Edward Delaney is a documentary filmmaker and the editor of Documentary Tech, a website devoted to exploring the latest practices and technologies of documentary film. He released The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus in 2007, a film chronicling the accident that crippled the celebrated short story writer.
His newest film, Library of the Early Mind, examines the surprising complexities of childhood literature. Delaney’s direction for Library differed from Andre Dubus because it’s a topical film instead of a narrative film.
This difference affected how Delaney is distributing and promoting the film. He’s been showing Library at special screenings at universities across the country.
I interviewed Delaney in September about his experiences making topical films and the art of film distribution.
This interview has been edited.
You were a print journalist for several years before you began teaching and making documentaries. When did you become interested in making documentaries?
I was a print reporter in newspapers back in the ‘80s before I did teaching. I was always interested in documentaries but didn’t have the kind of money to do something like that. In 2004, the school that I was at, the department I’m in was able to get ahold of the Canon , the breakthrough camera. At that time, that type of camera cost about $6,000. We had that, had a Mac and got Final Cut Pro.
I started messing around with the idea of seeing how it all worked. In 2005, I decided to make a documentary. The interviewing and organization part I felt I had going in. It was the shooting and technology part that I felt like I needed to learn. I went out to buy a JVC and just started going out and interviewing people and shooting with it.
My first documentary was a classic documentary– sit-down interviews and still photos. It was simple. I kept it simple knowing I had a lot to learn.
Were there any pitfalls that you discovered while making your first film?
The other part is that when I was a newspaper reporter, I shot a lot of my own stills. The shooting wasn’t that difficult. The hardest thing was learning Final Cut Pro. Lighting was difficult, but really it was the editing that was the harder part.
So it was the technological learning curve that was most challenging?
Yes. I’ve finished my third film and I’m working on my fourth, it’s like any other technology, you learn shortcuts and the way you do things. A video editor showed me a logging system that is much faster than logging clips. It’s really organizing your bins. Organization comes not just from knowing how to set up bins it’s also thinking ahead and planning how you’re going to do this, even interviews.
How have you used your background as a journalist in documentary filmmaking?
The biggest thing is the organization of a long piece. The first film I did, I was trying to make a project that I could do. With the kind of projects I’m doing now, it’s more topical rather than narrative.
You’re trying to figure out where you want to take the film. The first part is figuring out how much to leave out. The second thing is the ideas you want to build into it.
When you have a character or a protagonist, the character must face challenges or the story goes flat. In a topical film, the ideas get more complex as the film goes on. What you’re doing in an idea film, you’re trying to build toward the most complex and intriguing ideas. For example, early on when you put some interesting ideas early on in your story, you give the viewer something to agree with. It seems to me in the hierarchy of ideas, by the end of the piece, the viewer will trust your judgment and you will have them thinking, “I’m not sure about that.”
The worst kind of films tell you what to think. One of the things in documentaries right now that I’m not crazy about, is films that tell you what you should think. These are films that have done really well, An Inconvenient Truth or Super-Size Me for example.
Should a documentary filmmaker have a hypothesis about their subject before they begin their film?
Let’s put it this way: not a hypothesis, but an idea. The idea with the children’s literature, is that children’s literature has far more depth than people imagine. In the film, a lot of people discuss how children’s literature affects children. But there’s not absolute conclusiveness. If someone comes out of my film, they won’t know exactly how I feel. How did it challenge my already existing perceptions?
Was there ever a time when you thought that your subject would be an “unfilmable”?
If you have all ideas and no visuals, you should do a book. It would be hard to do a documentary about philosophy. A book where you have a compelling character, and it’s 500 pages, it reads a lot faster than an idea book.
The premise and the film, this is where I feel strongly about this. When you’re selling this documentary, you’re not selling Jonathan Michels, you’re selling the topic. As opposed to the narrative film, you’re selling the filmmaker. What you find is that with this children’s lit thing, is that we knew there was a very large audience of people that were interested in children’s lit–librarians, would-be writers, illustrators, educators, etc. They are going to overlook the slow parts and think they’re interesting.
How difficult is it to get b-roll for an idea film?
In the children’s lit film, if someone was a highly experienced film person, they figure I have too many people talking rather than coverage.
It was tough getting b-roll. You’re not trying to cover action, but ideas. You have to be open to visuals that have an association but only marginally. For example, one guy who is a children’s author but spent time in prison, I went to the airport with him and walked around with him. Travel is akin to being stuck. It was snowing outside, and it was stretch but people accepted it.
How did you receive funding for the project?
I did get some grants, but mostly money out of pocket. I was feeling fairly confident putting money into it because we had an audience and could make it back.
What do you spend most of your money on?
It started out as equipment, but now it’s travel. Some people are obsessed with having the latest and greatest thing. I have a Sony EX1. When I go to these screenings, nobody cares about 1080p. The less money you spend on your equipment the more money you’ll realize on revenue.
What makes a good documentary?
A conflict of some sort. Competing ideas. You’ve got to have a story tension even if it’s an idea film.
Do you have any advice for first-time documentary filmmakers?
The biggest thing is from the technology perspective: keep it simple. They want it to look like a million dollar movie, if you can get someone in decent light, buy a lavelier film, I’ve judged on some things, they are using the mics on camera. Simple lighting, simple auto. Put the camera on a tripod, make sure it’s in focus, simple stuff.