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INSPIRE TRUST: Trust Inspiration - Julie Goldman And The Art Of The Doc

Posted By Kay Rothman, Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ever wish you could get inside someone’s head who has the guidance you need? You know, when you’re struggling with especially tricky challenges? Lucky for us, Julie Goldman (with whom I just worked on Amazon Prime’s The New Yorker Presents) graciously opened up with some invaluable insights. Here are some choice bits of what I learned from a whirlwind tour of Julie’s thoughts, experience and professional priorities…

For those readers who are not familiar with her impressive body of work, Julie is a prolific producer. She founded Motto Pictures in 2009. Since then, Motto has specialized in producing and executive producing documentary feature films. Working as creative producers, Motto is the company behind over two dozen films that have won awards and been distributed throughout the world, including: Life, Animated, Weiner, Best of Enemies, 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, Manhunt, God Loves Uganda, Art and Craft, Gideon’s Army, and Buck. The team at Motto – producers Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn and associate producers Sean Lyness and Marissa Ericson – work to ensure that each film is carefully guided throughout the filmmaking process, the festival run and to all distribution platforms worldwide. Julie recently received the 2016 Amazon Studios Sundance Institute Producer’s Award recognizing "bold vision and a commitment to continuing work as a creative producer in the independent space.”
Creative Producer = Director, right?

With television, the Creative Producer is the Director. I’d say with feature documentaries, it’s still very auteur and director–driven but the director can’t direct in a vacuum. When we work with a director at Motto Pictures, we act as something to push against, a point of resistance for the creative process to work against. We work with really strong directors who have very specific creative visions and then we help them break down what those visions are, and most importantly, will those approaches achieve the goals of the film. Sometimes it’s a process of working with the director on the creative vision for the film. Sometimes it’s finding a way to get their creative vision made into the film. So the scope of my producing activity depends on the person who is directing, but the objectives are always the same – finding the right balance for the film.

Choosing from the myriad of festivals and online venues:

For me, it’s always "See what’s coming and try to stay ahead of it.” Right now it feels like we’re in a golden age of documentary. There are more and more companies looking to embrace feature docs. Yet there’s also a kind of downturn. The grosses aren’t as high as they were at the box office, so are distributors going to pay the same kind of money for the films? It’s always been up and down in the doc world. But we’ve been more steady than regular indie fiction film has been. There’s of course, HBO—the gold standard that’s been there for docs from the beginning of cable television. But there are so many others now. We just did Life, Animated with A&E IndieFilms, which was a great experience. And Discovery is now making a commitment to documentary features. Nat Geo is making a commitment. Netflix and Amazon are suddenly bringing a huge influx of, not only financing for films, but more of an ability to get your film to different platforms. Right now it feels pretty incredible. And the material is bottomless. That is the beauty of documentary. It’s about what’s happening right now, out there in the world, or what’s been happening and is still happening, but whatever it is, it is truly stranger than fiction.

Festivals are for selling, no wait ... they’re for marketing, no wait ... umm ... confused ...

It depends on the festival. And it depends what you’re looking for for each film. Going to Sundance this year — with Life, Animated — we were looking for distribution. With Weiner, we had just signed distribution with IFC Sundance Selects. So for that film it was really just the initial bounce of getting it into the world. There was really insane publicity happening with the New York Post and the Daily News cover pages before anybody had even seen Weiner. Quite an unusual experience. For Life, Animated, doing the festivals was about getting interest from international markets, and it was also the prestige of having it at Sundance and the ability to announce it to the world. Receiving Sundance’s 2016 U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was like the cherry on the cake. It was the perfect launch. And then we had sorted out all of the international deals enough to have it in Berlin at BFM being sold already.

On deciding whether the story should be short form or long form:

Motto does a lot of short form. This year alone we’ve done three shorts. The subject drives what the length should be a lot of times. Sometimes you can capture the essence of the story and have it feel like it’s a full film. And other times you have themes and stories that just need more time to explore and tell.

Beyond formatting, on storytelling itself — that no documentary is the complete record. It’s not an archival transcript. It’s a point of view. We’re not saying something that is untrue. But it’s not the total story. It is never everyone’s side:

Otherwise it’s just a document that is going to be pretty dry. That’s fine for some people who want to make those films. But I think the idea for us is to make features where people can go either to a theater or to television or online and have an immersive experience. I’m not talking about shorts which also kind of mix genre as well. But for features, you want to make something that people are going to be able to completely get absorbed by for 90 minutes. It’s the same thing as any kind of storytelling. You want to do it in a way that’s going to be engaging to an audience. Like you said, I’m not going to make up a whole other crazy story that’s not true, but what I’m going to do is use different material, take from different genres, and create new art.

On getting the story subject’s trust:

Putting yourself in their shoes is probably the most important thing. What would you want to be assured of, what would you want to know about these people who are coming into your life so that you could really trust them? You have to have a lot of empathy when you’re working to gain someone’s trust because a lot of times producers say, "Oh, yeah. Just get them to sign.” No. They’re giving a real gift to you in opening their lives and trusting. And I take that very seriously.

They weren’t judged. They were respected.



