8 Pre-Production Tips for Independent Documentary Filmmakers

Liz fishing in the Michigan Brown Trout Festival at age 7 in 1991.

Liz fishing in the Michigan Brown Trout Festival at age 7 in 1991.

I am honestly not exactly sure how we initially became interested in telling the story of the Michigan Brown Trout Festival and the people of Alpena. Liz was born and spent the first 18 years of her life there and I have been going up there twice a year since we got together six years ago. Alpena is a unique place; it is like watching a movie about small town American life in person. The eclectic downtown with artisan shops, the one and only coffee shop, Cabin Creek (great coffee, good wifi, and where a lot of work on Big Brownie was done), the antique shops that have been there as long as anyone can remember and of course, the bars. Latitudes Tavern, The Black Sheep, Dry Dock, Players, etc, all provide very interesting people-watching. There is something both unique and universal about small town America in that each place has something that distinguishes it from the other small towns but there are always the same character types and institutions that make strange places recognizable.

For me, the people of Alpena are what distinguish it from other small towns and ultimately why we made the film there.  We had been on the lookout for an intriguing story but had yet to land on anything.  I had yet to experience the "Brown Trout", as it is called by the locals, a ten day fishing/family festival of music, dancing, wine tastings, beer and of course, fishing.  People always asked if I had been to the "Brown Trout", "Oh, you are in for an experience," they would say. I was never quite sure what to make of that statement.  

One day I asked what the Brown Trout was all about. I was told about the idea to catch and tag a brown trout in Thunder Bay of Lake Huron, just outside Alpena, Michigan, release it back into the bay and have people fish for it for ten days. At the festival's height, this fish, "Big Brownie" as he was known, would be worth $50,000 dollars. In savings bonds.  SMALL. TOWN. AMERICA. I love it.  This was the most ludicrous idea I had ever heard of. I grew up fishing and I know how difficult and frustrating it can be.  People are trying to catch ONE fish in all of 23,000 square miles of Lake Huron! What?! There had to be more to this story. We were intrigued.

Since we were over one thousand miles away and shall we say, fiscally challenged, our only choice was the ubiquitous internet. We started looking into the Michigan Brown Trout Festival (MTBF) its rules, the Great Lakes ecosystems, Lake Huron, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, fishing in the area, the history of Alpena, and some of the people that we thought would like to be involved.  We wrote up our research and came up with a budget and a pitch and sent it out to the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Alpena and the President and Vice President of the Michigan Brown Trout Festival.  We were trying to raise a little money and awareness of the project and felt these were the right people to start with.  The Convention and Visitors Bureau gave us some money ($500) and Peggy Donakowski and Diane Cantle, president and vice president of MBTF were enthusiastic about the prospect of a film (and were very helpful throughout the whole process).  We had hooked our first helpers (pun intended).  

The one that started it all. State record just under 27 lbs Brown Trout.

The one that started it all. State record just under 27 lbs Brown Trout.

As it turns out, Liz's former-step-brother's wife Tara's grandfather and his nephew caught the record holding brown trout in 1974 that started this whole party.  (Did you get that chain of relation? Small town connections are the BEST.) The fish weighed almost 27 pounds and nothing like it had ever been caught before. Tara (the convoluted but important connection here) heard we were making a movie about the MBTF, and sent us pictures and documents from the original planning of the MBTF from 1975.  She also put us in touch with Jim Nensewitz, the nephew who netted the record brown trout.  We called him up once we got to Alpena and he was more than happy to talk with us and give us any info we needed. I'm getting ahead of myself though. We were still a couple months away from shooting since we were not going to Alpena until July, a couple weeks before the start of the MBTF.  We had a long way to go and still were not sure how we were going to pay for every thing.

An invitation to the press promising, "a bartender and booze." What else do you need?

An invitation to the press promising, "a bartender and booze." What else do you need?

We had a tiny bit of money but as anyone who knows anything about film budgets, $500 does not get you very far, but it was a start. We had a Canon t2i, a Canon 5D Mk III, a GoPro, a wireless lav mic and a Rode VideoMic Pro. That was it. We had built a budget for other cameras and shooters. We were going to be on the fishing boats all 9 days of fishing and at least three shooters on separate boats. We knew these fishermen and women would be a lot of fun and would make for great viewing. We just couldn't find the money so we adjusted and used what we had knocked the crew down to the essentials. Ourselves. We considered running a crowdfunding campaign but didn't have the time or money to do that successfully before we were to begin production. Believe me, it is an incredible amount of work to run a campaign successfully (we will get to that later as we did successfully raise money to finish the film during the post-production phase).   At the end of the day, our passion for the story, whatever it was going to end up being, was greater than our desire to make money. Dedication, madness, and passion makes movies, not money (but it sure does help).

