From Documentary to Fictional Filmmaker: How to Make the Transition

Award-winning filmmaker Emily Abt started her career as a documentarian. Her first film, Take It From Me, focused on welfare reform and aired on the PBS documentary series POV in 2001. Her next film, All of Us, investigated the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among African American women and premiered on Showtime in 2008. The Brooklyn-based writer and director recently released her first narrative feature, Toe to Toe.

The film tells the story of the complex friendship between a black girl from a low-income neighborhood outside of Washington, DC and a white girl from a much wealthier part of town. They’re also fierce competitors on the same lacrosse team. Abt wrote, directed, and co-produced the film, which premiered at Sundance in 2009 and was released in theaters earlier this spring.

“I’m totally hooked,” says Abt about making fictional films. She teaches a course on social issue filmmaking at Princeton University and confides that “documentary filmmaking has its own magic, but there’s something so exciting about creating characters from scratch and really creating a world.”

Transitioning from the world of documentary to the world of fiction can be tough, but for her, she says it’s been worth it. The Independent asked her to advise the documentarians wishing to be first-time narrative filmmakers.

Tip One: Feel confident about what your documentary work has taught you about filmmaking.

The challenges of shooting a documentary will prepare you well for work on a fiction set, Abt says. From directing to sound recording, your documentary work will have given you tons of experience. “Nothing is more challenging than doing a no-budget social-issue documentary film,” Abt says. “You have to do a lot of the production yourself, you have a skeleton crew and you’re carrying all your own equipment.” And if you’ve never worked with actors before, your work with documentary footage will also come in handy. You’ll have a strong sense of authenticity that can help you direct actors and catch moments that don’t seem genuine.

Tip Two: Prepare to work with a much larger crew—and actors.

She says that when you’re working on a narrative feature, you’re just a cog in a much bigger wheel and that good communication takes on new importance. “You’ll have to be careful about making your directions very clear and specific,” she says. The sheer increase of people you’ll have to manage can be one the biggest challenges of shifting from documentary to fiction.

There’s also dealing with the fact that they are specific differences between the genres. To prepare for Toe to Toe, Abt enrolled in an acting class, which she says helped her give more constructive feedback to actors. “You can put yourself in the shoes of an actor and understand their experience a little more, and understand how difficult it is to be that vulnerable,” she says.

Tip Three: Use your documentary work as a springboard for fiction projects.

Working on a documentary throws you head-first into a world that might be unfamiliar to most others and requires you to get to know a topic or a community in great depth. Luckily, this experience—and access—could give you an advantage when pitching narrative features and writing screenplays. If you can use what you’ve learned on a given documentary as a foundation, “you’re going to be that much more ahead of the game in terms of writing material about it,” she says.

Tip Four: Have realistic goals within your budget.

You’ll push your budget, Abt says, but respecting your financial reality is crucial to making sure your film actually gets made.

You can also expect a small budget when it comes to your first narrative film, even if you’ve made a successful documentary— which means you’ll have to hustle for funding from foundations, investors, family, and friends. “It doesn’t mean that [the final product] can’t be good and it can’t end up at Sundance, but what it does mean is that you’re not going to catch Kristen Stewart as your lead,” Abt says. “It’s tempting because you’ll try to get big names to bring in financing, but it’s not really an option for the first-time narrative filmmaker.”

Tip Five: Get experience.

Experience is key to directing your first narrative feature, Abt says. Whether it’s experience working with a larger crew or with handling a screenplay, it’s important to prepare yourself for a different kind of filmmaking. “You learn by doing,” she says. “You need some practice and there’s nothing that can replace experience.”

Though Abt graduated from Columbia University’s graduate film school and gives it much credit for helping her make the transition, she says graduate school is not a necessary step for everyone. You can find other ways to get experience—from making a short film to working as a production assistant for a larger film. “If you can afford to go to film school, great,” she says. “But if you can’t, you can also learn by doing—sort of baptism by fire. There are a lot of successful feature directors who didn’t even do a short first. But it relates to what you feel most comfortable with, and the risks you feel comfortable with.”

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