No one likes being a documentary producer. You either love the job, or you don’t do it. No middle ground.
To choose to produce a project—in any format—is to invite a world of headaches into one’s life. Budget problems, schedule problems, talent problems, post-production problems… the list will go on as long as you let it. Documentary producers get to enjoy all of those tribulations, but with a fraction of the budget, compensation and public acclaim that their counterparts in scripted film and television enjoy. You have to love the job, maybe even love it too much.
PGA member Lesley Chilcott openly cops to being an addict. "I still do commercials to support my documentary habit,” she admits, mock-sheepishly. "It’s like a virus. I think once you have the privilege of being able to share someone’s truth, you want to do it more and more.” And indeed, she’s been sharing a lot of truths during the past several years. A veteran of countless PSA shoots, Chilcott served as co-producer on An Inconvenient Truth, arguably the definitive doc of the century’s first decade. She subsequently teamed with Truth director Davis Guggenheim to produce acclaimed documentaries like It Might Get Loud and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ winning the 2011 Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures for the latter. Of late, Chilcott has added directing credits to her filmography, most recently CodeGirl, the feature she produced and directed last year about the Technovation Challenge, an international competition that showcases teams of teenage girls around the world striving to develop and code community-oriented mobile apps.
Chilcott with DP Logan Schneider on location in Moldova
Breaking free of the December holiday rush for an hour, Lesley Chilcott sat down with Produced By
editor Chris Green at a roadside juice bar in Woodland Hills. Over the whine of machinery churning out kale-carrot-cucumber beverages, the pair discussed the halcyon days of MTV, the nature of Netflix’s unprecedented commitment to documentaries, and the enduring influence of Mark Lewis’ Australian cult-doc masterpiece, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History
How did you find your way into the business?
I was studying business at USC, in something called the Entrepreneur Program. I wanted to start a vegetarian fast-food chain. But my friends were in cinema school and I was constantly crashing screenings and sneaking into one of the classes. I had always been a huge movie buff, but never had thought of it as a career. No one in my family had ever done it.
I finished college early and wasn’t super thrilled with the restaurant industry, based on what I’d learned. And maybe I was a little ahead of my time with the vegetarian fast-food chain idea. So I started working at MTV as a PA, right after it turned 10.
So that’s at the point where the network was evolving from pure music videos to producing its own shows.
Yeah. In fact, because I was based in LA, I worked on many of the live multi-camera shows. I was part of the first team that created the MTV Movie Awards. I remember sitting around the room brainstorming with Joel Gallen and others, "What weird categories could we have? How about Best Action Scene. Best On-Screen Duo? We came up with the craziest stuff we could. And even though I was close to entry-level at that time, everyone got to have input.
I think a lot of people start in this industry not sure what they want to do. But because I had this business background, I had more direction, though I must admit I didn’t think of it on my own. It took my college friend to say "Why don’t you think about going to the Peter Stark Program at USC? You’d be a great producer.” That was food for thought. I knew I was on that route, but at MTV, if you stuck around, pretty soon you were handed the reins to do something. So I never made it back to grad school.
I worked on the MTV Movie Awards, the Video Music Awards, ½ Hour Comedy Hour, all those sorts of shows. You start as a production assistant, then you have a little more responsibility, then you’re an associate producer. I think you got the better credit to get you to stay. I was the associate producer on a show called Trashed. That was my first real producorial experience. It was a comedy game show where we blew contestants’ possessions up—we "trashed” them—if they didn’t answer our questions correctly. I had a lot of responsibilities on that show.
There was always something fun going on at MTV, but I followed the VP of Production, Joel Gallen, when he left the network. In fact, the only real job I’ve ever had was helping him start his company, Tenth Planet, and even that was a start-up. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a real job.
I did two- to five-year cash-flow projections for Joel and finally put my degree to use. I worked with him in production for nine months, and then through my friends at MTV I started doing commercials, hundreds of them. Through that, I got to work with some of the very best directors. Some of them were full-time commercial directors like Joe Pytka, and some of them came more from film or television, like Tom Hooper, Bennett Miller and Todd Field. What’s great about commercials is that I had the chance to get to work with so many different directors, and I didn’t have to commit six months or a year of my life to it. It was three weeks. It’s been such a pleasure for me to be able to have these moments with these very big talents and learn what I could from that. Especially now that I’m directing myself. In fact, I’m very thankful for a job I did with Todd Field where he turned to me and said, you should be doing this, directing. He was very encouraging.
