Kenneth Eng: What It's Really Like to be a Documentary Filmmaker
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About Our Guest
Kenneth Eng is a director, editor and executive producer. After graduating from Boston Latin School, Ken left for New York in 1994 to study film at the School of Visual Arts. His thesis Scratching Windows, a short documentary film about graffiti writers, was broadcast as part of the doc series REEL NY on WNET - NY PBS. In 2001, Ken directed and edited Take Me to The River a feature length documentary about the Maha Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India. Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball, his film about the famous Koshien Tournament in Japan was nationally broadcast on PBS as part of POV and continues to play in Japan on NHK-TV. In 2007, Ken was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship to launch My Life In China. Recently, he edited Tested for director Curtis Chin, and is currently developing projects on post-genocide reconciliation in Rwanda and the rise of baseball in China.
Learn more about Kenneth's latest film, My Life in China: https://mylifeinchina.org/, and his interview with PBS.
Helpful Links and Resources for Documentary Filmmakers
International Documentary Association (IDA): https://www.documentary.org/ -- This is a fantastic resource for ALL things related to documentary filmmaking. My favorite section is Grants and Fiscal Sponsorships. IDA created a Core Application, which allows you to use the same application to apply to multiple grants. This alone will save you hundreds of hours)
Desktop Documentaries https://www.desktop-documentaries.com/ offers courses and resources for first-time filmmakers. Their newsletters are often very helpful as well.
Funding and Support for First-time Filmmakers
A fully researched list of ALL the grants for filmmakers from many backgrounds: http://www.pbs.org/pov/filmmakers/resources/documentary-funding.php
PBS's POV - one of the most recommended resources: http://www.pbs.org/pov/
National Geographic Filmmaking Grant: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/grants
MacArthur Foundation: https://www.macfound.org/grants/
[02:00] Please tell us about some of your current projects.
[06:00] How do you explain to other people what you do? What’s your current explanation about the process of filmmaking?
[09:00] How do you balance working on your passion (filmmaking) vs making enough money to live?
[12:00] What are some of the differences and similarities from the vision you had about being a filmmaker when you first started vs now? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned? (Things you wish you knew?).
[16:00] Is the market/scene much more competitive now, compared to 20 years ago? What has the currently technology enabled vs made harder?
[19:00] What’s your opinion about documentaries?
[25:00] Please tell us about the timeline for the film festivals. What’s the process like?
[28:00] How would you recommend applying to film festivals?
[29:00] What are the most rated vs. underground festivals?
[31:00] What are filmmaking workshops? Would you recommend them to people starting?
[35:00] What are some websites with resources for filmmakers?
[37:00] How would recommend writing the one-pager with the story behind a movie? How can you make the pitch more compelling?
[40:00] How do you know that you are creating a good movie? Do you feel it?
[42:00] What was the story behind your first baseball movie?
[44:00] What are some tricks to attract the audience?
[47:00] What would you like to say to you 20 year old version of yourself?
[08:00] Work on videos or films and tell stories that resonate with you. You want to be able to do it truthfully, have great access, and you want to be able to do it in an honest way that allows you to infuse yourself, to be able to communicate with your own self in a way that is truthful and honest and sympathetic to the story you are telling.
[09:00] Fame and fortune is not in the journey right now. For me it has never been about that. For me it’s all about being able to make a career out of it, being able to travel to places, make relationships with people, meet people, make friends…
[19:00] With this technology we can do that. Before you had to buy Encyclopedia, and buy updates to keep up with all the information. Now you can use this technology to communicate your ideas to people in a very simple and quick way.
[21:00] It’s a privilege to do this work, we can change society and make it better. Try to change minds, build understanding and have more compassion.
Transcript of Interview with Kenneth Eng.
What are some of the things you're working on now?
Ken [1:37] Well, I am working on a couple of projects right now, as you know. Aside from my own personal projects, I like to collaborate with other filmmakers. Also I do a lot of nonprofit videos to stay afloat and keep the rent paid. So it's a big juggling act. It's a privilege to do the work and to make a career out of it. I just love to be able to give myself into all this work, creating all this different energy and collaborating with different people.
