How to Direct Your First Documentary Feature Film

Have you ever wondered... 

  • What the first step is in making a full length documentary?
  • How you make time for passion projects while managing your other work?
  • What kind of video gear you use on a bootstrapped budget?
  • And what it's like doing all of this while traveling internationally?

These are exactly the kind of questions explored in this post.

I had a chance to sit down with my long time friend, Michael Rowley. He’s currently working on Hurdle, his directorial debut. Hurdle is in the post-production stage and is set to premiere in 2019. 

Check out the trailer below.

Michael's work ethic, passion, and ability to get his dreams done is inspiring. If you have a passion project of your own that has grown cold, you’re in for a treat.

 How do you take steps towards actually starting your passion project? When do you know you're ready? How do these things come about? This post interviews director Michael Rowley on his journey making his first full length feature documentary, "Hurdle."

What is the story behind Hurdle?

Hurdle is set in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Israel and Palestine have been in a general conflict for a little over 50 years and it has resulted in an Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Loss of life and a lack of freedoms and security are all unfortunate realities for people that live in this region.

Over the course of the conflict, a 30-foot tall concrete wall was built by Israel in the name of security. It essentially restricts the movements and access of the Palestinian population to their ancestral land, holy sites and to one another.

Consequently, Palestinians face many challenges whenever it comes to their freedom of movement. In order to get to work every day, or to go see their families, they have to pass through very intense military checkpoints. Their freedom of movement is constantly in question.

Hurdle documents a new generation of Palestinians that are responding to their restriction of movement with creativity.

On one side of the wall is a Parkour team. Parkour is a gymnastics-based sport where people do things like climb walls, jump from roof to roof, flip and plant their feet on a wall, etc. It's a very dynamic sport.

The team is taking these walls and using them for fuel to empower themselves.

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On the other side of the wall, I'm following a young man named Mohammad. He's not able to move freely from his general area due to these walls. So he tells stories with photography and video, posts them on the Internet, and distributes them around the world.

He’s taking to his form of creativity in order to transcend the walls.

It’s a story about responding to oppression with nonviolence and creativity.

 Documentary Subject Mohammad Speaking Near Separation Wall (CREDIT: Hurdle)

Documentary Subject Mohammad Speaking Near Separation Wall (CREDIT: Hurdle)

So let's go back to day one when the project was just an idea. What's step one in making a documentary?

I'm a freelance video producer and in March 2015 I was working with an NGO based out of Washington DC and Jerusalem called Telos. They're an educational NGO that brings Americans over to Israel and Palestine and takes them on a tour of the conflict so you hear from all sides of the story.

Their executive director sent me a video of these young men doing Parkour on the separation barrier.

Whenever I saw it, I just thought this is a story that I would love to investigate more.

I found one of the Parkour players on Facebook and sent him a cold message: "Hey, my name is Michael, I'm a video producer. I'd like to talk to you about shooting a short documentary (or perhaps a longer documentary) about your story and what's going on over there. If I bought a ticket would you be willing to talk to me?"

We developed a relationship and talked back and forth over a couple of months. Some friends and family heard about my plan and donated some flight miles and cash, so with that I bought a plane ticket and headed over. That was in November of 2016.

What did you feel when you got there?

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Definitely nerves. It's a little bit nerve racking to go through the security protocols entering into Israel. They want to know why you're there, why you have video equipment, what your intentions are while you're there, who you're going to meet with.

But then just meeting the subjects as well.

I have a relationship with a young man named Jack who works for Telos. He's Palestinian and he speaks Arabic and English. Jack was kind enough to come with me to our first meeting to make sure all of the ideas I had were translated and communicated thoroughly to these young men.

In a conflict environment, everyone kind of has their walls up. It takes time to establish trust because of the unpredictability of their lives.

Over the course of that first trip, as the days went by, they invited me to more and more of their practices and hangouts. Over the course of 2017 I was shooting for about five months and by the end of it I would consider them some of my greatest friends.

Did you manage your freelance client work at the same time you were working on Hurdle?

I would be there for two months on, two months off. So while I was there I would try to amass as much editing work as I possibly could to keep my clients happy. I still had to be very present in my communication with them and with the delivery of product.

It definitely wasn't, "Oh, Hurdle is my only focus now." It was, “My freelance clients are still my focus and Hurdle is also my focus.”

I feel like I need to wait on my passion projects until I have enough money.

I think that's very difficult for us who are trying to work on our passion projects. Hurdle was very much bootstrapped. It was a matter of speaking with my wife, producers, friends, and family and trying to fundraise as much as I could. But also just financially committing to the project a decent sum of money and realizing that you have to do it on your own and make it happen.

It's a massive time commitment in order to like make your dreams come true.

Werner Herzog says you need to get out, take $10,000, and start making your first film. Don't make any excuses, use the tools that you have, use the story that you have within you, and take steps forward. And that's essentially what I did.

He also says, if the story is good, then the connections and the money will find you afterwards.

Whatever inspires you right now probably won't inspire you later on just because of the busyness of life.

