How to Make Your First Documentary Feature Film

Insights from the director of an award-winning doc, 4.5 years in the making.

 

“A film’s life doesn’t begin until after it premieres.”

Lights Film School recently connected with first time feature filmmaker Nicole Teeny to discuss Bible Quiz, her documentary that has met with great success in the world of festivals and distribution.

Check out the trailer, then dive into our interview below!

Hello, Nicole! I remember catching your directorial debut, Bible Quiz, at an IFC screening in New York City following its premiere at Slamdance, where it won the Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Feature Documentary.

I was keen to see what direction you’d take the source material. Would it be an endorsement of faith, or a scathing criticism? I was surprised to find that Bible Quiz is neither. Instead, you tell a coming-of-age story, trusting us with the protagonist’s feelings and beliefs. The end result is an honest, nuanced portrait of a young woman navigating the bumpy road to adulthood via The National Bible Quiz Championship.



That’s my read, anyway. Can you tell us in greater detail what Bible Quiz is about, and what it means to you?

From Bible Quiz | Nicole Teeny, 2014

From Bible Quiz | Nicole Teeny, 2014

Bible Quiz is a feature documentary that follows seventeen-year-old Mikayla Irle as she memorizes books of the Bible on her quest to win the National Bible Quiz Championship and the heart of JP, her quiz team captain. The film explores coming of age in the face of faith, doubt, fierce competition and teen love.

Your description of the film as a nuanced portrait is spot on.

A lot of things in life, including religion, are vastly more complex than 100% good/valuable or 100% evil/detrimental and I wanted the film to reflect that. I wanted audiences to connect and empathize with Mikayla because often being exposed to a different perspective from our own can reveal gradations and intricacies previously unconsidered. From there they can develop and challenge their own opinions and judgments.

For instance, Mikayla’s story exposes a glimpse at why one person might join or leave religion. She becomes involved in Bible Quiz when she is having a difficult time in life, feeling alone, and Bible Quiz cares for her. She experiences many wonderful benefits from being a part of a caring community, but after some time, she also discovers that this religious community often come with rules (written and unwritten), and there is a pressure to fit into a normative that might not ring true with her identity or values.

How and why did you come to choose this as the subject of your film?

My brother was a Bible Quizzer, and he shared with me that his friend, JP (a lead in the film), was a contender that year for the National Championship.

Although I had grown up in a Christian household, my views changed after college, so I was particularly sensitive to doing a story that reflected closely upon that experience. Over the course of filming and editing, it became clear right away that the story had shifted from JP to Mikayla. She was on a journey of self-discovery, and it was interesting to see her grow up in front of the camera.

The love story also jumped out at me as compelling and relatable. As with many first loves, her love for JP was complicated and had as much to do with the boy as it had to do with her projecting adoration for what she wished for herself and the complications and insurities she felt about her own identity. Love stories are universally relatable, and so it felt like a relatable way to plug audiences into this quirky story about hardcore kids memorizing the Bible.

Can you discuss the process of making Bible Quiz? Ie., how long were you in production? How long were you in post-production? Why? What were some of the challenges of getting the film made?

The film took about four and a half years to complete.

I hear from other documentary filmmakers that anywhere between two and seven years are “typical”, but on the other hand, since documentaries are about real life (and real life has a way of surprising us), there isn’t really a “typical” amount of time.

Most of that time was spent in post-production. There’s a lot that factored into this: raising funds, finding an editor that fit the project, and then the process of editing and whittling the story down from 120+ hours to 76 minutes, which was challenging. As a first time feature filmmaker, finding funding was difficult, and I was working other jobs to pay the bills.

Because of the budget, finding an editor that fit the vibe of the project was also a challenge. After we received a few grants and raised money through a campaign, I was lucky enough to get connected to Jason Pollard (our supervising editor) and James Coddoyannis (our editor), and it was a great match.

It ended up being worth the wait and a total blessing. They both have incredible sensitivities to character emotions and narrative storytelling and understand how to build tension. They immediately connected to the vision and took it the next level.