As a producer, sometimes you try and adjust your producing style so that you can cater to whatever director you’re working with. This person is a visualist, or this person is a master storyteller, or this person is an amazing production designer or all of those things. I was constantly trying to put myself in their shoes and think where might I need help if I were them. Wearing those different hats and working with so many different directors on commercials really inspired me to direct myself.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be a director my whole life. I was perfectly happy as a producer, but started directing because one day, I was covering for a director I was working with. There were two things happening that we needed to shoot, so I had to shoot some things myself. On a documentary, that happens; you have to split up to cover everything. I kept doing that, and then one day I finally thought, "I think I can do this myself.”
There’s also a lot of overlap between roles on documentaries. It’s the director’s vision but it’s generally a partnership between the director, the producer and the editor, because there’s no script. The editor then especially becomes an important storyteller, because they’re the ones who will first notice. "This person is way more interesting than we thought,” and that changes your entire direction. They’re often fulfilling the role of a writer. It’s just after they’ve already shot, instead of beforehand. They’re the writers after the fact.
That’s a really neat characterization. So how did you go from commercials to documentaries?
Well, as fun as commercials can be, sometimes there’s a lack of substance.
You don’t say?
[Laughs] Yeah. So usually once or twice a year as a commercial producer, I would make it a point to do a public service announcement, whether it was to help a cause, or a director, or a client, or someone else we had a relationship with. There was this amazing camaraderie that would happen because, inevitably, we had no money. We could pay a fraction of what would normally be paid. I always figured, well, if everyone is going to get paid poorly, then everyone may as well just get paid the same thing. I mean, you can’t ask a production assistant, who’s already the least-paid person, to get paid one-eighth. That wouldn’t even be legal. So I said, "Let’s just pay everybody the same thing.” And it created this incredible "we’re all in it together" spirit. I’d be producing spots for this cause or that cause and so I would research the cause and learn more about it, which led to seeking out more and more PSAs, which was not the norm.
So I was working with Arianna Huffington and Scott Burns and Lawrence Bender and Laurie David, part of a group called Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars. We were trying to create these deliberately provocative PSAs that said if you drive an oversized SUV then you’re indirectly supporting terrorism, and here’s why.
We thought it was fantastic. And every time we would complete one of these, right before it was supposed to air, it would mysteriously get pulled, through pressure from Detroit and other sources. So then we would call the news and often they’d do a story, running the commercial full length on the 10 o’clock news. And that gave us way more eyeballs than we would’ve ever have gotten.
It was that kind of activism that pushed me into shooting documentaries. I had also seen a documentary. I admit that I didn’t see it when it first came out; I came to it late. But it was called Cane Toads.
Oh, Cane Toads is a phenomenal movie. For about a year, I screened it for nearly everyone I knew.
So then, you know. When I saw Cane Toads, I realized this was a different genre than I’d been led to believe. Not only is this hilarious, but it’s crazy, pure craziness. Instead of just this dry story about how the cane toad was introduced to Australia to fight the cane beetle, you had images of Kombis driving down long roads trying to run over cane toads and little girls who kept giant poisonous toads as pets. And I thought, "That’s what I want to do.”
I can’t tell you how gratifying it is that there’s a Produced By cover story that has its roots in Cane Toads.
Cane Toads was one of those movies that indirectly put me on the path to working with Laurie and Lawrence. They had recently gone to see Al Gore’s slideshow about global warming, and within 24 hours Lawrence Bender and Scott Burns had both called me to attend a meeting about the slideshow Al Gore was giving. And I showed up and I knew everyone except Davis Guggenheim, and Davis knew everyone except for me.
Within that meeting, we decided that we needed to fly up to San Francisco, talk to Al, and convince him we were the team to turn his slideshow into … something. We weren’t sure what. And of course, it ended up turning into An Inconvenient Truth, which was the first documentary I produced.
A few months went by and Davis called and said, "How about you mostly quit what you’re doing and I mostly quit what I’m doing, and we form a documentary production company?” And it took off from there. I think once you have the privilege of being able to share someone’s truth, so to speak, in a documentary, you want to do it more and more.
For instance, when Davis and I were following around Al Gore, we had these great conversations with him. But we’d bring the camera out and he would unconsciously revert to talking points. He’d been speaking in public for so long he just reverted to them whenever he saw the camera. Finally Davis said, "Let’s just do an audio interview with you.” And so Al talked like Al. We started doing that more and more.
After we had shot the majority of An Inconvenient Truth and Sundance was coming up, we realized that there were a few things that we were missing. So we met with Al to interview him, audio only, one last time. And Al is like, "God, another interview.” Davis interviewed him for so long that the sun set and they forgot I was even in the room. That interview became 75 percent of the voiceover in the film. So even if you have this very well-known personality, sometimes you really have to drill down to get them to be themselves.