A summary of what we learned about preproduction of a documentary film.  

  1. Make sure you are committed. There are infinite stores filmmakers can tell. There is an immense need to be be passionate about your story. No one else will be as attached to it as you and there will be a period where you hate the film. Make sure you can push through that frustration and defeat (there will be a lot of both) and FINISH IT. 
  2. Preproduction is the foundation. You cannot build a solid house on a shaky foundation. Build it wide and build it deep. Be prepared for earthquakes and hurricanes. They are coming. If you have prepared adequately, you will survive.
  3. RESEARCH. RESEARCH. RESEARCH. There can never be too much research. You need to know as much as you can about anything tangentially related to your topic.  Any detail could totally change your story. Do not rely solely on the internet (we did not), go to the library and TALK to the librarians about what you are doing.  ASK them if you are asking the right questions and looking in the right places. TALK to anyone who will listen, you never know what they will be able to tell you or who they can put you in contact with.
  4. DO NOT be afraid to cold call people. There is a moment of awkwardness when trying to explain what you are doing but once you get past the awkward, the worst they can say is, "NO!" It is amazing how willing people are to help out complete strangers. We were invited into homes, offered meals, drinks, and even hugs. Steve Speaks let us go to his cabin and get a time-lapse of the sunset after spending only one hour together! 
  5. DO NOT rely solely on who people point you to. Get names from news article archives and follow up on them.  Google the ones people cannot put you in touch with, Facebook, or the good old phone book. Do not quit until you know the person is going to help you, won't talk to you, or is dead. 
  6. Communicate early and communicate often. Reach out to friends, fellow filmmakers, social media, let them know what you are doing. 
  7. Get as many people involved as you can. Whether it is to help make the film or just follow your social media posts and spread the word, the more, the merrier.  
  8. If you feel you are 75% ready, you are only 25% there. No matter how much you prepare, things will change, there will be setbacks, accelerations, or complete changes in story. Be flexible, be water my friend! 

These are but a few of the lessons learned and I hope they help. I will talk in more detail in later posts as they are intractably related to decisions made in pre-production.  

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Lastly until the next post, our trailer for the film.

Side note: (A long side note I admit, but worthwhile). Every Christmas we travel to Alpena and spend time with family and it is brutally cold outside. The constant parade of social engagements with Liz's big family (and the accompanying heavy Polish food) led us one afternoon in 2013 to get dressed up (very warmly) and go for a walk.  We walked a couple blocks across the Thunder Bay river and wandered into the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS) and were totally blown away. For those that don't know, TBNMS is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility. TBNMS is there because of the over two hundred shipwrecks in the waters of Lake Huron. They recently expanded the sanctuary to over 4,000 square miles of protected waters. I was expecting some podunk museum like I had in my small town, just the building with old stuff in it. No, no, no. This place is legit. It has a replica of an old schooner you can go inside with sound effects of a thunderstorm and waves crashing, lightning is going off; it is impressive.  There is a theater and a lot of really cool stuff from all the shipwrecks in the area. We were intrigued.

We walked up to the front desk and asked if there was someone we could talk to about making a movie about the place. They told us to wait a moment, and out walked Stephanie Gandulla, Underwater Archaeologist and Media and Outreach Coordinator at the TBNMS.  She is awesome. The Best. We introduced ourselves and told her we were interested in learning more about the place and making a movie about something involving TBNMS.  She showed us around a bit, gave us some copies of work other companies have done (Sony, History Channel, Discovery) and told us about the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) ROV International competition that was coming up the end of June 2014.  There was going to be thousands of people from all over the world with underwater robots battling it out in the big water tank in the parking lot. We said, SOLD!  We will make you a movie about that! I am sure Stephanie was thinking, "Yeah, whatever, these people are not going to do anything, I have people tell me this all the time." So we scheduled our six week summer shooting of Big Brownie to start following the finish of this two and half day ROV competition which we shot and quickly edited. It was a blast and it turned out great. We got to interview kids from around the world and see their inspiration for a bright future. Stephanie, everybody at TBNMS, and MATE were really happy with it.  Oh, yeah. And we self-financed this as well.

Check out Small Town, Big Heart below.