Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.





All Your Film Eggs In One Basket - Documentary Ideas

Just about one year ago today, I had one of those NPR Driveway moments.  Are you familiar with those? You're on a drive home, you hear a captivating story on National Public Radio, and when its still not done as you pull into your driveway, you just sit in the car until its finished. Well, when I heard this story last November about ancient greek theater, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the Iraq war and Paul Giamatti, I was convinced I had another film in the making.

After all, another one of our films, Shakespeare Behind Bars, began in the same story-on-the-radio-fashion.  I thought maybe lightning was striking twice with this driveway moment thing, so the next day I went on-line, looked up the NPR story and anything else I could get my hands on regarding the idea. I just about jumped out of my seat when I discovered that another actor involved in the project was an old neighbor of mine from childhood. This was turning out great—not only was it an idea that I totally connected to (an essential part of making a film), but I also had a connection on the inside.

These were the things working in my favor right off the bat:

-my connection to the idea (you need to have passion for an idea to see it through)

-my connection on the inside with my childhood friend

-the connection of the idea to my past work (this idea had to do with theater as a transformative tool, like  Shakespeare Behind Bars)

So after doing more research on-line regarding the idea and all the different subjects associated with it—it was a very rich idea—I contacted my childhood friend and set up a phone call. This call provided me with some great first hand info, mostly regarding the director of the theater project, whom I wanted to speak with next. He was the primary person I would have to get permission from to make the film, so I wanted to find out as much as possible about him. I then did some more on-line research about PTSD, the military, and greek plays, and made some additional calls to some theater people I know in New York. When I felt I had enough to work with, I sent an initial email to the director to say I was interested in making a film and could we set up a time to talk. (I also had my childhood buddy put in good word for me.)

I was nervous for the call since the idea meant so much to me, but I tried to keep in mind that whatever will be, will be. I also reminded myself that one should not put all one's eggs in a single basket. I did have other ideas I was developing, so if this one didn't work out then I could shift my focus elsewhere. And this is something to remember: one should always have a few ideas in the works, so that if an idea doesn't work out, there is another one (or two) in the wings. (Read my blog about Pitching Documentary Ideas at WestDoc regarding the importance of having more than one idea in a pitch session.)

Well, maybe you can see where this is going. As it turned out, the project director and I had a really great phone call, and an excellent discussion of ideas for a possible film.  The problem was that I wasn't the first person to approach him about making a film, and not only that he was looking at collaborating with a friend of his on a film.

I wasn't quite ready to give up though, so I did a few more follow ups with him via email and phone. Pretty soon though I could see the writing on the wall. We left it at he would call me to discuss a possible film project when he had received permission from the military to shoot, but I knew that this was a nice way of saying 'don't call me, I'll call you.' And he was nice throughout all our exchanges, never once shying away from our possible collaboration. But I gathered too that I was there as a back up in case his friend and him were unable to get a project going.

This was a tough pill to swallow for a few weeks, since I really felt a strong connection to the project, and that it fit into my body of work well—which would make selling it to funders easier. It is also hard when you put energy towards an idea, to have to walk away from it, and it's the knowing when to call it quits that is the tricky part.

Still, even though I was disappointed to not have the opportunity to make this film, I was happy to turn my attention and focus to the other two ideas I was developing. I dove into those with new vigor. Luckily, both of these projects have taken off and the subjects are on board with having us to make a film about them. Having a few ideas in development always helps ease the pain when one of your projects doesn't work out.

For more on developing your documentary ideas, check out our Documentary How To video tutorial "Developing Your Documentary Ideas". --- Hank