How to Make a Documentary

Amanda Spain, Vice President of Longform Acquisitions for MSNBC Films, talks with NBCU Academy about how documentary films are made. Watch the video above or read her comments below.


You have to have endurance when you’re making a documentary. Most independent documentary films take about five to six years to make. If you don’t really care about the subject, you’re not going to run that marathon.

Most people who are making their first film have other jobs. Most documentarians don’t start off just making documentaries for a living. It’s not the most lucrative business. If you’ve got Hollywood star fantasies, this is probably not the genre for you. But if you want to tell really good stories about compelling things, I think this is a really good place for you.

I don’t think you need to come from any type of school to be able to make a documentary. You could come from a communications background, a political science background, a history major. There’s no right way to become a documentary filmmaker, but I think you have to have a love for documentaries and storytelling.

Making shorter films is easier to do. Doesn’t mean you have to only make a short in the beginning, but I do think it can help you develop your story skills and your editing skills and your interview skills.

One of the first films I ever finished I filmed on my own. I got a friend to help me edit it. It was such a feeling of accomplishment to just get it done. It wasn’t great, it was OK, but I finished it. Knowing I could finish something was a real catalyst to keep doing and keep persevering and keep trying.

We still need to do better about making sure documentaries tell stories with more diverse voices about more diverse subjects. But the only way that happens is if someone who wants to make a documentary, tries. They’ve just got to try.