Lisa Russell is the woman behind multiple award-winning films and documentaries. But before she became the filmmaker contacted by huge organisations like the United Nations, Russell began her career having no idea how to film, much less edit or direct. Today, she teaches aspiring filmmakers about funding and creating a body of work that inspires.
Words by Tammy Danan
“I think what every filmmaker needs to know is that there is no clear path,” says Lisa Russell. For over 15 years, the curator and filmmaker has been tackling some of the most pressing issues our society is facing; global health, women’s rights and social justice. A self-taught filmmaker, Russell immersed herself in all areas of the art form – writing, producing, editing, directing… everything to be able to tell stories worth telling. “Filmmaking allowed me to be an activist, and I used films as my advocacy tool,” she says about why she chose to pursue this industry.
And when it comes to funding, Russell wants us to know that, “budgeting for a documentary film is an art form in and of itself.” That before anything else, filmmakers should be clear on what type of film or documentary they’re planning to make. “I strongly believe you need to fully envision the entire life of your film before you begin putting together a budget,” she says, adding that it is important to realise that making a film is half the work. The other half is getting it seen.
“I am a vendor for the United Nations and various NGOs which means they finance my projects but they own the rights to the final product.” Russell says about how she funds her work. She was quite candid and straightforward that some filmmakers may not like this as it may constrict their creative control. But according to Russell, if you work with organisations or agencies who trust your work, there are “lots of opportunities to push boundaries – so to speak – and encourage different storytelling genres or mediums.” She adds, “I have been lucky to work with great partners who support innovative projects so I get to have creative license to tell stories and execute productions in ways that satisfy my creative impulses while I get supported financially and institutionally.”
We recently chatted with Lisa Russell about how to get funding for a film, finding your path as a filmmaker, common mistakes to avoid and so much more.
Tammy: I guess I’d like to start off by dissecting documentary funding for a bit. Say a filmmaker estimated they’d need 15k to shoot their documentary, is that it plain and easy?
Lisa: I think first and foremost, you have to decide what type of documentary you are planning to make. That will impact the crew you need to bring on board, how long you need to shoot, whether you need to travel, and most importantly, what your distribution plans are. A short form documentary to screen online will have a different budget than one set for television broadcast.
With that said, I could make a short documentary with $15k because I’m a one-person crew. If you have the expertise as a director, producer, camera, and editor, your expenses will be less than if you need a three-person team. So, not an easy question to answer – and not very plain and easy.
“In exchange for funding, I offered them copies of the film with their logo and website on it.”
Tammy: What are the traditional ways of funding a film or a documentary and what are today’s new ways of funding? How would you compare them?
Lisa: When I first started making films, the industry and the tools were so very different than they are today. I was shooting on mini-DV cassette tapes and distributing my film on VHS. I also began right before there was YouTube so the outlets to share my work are not what they are today.
If you are looking to follow a traditional documentary production process, with a film that will run the festival circuit and hopefully get picked up by a broadcaster, the typical ways of financing that film are through development funds or investors. For example, if your film will end up on PBS, there are different funding streams including ITVS, grants from film funding bodies and development funds from broadcasters.
If you are shooting a film independently, there are additional ways to fund your project like crowdfunding, sponsorships, and grants. If you want to distribute your film independently – for example on social media – then you have less stringent rules regarding where your funding comes from.
Tammy: What should every new filmmaker take into account when planning to make a film or documentary?
Lisa: I would suggest that filmmakers not get stuck into the mindset that a successful film or filmmaker is one that ends up at Sundance or major film festivals. And also, that you can’t make a great film if you don’t have the best of the best equipment. Invest in learning about story structure, character development, plot, climax, etc. While these are usually structural considerations for narrative films, they can be great roadmaps for documentary filmmakers as well.
Also, make your first film the best it can be. It will set the stage for how you produce your second film, then your third and so on. It took me several years to release my first film after I shot it because I decided to learn how to edit myself instead of paying for an editor.