A project that's been in flux for a couple of years now is a documentary about the rise of baseball in China. A couple guys from Baltimore approached me, a professor from George Washington University Mark Hyman, and also a reporter from the Baltimore Sun Jeff Barker. They reached out to me to help them make a film about baseball in China. They've been following this kid who's like the first player drafted from the Major League Baseball development centers in China, and they've been following him for two years in the minor leagues, and wanted to make a film about his journey. But we realized it's also about Major League Baseball's journey into Mainland China, an investment in education: they're trying to build the culture of baseball and get into the market in China. So this film I'm working on is all about these two journeys: China's journey into America, but also MLB’s journey into China. We've already done some shoots, gone over there, put together a trailer to raise money. And at the same time, I'm also helping my friend Brian Harrison Nelson, he's a Mardi Gras Indian and originally from New Orleans, he’s been working on a film about his mom and his family's legacy, which they’re Mardi Gras Indians, black Indians. So it’s a historical documentary about runaway slaves, who adopted the indigenous culture of Native Americans based in the New Orleans area. So they're like the forefathers of the whole jazz scene. And it's kind of exciting to find myself in that space and help to create a film, you know, using my own skills. I like to shoot and edit, but I also like to collaborate with people and try to help them tell their stories. That way I get to see a little of everything and travel to these really interesting places.
Then aside from those projects I am doing nonprofit videos for a hospice care center in Boston, the first one in Massachusetts, they're celebrating 40 years helping people. And it's been a learning experience, just spending time with these who take care of others who are not able to take care of themselves and maybe have a fatal disease. So it's been an amazing experience to bring cameras into those kind of spaces also.
How would you describe what you do?
Ken [6:31] I would say, try to figure out what your vision should be or what you want it to be, put yourself in the best position to succeed and work on videos or films and tell stories that resonate with you. You want to be able to do it truthfully, in an honest way. That allows you to infuse yourself as to be able to communicate your own self in a way that is truthful and honest and sympathetic to the story you're telling. To be an artist, it's relative, and it's for everyone to figure out for themselves. Early on in life, I realized I wanted to use art and the camera to be able to help tell untold stories, to help use media to build understanding for those who are usually misunderstood, to identify needs in our society. So for me, it's these underserved communities, immigrant populations, these people who never have the spotlight on them. I don't know, not everyone can be the darling of Hollywood or Sundance and get all the big grants. So for me, it's always been a way to say: “Hey, how can I make sure I can keep doing the work, but also be helpful for the people that I associate with or run into in my daily life?
Fei Wu [8:04] I can probably just have that chat with you for the next week, literally. I'd stop on what you just said. I mean, many people that you have put on your film are not necessarily household names. I also struggle with my own podcast because if you look across the whole big spectrum of podcasters, famous or not so famous, everybody trying to get the same faces on their shows, on their website, and people are going after that. They're getting the downloads, they need that fame, they want and the credibility. But we're both doing something along that line, and then, on the other hand, we have to keep doing something else and trying to figure out a way to keep doing what we do to keep our own business afloat.
How do you balance between the creative and the business parts of your work?
Ken [9:13] Fame, and fortune is not in the journey right now, for me it's never been about that, it's been about being able to make a career out of it, and to be able to travel to places and make relationships with people, meet people, make friends. I mean, I'm not winning Oscars here and there and going to all the big film festivals, but I know I'm capable of making a good film that will connect with people.
I have to see how I can keep doing the work, but also stay afloat. So how can I be creative about keeping my skills sharp? And it's a lot about getting freelance gigs, it's a lot about doing a lot of work for community organizations that doesn't pay much. I mean, it's for every individual artist to identify to figure out for themselves, like “Am I getting all the grants? Am I getting the big budgets to go shoot that?” If so, that's cool, and I’ll gotta go and make the most of it. But, you know, if you're the artist, that's still kind of underground. You have to keep focusing on the work, but also figure out ways to pay the rent, put food on the table. So it's a juggling act, but a very fulfilling one.
Fei Wu [11:03] So I'm living through that myself. I guess I was much more conservative with my career, even though I'm sure many other people see my earlier career as a consultant not as conservative as working in Citigroup or State Street or something. But still, I knew that I wasn't going to be doing that, working for someone else, for too much. So I became a freelancer two years ago, and have absolutely no regrets. I feel thankful for all the experiences I had before that enabled me to do what I do today.
How your vision of an ideal career has been changing through the time?
What are some of the things that you wish you knew going into this?
Ken [12:46] Going back to the career change - I think it's a result of people trying to identify what makes them happy. I mean, when I was working in New York as a freelance editor for a lot of reality shows, I was making 500 bucks a day. And, you know, getting paid and making tons of money is awesome and fun, I was able to send money back to my parents, take care of them. But then, when the economic downfall hit, I didn't work for nine months. So then I didn't have a choice to continue doing that, and I was like “Well, now's my chance to work on my own film”, and actually finished my film that I started in 2007. It’s sort of a “sink or swim” or “just make the most of your time” thing.
