The Nerveracking Commitment of Making Your First Film

Making your first feature documentary is a bizarre, uncomfortable, and yet exhilarating endeavor. Because it is my first, I by definition have no idea what I’m doing, and have to figure a lot out by myself along the way. Since my partner, Zoe Hamilton and I made our first big jump -- the decision to make our first feature film -- we’ve been slowly figuring out what we need to do to get this done.

Since working as a freelance producer, I had been constantly thinking -- how do I turn my skills into something more? I’ve been hired as an associate producer on a number of series, a producer of a couple short documentaries -- but how do I translate that experience into producing a feature doc? The crappy thing about the film industry is that very rarely do people take a blind chance on you. No one is going to come up to you and say: “Hey! I know you’ve never produced a feature before, but I’ve got a ton of money and an idea, and I want you to produce a feature about it.” (This would be amazing, if this were a thing that happened. It’s not.)

You instead have to trust yourself, trust your skills and you passion, and jump. You have to roll with an idea, prove it’s worth pursuing on film, get the money to do it, and just do it. Easier said than done, of course.

Salima Koroma, a brilliant filmmaker, recently completed her first feature, Bad Rap, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. I picked her brain about how she got it done.

“For me,” she says, “it was a philosophical question: do I want to spend the rest of my life chasing the approval of my supervisors, in nine-to-fives I wasn't particularly invested in, or do I want to take a leap on something that I care about, and if done well, could blow open the doors of opportunity for me? Once I made the decision, it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. The only obstacle after that is, are you dedicated enough to complete your project without a supervisor on top of you constantly? At this point, whether you fail or succeed at completing the film, it's up to you and no one else can be blamed. It’s scary, but liberating.”

The decision to make a film does not automatically translate into a finished product. But I’d like to think the commitment to that decision counts for something, and that will be our motivation throughout the process. We’ve decided: we’re doing this film, and we will give ourselves fully to this film, no matter what happens.

In asking other filmmakers about making their first features, a number of them have told me: “if you can live with yourself without making this particular documentary, don’t make it.” Strange advice from people who make a living making films. Their point is that the process of making a documentary is so arduous, so taxing, that if you are not wildly passionate about the subject you are portraying, you will inevitably fail, or explode from stress, or something else equally tragic.

One thing we know: as we get more and more engrossed in our pre-production, we can’t live without making this film. We at least meet that requirement, and hopefully that means we’re on the right path.

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