So I think it's really important to take steps forward whenever you have those inspirations come to you.

You have to be honest with yourself whenever you're jumping into things. How passionate are you really about it? Once you figure that out, then you can decide the scope of the project.

There are times whenever you don't want to work on any project but you just have to push through and keep your work ethic up.

Let’s talk about gear. What was your camera of choice?

It all comes back to the context of where you're shooting and what you're shooting. Being in a conflict area where security is very tight, encountering soldiers that don't want you filming, or being in neighborhoods where you can't have a huge camera and a documentary crew, you try to avoid suspicion or worry from the residents.

I had to be very skeletal about everything I did.

Almost all of production was just myself. I was running camera, and sound, and directing. Sometimes it was difficult, but at the same time it allowed me access into places I wouldn't have had with multiple people or a large camera.

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I mainly used DSLRS. I shot, I would say, 90% of the film on the Sony a7S II. It's a great, powerful little camera that shoots in 4k. It allowed me to shoot in 60 frames and 120 frames per second, which is awesome for the Parkour and some beautiful shots of the environment and the people within it.

I shot everything in S-Log, a very flat color profile, which allows me a lot of control afterwards in the picture.

If I ever knew it was going to be dangerous for myself or my gear, I would just use the trusty old Canon 5D Mark II and maybe a GoPro. Every once in a while I had to whip those cameras out just to protect the Sony, but it was mostly the Sony a7S II.

How did you record audio?

I used a Tascam DR-70D. It's a little 4-channel audio recorder that works really great.

I would sometimes have them on lapel if they weren't doing Parkour, or if Mohammad was able to just like be calm and stick around. He was mostly on lapel, almost entirely, but I struggled to keep lapels on the Parkour guys because they're doing flips.

Sometimes I would do Sennheiser lapels but always I had a Rode NTG-2 Shotgun mic that was constantly recording into that Tascam recorder. A lot of the film is shot using that set up and it sounds pretty good.

 (Photo: Michael Clouser)

(Photo: Michael Clouser)

Did you bring any lights?

I did not. I packed everything in a carry on bag, all of my gear wrapped in towels. Then I had a really big backpack that I would carry everything in. But no, I didn't bring any lights.

You just had to find times of day whenever you could shoot a good interview, whether it's exterior or interior and just make due with what you had.

Were there unique challenges flying with your gear internationally?

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I always had in mind: What is the bare minimum that I have to have with me in order to tell a story? I always had that in my carry-on. Essentials, like camera, lenses, audio, maybe a tiny rail system. I would have a checked bag some of the time and I would stuff my tripod and any type of grip equipment into that checked bag.

Security is heightened, so if you've got a strange little audio recorder in your bag it's likely that it could be taken out and thrown away just for security protocols.

I tried to keep all electronics with me, which made for interesting experiences when I was going through security checks opening my bag and there's just like a thousand electronics.

There were a few times whenever I was flying in and out of Germany when soldiers would come over with their sub machine guns and I'd have to explain to them what each piece was and where I was coming from. It was kind of a mess. But I made it through.

What's the biggest thing you've learned as a filmmaker?

You have to stay humble and allow yourself to be malleable. Learn from other people and ask for other people's help.

But you have to believe in yourself from the beginning. You have to believe in the story, and that the story deserves to be told and seen by a wide audience. If you're committed to it–doors will open.

People have rallied behind this story and we continue to have doors being opened that I never would have imagined honestly two years ago, whenever this project was just a thought. So the biggest lesson I would just say is, get serious with yourself. Get committed to the project. And if your heart is really behind it, believe in yourself and take the steps to do it.

You're going to make your best work whenever you are passionate about something. Sometimes you get hired on a project that you're not passionate about and your work suffers. You can see it afterwards that you're not creating your best because you're not inspired by it.

But if you find the projects you’re passionate about it's going to resonate with people because it resonates with you and you'll be able to translate that.

 Director Rowley Filming at Checkpoint (Credit: Mohammad Alazza)

Director Rowley Filming at Checkpoint (Credit: Mohammad Alazza)

You've been a video creator for about a decade. If you could go back to yourself 10 years ago what would you tell yourself?

I would tell myself just to be patient. Let yourself grow. Enjoy the moment that you're in. Take every project as a growth opportunity, because that's what essentially they are. If you allow yourself to invest into each project, you'll find that your skills grow quickly.

See it all as a long journey that leads you to the place that you want to be, rather than feeling like you aren't doing exactly what you want to do right now.

And 10 years from now, what do you see? What will you have done?

I would like it to be a little easier to make these projects happen. Maybe have some relationships built through films that I've made. I would love to be doing this full time.

Freelancing is great and it's taught me so much. I've met so many great people and had great experiences over the years, but I would just really love to be making documentary films full time.

So hopefully 10 years from now I'll have at least a few under my belt and be working on the next one.

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To learn more about Hurdle, visit hurdlefilm.com.


Want to go deeper with pre-production for your next documentary?

Check out this post, which includes a free Evernote template to help you stay organized.