Q&A: Filmmaker Nick Berardini on the business of documentaries

Fans and makers of documentary films have descended on Columbia this weekend for the annual True/False Film Fest. The documentary film festival started Thursday and runs through Sunday at venues in and around downtown Columbia.

Nick Berardini, documentary filmmaker who wrote and directed "Killing Them Safely" | Courtesy of Nick Berardini/Facebook
Nick Berardini | Courtesy of Nick Berardini/Facebook

Now in its 13th year, the festival drew attendance of more than 45,000 last year, according to organizers.

In the spirit of the weekend’s events, Missouri Business Alert caught up with Columbia-based filmmaker Nick Berardini to discuss the business of making documentary films.

A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Berardini wrote and directed “Killing Them Safely,” a 2015 documentary that investigates TASER International and its eponymous stun gun.

In his interview with Missouri Business Alert, Berardini discussed the inspiration for that film, the challenges of budgeting for a documentary and the benefits of the True/False Film Fest.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: What are the basics of an independent film budget?

Nick Berardini: In terms of making a budget, you just really have to understand what your film is, what the story is. And understand, whether that’s a documentary or fiction film, what the costs of making your vision are. So in my first film we had to travel around some, we had to pay for some archive footage. You have to just incorporate all the things that you think are necessary to putting that vision on the screen. That’s why the budget can vary so much.

During the filming process, what steps do you take to make sure you stay within budget?

You just have to be disciplined. And if you’re going to go over budget on a certain thing, you have to be able to really defend that choice to your investors. Just like any project, you have to be able to defend the choices that you make, and if you feel like there’s a specific thing that’s necessary to the film that is going to put you over budget, you try to make it up in a different category. So maybe if you’re over budget on your shooting schedule, you try to make that up in the post-production process, when you’re editing the film. The first choice is if you’re going to go over budget in one line item, you try to make it up in another line item. But if you’re going to go over budget and you can’t make it up in any other line item of the budget, you just have to be prepared to defend that choice as necessary for the film and hope your investors agree and give you the funds to do it.

As a filmmaker, how do you define your target audience?

When you have an issue documentary, you’re looking for people who want to become educated about new things and understand something maybe they didn’t understand before, and that’s a different genre of documentary film. Just like in fiction films, there are different genres of documentary. So, basically, what you’re trying to do is just understand the type of film you’re making and then who the people are that might be able to help generate the widest audience possible. But the goal of the director is always to also make the film thematically as broad as it can be so it appeals to as many people as possible.

What compelled you to make a film about TASER?

I was a student at Missouri when 23-year-old Stanley Harlan was killed during a traffic stop, and he was shot in the chest with a taser for 31 seconds in front of his parents. Initially I thought that it was just agressive police officers, but as I dug into the training materials officers were using, it became clear that they didn’t really know the capabilities of the weapon that they were dealing with. And since only one company makes the weapon — it’s a monopoly — I thought it’d be really interesting to understand where they’re coming from and how they’re marketing their weapon and what they say about it.

What have you learned about the power of filmmakers or storytellers to take on powerful business interests?

I think sometimes the best thing you can do when you want to take on a power structure or a company that’s really powerful and influential in a film is you just want to paint the compete picture. You don’t want to fall into the trap of just trying to prove your own bias. What you really want to do is try to understand the thing that you’re critiquing. Because, ultimately, movies are really about behavior and the way people think, and so you’re not going to really accomplish anything if all you do is just try to make a narrowly defined argument.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a new film that’s probably going to start shooting, but it’s a bit of a secret right now.

How much can True/False mean to the success of a documentary?

I think True/False is one of the best film festivals in the world, and a huge part of that is just because there’s no competition element to it. There’s no pressure, really, in terms of sales. It’s not like a lot of films are trying to sell here at True/False. It’s more about celebrating good films and trying to curate and program the best films possible. True/False doesn’t have too strict of premiere status requirements, which allows them to pick the best films, as opposed to making decisions about films that have played somewhere else already. It’s really important for filmmakers because it’s sort of a referendum on what the best films of that festival circuit are so far.

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