Making Successful Documentaries with Roger Nygard

Giles Alderson chatted with editor, director and producer Roger Nygard on this week’s episode of The Filmmakers Podcast.

Although Roger has tried various different aspects of filmmaking, editing captured his heart. “Part of why I wrote this book Cut to the Monkey is I think it’s better to be a filmmaker who edits than an editor who cuts films.

You’re going to be much better at your craft when you learn the disciplines that surround that craft. I’ve done sound, camera, I’ve been on camera. I can now bring all of that knowledge into the editing room so I can provide solutions for editing.”

How He Got Started in Documentaries

“I became addicted to making documentaries. When I started making films, I had no desire or interest or thought of making documentaries. It wasn’t on my radar at all.”

But after working with Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation) on his film High-Strung, they discussed Star Trek conventions and decided to delve deeper into this “weird and fascinating world.”

How They Made Trekkies

“We found a producer who put up enough money to shoot one weekend. And the way that Denise and I learned how to make a documentary was we rented some documentaries together and started absorbing the language of film.”

They focussed on the language of classic films – the writing, music, editing and cinematography – and what made those films successful. 

“By having absorbed the language, you can communicate with everybody and be better at knowing what everyone else is doing, or at least having a basic understanding of their language.”

Making Documentaries

Out of all of his documentaries, Trekkies was the quickest one to make – only taking 9 months. “My next film, Six Days in Roswell, took two years. The Nature of Existence took four years. And The Truth About Marriage took seven years.

Trekkies was quick because the world we were capturing was vibrant and colourful. And we had to film very quickly. Every convention we attended was full of amazing, interesting people, and it was easy to get captivating footage.”

Being an outsider – not completely immersed in the Star Trek fandom – allowed Roger to focus impartially on the people and their stories. “I discovered these people who are obsessed with this thing. And because I’m an outsider, looking at a world that I’m not a part of. I can be much more objective about it. 

If I was an insider, I’d be preaching. No one likes to be preached to, you’ll put people to sleep. You need to entertain. And to me, Trekkies had to be entertaining. Every second had to be captivating. And I knew that the people, the subjects, that we were profiling fit that bill.”

Another important thing is to get the message across organically, from the footage that you’re filming. “It’s not me saying, I need to preach this message to the world. The point was these people are interesting. And this TV show has a message of tolerance and a brighter future where things are getting better instead of a decrepit future, which most sci-fi portrays; and that was what drew people to it, that optimistic point of view and that optimism suffuses my film. And that’s part of the reason you come away energised and happier than when you started, which I what you want from a film. It’s a catharsis.”

Success in the Film Business

Achieving the desired result – audience catharsis in Roger’s case – is success, but there are many steps before that. 

There is a whole chapter (Success in the Film Industry) in Cut to the Monkey that focuses on “how to succeed in an interview, whether it’s with an investor or a job interview or on a date, it’s all the same thing. People don’t invest in my projects or hire me because of my skill alone.”

In that first meeting, it’s important that the investor, hiring committee, or date likes you. So how do you do that?

“Showing interest in the other person. In the most successful pitch meetings I’ve been in, I speak the least and they speak the most. The more they talk about the project, the more they’re envisioning themselves as owners of it, I can just shut up and ask people about their lives.

If you’re walking into a pitch meeting, see what points of connection and overlap you have with them personally. Get them talking about themselves. If you get people talking about themselves, they like you, that’s one of the secrets to successfully getting someone to write a check for your movie or getting hired on a job. Ask them about their lives and then listen.”

How Does Roger Close the Deal?

“(Investors) buy into your enthusiasm. They rarely read the paperwork. You make a look book or a sizzle reel, and a sizzle reel is a visual way of trying to capture your enthusiasm. They’re going to see you saying this is going to be a fantastic success. Everyone wants to get on a train that’s going somewhere fun.

Nobody wants to get onto a train wreck. You’ve got to portray the impression that you have a train that’s going to these amazing places. And if they’re smart, they’ll want to get on board.”

Invitations to premieres, parties, the opportunity to meet actors, having their names in the credits and attending award shows are all part of the excitement.

“That’s what closes a deal, but you need a financial structure to be able to accept their money. And you have to be ready and planning for that.”

That might mean having a bank account for the project. Or a means to accept payments specifically for that project.

“You want to be ready to pull that trigger as soon as you have someone on the hook.”

For more filmmaking advice, tips and tricks from Roger Nygard, listen here.

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