Nicole with Composer Christopher North

Nicole with Composer Christopher North

Another challenge was the music. We had a temp track when we got the acceptance call from Slamdance at Thanksgiving, and we had just a few weeks until the premiere. Our budget unfortunately prevented us from being able to purchase any of the rights, so we were in a tight spot.

Once again though, what had appeared to be a difficulty in the end was a blessing. It was an incredible experience working with composer Christopher North who brought “sonic glue” to the film. He worked very quickly, brought a lot of fresh ideas, and wrote a score that surpassed the temp track, set the tone, and helped make the film feel cohesive.

After the premiere, we were able to take our time fine tuning the score, and that was an amazing experience.

Mikayla is incredibly vulnerable onscreen. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with her, as well as with the rest of the film’s subjects? More generally, any tips for aspiring documentary filmmakers eager to hone their interviewing skills?

There are a couple of different schools of thoughts when it comes to building relationships with your subject. Some folks say it’s best to remain detached or observe at a distance and to keep a distinct journalist/subject relationship.

For this film, though, I felt something more intimate would be appropriate.

For instance, there was a time when Mikayla cried during the interview. After the shot was achieved and she finished her thought, I got up and gave her a hug. I also spent dedicated non-camera time with the characters off-screen, hanging out to build trust and a relationship with them. I wanted the interviews to feel like they were talking to an intimate friend rather than having a formal wall between the audience and the characters. Mikayla and I became very close during filming, and we remain friends to this day.

I also wanted Mikayla to feel like she had a safe, judgment-free place to talk. I generally tried to be a blank slate, which she could freely project her feelings on.

Additionally, I think it helped a lot that I was a young female, not that much older than her. Going into “girl talk” or talking about intimate, personal things felt a lot more natural because we were both girls around the same age.

In terms of tips, I might suggest filmmakers do a fair amount of pre-production. The more familiar you are with what type of story you want to tell and what might happen during the course of the interview, the more you can ensure you have what you need for the edit room, and the more prepared you’ll be to improvise when those opportunities arise. This will also allow you to feel more comfortable and make the interview more natural, like a conversation.

Anticipate what sort of story you want to tell (or what might be possible) and think about the sort of sound bytes you might want in the edit room, then work backwards from there. Also be prepared for the different possibilities of how your character might answer your question and how you might need to take the interview in different directions.

Editor James Codoyannis at Work on Bible Quiz

Editor James Codoyannis at Work on Bible Quiz

I’m especially curious to hear more about your experience of the editing process. Some say “a documentary film is directed in the edit”… To what extent did you find this to be true? Can you discuss your responsibilities as director, and James Codoyannis’ responsibilities as editor?

Before going into the edit, I had written out a script of the direction I wanted the narrative to take. James and I discussed the story and what direction I wanted the film to head in – themes, characters, and the message. There were a number of films I shared with James to describe the style I envisioned for the film. I plotted out the scenes, and we discussed what we wanted to accomplish with each scene and the order.

At first we would work separately and James would edit a scene and we would meet to discuss each draft of each scene when it was complete. By the time we finished our first draft of the film (4 or 5 hours), we were spending a lot of the time in the edit room together, side by side. After each major draft or halfway point to each draft, we would also meet with Jason Pollard, our supervising editor, to discuss direction and have an outsider’s perspective.

I have to say, the editing process and working with James was one my favorite parts of making the film.

While in filming I had a lot of ideas about how I’d like to see scenes play out, but it was exciting to see it come to life in the edit room or explore new ways of playing around to make it dynamic. Collaborating with great storytellers like James and Jason who brought their own flair and perspective to the film was a real treat.

I think having an outsider’s perspective is incredibly valuable with a documentary. In addition to working with James and Jason, I screened the film often for trusted friends from a variety of backgrounds to get a read on how different people saw the film and what translated.

Let’s think back to the day you finished the film… Bible Quiz was in the can. What were you thinking and feeling? What were your next steps?

I’m not sure what day counts as “finishing”. I think there were many days when I thought the film was finished only to learn there was a lot more left to do!

