Directing Your First Documentary Film with Alana Maiello
Alana Maiello is a documentary filmmaker with a fresh perspective. Her award-winning short film Esfuerzo appeared as part of the Court Métrage Short Film Corner at the 2018 Festival de Cannes while also winning the Audience Choice for Best Picture at the Oceanside International Film Festival.
Presently, she’s in the post-production process for her first feature film and is eager to share with our community her journey, from breathing life into her project to establishing partnerships, the significance of networking, pursuing fundraising opportunities, building her skillset, and some of the less attractive aspects of filmmaking you don’t always hear about.
As a bastion for championing new perspectives, the Hurlbut Academy proudly supports Alana and her work on her first feature film (which, as an exposé, we’ll refrain from naming its title or details until following its premiere). But that’s okay! We’re here to learn how she got her film career off the ground.
Previously, we covered other areas in documentary filmmaking with Alana’s work like Pitching your Documentary — ESFUERZO and Documentary Filmmaking — 5 Rules for Success! So, if you’re a documentary filmmaker interested in a few more tips or simply want to know where to get started, you’ll certainly gain precious insight from our past articles.
The Path to ‘Filmmaker’
Film school is only one route to a career as a filmmaker; in reality, filmmakers are born from every walk of life. It’s important to highlight each individual journey because those who earn a living as a filmmaker had to learn and sacrifice much to get to where they are. And, Alana is no different.
Prior to her career switch into documentary filmmaking, Alana worked for Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City. She had an appealing job in finance where she learned and grew from on-the-job challenges and realized the importance of stretching her skillset beyond her natural strengths. Somewhere in between working hours, she found the time to lose herself in the documentaries of filmmakers like Errol Morris and Agnes Varda.
“I didn’t know anyone in filmmaking at the time,” laughs Alana. “So, I started where I could, watching every film I could get my hands on.”
Alana eventually moved to Los Angeles and joined the Hurlbut Academy to glean everything she could about cinematography, camera department, lighting, directing, and G&E. In the meantime, she found work coordinating behind-the-scenes and talent interviews for HBO. “This is where I got the chance to hear documentary directors and storytellers speak about their creative process firsthand. I was fortunate enough to work on a shoot with Thomn Zimmny and Priscilla Presley promoting their film Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Immediately, I knew I’d stumbled upon something. Here I am, new to the industry, and one day I’m listening to Thomn about The Searcher then the next I’m hearing Allen Hughes dissecting The Defiant Ones.”
How to Find Inspiration and Vision for Your First Feature Film
According to Alana, she believes a strong creative vision is based on “emotional aesthetics, visual language, and compelling storytelling” that highlights the nuances of each project. “I think that first-time filmmakers have to walk the line between pitching themselves as filmmakers while also staying rooted in their creative vision. First-time filmmakers are seen as more of a risk. That’s because a lot goes into making a film, and both financiers and producers want to make sure you can actually execute. You have to constantly prove your abilities.”
When asked about what advice she would dispense to filmmakers pursuing their first feature film, she says, “Focusing too much on the fact that you haven’t made a film can make it hard to trust your creative instinct. At the end of the day, I really believe that your creative intuition as a director is one of your most important assets. Spend ample time in creative meditation — that means embracing countless movies and taking in what resonates most for you in terms of style and story, listening to different music and cinema scores, and allowing yourself to be inspired by the work of other artists. Use that inspiration and start writing down your thoughts — write out the images that come to mind.”
Let Your Vision Evolve
Alana describes her vision as tending to “go through phases,” explaining, “At some point, the stories we captured and the cinematic language evolves into what they will become. We start with the idea of something, and as we develop it, and as we continue to experiment in post-production, we make connections between music, visuals, and stories that we hadn’t thought of in pre-production. It’s an incredible process to watch a film grow and mature.”
Take Advice from Masters
With documentaries, more often than not, inspiration and vision expands from the subjects themselves. Alana insists that it’s highly important for her to always keep an open mind and allows her subjects to express their truth. “This one time I attended the screening for the Netflix series Wormwood and Errol Morris was taking questions afterward. When he got to me I asked him what advice he had for new filmmakers doing interviews. He said, ‘shut up and listen!’ The best advice I’ve ever received.”
How to Find the ‘Right’ Producer for Your First Feature Film
The next phase of realizing your first feature film involves courting the filmmakers who will help make your idea a reality. By this time, you should have your idea. Ask yourself, ‘Why are you the one to tell this story?’ Do you have special access? Is it the timing? Does the story come from your personal experience?
Once you define the story while also presenting your value to it, your first challenge is finding the right producer. “This industry is all about relationship building,” Alana remarks. “One of the skills that I brought from my time at Goldman was the ability to network. That’s key to all aspects of the film industry. It might not seem as romantic as picking up a camera and filming but relationships are everything. They can be the difference between hiring the right editor or even receiving financing for your film.”
Networking, Networking, and More Networking…
It was through networking that Alana discovered the ideal fit for the producer of her project. There’s no set strategy for finding the producer who will help make your vision a reality. The first hurdle is meeting the right person who will either commit themselves to your project or drive you to those who will.
