Today I’m excited to share my conversation with writer, director and producer Angela Tucker. In this interview, talk about the realities of crossing that gap from one’s creative vision to making it a reality. What jumped out at me was two things:
- How many disparate projects and goals she juggles at any one time.
- How incremental everything is. From both the creative side to the funding side, her work moves forward one small commitment at a time.
Topics we cover:
- Her career path, and how she made decisions along the way.
- How she balances multiple projects at once.
- How she structures her work, and how one project tends to be a response to the previous. For some projects she has some control over; others, less so.
- How large projects start with small conversations and experiments.
- The depth of commitment that documentary filmmaking requires: how she can’t help but laugh when someone says that they will make a documentary within a year. Because it nearly always takes much longer.
- Sources of funding available to filmmakers trying to make their dream a reality.
- How incremental her funding is, it doesn’t come in one lump sum. She has to be seeking funding constantly throughout a project.
- How she deals with negative feedback to her work.
- How professional decisions effect her personal life, and vice versa.
Angela Tucker is a writer, director and producer.
She was the Director of Production at Big Mouth Films, a social issue documentary production company. There, she produced several award winning documentaries including Pushing the Elephant (PBS’ Independent Lens) about a Congolese mother and daughter separated over 12 years . She received her MFA in Film from Columbia University where she was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship.
She has a BA from Wesleyan in Theater and African American Studies and an MFA in Film Studies from Columbia.
Angela’s work has been featured in The Guardian, Time Magazine, Film Independent, The Root, Turnstyle,The Rumpus, Variety, About.com, and Salon, among many other media outlets.
Here are some excerpts from our chat:
On Intention and Commitment
I asked her if she feels that her daily life is filled with risk: creative, social, financial, career, or otherwise? Her response:
“I made a decision a long time ago to be a filmmaker. When I made that decision, I just stopped thinking about risk. I went to film school at Columbia, and it is very very very expensive. You have to borrow a lot of money.”
“When I got in, I remember thinking, “I don’t know, this is really crazy. I talked to my dad about it, and he said, ‘Well, I guess you are going to have to make it.’ There was something about him just saying it that way. That, if I am going to undergo this financial risk, then I am just going to have to do this thing that I say I want to do.”
“I think I have operated from that moment forward that, this is the thing that I say I am doing with my life, so I’m just going to operate in such a way to make that happen. I just proceed from that decision on a project by project basis.”
It was ironic to me how at the point in which one would be most uncertain as to the direction they want to go, considering film school, that the cost is so incredibly high right up front. That you have to go way into debt, just as you are learning what this industry is, how it operates, and if it is right for you. I asked her about navigating her decision to make such a big financial commitment:
“I just go with my gut. If I really thought about it, it’s a crazy thing. You are borrowing a lot of money to go into a profession that very few people make any money in. But I also didn’t really feel like there was another way for me to do it. Different people get into filmmaking in different ways, but I knew that I needed the time to learn the craft, and really be focused on that.”
Then Angela said something that really resonated with what I hear from so many others:
“I’m the kind of person who works really hard in whatever I do, so if I tried to work a full time job, and learn film on the side, it would have never happened. I would have made my full time job my career.”
She knew that a career whose goal was to pay the bills was a trap for her. That she would fall prey to its clutches. This is how many people’s career evolves: they take a job as a short-term fix, but then find they never take the risk to move on from it.
Angela embraced that risk up front — the cost of her film school education — because she knew herself well enough to know that a day job would become her main focus, taking her energy away from film. She continues…
“Once I decided I had to do it [film school], I just tried to be as smart as I can be about borrowing money, because some people went really nuts. They got as much as they could. I was smarter about that, and got some scholarship help, which helped me justify it. I could be borrowing a lot more money. It was a big risk, but I didn’t feel that I had another option.”
Overall, I love how both she and her father made such a strong commitment, even in the face of great risk.
Making the Transition from School to Career
“I was very fortunate. When I was done with classes, I got an internship at this production company called Big Mouth Productions, they make social issue documentaries. I got an internship doing audience engagement work around this documentary around transracial adoption. I helped setup screenings at colleges and universities, which was a good fit because I wasn’t that far from that college and university time.”
“From there, they were working on a new project, and it was easy to say, ‘Hey, consider me for this new project,’ and so I started out doing some research, and was eventually hired in a part-time way, then later in a full-time way as an associate producer on this documentary on the death penalty. It really started out from an internship that turned into a job. It wasn’t a very lucrative job, but it was a way to make a living doing what I really wanted to do.”
“It was very freelance-y. Like, ‘Okay, we have enough money to keep you on for these weeks, and then we would get to that point and some other job would come in. That went on for a long time, for a year or year and a half. Then we got enough funding so I could be there in a more long-term way. Once the film premiered at Sundance and was bought, I was put on staff.”
It struck me how tenuous it was, just for her to make her way into the lowest paying job in a low paying industry.
