Diving into Docs with Jennifer Grausman

Are you interested in documentary filmmaking? This post is for you!

We recently spoke with Jennifer Grausman, producer/director behind the Emmy-nominated feature documentary Pressure Cooker, and most recently Art and Craft, about documentary filmmaking, how to stay motivated, what makes a great story, and more. 

With two highly lauded documentary features under her belt, Grausman has figured out the rare formula for getting a film funded and transforming an idea into a reality. Read on below to learn more.


Mark Landis from Art and Craft

Mark Landis from Art and Craft

Why did you want to tell Mark Landis’s story in Art and Craft?

The story caught my attention. Why was Landis donating fakes instead of selling them? That was fascinating. I'd been researching topics for documentaries, specifically within the realm of art crimes, for about a year. I came from the art world; I also studied abnormal psychology in college and am interested in mental health. Art and Craft combined many of my interests in one film.

What makes a great story for a documentary?

It’s really difficult to find a great story. For me, it usually starts with the characters—people who are going after what they want in one form or another.  

For both Art and Craft and Pressure Cooker, your filming process took about 3 years. How do you stay motivated and balance documentary filmmaking with other gigs?

It's so hard. I was lucky that with Pressure Cooker I'd raised enough money ahead of time. It was harder to raise funds for Art and Craft, but the production was a bit easier because the shooting wasn't all-consuming. I couldn't do anything else while I was shooting Pressure Cooker. There was just no way. With Art and Craft, because we were filming in little chunks, it was much easier to do other jobs and projects in between. I feel like if you are going to film something that's going to be super intense, you either have to raise the money before or just be ready to do it—even if no one's getting paid, you just do it and then you plan to figure it out.

You have a non-traditional film background. Can you share advice for people looking to make a documentary without a film-school background?

I think you really have to be passionate about the idea and what the story is or who the characters are. Be passionate about something and then other people are going to want to see it. In life, I am not generally an optimist. But when it comes to filmmaking somehow I am, and having that belief pushes me forward. At the same time, I think making documentaries is really about the material. If it's speaking to you, think about if it will speak to others. Otherwise, you're not going to find funding or get distribution.

Be passionate about something and then other people are going to want to see it.
— Jennifer Grausman
The students from Pressure Cooker, from left to right: LaToya Jacobs, Tyree Dudley, Erica Gaither, Eugene Thomas, Julia Raphael, Omar Rosado, Jerome Scott, William Ray, and Stephanie Dessir. Photo by Jennifer Kupstow.

The students from Pressure Cooker, from left to right: LaToya Jacobs, Tyree Dudley, Erica Gaither, Eugene Thomas, Julia Raphael, Omar Rosado, Jerome Scott, William Ray, and Stephanie Dessir. Photo by Jennifer Kupstow.

For both Pressure Cooker and Art and Craft, giving each character their own voice seems important. How do you approach ethics in your films?

Treating people with respect is a huge thing. Treat them the way you would want to be treated and understand that making a documentary is a really strange process for everybody. Understanding people's boundaries and respecting them is an important thing.

What advice do you have for finding collaborators to work on low-budget films?

I don't like to ask people to work for free. Usually you will defer payment for a little bit until you've raised the money to pay yourselves. You don't want to be putting your own money into your film if you can help it.

In terms of finding collaborators, you can look at people's work, send them notes, and ask them questions. You can also ask friends for recommendations. Most people are happy to have coffee with you or to chat on the phone for a few minutes. Some people aren't, and that is totally reasonable. It comes down to finding a film you like and then trying to talk to the people who made it.

Meeting people is really important for all sorts of things, whether that’s finding a great editor or a graphic designer or someone else to work on your film or for distribution. It’s always important.
— Jennifer Grausman
Mark Landis from Art and Craft

Mark Landis from Art and Craft

What are your top 3 tips for other filmmakers looking to fund their films?

Have a really good trailer and a strong synopsis for grant writing and proposals. You need a one liner, a paragraph, and one pager for sure. Then sometimes you'll need longer treatments. That's the main thing people are going to be asking for when they look into the project. You'll need it for Kickstarter or other crowdfunding options if you go that route. If you're not a good writer, see if you have a friend who can help you.

Living in New York or Los Angeles is definitely helpful. If you're not living in one of these hubs, you can still be active in your own film community. Go volunteer at film festivals you like. That's the best way to meet people, and you'll meet programmers which can be helpful later. I used to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival, and I would meet people that way. I met a ton of people at Nantucket Film Festival and Tribeca.

If there are film organizations you like, such as Women in Film or IFP, get involved with your local chapters. Meeting people is really important for all sorts of things, whether that's finding a great editor or a graphic designer or someone else to work on your film or for distribution. It's always important.


For more on Jennifer Grausman’s work, check out her site and be sure to watch Art and Craft, available on Amazon Prime and airing on PBS’s POV

Grausman was the keynote speaker at this year’s Oregon Doc Camp, a documentary filmmaker retreat sponsored by Women in Film Portland. We want to thank Women in Film for having us at this year's conference—events like these are great for meeting fellow filmmakers and continuing education. 

And speaking of meeting fellow filmmakers and continuing your education, you can do that right here with our Story & Heart community.

Do you have any tips for breaking into the documentary world...and getting your film out there? Let’s discuss! Chime in the comments section below.