It takes a lot to make it in New York, and the film industry can feel especially impenetrable with big stars casting long shadows and with there being a lack of a unified entry point into the business. To get the skinny on how to break in, we talked to up-and-coming documentary filmmaker Amy Finkel about her path from theater geek to designer to director of a feature-length documentary. While there’s no one magic path to success, she has some sage advice for those aspiring to see their name rolling in the credits.
Finkel has judged in numerous film festivals and teaches web design and documentary filmmaking at New York University and Parsons The New School for Design. Her 2013 release, “FUREVER”, chronicles the often quirky lengths devoted pet owners go to preserving their animals’ memories (taxidermy, cloning, mummification, etc.).
COOL JOB Q&A
NY: How did you get into filmmaking?
AF: I went to graduate school at Parsons. I knew, of course, that it was a great school, but I decided to get a degree in Design and Technology because I figured I could repurpose the title for anything that I should ever need it for. And while I mostly studied 2D motion/broadcast graphics there, for a thesis project they encouraged everyone in the program to build robots. I knew that my mastery of lasers and circuit boards was lacking, so I made a documentary instead. My amazing professor hooked me up with an editor friend of hers who mentored me throughout (Susanne Rostock, who just made a magnificent documentary about Harry Belafonte). My film, Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart, about four-string jazz banjo culture, ended up going to a bunch of film festivals, and was nominated that year for the Pare Lorentz Award by the International Documentary Association. I had a blast making it, and as it was well received. I decided to keep making documentaries for life.
NY: What brought you to New York in the first place?
AF: I actually came to New York because I was given a scholarship to go to the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute for a year (I used to do a lot of acting and improv/sketch comedy). I was planning to go work in L.A. at a small record label, but free school was too awesome to pass up. Because I couldn’t barter free courses for rent, I supplemented my income with freelance web design, and I soon became the webmaster for the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project. My adorably strange curmudgeon of a boss and I are still friends.
NY: How has being in New York helped you pursue your career in film?
AF: Well to state the obvious, there are just so many resources here. Sometimes so many that it’s daunting. If you need grant funding, there’s a whole library on Fifth Avenue [the Stephen A. Schwarzman building at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue] that’s dedicated to that very thing. And there are even librarians there who will tell you exactly what you need to do to get it. And there are, of course, hundreds of film groups here. Any night of the week I can decide to go hear someone talk about something related to documentary filmmaking. And the creative community in New York is so incredibly supportive and welcoming. From hearing my friends talk about their experiences in other cities, I think that seems to be an anomaly. Maybe I’ve just found the perfect group of artists and filmmakers and musicians and writers (and I have), but I feel like New York encourages idea sharing and collaboration in a way that other cities don’t. People always think of New York as being “cutthroat” and “aggressive” and “highly competitive,” and that may very well be the case in the finance world or something, but it’s not been my experience here—quite the opposite. If I’ve needed advice, someone always steps up to the plate. And I try to do the same for my friends and acquaintances. It’s a highly collaborative, supportive environment.
NY: Where are the best places and outlets for an aspiring filmmaker to network in New York?
AF: Sign up with Shooting People, New York Women in Film and Television, Independent Filmmaker Project, New York Foundation for the Arts, Downtown Community Television Center, or any number of the great film organizations here. I used to, for example, obsessively attend any and all “fair use” discussions happening in the city. Even by simply going to those I ended up meeting many people in the film world with whom I’ve collaborated. I also act as a “Doctor” for New York Foundation for the Arts. They offer Doctor’s Hours to give filmmakers advice on various aspects of the industry. Sign up for NYFA’s mailing list to hear about it. I know that Shooting People also offers frequent networking nights. Finally, go see films/special screenings/Q&As at Film Forum, IFC, ReRun, Maysles Cinema, MoMA, as well as the many great theaters here that put together compelling film experiences for all of us.
NY: What does an average day look like for you?
AF: I just finished a feature-length documentary called FUREVER (fureverfilm.com), so right now my days consist of filling out forms for film festivals and sending them all of the deliverables needed for their film festival screenings. Today, that consists of burning 16 DVD press screeners for three different festivals and printing out press kits (hoping I have enough printer ink). It’s extraordinarily glamorous. I also have to find some money to be able to print more posters for the next set of festivals. There’s a lot of anxiety and manual labor involved—but it’s for a good cause so even the most annoying work is a total pleasure. Later I have an interview with a radio station about the film, so I have to go to the studio to do that.
NY: What do you look for in a candidate when you are hiring people for a film or project?
AF: I look for all of the obvious stuff, of course: talent, work ethic, intelligence, humor and kindness. Someone who is willing to work within the confines of a generally low budget. But mostly, with a documentary, you’re working in such close contact with your team (sometimes even sharing hotel rooms or friends’ floors with them), that sometimes the most important skill is the ability to hang out together. I’m looking for all of the obvious talents, but also a straight-up friend. You have to be able to enjoy one another enough to share countless travel hours and numerous meals together. Also, with documentaries, making my subjects comfortable is crucial, so I also need team members who are polite and kind to my subjects in interview and film settings, who won’t intimidate them, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the content therein.
NY: Do you have any advice for someone looking to get into the field in NYC?
AF: Become a part of the community! Talk to people. Most of the people I’ve met here are friendly and welcoming and happy to give advice or resources to help you start doing what it is that you want to be doing.
Find out more about how New Yorkers are making it in the big city with our Cool Job Q&As.