“You are just begging and begging and begging for this opportunity for them to pay you a little bit more money than you need to live. But I knew a lot of my classmates were not even able to work in the industry, so I really understood how fortunate I was, being able to develop skills. There was a lot I learned in film school, but a lot I didn’t learn. If I hadn’t had this job, I wouldn’t have learned a lot.”
“[In school] you are thinking about yourself as an artist, but you are not necessarily thinking about what you need to know in terms of fundraising, or how to pitch your project. I learned all of that in this job.”
“In film school, we focused on story and the basics of direction. The being in the field stuff, you learn by working on different projects.”
“I worked at this production company for 8 years. From intern AP to director of production. That taught me a lot about how to manage a lot of different projects and a lot of different people. The way were were able to make movies would be to have some funding from PBS or a foundation; other times we had films that had no funding, and we would have to figure out how to do a paid gig.”
“I was in charge of managing that with the executive director the company. When I left to work for myself, I had that skill set. It boils down to keeping a project that covers my basic expenses, so I’m not worry about my rent. Sometimes it’s a thing I love to do, and sometimes it’s not. Once I have that covered, then I feel like I can be more creative, because I’m not worried.”
“I like to find projects with like-minded people, who also have something to teach me. I try to work on things that will make me a better director. I’m on sets, I work with a lot of different crew, and then these are people who may be able to work on other projects with me. It’s juggling a lot of different things.”
“I probably have too many things going on at any one time, but I’m very good at delegating. When I feel that way, I try to bring on people who can help me. So I would think: these tasks together are tasks that someone else could do, and they are tasks that someone would find interesting to do at X rate. That really helps take something off my plate and give me room.”
I asked her about interpersonal issues that may crop up in managing so many collaborative projects at once:
“It’s a timing issue. There is always a moment when you think, ‘Okay, I’ve planned this really well, and Project A is slowing down, and Project B is ramping up. There is always the moment where it isn’t the case, and where A and B are both very intense, and one project feels that its getting slighted.”
“That has come up for me, especially when you are producing for a director, they want to feel like their project is the top priority. If you are working part time on their project, and part time on something else, it can’t always be. There has been friction around that, and I have understood it. I’ve gotten good at opening the lines of communication around it. It usually boils down to me working like a maniac for awhile to make both projects feel like I’m 100% on it, even though I’m working on two different projects.
“It’s also helpful that I have worked with the same people for a very long time.”
“Every project is going to have the money problem. Making media that is dealing with complicated issues is not exactly the thing that a rich person is going to write you a really big check for right away. The documentary industry, there is funding, but in the beginning you have to do it on your own.”
“It’s really difficult to get development money, people want to see something. In the beginning [of a project], you use your own money or Kickstarter. Pretty much everyone does that. Even huge filmmakers, when they go into development, they will probably use money they earned from their last sale to develop the new project. Unless you are very fortunate to have unique access to a big event happening in the world, you are probably going to have to put together your own money to get something started so that someone can see what you are talking about.”
“Once you make that development piece [a trailer or video of a few scenes], sometimes that is enough to trigger more money. Sometimes you still need to shoot some more.”
So she has to make an investment before she can even approach someone else to invest in her project.
I asked her what scale of money we were talking about here. She said that she knows people that do documentaries for $50,000, which is incredibly difficult, and others who can do it for $100,000. But most are in the $300,000 – $400,000 range, of course with many others costing far more. She said you have to ask yourself, “You have this idea, but what are the financial realities of this idea. Is this an idea in another city and state? Do I have to follow around multiple people? If you are following the story of someone who lives across the street from you, you are going to be able to make that film a lot more quickly [and therefore: cheaply], because you have constant access to them, and you don’t have to travel. But… who does that?”
Then she said something huge, that perfectly encapsulated how one navigates that gap between one’s creative vision and the realities of making it happen:
“It’s not just what film you want to make, it’s what film can you make.”
Pursuing Creative Work, and Its Affect on Relationships”
“The place I feel like I’ve really risked, and I’m really grappling with, is my personal life. My ability to be in a relationship and have time for that. Have children. That is why I moved from New York City [to New Orleans]; being so career focused, I was starting to be someone who had no other quality of life. I don’t want to be someone who wakes up one day and is like, ‘Sure, I am very successful in my career, but I haven’t really had the kind of relationships that I want to have.’ That to me is the risk you take around picking a field that you really love, but I am really working on the work/life balance now. Prioritizing that has been the biggest risk I have taken in a really long time.”
She went on to describe the difference of living in New Orleans:
- It’s cheaper to live in NO, so she doesn’t have to work as much to live.
- There is a slower pace.
- She is surrounded my more artists.
- ‘Career’ means less to many people she knows down there. It isn’t talked about as much.
- She had lived in New York her whole life, and wanted to live somewhere else as “a different kind of person.”
Thank you to Angela for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at: