Member Post: Birthing the Sex-Ed Document: Lessons in Film Conception
I never expected to get into documentary film – I decided to major in film studies after watching Blue Velvet and imagined myself on the set of quirky, indie dramas. But the universe had other plans. When I started my first internship search as an undergrad, at all the traditional film companies it seemed like the most complex task I’d be doing was getting the coffee order right. The documentary companies offered the chance to do actually meaningful work – and being young and ignoring the concept of networking – I went with the chance to do something where I could learn real skills and wound up working for Michael Moore, transcribing footage from Bowling for Columbine. (Side note: I think Moore often comes across better in the raw footage than the final product often. I certainly gained a lot of respect for how he worked.) That job led to two more documentary internships before graduating from Yale and applying to USC. Even though at that final internship I was developing new concepts and acting as the liaison between the filmmakers and their documentary subjects, I still thought that would be my last foray into documentary production. Then, my second year at USC, I received an email from a friend’s dad. The foundation he worked for had given a grant to a documentary filmmaker in LA and she was looking for help. Would I be interested? Sure. After two fascinating summers, she offered me a job on graduation. That gave me the chance to oversee a ton of archival research and shepherd a film through its theatrical release.
By the time Brenda Goodman asked me to co-produce the documentary she wanted to make about sex education and the history of sex-ed films in the U.S., I felt pretty confident in my knowledge of documentary production. However, starting a project, taking it from nothing through production and to completion was a totally new adventure and taught me just how much I still needed to learn about documentary film.
WHEN IT COMES TO CASTING, GO WITH YOUR GUT, NOT WITH YOUR HEAD. Documentary films rely on people, but not everyone is good in front of a camera. Even the best interviewer can’t make someone a storyteller who isn’t. Early in the process I suggested we talk to a couple people who, based on what I knew about their backrounds, should have had significant stories to tell. Not so much. Then, in my reading, I found Carol Queen’s book Real Live Nude Girl. A lot of what she wrote about didn’t exactly apply to what we were filming, but she could be funny, smart, and insightful about the most difficult topics. I said we had to at least talk to her. I think Brenda was a little dubious, but during that first meeting with her in San Francisco she got to the heart of issues we’d been struggling to find ways to explore since the start of the project. She’s really the heart of the film in many ways. If I hadn’t trusted my gut that she was going to be an asset, I don’t know if we ever would have found a way to address some key issues about sex education.
REMEMBER THAT THE EASIEST PATH IS NOT ALWAYS THE BEST. Finding money for documentaries is hard. Really hard. There are a limited number of grants, and convincing foundations that don’t usually fund film projects to look at a documentary is an uphill battle. I’ve worked for filmmakers that literally polled all the organizations in their subject area to find out what issues they wanted covered before deciding how to pitch their project. It’s a smart way to get possible funders on your side. When we began Sex(Ed): The Movie, I thought there was a good opportunity to do something similar. Brenda said no. She didn’t want to be bound to an organization’s agenda. That made raising money a lot harder, but in the long run I don’t think we could have made the film we made if we had gone that route. Staying independent gave us the leeway to tell the story in the best way possible without worrying about rubbing anyone the wrong way.
THINK LOOOONNNGGG TERM. I went to an IDA event, and the speaker announced that the average time it takes a documentary film to go from production through post is five years. Most documentaries I’ve worked on have taken a bit longer than that, but I still wasn’t prepared for how difficult this would be for a film I produced. On all those other docs, I was working for the companies full-time. It was easy to stay focused, but that just wasn’t possible on this project. I’ve had four other jobs since we started work on Sex(Ed): The Movie. I’ve gone from working full-time to part-time to full-time to barely at all on the film. In retrospect, there are strategies I would have used to make the long haul easier. I would have been more thorough about note taking (and I’m already a pretty detailed note taker). Because do I remember where I found that quote in the grant I wrote three years ago at five in the morning that now we want for promotional materials? No. No I do not.
KEEP THE FAITH. This goes back to the issue of time. Docs are made in the editing, and when that editing takes years, it can be hard. I watched that happen on other films I worked on, but it’s easier when it’s not your baby. But when you’re truly invested in what the film can be, when you feel like you know just how much potential it has, it can feel impossible when cut after cut comes back that just misses the mark in one way or another. One of the things I feel proudest about my time at USC were the directors I chose to work with. I do think I have an eye for talent, and Brenda is an amazing director. It took some doing, but she pulled a great film out of the footage. I would have saved myself a lot of heartache and worry if I’d been able to be a bit more Zen during the process.
And finally, you might be wondering if I’ve learned anything about sex. Yeah – tons. But you have to come and see the film to hear about that.
"Sex(Ed): The Movie" will next be screening at the festival Dances With Films on
Sunday, June 8 at 12:30pm at TCL Chinese Theatres in Los Angeles, CA
For all the latest news and screening information visit the festival website at http://www.danceswithfilms.com/slt_sexed.html
For the past two years, Caitlin Krapf has worked as an associate producer at sekretagent Productions, helping to develop videogames, scripted and reality television programs, and feature films. Caitlin began her career working in the world of documentary film, associate producing two feature documentaries: View from the Bridge: Stories from Kosovo, which premiered at Slamdance, and Refusenik, winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, for which she oversaw the national theatrical release. She also did a stint at Cause & Affect, the company founded by Meredith Blake to create social action campaigns around media projects and worked with a private foundation to develop documentary projects around its areas of interest. The feature documentary she co-produced, Sex(Ed): The Movie, just premiered at Cinequest.