The first time was when we had picture lock for Slamdance. Not only did we later cut more, but even after picture lock there was immediately more to do, such as online edit, color, sound, etc. before the premiere. There was another day of “finishing” the mastering of our HDCam for our premiere at Slamdance. Still there was publicity and ensuring everything was in working order for the premiere. Even then, there were still things I already knew I wanted to change but didn’t have time for. During the following few months after Slamdance, the composer Christopher North and I finessed the score, and we did another draft of sound and color.

For me, it never felt like the film “was in the can”. I still feel like if I could go back, there would be more things I’d tweak and change.

I remember I was talking to someone at Slamdance who told me that a film’s life doesn’t begin until after it premieres. While I can’t speak to whether or not a film becomes a film at conception, I do believe that there is almost or just as much work after a film is picture locked, with color, music, sound, film festivals, film distribution, and outreach.

BibleQuizatSlamdanceforWeb

Nicole with Her Brother and Mikayla at the Slamdance Premiere.

Definitely, Nicole! Speaking of film festivals, it sounds like Slamdance was Bible Quiz‘s first stop. Was it also your first festival experience? Regardless, can you describe what it was like? Ie., once you were there, what actually happened? What did your day-to-day entail?

While I had been to some small film festivals with a short zombie non-fiction/fiction hybrid film I made, Slamdance was my first major film festival. It was an amazing experience. The festival had a family vibe, and it was so rewarding to be with other first-time filmmakers premiering their films. The staff and other filmmakers were all very supportive and would go to each other’s screenings and cheer each other on.

As far as the day-to-day goes, there was very little sleep, lots of meeting with agents and distributors and festival programmers, and lots and lots of parties. You want to arrive early before your screening or ask the programmer if you can be there when they test the footage. This way you can make sure the colors and sound are represented accurately.

It’s also important to be supportive of fellow filmmakers and attend their screenings; we are each other’s peers and greatest supporters. It goes without saying that you should bring a lot of business cards. You will be very, very busy. I was very lucky there was a popup Morning Star veggie burger restaurant right next to where the films are screened… We ate a veggie burger at least one meal a day, sometimes more, for all ten days that we were in Park City.

Have you done a Q&A after a screening? If so, any tips for the crowd shy among us?

I was very shy and quiet at my first Q&A before I learned to how to loosen up and be more dynamic. My boyfriend is a professor at MIT and is great at public speaking, so I started observing him to see what he does. One thing I noticed is that he is fun to watch because he is upbeat, expresses a lot of energy, is very animated, and looks around the entire room. He works to make his Q&A feel natural and conversational, as though he is in a coffee shop with the audience.

Also in the Q&As that I enjoy, speakers share stories and fun human moments rather than appearing like they have it all together. I also like to share stories about the characters or share the great work of the other crew members, since it takes a village to create a film.

Must one be an amazing “networker” to enjoy and benefit from the festival scene? Any tips for people struggling to make connections and manage time at a festival?

Networking is indeed important. In addition to distributors, agents, press, and programmers, it’s good to get to know fellow filmmakers at film festivals. They know how hard filmmaking can be and likely are or have been in your shoes before. It can be helpful and refreshing to talk to someone who understands, and often they have great advice and can tell you what they think of a certain distributor or give suggestions for other great festivals. Programmers are also amazing people who love films and often know who is interesting or useful to talk to at the festival.

Outside of networking, going to festivals can be a great experience for the soul. After all the hard work spent working on your film, it is rewarding to be able to watch your film on the big screen and see audiences’ reactions. It can be interesting to see how audiences react to what you expect or what you didn’t expect and how even then, reactions can vary depending on region or festival focus.

As a movie lover, I enjoy seeing a variety of unique films at festivals that are not yet (or ever) available in theaters. There are also parties, panels, and events that can be a lot of fun and are often good for networking. The parties are often for the purpose of encouraging filmmakers and industry folk to meet and mingle. Ask questions and show genuine interest in what other people do; no one likes it when someone only talks about himself or herself. At the same time, don’t be afraid to have an engaging, short (1-3 sentence max) pitch of your film ready for when people ask.

