Finding Your Subject, Finding Your Story By Susan Brand

Finding Your Subject, Finding Your Story


When filmmakers talk to me about their chosen subject for a feature documentary, they sometimes focus on what other people want from this subject and decide to make a film about that. The people they are talking about could be potential funders, audiences or broadcasters.


I would strongly advise against this. I suggest filmmakers make the film that shares their own interests, first and foremost. You will not make the strongest film second-guessing what other people want from your film. You will not make the strongest film shaping yourself to other people’s desires or perceived desires. You will produce the strongest film making the film when it comes from you.


There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is, the film that comes from you, your life, your intellect, your own passions and beliefs is the most original. Often people you are talking to about funding or what they want to watch at the movies, have no idea what they would like from your film. How could they? It doesn’t exist. You may be taken down avenues that encourage you to ape other filmmakers work, for example. Don’t do it.


The second reason to follow your own vision is that your own passion is your strongest guide. Your passion tells you what to research, your passion tells you what you need to film and where to point the camera, your passion guides you in the edit, do I want this scene or that, this shot or that, this storyline or that. You will feel what you need.


If you are not sure what your own emotional drivers are, try writing a self-inventory. When I run courses for filmmakers, I give this as one exercise. I came Self-Inventories when working in Denmark. The Self-Inventory helps you to discover your strongest personal drivers. It asks ‘What are the situations and associated feelings that have made you?’ This can help you discover what really got you interested in your film subject in the first place and find a direction and focus in your film idea. It can be used at any stage in the filmmaking process. In my experience, even relatively inexperienced filmmakers can make very strong film stories by using this method.


Self-Inventory Part 1


List 12 intense experiences from any par of your life and the emotions you felt.


List 6 joyful experiences

And 6 tough experiences


You can use several words for what you felt, then pick the most important word.


Organise the experiences into 2 or 3 groups that share the same subject.


Give each group a title.


Pick 3 experiences, write about the effects they had on you.


Self-Inventory Part 2


List several different characters for whom you feel special empathy


People you know or types of people, can be real or fictional, past or present.


List 3 potential film ideas, different as possible, which explore a subject that you have identified interests you through someone on your character list


How would you tell each story?


What documentary style would you use?


Now try another style for the same story.