As soon as I’ve let go that structure, that idea that I had to have a nine to five job, it was a whole different way of living life. I instantly felt a lot happier and more fulfilled. So, if people are going to do all that - just take the time to find out what makes them happy and just go for it, stop wasting time. It's going to take a lot of years off one's life, if you you’ll do something that you don't love.
When I went on my journey, I realized that I had to relearn how to be a filmmaker because I've been so busy being a freelancer and trying to stay afloat. Then the journey of being an independent filmmaker, finally, hit me like: “Oh, wait, you're supposed to do all this stuff, you have to find your voice, put together a team, keep the pipeline going, try to get distribution deals”. I didn't even know I was supposed to do that. When I first made my baseball film, my first film, it was on TV. But then, I have no idea what happened in my mid30s when I felt like I was in a fog and a little confused. “What am I supposed to do? Am I trying to be a freelancer or trying to be an independent filmmaker?” I wish I had realized earlier that I should just choose one journey and go for it. And in doing so, after being wishy-washy about it, I realized I had to let a lot of opportunities slip through my fingertips. Like, I had a good film when I started my journey, but I didn't follow through with it. I didn't keep applying to grants, and I didn't stay in the sphere of all the gatekeepers, the grant givers, all the people that keep earmarking your career.
Fei Wu [15:57] What I learned through my brief conversation with you last week was that if you were to produce a film five years ago, the process would look drastically different. How much more difficult it is now to enter, find a distributor and then find a spot for yourself on Hulu, on Netflix? I spoke with a number of people and the rules of the game has changed drastically.
Would you agree that constantly changing rules in the film industry are making the whole process more challenging?
Ken [16:35] Yeah, I mean, it used to be that you could make a bunch of your money back if you could secure a contract with PBS or the HBO, but the landscape has changed. You can distribute your film directly to people, there's all these streaming services, there's educational, there's even airlines and cruise ship licensing, there's tour bus licensing, hotels licensing. So it just depends on how much filmmakers want to break down their rights and do all the legwork. How much do they want to retain?
So, the big films tend to go with sort of an umbrella approach where one company will try to do everything, but then they usually will hit the big distribution things and then won't follow through with the little tiny things. I think that how much access the film has is relative to how far it gets or the streaming and distribution it gets. So little filmmakers like me, we didn't get the big distributors, so we’re kind of forced to break all the distribution now, try to make the most out of every film festival, every educational screening. We went for an airline distribution until the broadcast came, and then we made a release on to education platforms, streaming, and also selling DVDs to educational libraries. So that's a big chunk of what documentaries do and how they make their money.
Fei Wu [18:21] Wow. I mean, this getting really juicy. One of the reasons I want to devote my time shooting a documentary, regardless of it success and financial gains, is that I find documentaries to be so fascinating! I think that's the way to go, I think that's what people are seeking out these days because they're real, and they're true.
Ken [19:11] Plus, I mean, it offers a whole different point of view, it's outside of the mainstream media. Now is the time where we get to tell our own story in our own authentic way, technology has given us the opportunity to reach wide audiences. And to be able to communicate ideas and to share information, I think with this technology, we can do that. Before you had to buy whole encyclopedias and try to get updates for things, but now you can use this technology to communicate ideas directly to people in a really quick way, stylized way, so it raised the bar in technique and storytelling. It’s a privilege to do this work. And also, we can change society and make it better, try to change minds, build understanding and have more compassion with this information. So, I mean, it's, all relative, and it depends on the choice of the filmmaker and what kind of story they want to tell, what they're trying to achieve with this media. In a perfect world, everyone would try to behave, do good stuff and help to build a better society.
Fei Wu [20:33] I have a lot of respect for that. I think podcasters are trying to do the same things. Bloggers have been doing it even longer. But I think documentary producers, editors, directors, like yourself, are doing it in an even more sophisticated and more committed way just because of the level of complexity and the length of the project.
Fei Wu [0:01] If you don't mind, I'm going to get into some of the technical stuff that we talked about last week.
We spend time talking about grants and film festivals, but most people have no idea what they are and how this works.
Could you describe what the typical film festival looks like? When does it start? What are some of the downfalls?