“I choose stories that I feel a responsibility to tell and find collaborators, producers, and EPs that feel drawn in similar ways. When you’re drawn to a story, it’s like a magnetic feeling that you can’t shake. That’s the feeling you want to have as a filmmaker. And as an independent documentary filmmaker, you’re going to grapple with that feeling for years. Producers are absolutely essential in this way. They help you clarify your vision, ask questions to keep you on track; [they] make sure that your vision is executed.”
Advice When Meeting Industry Professionals
Alana’s advice to filmmakers when meeting with producers is simply, “Just be yourself. There’s a lot of schmoozing in this business. If you’re naturally shy or unaccustomed to pitching or talking about yourself, that’s okay! Like anything else it takes practice. First, begin by talking about your film by yourself or with friends. Then, get used to telling your story and the connection you have to the project.” You’ll, of course, want to attend networking events, zoom webinars, and screenings to meet such individuals and schedule that meeting.
When you land that first meeting, Alana offers this tip: “Stick to broad strokes with your initial meeting. You want the people you’re meeting to be curious and ask questions. Share the hook, the narrative arc, and the visual language of the story, and then let the conversation flow from there. Be confident in your vision while also collaborative in hearing their thoughts and feedback. Every meeting is an opportunity to learn about that producer’s career and unique experience in the industry. They may have insight that you hadn’t previously considered!”
Where to Start with Funding Your First Feature Film
In the world of independent filmmaking, the process of funding your first feature film is like training a bear to juggle while also riding a unicycle. Where do you even begin?
Many who have made successful careers as independent filmmakers have found ways that work for them personally. For Alana, it’s about identifying people and organizations who share her passion for the material. In funding a documentary, you want to do your research into seasoned funders, partners, and grant organizations that feel passionate about your story and will help shepherd the film into the world.
In some cases, you want to really look at a funder’s expertise and experiences and partner with funders who may have funded films with similar topics in the past. Alana found the money for her project by doing just that. By researching comparable movies with similar themes and attending networking events, she compiled a list of people who were known to fund projects. “An introduction is everything,” says Alana, “and without introductions, I don’t think we would have found funding. Sometimes you can find someone to introduce you to that ideal person at a networking event, or through an attorney, or even someone in the public eye. But, in my experience, you really have to get out there and be persistent.”
Nurture Your Relationship with Investors
“Once you establish those connections,” says Alana, “just like everything else in this industry, relationship cultivation is important. Send your funders updates on the progress of your film and career, and continue to get to know and support their work as well.”
During a grueling 4-week production block, Alana received an invitation to meet some producers at an exclusive event. While the crew was crashing from the production block at their AirBNB, Alana, exhausted, forced herself to attend the meeting and made incredible connections. And this made the funding for the next phase of the film possible. “You have to put yourself in the position to move your film forward, whatever it takes.”
If you’re a filmmaker looking for detailed educational resources, Alana recommends both DOC NYC and Women Make Movies. Both organizations have produced incredibly helpful webinars on everything from documentary fundraising to successful relationship-building practices.
Learning New Skills
As an independent filmmaker with a unique vision, you discover ways to save money and maximize your savings. Before hiring an editor, Alana realized that it was important that she learned to edit so she could lead with her vision. After that stage, she brought in editors and writers. But every filmmaker needs to define their own method.
Every film you edit is a unique experience filled with themes, techniques, and storylines specific to its materials. Editing documentaries is even more unpredictable because the more you pursue a story, the more you learn and the more facts emerge. “You’ll constantly write and re-write the story in pre-production, production, and post,” shares Alana. “It’s standard for documentary filmmakers to create storyboards with notecards for each beat or scene in post-production, with the understanding that nothing is sacred, and scenes will be moved around. Once you string beats and scenes together in the edit, you’ll probably reorganize the presentation of your work plenty of times before it starts working really well.”
With the global market shutting down due to Covid-19, Alana like most in the film industry experienced an unexpected respite in production. In order to save money and keep the film moving forward, she realized that she needed to beef up her skillset. “I decided to start learning Premiere Pro. It was the best use of my time during the quarantine and turned out to be a valuable opportunity. Once you know the basics, it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to work through your footage, make selects from interviews and B-roll, and cutting it altogether.”
The Bottom Line: ‘Remember Your Value’
As you embark on your first project, you’ll encounter a number of challenges and obstacles before getting to the finish line. Especially if you’re a first-time filmmaker. That’s why you must always remember your value and the reason you first began your journey in the first place.
“When I was starting out, the best thing I did was just start making films,” smiles Alana. “Don’t wait around for the perfect producer, funding, or production company. Find a collaborative team of creatives and get to work. Balance your go-getter attitude with high-quality filmmaking. I personally vet the people I work with beforehand and make sure they know what they’re proficient in and know what they’re getting into. Working with other members of the Hurlbut Academy community was really instrumental to both Esfuerzo and my first feature documentary. In fact, about ⅔ of my team was part of the Hurlbut Academy!”
Alana Maiello’s feature documentary film is projected to hit the festival circuit in 2022. For news and updates, follow Alana on Instagram (@alanamaiello), Facebook, or directly from her website.