Laurens Grant on 'Black Panthers' Documentary, Research, Funding & More (Opens 9/2 at Film Forum NYC)
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Laurens Grant on 'Black Panthers' Documentary, Research, Funding & More (Opens 9/2 at Film Forum NYC)

nullNOTE: Stanley Nelson’s acclaimed new documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” will begin its theatrical run at Film Forum in NYC this Wednesday, September 2, with a national roll-out to follow. In this installment of Shadow And Act’s "Frame By Frame" series, Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Laurens Grant, who produced ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," discusses the process of research, cold calls, and funding for historical documentaries. 

The Hunt for Red

October / The Hunt for Archives

Working with archival documentaries often feels like

searching for a needle in a haystack. I hear countless stories of how local

news stations threw out film footage because there were no funds to preserve it

or retain an archivist. Or how local libraries don’t have the funds to preserve

local artifacts. The amount of material that has been lost over the decades is

heartbreaking.

But there are treasures that remain out there and they are

bountiful, and that is where the excitement and good detective work come in.

Working the phones is probably the best way to find archival material.

Working on premium historical documentaries is a joy, but

also the pressure is great to find something new or rare or unique or all of

the above. People spend years raising funds for these films and if you have

high expectations for yourself, on top of working with A-list filmmakers such

as Stanley Nelson and broadcasters like PBS, this really demands such tenacity

and an ability to not give up. 

Laurens GrantThere is a fable that we chase in the historical documentary

world: the story of someone who found a hidden box of footage in a closet or

attic and the film was magically saved. Of course, that doesn’t exactly happen

but I’ve come close.

I find some of my best clues are in books or news articles

from the era in which I’m working. Reporters’ interviews often include names,

dates, ages and locations, and photographs often accompany these articles. So

you’ve got the blueprint for a great search right there. And government

documents – trial transcripts, county records, maps, legal briefs and FBI

documents to name a few – also include lots of clues.

For "Freedom

Riders," we did a lot of research and author Raymond Arsenault also

opened up his thousands of pages of research to us. And among the pages of

research was an FBI document that mentioned how some FBI agents confiscated for

evidence a man’s camera who had been filming his son’s birthday party, and then

heard a ruckus outside, and ended up filming the freedom riders’ bus on fire.

I tracked down the family but the man had died and his

family no longer had the film. So I submitted a FOIA request with the FBI. Some

nine months later, I’ll never forget when I learned that FedEx delivered the

package. I was literally in knots. I imagined shaky cam amateur footage: shots

of bus wheels or the sky or shots of grass, after waiting nearly a year for the

package to arrive. When we discovered it was footage of the bus on fire that

had not been seen in nearly 50 years, that was an incredible moment.

For "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the

Revolution," it wasn’t just one source that was a gem, but multiple. It

was literally a global search for every second. For one scene, there was a

pioneering morning talk show that had interviewed Huey Newton and Eldridge

Cleaver nearly 50 years ago. I tracked down the host of the show but he no

longer had any footage. And neither did the station, nor his producer. But

after digging, I found an early clip of the show. Someone approached director

Stanley Nelson after a speaking engagement and gave him some "old"

footage which turned out to be shots of Eldridge in Algeria calling into the

same talk show, and a former Panther also had an audio recording. I won’t spoil

the details of the scene, but with all of these seemingly random bits, we were

able to put together a riveting scene.

I also found photographers and cinematographers who filmed

Panthers throughout various stages of the movement. Some are well known but

many haven’t had their work seen in decades. To me, they form part of the

post-World War II generation of photographers who captured a unique and

riveting time in American history.

Every second counts in historical documentaries. And with

each frame, you can literally recover history and make a great film.

The Cold Call /

Booking Interviews

Freedom Riders

I think my journalism background was a great training ground

for "the cold call." One of my first jobs as a rookie reporter after

graduating from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was

writing obituaries or what we call in the news biz: OBITs. I had to call family

members who had just lost a loved one, get quotes and write an article.

It was one of the most painful times in someone’s life and

here comes a reporter calling. Understandably, most family members are not

happy to hear from a reporter during their moment of grief. But that taught me

to get straight to the purpose of my call, and how to listen. Sometimes people

would be angry and yell or break down and cry. My editors weren’t interested in

excuses; I had to deliver copy. So I had to learn how to speak to people – or

keep quiet and listen – during very emotional moments.

These experiences gave me an interesting blend of toughness

but also empathy. And quite frankly, people are interesting. Both the people

who left their mark and the survivors they left behind.

Since I’ve worked on historical documentaries about

turbulent times in American history, I have found that these skills have really

come in handy, especially since many people do not want to talk to me.

Some people ask, do I leave messages if they don’t pick up? I

do leave messages with the basics of the importance of the call but I also feel

it’s important for people to hear your voice. Sometimes I’ve left half a dozen

messages before a person has called me back. They could be traveling, busy or

not yet ready to talk. Instead of guessing, I just continue to call. And once a

man said he returned my call because he was "in love with my voice."

It doesn’t always go that well. I’ve also been called so

many names: bulldog; tenacious; relentless; nuclear weapon; but also graceful

under fire. I accept them all as complements. But of course, if people do not

want to speak to me – I respect that and move on.

Show Me The Money / I

Wish I Could

Jesse Owens

I wish I had an easy answer for funding. In today’s

marketplace, I think it’s both easier and harder. I think the best advice is to

keep your day job, or look for one. It’s hard to raise funds for films and even

harder to make a living while doing so.

Yes, we now have Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding

sources, but it really does take an army to run a successful campaign,

especially if you’re trying to raise a decent chunk of change. And you need

some secret weapons. [Spoiler alert:]  Many filmmakers who’ve had successful campaigns have already

identified a list of their funders ahead of time and saved the bigger donors

until the last days of their campaign.

But no matter your fundraising journey, everything takes a

plan, whether you’re approaching equity investors, launching a crowdfunding

campaign, asking friends and family, applying for grants or approaching

broadcasters. It takes a lot of long hours and you will most likely get a lot

of no’s before a yes. But let that make you more resilient. I look at it as a

dare: Oh, yeah?? Watch me.

A long time ago, a documentary filmmaker told me it would

take an average of five years to complete a documentary – how prescient. So the

first step in this long journey is your subject: is it something you really

want to live with for that long? And spend many heartbreaking hours trying to

raise cash for it? And what do you want to say that’s different?

Once you’ve answered some of those basic yet compelling

questions, then it’s time for what I call the battle plan. Identify key

benchmarks and give yourself deadlines to meet them. When feeling overwhelmed,

I take a deep breath and reassess what I’ve done and where I still have to go:

Research and treatment; who will you interview or talk to; shooting the

trailer; editing it; who do you want to see your trailer in order to raise

funds? How much time and resources do you need to reach rough cut; and where do

you want to show the final film? It sounds obvious, but you’ll be constantly

asked these questions because – shock – people will not just give you money.

You need to prove why you and your project are worthy. And there is a long line

ahead of you.

Broadcasters are the number one funders of documentaries,

including blue chips PBS, HBO, and Showtime. But now streaming services and

other newer channels are getting in the game. So that’s good news for content

makers but also harder because they often turn to similar or "trusted"

veteran filmmakers in order to fill their time slots and assuage any fears from

their higher ups.

For first-time filmmakers, think about partnering with a

more experienced filmmaker. And if you can convince that person to come on

board, then you’re doing ok and can take those arguments and tools to convince funders.

Above all, get busy, and don’t give up.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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