Ken [1:01] Some of the stuff I wish I had known before I'd gone through, it would probably be my experience dealing with film festivals and trying to get the film out and seeing. When I finished my previous film, My life in China, I had been sending a rough cut of it around and trying to get into film festivals for like two years, before I actually finally got into one. Nobody told me that you should probably finish your film and polish it up as much as you can to make the best first impression when sending it out and trying to get into film festivals. The realization that film festivals already have films that are in the pipeline, films that their organizations have already supported and given grants to, that they have partnerships with a lot of the nonprofit organizations like Ford Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Institute, National Geographic - all these places have already funded films, and they already have the upper hand.
So I was ignorant, and I was just swimming upstream with my independent film. Well, there're independent films out there, but then there're really independent films that aren't part of that whole pipeline. And I'm applying to all these festivals without reaching out, leveraging my contacts, because when I had my first film, I had made a lot of contacts, but I didn't realize that maybe you should keep contact with people there and also stay on the radar, and let them know what you're doing and where you want to show the film and all that stuff. That way they could at least drop a connection, vouch for you at certain places, whisper ears for you so that you will get into the certain festivals that you're trying to get into.
I was ignorant. For some reason, that never occurred to me until I got to a certain place of my life and this has dawned on me, like “All these films are in the cool club, and they're showing up at all these film festivals I'd love to be in”. So, you got to realize what you're going up against if you don't know anyone.
Should people start with smaller and more local film festivals?
Ken [3:37] I wouldn't recommend shooting low. I would still try to pay attention to the hierarchy of film festivals and the season of film festivals, how it unfolds each year. I mean, if you don't get in, it's still worth trying to apply to those and try to get in because there's a chance you may get if the work is good enough, and if people that screen it love it. It's good to know how to go about it after that, you know. At least you would have had the entry, you wouldn’t have missed the deadlines for the big ones, but you’d still have that fallback of trying to get into the middle tier ones and the ones that are more underground.
What are some of the super privileged festivals? Which ones are considered mid-level and underground?
Ken [4:32] If you look at the calendar, each film year starts in January, and Sundance actually falls at the end of January. So people tend to time the completion of their film for the end of August because there's the Sundance deadline for the next year. So people are trying to plan their films around this festival because everyone's trying to get into Sundance. So you want to finish or have a rough cut of your film by an end of August or the 1st week of September, If you're already known, maybe they'll give you an extension of the deadline.
There's a big thing put on film premieres, s you really don't want to give up the premiere, you want to hold off and save the premiere for certain festivals, like Sundance or SXSW, which is after Sundance, or if you don't get into Sundance, you're trying to get into maybe Toronto International Film Festival, which happens after that, or there's Berlin International Film Festival, which is, I guess, the second Big Film Festival, because it's an international kind of premiere. So if you don't get your world premiere at Sundance, you're hoping for the next ones.
Fei Wu [6:11] It's really interesting that you mentioned filmmaker foundations, and sounds like they were helpful, in a way.
Ken [6:20] Yeah, there're all these organizations, they have these grants that filmmakers can apply for, and they put a big emphasis on first-time filmmakers. So if you're going to embark on going on this journey, I would look at like Sundance Institute, A3 Foundation, National Geographic, MacArthur Foundation. There're a lot of foundations out there that are all about funding people if you have the right idea. I've gotten funding for my baseball film, we raised $350,000 from scratch, just by shot in the dark. For my high school baseball documentary, we formed an LLC and reached out to a foundation called the USJF that was based in New York City (United States-Japan Foundation). And at the time, in 2003, they were still giving grants out, I'm not if these days they're still doing that, but they were giving $50,000 grant to productions that were making films that were promoting Japanese and American relations. Our film, I guess, aligned with that mission. So we applied, it was this one-year application process where we reached out to them, told them that we were thinking of making a film about high school baseball in Japan, and asked if they would fund something like that. So yeah, they expressed interest and invited us to make a full proper application. We decided to go to Japan and shoot a promotional video, maybe like a 12-minute preview. While we're over there, we met with them in Tokyo, gave them a three-minute promo piece, and after six months of negotiations and application process, we finally got the first grant.
So, after awarding us the first $50,000, they were officially on board, and now they wanted to see us be successful in fully funding the project. So they went to bat for us, which is the amazing thing. They approached the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, so we subsequently got another two grants from them.
Essentially, we raised about $350,000 to make this film about high school baseball in Japan. I mean, the toughest thing was getting the first grant from the USJF. And after that, things were easy because they sort of legitimized us.
Are there any centralized websites for filmmakers where they can search for grants?