What it was like to watch An Inconvenient Truth become not just another documentary but a kind of a cornerstone for contemporary doc storytelling?
|Chilcott reviews a cut of An Inconvenient Truth with
VP Al Gore, Kristin Gore, and producer Lawrence Bender
Well, to my knowledge no one had ever made a movie out of a slideshow. So it was a real surprise to all of us. It took what people had thought of as a very complicated issue and articulated why this is an issue and why viewers might have been confused about it. But the fact that a movie starring Al Gore, on the topic of global warming, featuring a slideshow, became any sort of a hit still blows my mind. I’m always telling people, "Analytics are amazing but you have to be careful.” If we had extensively focused-grouped this movie it never would’ve come out in theaters. When I’m trying to advise producers starting out, I tell them, "Use all the analytics available to you, but then you’ve got to stick with your gut and make the larger decision.”
When you think of something that you’re just so sure about and everyone thinks you’re crazy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t crazy but just that it may not be the right time for that project. I interviewed Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, and he told me he actually thought of Twitter back in 2003. It was before Facebook, and people thought his idea of giving updates on what you were doing in 140 characters was really odd and weird, so he put it on the shelf. Facebook came out in 2004 and in 2006 Jack took the idea off the shelf and suddenly it wasn’t so weird.
Documentaries have never been as inventive as they are now. We’re bringing nontraditional tools to documentary filmmaking and telling them in all sorts of new ways. And I think that that’s really exciting.
So working then with Davis, how did you build a company to try to replicate that?
It sounds very grandiose, right? It’s not like we had a development department and a full-time editorial staff. It was just me and him until we had a project. He was still doing pilot work, I was still doing commercial work, and in the meantime we’d brainstorm on what documentaries we would do, and then some documentaries started coming to us, and some we sought out. After An Inconvenient Truth, there were a lot of projects that we started and didn’t finish or we got busy with something else.
What is it that allows you and Davis to click as an effective filmmaking team?
Here’s an example. When we were developing a documentary, Davis said to me, "You know, a documentary needs time to find itself.” Meanwhile, I’m trying to do the budget, get ready for our pitch meeting … I just needed information. So Davis might say, "A documentary needs time to find itself,” but my response is something like, "Well, can it find itself a little faster? Because we have to go pitch this in a couple of hours.” That kind of became our joke. "Do you know how many people you might need to shoot this or do you need time to find yourself?” We always had a good back and forth.
At the same time, I knew exactly what he meant, and he’s not wrong, but it’s a perfect example of how our partnership worked and kind of how documentaries work. With a narrative feature you have a script, so you know, well, there’s 13 roles and there’s 14 locations. You have a breakdown. Even if you change it later, you can at least plan. But when you’re writing a documentary treatment, you’re like, "I think this would make a wonderful story. And I think it would be great if we can get this particular person. And if we can’t get that person, we’ll go in this direction.” There are all of these conditions. It gets complicated. So you just have to guess. I always ask, what is the minimum possible days I could do this in? And then you throw in a couple extra days for good measure. I’m always "squirreling away my nuts” until suddenly we’ve found our direction—aha, this person is the key; we need three more shoot days. And you hope that you’re covered.
What is it that makes a story take on the critical mass where it’s not just an idea, it’s an actual production?
I wish I had a good answer for you. I think in scripted projects there comes a point where you know you’re making it because you’re casting, right? Somebody had to finance that. Or sometimes you cast without the financing and get people attached as a way of attracting financing.
With a documentary you don’t have a script circling around. But I think that if the subjects that you want to cover in a documentary are interested and you know that you have access to them, you can start there. Documentaries are essentially a point of view, right? So we’re always pursuing this truth as told from your character’s point of view. I think that there comes a point where you’re committed to telling the truth no matter what it is, even if it has nothing to do with what you wrote in your treatment. But you have to have an engaging enough treatment and you have to show that you have access to these people to at least get your first bit of funding. And then you have to decide, do you raise money as you go, or do you wait and raise it all at the beginning, and then go? I’ve done it both ways. With CodeGirl, I didn’t raise my last bit of money until postproduction. For Waiting for ‘Superman’, Jim Berk at Participant Media had been a high school principal. He knew he wanted to do a film about education. He came to Davis and I and asked, "What would you do?” We spent months writing a treatment, gave it back, and Participant greenlit it based on that treatment. We started down that road, threw that away, and made an entirely different movie, which ended up being Waiting for ‘Superman.’ And that happens more often than not with documentaries.
How did CodeGirl evolve?
I heard about this wacky contest where high school-age girls from all over the world had three months to write a mobile app. The only rule was that it has to solve a problem where the contestant lives. I had read all the dismal statistics about the lack of women in tech and how every major tech company was creating programs for girls because the lack of diversity was a real problem, not for just diversity’s sake but in pursuit of well-rounded ideas, creativity, execution … everything really.
