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Filmmaking Process Case Study: A Master Class with Heather Courtney

When Heather Courtney set out to make her graduate thesis film, “Los Trabajadores”, in 1999, she had a clear objective – to tell a human story and inspire the audience to care about the people and the issue. Her film, the story of immigrants working in Texas, went on to air on PBS’s documentary series “Independent Lens”.

Courtney shared insight into her filmmaking process when she stopped by the American University campus on March 1 as part of the Center for Social Media’s Visiting Filmmakers series. Courtney, recent recipient of the “Truer than Fiction” Independent Spirit Award, screened parts of “Los Trabajadores” as well as two of her other films, “Letters from the Other Side” and “Where Soldiers Come From” as part of the film department’s Masters Thesis class.

Takeaways from Courtney’s presentation:

  • On characters - Courtney stressed the importance of showing characters in their natural environments. From filming people giving tours of their homes, to conducting interviews while the subject did some sort of task, Courtney illustrated how effectively she was able to round out her characters by showing them in their own space.
  • On editing – Let go of chronology. Courtney encouraged students to not get too attached to a strict chronology of the film. While important events should not be ordered in a way that insinuates a different chronology from the truth, she recommended using sequences where they fit the story.
  • On fundraising – Courtney encouraged students in the class not to eschew crowdsourced fundraising sites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Even filmmakers who have been awarded grants, may need additional funding for various parts of the process, or simply to cover the cost of submitting to and attending film festivals. Additionally, she encouraged having a trailer or a clip prepared for use when attempting to raise funds through crowdsourcing sites. Courtney credited her trailer for "Where Soldiers Come From" as a major reason she was able to raise money through Kickstarter for a theatrical run. Donors were able to get a glimpse of her film and feel confident in their decision to contribute. They knew the film was well made and that it was something they (or people they knew) would be interested in seeing.
  • On distribution – “When you finish a film you think you just slid home to win the game then you stand up and realize you stole second base and it's the bottom of the third.” Courtney shared these words of wisdom told to her by a friend as a reminder that completing the film is hardly completing the filmmaking process and in fact, there is still a lot of work to be done. Courtney used a booking agent to help her self distribute, and encouraged students to self distribute if necessary – without the help of a booking agent, she suggested setting up a pay pal account and selling the film through [the filmmaker's] personal website. While a distribution deal would be wonderful, they're hard to come by. Having no distribution deal, however, does not mean a film should never be seen.  Courtney also credited her trailer with driving traffic to her site where the film was available. Additionally she suggested encouraging Facebook fans and Twitter followers to check out and purchase the film.

If you were unable to attend the Master Class, or are interested in learning more about Heather Courtney and her filmmaking process, check out our Pull Focus interview  here.   Also check out interviews with Suzan Beraza, Marshall Curry, Peter Richardson and many others.