And taking that trust one step further ... On whether or not the story subjects get to see the finished piece before it’s out in the world — (I mean, what if they say, "Ooh, take that out. I know that the camera was rolling buT… ” And that’s your great moment they want nixed. Then what?):

I think people get kind of lost in the moment a lot of times and they say things that they don’t even really think about. And then when they see it in the finished film they are kind of shocked. So you have to be really persuasive in explaining why it will be important to other people when they see the film. We’ve had some tricky situations. One time we cut something out when we had done a series because it would’ve potentially really embarrassed the subjects in front of their children and embarrass the children publicly. And that was really the only thing they objected to. And we cut it out, even though it was tough, structurally, for the film.

In terms of whether or not the subjects even see the film before it’s released—it depends on the film; it depends on fact–checking, and it depends on the arrangement that you make at the beginning with people. We had the film Manhunt about CIA operatives and analysts. And the three main people came to Sundance and we had agreed to show it to them before the first public screening. And we said, "You can watch this now. But it’s going to be a very different experience to have your first viewing of this film be with an audience that will embrace you and the film” I always assure them. And this is true. I find that subjects tend to be much less self–conscious at a screening with an audience than they are watching the film for the first time alone on a television. It’s too much like a magnifying glass. If you’re watching yourself on a screen all alone, you are going to pick up everything about yourself that you don’t like. It’s going to become very personal. It’s not going to be about the film experience. If you can watch it with an audience, for the most part , it’s going to be gratifying. The film’s subjects feel acknowledged rather than analyzed. Validated. One of the subjects who was very vulnerable in the film … I sat with her; we held hands during the screening, and she cried a lot. And then when it was over she was so happy. She said, "I’m so glad we waited and saw it in this way, with this audience.” She could feel the respect. That was something that she had been really hoping for, for a long time.

On leaving it in (even when I make my case, the subject really wants something out and I need to say, "No, we have to leave it in”):

Yes. We have had that. And that’s really tough. That’s really a painful situation to know that the subject is unhappy with what’s in the film. But a lot of times it’s really a subjective experience that they’re having watching it. And what we try to do in that situation, is have other people who are around them who they trust, see the film with them. Because with the kind of closeness that they have to the person, but with distance from the film itself, that’s often a way that people can be kind of convinced, "Okay, well, no, you don’t look like this.” or "You’re not saying that.” or "It’s not showing your story this way. You’re seeing it this way but, me as one of your confidants, can tell you, ‘No, it’s not coming across that way.’” And that makes all the difference.

On how making these kinds of decisions, having these kinds of sensitivities, having a clear, respectful vision of something you’re working on shapes you as a person, not just as a producer:

The people who’ve allowed us to enter their lives and make films with them/about them, have been a big influence on me. There’s first of all, the spirit of people who are fighters and who are struggling and who are relentless in trying to make change. Those people are exhilarating to be around. And there’s the people who are so special like Bishop Christopher from God Loves Uganda. You just feel this aura from him. What he’s doing is so pure. And his devotion to it is so pure. It’s incredibly inspiring. Over and over and over again I’m inspired by the people who we make films about. And I just feel so lucky that they trusted us and that we have this continuing relationship as well. You meet these extraordinary people from all different backgrounds, telling all different kinds of stories. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to connect with them in any way and especially to really tell their stories.

And there you go. Wish granted.

There’s a hybrid effect that sometimes happens with fiction and nonfiction in documentaries. The boundaries are really being pushed, which is very exciting. Not every documentary is going to be all verite. Not every documentary is going to be all talking heads. It’s going to be some mix now. The idea of creating something that takes a page from fiction and has something that’s immersive …that’s very different. That kind of grey border is going to continue. We did a whole animated film in Life, Animated that’s a completely separate thing that you could take out and you have an animated five–minute film. But it’s broken up in the feature very, very deliberately and with great intention. But back in the day that would’ve been like, "Okay, you’re out. That’s not the strict documentary rules.”

{ Good collaborations}

Bring this to the table:

I really look at these films as a group of people coming together to make something that is going to be profoundly moving, or else to move people to action, or to have an incredible artistic experience. There are so many different ways that you want these films to connect with people, but to do that you have to have the right kind of chemistry between the people who are making it. You want to have an editor who is somebody who wants to hear your ideas and talk things through. You want to have a DP who’s going to be somebody who is flexible and open. You want people to bring the best of what they have to it, to share their individual unique vision, but also be fluid in the way that they work with others. We tend to telegraph that idea when we work with people, and because of that, it tends to be very collaborative. It tends to really bring together a very, very strong team. It’s a field of play that everyone can participate in. It’s not about hierarchy. It’s about who’s bringing great, compelling ideas and who is figuring great, imaginative ways to execute those ideas.

Leave this at the door:

Ego. If your ego is at the center of how you move through the world, you are not going to be a great collaborator, obviously. And you don’t want your ego leading the way anyway. It’s a way to rob yourself of the benefit of the gifts and talents of others. That’s why collaboration is so wonderful when it works without a lot of ego gumming up everything. Being intransigent, being set in your ways, being defensive, not open to other people’s ideas but also needing to claim everything as your own, is just totally exhausting and I actually feel bad for people who are slaved to that sort of method of work. It’s not for me. For those kind of filmmakers, it’s "one and done.” Maybe you work with them once but you never work with them again.

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