BibleQuizLaurels780

Bible Quiz went on to play at some 20 film festivals and garner numerous awards. How long was the festival circuit? How did you decide when the film had finished its run?

The festival run was approximately one year.

I think it’s possible to go longer, but ultimately there comes a point when you are ready for distribution and to move into the next phase. You want to strike while the iron is hot.

How, if at all, did your success at film festivals position Bible Quiz for distribution? More generally, what is the connection between film festivals and film distribution?

Premiering at Slamdance and winning the Grand Jury Award there was the best thing that could happen to the film as far as distribution goes. Just being in that festival brought attention and a level of legitimacy to the film. We met a lot of distributors and agents there who either saw the film or got to know the film from being a part of the line up and were interested. A lot of festival programmers also reached out to us after seeing the film at Slamdance and invited us to screen at their festival or to submit directly based on being at Slamdance.

Showing the film at a top tier festival sets the film up for a lot of press, which helps get the word out and adds value to the film. Screening at many different film festivals in various regions and winning awards also showed distributors that Slamdance was not a one-off, and that there was genuine interest for the film.

One thing for filmmakers to keep in mind is to consider where they want to premiere. A lot of top tier festivals only take premieres, so you want to plan to apply to those first. From there, a lot of other festival programmers will be introduced to your film. It’s a great way to launch a film’s life.

At the same time, film festivals are not the be-all-end-all. I have heard of many films that did not premiere at the top festivals and still went on to win major awards and have success both at the box office and with audiences at home.

What sort of distribution has Bible Quiz received? Ie., who picked up the film? How did you meet the distributors and make the deal?

We were lucky in that we had a lot of interest in the film and many offers from a variety of distributors. I worked with a sales agent to help me sort through the offers and reach out to other potential partners.

We ended up going with Slamdance Studios and Virgil Films, both of whom we met at Slamdance. They released the film in multiple theatrical markets across the US, and now the film is on DVD, Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and other platforms. Internationally, we are working with Forward Entertainment who connected us to Sundance Channel International who is distributing the film in France, Benelux, Spain/Portugal/Andorra, Eastern Europe, Asia, and other territories.

Congratulations! With distribution secured, what was your release strategy? More specifically, can you discuss the film’s Release Windows sequence? Ie., when was Bible Quiz released on each platform? Did theatrical happen before iTunes happen before Netflix? Why did you release in the order that you did?

The film played in theaters for about a month, and then we released on DVD and digitally all at once. This was part of the deal we made with Netflix.

BibleQuizCompetition

From Bible Quiz | Nicole Teeny, 2014

If you had to boil it down, what most accounts for your film’s distribution success? Any advice for filmmakers ready for distribution? Specifically, should filmmakers submit to festivals? If so, are there any in particular that you recommend? Any thoughts on DIY distribution platforms?

The film’s festival success – including playing at multiple festivals, the multiple awards garnered (particularly winning the Grand Jury Award at a major film festival, Slamdance), and breadth of press and positive reviews – I think helped make Bible Quiz attractive to distributors. These really laid the groundwork for our release and helped get the word out there about the film.

I think the subject matter was also appealing to distributors who saw commercial potential. I highly recommend the film festival market to filmmakers who want to build awareness of their film.

That being said, I think there’s a lot of potential for self-distribution. With the Internet and social media, we are seeing more filmmakers and artists successfully taking distribution into their own hands than ever before.

How can we see the film today?

So the film’s theatrical run is over, but you can buy the DVD on the film’s website or Amazon. The film is also available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon. If you live internationally, the film is available in many territories on the Sundance Channel.

What is the future for Bible Quiz?

I am working on outreach and setting up screenings at schools, libraries, churches, film clubs, universities, and other organizations. For information on how to host a screening, visit the film’s website.

Finally, what are you working on these days?

I am working on some short documentaries and writing a narrative. Stay tuned!

Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Nicole! Congratulations on your success, and best of luck with your upcoming projects.

 Michael Koehler, with


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