Doug Pray’s 7 Basic Rules about Making Documentary Films

15 Jun 2011 Posted by Jonathan Wells in Film


As part of the Secrets of the Doc panel I hosted at the Levi’s Film Workshop at MOCA, I had the pleasure of interviewing acclaimed filmmakers Doug Pray (Scratch, Infamy, Art & Copy), Ondi Timoner (DIG!, We Live in Public) and Michael Rapaport (Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest). I asked Doug, a long-time friend, to share his most essential tips for documentary filmmakers:

  1. The more organized and meticulously planned your documentary production is, the more time you’ll have to play, be free and discover genuine spontaneity and cinema verité beauty.
  2. Research is essential, but pre-interviews with your subject can kill good interviews.
  3. Short, simple questions in interviews are much better than long, rambling ones (which tend to be more about you, than your subject). The best question of all time is “why?”
  4. Don’t ask your interviewees to “repeat the question in their answer.” Besides stressing them out and making them do your job for you, it leads to boring answers. When they give you one word, un-editable answers, just act stupid and ask them what they’re talking about, as if you forgot. Repetition is fine.
  5. When editing dialog in documentaries, edit sound first, then picture. Sound is the secret weapon of most documentary scenes–if you build a sonically believable sequence (whether dialog, music, or insects chirping), it will work.
  6. If you are debating whether to leave a scene in or out of your film, 99% of the time it should go out. Editing documentaries is less about collecting and putting together… it’s about omitting and throwing away.
  7. Be grateful if you are able to get meaningful distribution for your film, and remember than distributing documentaries is a thankless, difficult chore in a nearly impossible market with a terrible, horrible history of financial success. You don’t have to love your distributor or agree with all of their suggestions; you do have to respect them, and be willing to let go.

Doug Pray is an American documentary film director, cinematographer, and editor who often explores unique subcultures in his films. His work includes Surfwise, Big Rig, Infamy, Scratch (2001), a documentary about turntablism and DJ culture; and his first feature, Hype! (1996), a documentary about the explosion and exploitation of the Seattle grunge scene of the early ’90’s. His most recent film Art & Copy, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, is about advertising and creativity and was distributed by 7th Art Releasing and PBS in 2009.

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