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One-on-One @ The Writers Store: Q&A with Sadie Dean on Documentary Filmmaking

Behind the scenes look at the challenges of independent documentary filmmaking from The Writers Store's Sadie Dean, producer/writer, A Fatherless Generation.

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Script brings you behind the scenes to meet the staff at The Writers Store to learn what these pros are doing. Meet Sadie Dean the Contest Director, Project Coordinator, Screenwriters World Conference Programmer and Video Producer of the How-To Video series at The Writers Store and Screenwriters University.

A Los Angeles native, Sadie Dean has had a hand in all facets of filmmaking from an early age. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute and Conservatory. Prior to her studies at AFI, she served as a producer on music videos for many notable artists and as a script supervisor for commercials, features and shorts.


You wear a lot of hats at The Writers Store, but we’ve heard that you’re working on something pretty big too, outside of the store?

I do and I work with a really great team at The Writers Store. I’m lucky to be surrounded by creatives and professionals in the biz on a daily business. What a lot of our customers don't know is that we are a really small staff that works in the store and we are all filmmakers. Also - for anyone who gets confused - we aren't Final Draft.

Outside the store, I’ve been producing/writing a feature length documentary film titled A Fatherless Generation. In a nutshell - the documentary explores the staggering fatherhood dynamics across the country. Whether known or unknown, the universal question A Fatherless Generation asks is “Who’s your daddy?”

How did you get started with the documentary?

I came in on this project four years ago. Nathan Cheney (my producing partner and director of the documentary) had actually come to me with a different project - we were writing comedy sketches for his boss (and our now Executive Producer of the doc) Billy Bush. We were catching up on life in general and were joking about growing up as poor kids, not having our dads actively in our lives and then the jokes turned more serious. We began lamenting about our childhoods and how we both grew up for most of our lives with just our mothers. We compared the similar struggles our mothers endured raising kids on their own and also the emotional ups and downs we personally went through.

Nathan Cheney and Sadie Dean at the Final Draft Awards

Nathan Cheney and Sadie Dean at the Final Draft Awards

At the time Nathan had just recently graduated from film school at Columbia College Hollywood (that’s where we both met when we were both film students) and I was just finishing up grad school as a screenwriting fellow at AFI (the American Film Institute). Nathan had initially made the documentary as a short thesis film, but was feeling unsatisfied with the final product and wanted to expand it into a feature - but felt something was missing. I suggested he put himself in there - be the guy that grabs the bull by the balls and spearheads this journey - be that beating heart for the audience to follow. At first he was hesitant being the central story and even being in front of the camera, as anyone would be, but he was game. Pretty much that following weekend, we grabbed our cameras and began filming man on the street interviews all over Los Angeles.

What was hard about making the documentary, so far?

Coordinating. That’s probably been the most difficult aspect of it. Coordinating schedules with celebrities, public figures and other interviewees and even our minimal (amazing) crew. Everyone we’ve pitched the doc to instantly connects to the subject matter and wants to jump on board, but then they forget “Oh yeah, there’s this thing called life and work commitments.” So what sounds like something that’ll happen next week turns into 6 months down the line. But when we get those interviews, they’re golden and we learn something new every time. It’s really amazing and eye opening.

How’d you get all these people to star in it, like Terry Crews, Aisha Tyler and Aimee Garcia?

A lot of networking and courage. We’re lucky enough that Nathan works on a TV show (Access Hollywood) that gives him an opportunity to meet celebrities one-on-one and develops a relationship with them. Nathan is very much a “go-getter” and is very personable. So when Nathan thinks they have a unique perspective on the issue of fatherlessness he pitches the documentary and the majority of the time they're interested in jumping on board and helping out. The really great thing about the subject matter of this documentary is that we feel it’s important to humanize the celebrities who are sharing their personal stories and we believe our audience will connect with them on a more personal and emotional level and I think that's really cool.

On set of A Fatherless Generation interviewing actress and comedian Aisha Tyler

On set of A Fatherless Generation interviewing actress and comedian Aisha Tyler

But networking is key. I’ve worked on a lot of films and have made a lot of amazing connections that I’ve been able to go back to - from crew to actors and actresses. You never know who you're going to meet and who will be there to help you when the time comes.

Narrative filmmaking vs documentary filmmaking?

