One of the objects of the first discussion is to distinguish the possible from the impossible and to bring a sense of reality—such as through discussion of budget costs, time, and technical matters—into the planning. You might think that this kind of discussion should just be between the sponsor and the producer, but as it seriously affects the script, I believe the writer should be involved as well.

Cost Limitations

One has to know at an early stage all the cost limitations, because the size of the budget largely determines what can and cannot be done. The grandiose designs of the sponsor (or yourself) may require one hundred thousand dollars and so be absolutely impractical if twenty thousand dollars is the maximum available. The script must be capable of being executed within the confines of the budget. This is golden rule number one.

Most people who work in television documentary have an excellent idea of realistic costs. This knowledge is rarely shared by companies or charitable organizations who want films about their enterprises or projects. Sponsors are always shocked by the cost of filmmaking, and my heart no longer sinks when they say, "What! Thirty thousand dollars! We were sure it wouldn't be more than five thousand. Maybe we should do a slide show instead."

You must have a good sense of film costs before entering any discussion with the sponsor. In assessing the feasibility of doing your script, even at the earliest stages, you should be considering days of shooting, length of editing, stock costs, and so on, not to mention a living wage or small profit for the writer-director. So you must think about all the expenses in order to tell the sponsor what your beautiful idea will cost and in order to see whether the film can really be brought in on the budget suggested by the sponsor or backer. Hence golden rule number two: Do not accept a budget that will be inadequate for your film concept. If you are given a budget limitation, then your script (but not necessarily your imagination) must be limited by that fact. You ignore this rule at your financial peril.

One of the problems of dealing with costs at this point of the proceedings is that you may also be at the bid stage. If you are the only filmmaker being considered for the project, and if the sponsor came to you with their idea, then you are in a relatively good position to argue for the best budget under the circumstances. What is the best budget? You should try to get a rough sense of the organization—whether it is wealthy or desperate, whether it lives from profits or donations. Once you have this picture in mind, you will have a good idea how to make your bid.

When there is competition for the film, things are trickier. When other people are bidding for the same film, the question becomes how to make a reasonable bid that will keep you in competition with everybody else and yet will leave you enough to make both a quality film and a profit.

Time Constraints

It is also vital to discuss timing at an early stage. Are time considerations going to be of importance to any aspect of the film? If so, they should be discussed early. For example:

1. Does the film have to be finished and ready for screening on a certain date, such as the annual meeting of the sponsoring organization or a political anniversary within a country? If so, is there enough time to make the film while still maintaining quality?

2. How do seasons and climate affect the filming or the completion date? Have you taken into consideration that you will be filming at the time of the heaviest snows or that the rainy season will prevent your helicopter shots?

3. Are you dependent on one individual, group, or situation for any length of time, and will a change in the availability of someone or a change in the situation jeopardize the film?

If you are wary of these restraints, then think twice before you go ahead. If you still feel apprehensive, drop the idea. You'll feel better in the long run. Let me give you an example.

A few summers ago I thought that I had hit on a great idea. It struck me that John Houseman, the professor hero of the series The Paper Chase, had in his real life as writer, producer, and director seen almost every major change in film, theater, and television in the United States between the years 1940 and 1980. He had worked with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, produced Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas, and seemed to have known everybody and done every type of mass media. Knowing this, I thought we could do a fascinating film looking at forty years of change in the media and tie it all to Houseman's recollections and reminiscences. Houseman was agreeable and enthusiastic. What stopped me in the end was Houseman's age. When I met him, he was already eighty-three. I knew it would take about eighteen months to raise the money and get the project moving, then another eighteen months to film and complete. Could I rely on Houseman's health for three years? It seemed to me too big a risk, and I dropped the project. Houseman died six months after we met.

Film or Video?

One major issue must be sorted out at the start: Does the sponsor want a film or a videotape as the final product? This will also be a question for you even if no sponsor is concerned. The answer really depends on purpose and use rather than on technical considerations. You might prefer video

• if the program is intended mainly for home or office presentation;

• if the audience will have to go back and forth in looking at the film or if they will want to stop on one point for discussion or need to rewind quickly;

• if a tremendous amount of shooting has to be done and you are wary of cost—here the low cost of videotape is of tremendous help;

• if you want to make many copies yet keep the cost down;

• if you want very elaborate effects and think they can best be done electronically;

• if you need to work very fast, change magazines frequently, and also check your results as you shoot by using a monitor;

• if you need to keep your camera as inconspicuous as possible for political or other reasons. Thus, Ellen Bruno's film Satya, about Tibetan rebel nuns, was shot with a small one-chip Hi-8 camera. The new digital cameras are even more fantastic as regards compactness and quality.

You might prefer film

• if the sponsor wants a theatrical screening to impress people or if you are thinking primarily of a hall or theatrical presentation;

• if the quality of the photography is an important final consideration;

• if you are going to have a very lengthy editing process — at the moment film editing is much cheaper than video editing, but that might change.

In fact, all these arguments are open to question because of the swift pace of change in video technology.


Before starting a new project, I hold a discussion in my head concerning the project's feasibility. Occasionally, I get the most fantastic ideas, then realize they are not very practical. Often, extremely careful thought is required before saying yes to any idea.

Recently, a producer friend of mine told me he was considering doing a film on the intelligence services of the world and asked me to help him with it. It sounded like a splendid idea, and he had already made two films on international terrorism. If anyone could pull it off, it was Mike. But as we started to think through the project, a number of problems started surfacing. Yes, it was easy enough to talk about spies, about the blowing up of the Greenpeace ship by France, about the Israeli intelligence seizure of Vanunu, about John le Carré, about the KGB men who had defected and the problems of the CIA and so on — but was that enough? The film was about intelligence, not spies and not thriller writers, though these elements would appear.

The real question was whether or not we could penetrate in any meaningful way the intelligence systems of the world—the CIA, the British MI5 and MI6, the Israeli Mossad. I doubted it. We could perhaps get interviews with people such as Peter Wright, the former British agent and author of Spy Catcher, and in 1987, a whole heap of public evidence had been revealed about the methods of the Israeli Mossad, but I still didn't think it was enough. For the program to have bite, we needed real inside interviews. Instead, the most we could get would be old stories and tales of incidents based on hearsay, innuendo, and wild guessing. We could do an interesting film, but it wasn't the one I wanted to make. A year and a half later most of the information we had wanted had in fact become available, but by that time, my friend had moved on to other things.

Generally, I hate abandoning good ideas. If the subject is intrinsically interesting, then sometimes an alternative approach or a slightly different slant will show you a way in. Again, what at first seems a doubtful or unpromising idea often gets realized through sheer determination or imagination. In 1975, Roger Graef, a noted cinema verite filmmaker, wanted to make a film about the decision-making processes of big business in England. This necessitated entry into the most intimate boardroom discussions of the largest corporations, such as those controlling steel and oil. "You'll never get the necessary permissions," everybody said. "All decisions of big business are made by fat rich men in elegant boardrooms in secret." Graef persisted and, against all odds, got three of the largest corporations in England to give him permission to film their boardroom meetings over six months. The resulting series, Decisions, was one of the most fascinating ever to appear on television.

Sometimes it looks impossible. But it can be done.

Film Making

Film Making

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