of Shadow Billionaire, Nicole Opper, director of Off and Running, Laura Bari, director of Antoine, and Leslie Cockburn, director of American Casino) a few quick questions about making their first feature length documentary. Below is a great slice of their extensive conversations.


Shadow Billionaire still
Shadow Billionaire

Genna Terranova: What made you want to take the leap and make a feature documentary about this specific subject matter?

Alexis Manya Spraic (Shadow Billionaire): I first learned about the story behind my film, Shadow Billionaire, when I was in high school. I held onto the article, but it was years later when I decided to make it my first feature. I loved the idea of starting with this story. I thought it would be an opportunity to make a film dealing with the ramifications of American exceptionalism that was entertaining rather than didactic.

Nicole Opper (Off and Running): I went to film school, and in my thesis project I included young students at a school in Brooklyn. That was where I met Avery and her family. Then, six years after meeting Avery, I contacted her family to discuss the idea of a film. I’ve always been drawn to movies that explore the nature of identity and family.

Laura Bari (Antoine): I was at the gym, supervising a Japanese student. I saw children from dissimilar cultures, four and five years old. I saw a deaf boy playing basketball, then another deaf girl running, and then I saw Antoine, who looked very disappointed. I was not looking for Antoine, or for a subject. At that time, I was working on other subject.

Leslie Cockburn (American Casino): After making seven hourlong news documentaries for CBS, Frontline and ABC, and dozens of shorter films, I was ready to leap into the unknown with a documentary feature. In January 2008, my co-producer Andrew Cockburn and I could see the large cracks under Wall Street. It was one of those moments when you just say, “Let’s take the risk.”

Off and Running still
Off and Running

Genna Terranova: It always amazes me how incredibly patient doc filmmakers need to be in their craft. How do you do it?

Alexis Manya Spraic: I think it is important to be deeply invested in your material going in—otherwise, it's hard to keep up that momentum.  What I love about documentary is that there are so few rules to follow that there are infinite ways to improvise when inevitably things turn out differently than you expected.

Nicole Opper: It was actually more challenging to find the discipline to stop shooting and put the camera down than it was to keep going for all those years. After all, the coming-of-age process takes a lifetime. So when you love your character as I did, there can be a temptation to create a Michael Apted series.

Laura Bari: The whole story is a balance between a child’s real time, my poetry, his sounds, my images and our movements. All are an important part of the structure, I wanted to explore new combinations, and a new forms of improvisations for the shootings.

Leslie Cockburn: I am a born observer. I suppose it’s a combination of boundless curiosity and skepticism about looking through someone else’s lens.

Antoine still

Genna Terranova: Often, documentary filmmaking can feel like you are operating in a bubble. How do you keep perspective and involve other points of view in your filmmaking process?

Alexis Manya Spraic: It helps to work with a team of people who understand your original vision for the film. I also like to get the film out of the cutting room as much as possible. I’ve never found a more effective method to make the material fresh again.

Nicole Opper: Broadening my perspective was a priority from the beginning. I was well-aware of the ways I felt connected to Avery and her story and the ways in which our experiences were worlds apart. I tried to assemble a diverse team of filmmakers that could relate to Avery in ways I could not.

Leslie Cockburn: I am one of those directors who edit a great deal in the camera. While we are shooting I can already see how to put together the sequence. I really just plow ahead, stubbornly holding on to that vision, hoping that it will resonate in the first rough cut screening.

American Casino still
American Casino

Genna Terranova: What documentaries other than your own have you been thinking about lately?

Alexis Manya Spraic:
I recently saw a documentary by Orson Welles called F for Fake and have since watched it several times.

Nicole Opper: The Cats of Mirikitani is one of my favorite recent films, and it’s been on my mind.

Leslie Cockburn:I am excited about seeing several documentaries at Tribeca. Fixer hits close to home because I have worked a lot in Afghanistan.

Genna Terranova: It is amazing how people open their lives to documentary filmmakers. How do you build trust with your subjects?

Alexis Manya Spraic: In general, when I approach people to be in my films I usually let them interview me, before I get too detailed about why I want to talk to them. I think it helps to let people get to know you as a person and to give them a sense of who they are talking to beyond just some person making a film. I try to be as open as I’m hoping they will be.

Nicole Opper: For me the key was to simply listen without judgement. So a little time spent listening went a long way. The other key to building trust was the interactive, collaborative process we built with Avery.

Laura Bari: I like and love people. It is my fascination to observe them, to get in contact when the differences are such news for me.

Leslie Cockburn: I build trust by coming back. We went to work with them, filmed in their car, filmed in the kitchen with the family. It is very intimate. You build a bond that is very special and there are certain responsibilities that go along with that.

Genna Terranova: Tribeca will be your first time your film shows in front of a public audience. What are your thoughts about that?

Alexis Manya Spraic: Getting it out there is scary, but it also feels like the natural progression of things. I‘m looking forward to a sense of closure on the film once it is in front of an audience.

Nicole Opper: That it's both exhilarating and a little scary, but it’s the first step on a long journey to accomplish what we really dream of for the film.

Leslie Cockburn: I am terrified but very excited. I want this film to wash over people so that they see things clearly that have been obscure or confused.


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