A series of interviews with hard working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
Academy Award winning documentarian, Vanessa Roth, grew up in a filmmaking family, seeing the process of writing, being on set and watching as movies were being made. From early on, Vanessa had a love storytelling and knew she wanted to do something that had a social impact.
WHAT DREW YOU TO WORKING IN DOCUMENTARIES?
I didn’t know that I wanted to do documentaries. I majored in Writing in college, actually Writing and Psychology and then decided to go to graduate school for Social Work and Family Law, not thinking that I would do either of those things, actually thinking I would do some kind of storytelling. I just always knew I wanted to do something that had some kind of social impact in the work that I did.
I think it’s just who I am. I grew up around a screenwriter, but also around a family who had a very strong sense of equity and justice and talked a lot about poverty and injustice and action and causes and things like that. My mom was an archeologist who talked a lot about the past and the importance of understanding roots and cultures and global views of things so it just kinda is who I am.
TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR FIRST FILM.
When I was in an internship for my social work degree, I met a lot of families that were going through the foster care system and I was really, really moved by the kids in the system and thought that they didn’t really have a voice. And it, sort of unexpected and not planned, brought me to the first documentary that I made. That was a great way for me to blend storytelling with real people and the access to people’s lives that I really couldn’t get in any other way.
It was called Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children. I had gone to WNET, which is the New York PBS station, with it and they loved it and I ended up getting a lot of grants for the film. We won a duPont Award for that film which was great because I went into it very naively, not necessarily thinking that this was what I was going to do in my life, but that film really did catapult me into the world of documentaries really quickly.
YOU’VE WORKED IN MANY ROLES, WRITER, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR, WHAT PART OF MAKING THESE FILMS DO YOU ENJOY MOST?
I like it all. Everything I do sort of blends into each other and I don’t know if there’s really a strict line between me as writer, me as director, me as producer.
I see myself as the creator of these projects. I bring them to life and do everything I need to do to get that done. I’ve also found it really important, not just when I first started, but really even maybe more so know, is finding people to work with who are experts in what they do and for me to be really honest with myself about what I’m good at and what I need support in and what other people really need to take the lead in and I need to just be a good team player with them.
I’m writing and producing and directing of all the time to stay in line with the vision I have or the idea of how a story arc will be told. The editing stuff, I love that because I love piecing all of it together. But then I love directing because the directing, to me in a documentary world, is the relationships I have with the people in the film and the people I’m working with.
AS A DOCUMENTARIAN DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT OR MANAGER?
I do not and I think that it’s very difficult that I don’t. There may be documentary filmmakers who do have agents and I know a lot have commercial agents too, but I’ve found that for documentaries themselves, I have to be proactive on my own.
But I’ve always felt that I could be presented with a lot more opportunities if I did have an agent. I think it’s finding that kind of person. Documentaries don’t make much profit so they’re not like the big deals of television and film. I think that’s also partly my own fault for not pursing it enough because I’ve been lucky that I find projects that really interest me or that projects find me.
WHAT DRAWS YOU TO A PROJECT?
What I get pulled to usually are projects that have something to do with questions of equity. I do a lot of films that really end up being about child advocacy or voice for people who aren’t usually heard from.
And I’m drawn to projects, like right now I’m actually producing my first indie feature fiction project and working on a different one that I’m going to direct. They both are rooted in just real experience. The one I’m producing is about a high school, it’s about a teacher, their first year teaching and the model for the film that I was really attracted to when the director and writer had approached me about it, is that there’s a cast that will be playing the parts of the adult staff in the movie, but all the kids are just high school kids, not professional actors, and we’re working in collaboration with the school.
So I think for me, I’m just always drawn to telling a real story, having those relationships and trying to be as authentic as we can. A thing that draws me too, are just the people that I feel that I’m going to have an interesting and positive time working with.
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU STARTED OUT?
Surround yourself with people who know more than you do. Also know what you’re good at and know what you’re not good at. The other main thing is just do it. If you have something that’s burning to get done, some idea, some vision, some concepts, some issue, something important to say, you just really need to go forward and make it happen, because waiting for someone else to give you the go ahead, it may come, it may come too late and it may come in a way you don’t really want.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE LOOKING TO GET STARTED IN DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING?
I’m a big advocate for making things happen with resources that a person has in front of them. What kind of access do you have to the story? What is your relationship to the story? Do you know people in your community or in your business or in your family or friends in your life that you could talk to about this idea and start formulating it more?
People like to help and be involved with things, so again I think my advice is usually just start moving forward. Do the research you need to do. Write about what you envision. Imagine what this looks like when it is done. Gather people around you to be supportive and be part of your team to make this happen.
I also think it’s really valuable if a person just really wants experience understanding the process, there are a lot of independent documentary filmmakers and documentary film companies to get involved with. Most are very happy to have interns and production assistants and development people and research people.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.