So I thought, "Well, the contest starts every year in January. I have to start now. I don’t have time to raise all the money so I’m just going to raise a certain amount of money.” So I raised this miniscule amount of money and started filming. Then I had something to show, a little clip, which I used to raise more money. Then I had a slightly longer story string and raised money as I went. That worked for that project. But if you’re going to do something like An Inconvenient Truth and follow a former Vice President around or any high-profile individual, you are better off raising the money beforehand. There are no rules for how best to do it.
So what is the marketplace like for documentaries
Amazing and dismal. On the one hand, documentaries are getting more coverage in the press and in blogs and in digital content sites than ever before. The amazing thing about a company like Netflix is that as part of their plan for you—this is going to sound trivial, but really, it isn’t—you get a billboard. So Netflix has done maybe 13 or 14 documentaries total. But they give them feature film treatment. You go to the festivals, you get the PR agent, you get the amazing poster, you get all their marketing genius and you get a billboard in LA. It’s amazing to see documentaries on billboards. We’re so used to flying stand-by, so to speak!
On the other hand, fewer people are going to the theater to see them. Once I finished directing and editing CodeGirl, as a producer I thought, "Well yes, I want traditional distributors to like CodeGirl but really I made the film for teen girls.” That’s not a small market but it is a different market than the film festival market.
Teen girls aren’t going to Sundance. Teen girls aren’t going to see documentaries in the theater. Teen girls watch YouTube. I didn’t know how my investors were going to feel about this, or if I could get a distributor after giving away my film for free but I felt I needed to make my film free for five days so teens could see it. It needed to be free for Sunday through Thursday, and then on Friday it could be available in theaters and VOD. This is what I needed to do to solve the problem of getting to my audience directly.
So I called Julie Ann Crommet and she set up a meeting for me at YouTube with Made w/Code, Google’s initiative to get more girls into coding. I asked, "Has anyone ever given away their film for free before it went to theaters and VOD?” They said, "No, no one has ever done that.” So I said, "Let’s do that.”
I was very insistent that none of the money could come from tech companies, because I didn’t want someone to say "Oh, this was really just for ABC tech company’s PR.” Google had nothing to do with funding or doing the movie. There’s a bit of a disconnect between funding for narratives and documentary. When you produce a narrative feature, you take money for product placement and you produce a movie in the hopes that it will make a profit. But with documentary, you don’t do this generally, you don’t want anyone to have influence over the film. So Made w/Code came on just for the "freemium” window on YouTube and it made perfect sense for us.
Made w/Code was an amazing outreach partner and I felt very lucky. It aligned with their goals of interesting more girls in coding and it aligned with my goals of reaching teens on YouTube. It actually came out on YouTube in four languages.
Yeah. Obviously we had English. But we shot in all these different countries. And Made w/Code said, "Why don’t you release it in Spanish, Portuguese and Hindi, because some of the winning teams were from Mexico, Brazil and India?” So we did that. Almost a million people saw it in those 5 days. And I know from our analytics that at least 89,000 of them were teen girls.
Then FilmBuff was brave enough to take on this new model with me and became the film’s distributor for our theatrical, VOD, TV, digital and educational releases. Now, we’re going to be the first film, narrative or otherwise, on Mashable starting January 6th. CodeGirl is the first video rental ever on Steam, the gaming portal. So we’ve been trying for some firsts. The producer side of me kept saying, "The market is changing. How can I reach my market in new ways?” If you have an original way to reach whatever your niche market is, you’ve got to do it. Even though I feel like what I’m doing is small, I know that when you directly reach your audience, the impact can still be big.
I think that as a nonfiction person, you constantly have to think about "How do I make it bigger?” I mean, we could’ve just shown An Inconvenient Truth to all the environmental groups. If we had thought that way, yeah, they all would’ve seen it, but I’m not sure who else would have. But we thought, along with Participant Media, "Let’s put this slideshow in theaters and make the trailer so over-the-top scary that we scare people into the theater.” That’s not the approach that you would traditionally think for a documentary. I think you’ve got to identify your market and then ask, "How do I get beyond that market as well?”
There’s definitely more content available than ever before and you’re fighting to get eyeballs on your project so identifying your market is more important than it has ever been. With platforms like YouTube, on the one hand, the barrier to entry is lower and maybe the production value doesn’t have to be as high to attract online viewers, but on the other hand, the stories have to be even better because there is so much competition.
I feel like documentary filmmakers are always right there on the edge, and you’ve got to be careful because you might run out of money or make a bad decision. You’re constantly, constantly trying to figure out how to make things work, but often you get to the real truth that other people can’t get to. And for me that’s really rewarding.
- Feature photography by Kremer Johnson Photography
- Read the rest of the February/March issue