The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making

The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making

The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making

The Art of Nonfiction Movie Making


The past few years have featured such blockbusters as "Super-Size Me," "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Sicko," "March of the Penguins," and "An Inconvenient Truth." And as news articles proclaim a new era in the history of documentary films, more and more new directors are making their first film a nonfiction one. But in addition to posing all of the usual challenges inherent to more standard filmmaking, documentaries also present unique problems that need to be understood from the outset. Where does the idea come from? How do you raise the money? How "much" money do you need? What visual style is best suited to the story? What are the legal issues involved? And how can a film reach that all-important milestone and find a willing distributor? Epstein, Friedman, and Wood tackle all of these important questions with examples and anecdotes from their own careers. The result is an informative and entertaining guide for those just starting out, and an enlightening read for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at this newly reinvigorated field of film.


Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman long ago entered the pantheon of American moviemakers for their pioneering contributions to gay identity and history. Honored by Sundance, Oscar, Emmy, and Peabody, the San Francisco-based filmmakers have amassed a deeply moral, differencemaking body of work. Yet they’ve never been credited for their influence on contemporary documentaries, surely one of their signal accomplishments.

When the duo began their careers in the 1970s, the popular definition of documentaries was “educational films.” a handful of ’70s works began to challenge the prevailing assumption that credible nonfiction was dogmatic, impersonal, bland, and boring. Friedman, who cut his chops as a film and television editor in New York, and Epstein, who at age 19 was introduced to documentary by the quietly impassioned San Francisco filmmaker Peter Adair, rejected that dry-bones attitude, and the ghettoization of docs.

In the mid-’80s, they started collaborating, on carefully crafted films with riveting characters, cascading revelations, and momentous breakthroughs. Beginning with Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), their films were intended to move—and move audiences—in the same unforgettable way as fiction films. Note that character-driven, drama-driven films have become the dominant approach in American documentary in the ensuing decades.

“We’ve always thought of our documentary films as narrative films,” Epstein told an interviewer in 2010, when howl was released. “So when . . .

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