My first film was on maternal health in Niger and instead of pushing it to film festivals or broadcasters, I targeted activists and jumped on a tour bus with the Grammy-nominated Congolese/Belgian singer, Zap Mama (whose music was in the film.) Collaborating with performing artists in my distribution has become a staple in my film work and it allowed me to reach audiences that UN/NGO agencies don’t always reach.
Lastly, I financed my first film in an innovative way with sponsorship money from organisations I knew wanted or needed an advocacy tool for their work on the issue. In exchange for funding, I offered them copies of the film with their logo and website on it, I distributed their informational materials during my screenings and participated in fundraising events which helped the organisations reach a larger audience.
“Don’t get caught up in the film festival obsession.”
Tammy: What are some common mistakes new filmmakers do when trying to fund their documentaries or indie films?
Lisa: One mistake is being too narrow-minded in your funding strategy. Some of the documentary funding programs are extremely competitive and you are up against other new filmmakers but also established filmmakers who are also looking for funding for a new project. Find innovative ways to make your first film and then for your second, use it to apply to other projects. Another suggestion is to build a team, unless you want to spend years perfecting the craft. There are many film students, emerging filmmakers with their own equipment, and eager filmmakers who are willing to work with you to build something together.
Don’t under budget your film production but also be smart and find ways to cut expenses. I am a big believer in artist bartering. For example, I will “trade” getting music rights from my musician friends in exchange for me shooting their music video. Don’t compare yourself – every filmmaker started somewhere. And don’t get caught up in the film festival obsession. It’s great to go to film festivals – you meet other filmmakers, see great work and share your work – but it can also be expensive to apply to the festivals. Screening your film at conferences, universities, community events, and at the grassroots level can also help build your career. Be creative and think outside of the box!
Tammy: How do you know if there’s actually a story worth the effort of filming and documenting?
Lisa: Sometimes you will know immediately if there’s a story worth following. The drama, the characters, the context – is worth documenting. Sometimes you just don’t know. And you may have to film and film until you figure out what the story actually is. A good suggestion is to study what a story consists of. If you are blessed with the opportunity to come across one you think is worthy to be told, you may want to follow it.
“Filmmaking as a craft is like a martial art. You need to excel.”
Tammy: Any advice to creative folks who are still starting out on their journeys to becoming a filmmaker?
Lisa: I would say study as much as you can, and by study, I don’t mean going to film school. Watch films, go to festivals, shadow a filmmaker, intern for a production company – there are many roles and approaches to becoming a filmmaker and you have to decide for yourself which path you want to follow. I tell people all the time – it’s not an easy craft. Unlike poetry, for example, which requires a pen, a notebook, and possibly a stage, filmmaking requires a lot of electronic equipment, technical expertise as well as the art of crafting a narrative. But it pays off.
It is challenging and difficult but it gets easier. I like to say that filmmaking as a craft is like a martial art. You need to excel. And how do you do that? You learn it. You practice it every day. And you become a master. Sometimes that takes years. And once you’ve achieved excellence, you will have earned the respect and acknowledgement as a storyteller just as a sensei earns the same as a martial artist.
Tammy: It’s been 15+ years and you’ve worked on a lot great projects. Are you happy with where you are in life, and with the impact your films have had? What’s next?
Lisa: Yes – I’m very pleased with the way my career has turned out and the experiences I’ve been able to have, traveling extensively around the world to tell the stories of amazing people who have overcome great obstacles. I am also very grateful for the life education this amount of traveling has given to me. Coming from a poor, uneducated family, it was not really in my cards to live the life I have lived. But thanks to the work ethic I got from my mother, my endless curiosity about the world and my creativity and hustle, I have created a life journey like no other.
Lastly, I’ll say that people often base their personal success on awards or fame. While I’m happy with the opportunities having an Emmy has given me and the doors it has opened, I’m more proud of helping create a career path that didn’t really exist when I started out, bringing together the arts, social justice and global development. I’m inspiring a new wave of storytellers and artists in the global health space and that means a lot to me.
After recently wrapping up the ARTS x SDGS Festival, Russell is now focused on Create2030, a growing network of professional, conscious artists who use their talents in support of social good. She is also in contract with the World Health Organization to curate COVID-19 art, which gives her a purpose she “deeply enjoys”.