Narrative filmmaking is so much easier to do than making a documentary. With narratives, you have a script, you have a budget, you have locations, crew, actors, etc. Documentary filmmaking is a beast. Initially, with independent documentaries, you have just a story idea, no money, no locations, and no crew. You expand your idea into what you ideally want your movie to be about. You go out and film some stuff (interviews, b-roll) and then something happens - there’s usually an interview that makes you take a left turn and at first you’re like, “Damn!” and then you go back and look at it and think, “Wow, that’s actually really profound” and now you have a different track (and usually for the better) to go on with your story. Along the way, you tap into your connections, get some volunteer crew and film some more. The story broadens and you begin to really tap into the heart of the story and what your message - your theme - of what you want to tell. In some cases, like ours, you can film for what seems like forever. But at some point you have to say “Enough is enough!” and pull the plug and begin editing. We’re almost at that point.

As much as I’m hankering to get back to narrative filmmaking, the great thing about doing documentaries is that there aren’t any restrictions - you can film whatever, whenever (granted you have the time and resources).

How much is scripted in a documentary?

Every documentary is obviously different, and especially in the way a documentarian attacks the subject matter. For A Fatherless Generation, the only thing I can say that is scripted are some of our initial questions going in for an interview and some V.O. that we’ve written out for Nathan. Other than that, everything is as real and as raw as it gets.

What kind of role has social media played in making this documentary?

Well social media is a different level of writing in itself but still has to be very creative. It needs to be engaging, hook you in immediately and it has to be short and concise. You also have to be aware of what kind of message you're putting out there. For us in this instance we started a social media campaign the week before Father's Day called "Who's Your Daddy?" where family, friends and even celebrities shared a quick video talking about their fathers. We generated thousands of views to our page and videos and in turn have generated new fans on our Facebook page and new Twitter followers. We also were able to get the LA Lakers very own Rick Fox to do a video which was included in a segment on Access Hollywood that gave the first national television view of our promotional trailer.

Do you think you had to go to film school to make a documentary? Were the contacts beneficial at AFI?

Well, here’s the kicker - I went to film school to learn and perfect my craft in telling and making narrative films. Not once did I ever take a class on how to make a documentary. Sure, I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, but it wasn’t ever on my professional filmmaking agenda to make one.

Sadie Dean and Nathan Cheney on set

Sadie Dean and Nathan Cheney on set

What’s so beneficial about film school is you’re learning about the craft in all forms. Whether it’s learning about the history of film, visually telling stories, screenwriting, lighting, sound, acting, etc., - these are all key skills for making any film. And if you’re lucky enough, you get the hands on experience - learning about different cameras, loading film (yeah, there was a time where we got to shoot on actual film!), being a director, a producer, a script supervisor, a first assistant director, a boom operator - being on set just in general. I think it’s very important you learn all aspects and all roles of filmmaking before you a make a movie, whether it’s a narrative or documentary. You learn to respect each role and what each person brings to the table. So for me, absolutely, film school in general, was an essential part for me to be able to make this documentary.

The contacts at AFI are one of three top reasons you go there:

1. Contacts
2. Improve your craft
3. Bragging rights

I’m proud to say I graduated with some of the most talented storytellers out there. I’ve made a lot of amazing friends and a lot of those friends have helped me out tremendously on this documentary.

How much did the documentary cost, all things considered? How much more money do you need?

To date, Nathan and I have been doing everything out of pocket. Combined, we’ve put in a little over $10,000. We’re almost finished with principal production and need $35,000 to help finish it up. We’ve actually kicked off our IndieGoGo campaign where friends, family and new fans (hopefully that’s you) can donate and help us finish making the film. The really cool thing is donations are tax deductible thanks to our fiscal sponsorship through the International Documentary Association. Finishing funds will go towards our trip to Kansas where we will film the most pivotal part of the film and Nathan’s journey - his one-on-one with his dad, our legal fees and more hard drives (because, we have a lot of footage).

Are there any other big things happening for the documentary?

There are! And I would love to tell you, but I can't share it just yet. You can keep up with our updates by liking our Facebook page.

To learn more about the film and to donate check out the IndieGoGo page.

Follow the documentary on Twitter at @afgeneration
Become a fan on Facebook
Visit the documentaries website

Follow Sadie Dean on Twitter at @SadieKDean

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Writing the Documentary