Ken [10:13] There’s a website called pbs.org/pov, they're the tops, I would say. And they have a page that has all the film festivals and foundations, that people should take a look at. It's a really amazing spreadsheet of information.
Aside from that, I would take a look at your project and identify what kind of foundations would have the same mission as your future film. In my case, we were making a film about Japanese culture to promote a better understanding of it, and we found this foundation that has literally the same mission. If your film or project doesn't have a foundation it aligns to, look at certain potential foundations and just align your film to that mission.
Fei Wu [11:58] You brought up a very important point, it's one thing to find that these grants or these foundations exist, and the other is to pitch and to pitch it correctly.
When I was talking to you last week, I was still at the very beginning of the documentary, the way I pitched it to you was important.
How filmmakers should structure their pitch for the grants to make it more compelling?
Ken 13:00] Putting one sheet together is a good exercise to really work out the film idea. Have a clear idea of what you're trying to do, it's a good exercise. Whenever I start a film project, I try to be able to put it down, all the story points, and to be able to talk about it in a very succinct way. That way you know that you can move forward with the film project because the idea works.
It usually starts with just brainstorming and writing down, in shorthand, just notes, what you think the project should be. It doesn't matter if it's not perfect. Unraveling as you type it, for me, is part of the process, of working it out. But at this point in the game, I know what I have to do, as far as the points I want to hit in a film. Who the film’s about? What's the conflict? What is the story? Who is this person, why they're doing what they're doing? I have a list of questions that I'm running down. I'm trying to be methodical about it, evaluate whether it's worth it to make a film about.
How to articulate a conflict of the film?
Ken [15:00] I think a good clue is if things change. If things stay the same - things are kind of boring. Does the character start naive, and does he then go all the way to the other spectrum of being cynical? I mean, the stakes should be high, relatively speaking. Is something difficult? Is something a touchy subject? Is there tension? Because who wants to watch something really boring, where nothing is a challenge?
Fei Wu [15:51] Let's use an example, such as the young boy playing baseball in China - what is the clue and the stakes there?
Ken [16:11] Well, people always say that China's always changing and they've come a long way. But do they really know what they're talking about? So we're using our cameras to show a contemporary portrait of modern-day China, trying to humanize the Chinese experience. China's at a place in their existence, where there's a new upper-middle class, where families can help choose the trajectory for their kids or kids can choose their own dream. Just a generation ago, people were just worried about food. But now, these families have enough money and food to decide: “Hey, we want to pursue sports and music”, like intellectual stuff. The film also helps to tell the story of Major League Baseball, who's trying to make tons of money but is investing in education and in the culture of baseball. They're trying to do it in a very indirect way, making tons of money, but we want to pose the questions: Is it a good thing what they're doing?
Fei Wu [17:22] I will also add it to the list about conflict. To pose a question or have a point of view works well because your audience will either agree or disagree. And with that alone, you attract people from both sides. The people who disagree don’t necessarily stop watching because sometimes we even hate-watch something.
Ken [17:48] There're a lot of filmmakers that like to just put their point of view, but I'm the kind that likes to present a lot of different points of views. But really, for me, the film should be a way to get people to join in the conversation. How can we have a civilized debate and try to hash it out so that we can determine, what is good and what's bad?
Fei Wu [18:16] As another example, let's maybe use a hospice care documentary because I definitely feel the tension there. And it's something very difficult and very challenging, whether for the caretakers or for the patients and the patient’s families themselves. But it also happens to be something that has existed for a long time. It's a topic that many people avoid.
How do you attract people to watch something that may even scare them? How do you attract the audience?
Ken [18:57] Well, for the hospice care, there's always a stigma that it's this place where you get taken away from your home. But the care doesn't just start and end at the hospital, it's extended in familiar places, places where there's family, places where you feel comfortable.
Just being involved in this project has been enlightening and educational, and it sort of helped remove the stigma of this weird thing, this fear. We've been taken care of when we were being raised as kids, but then, when we become adults, we're self-centered, and feel invincible, and don't think that we need any care. So it's really the circle of life, and realizing that we have to take care of our elders, it's just an ongoing process where people are caring for each other.
Fei Wu [20:05] Yeah, exactly. For not just the older generation, but also a generation from a different culture, I wish I knew much more about hospice care, and especially palliative care when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It was very difficult, and palliative care was not even an option that existed during that time at all. So I think somehow, through your own journey, your projects, you're doing something much, much beyond yourself.
Ken [20:39] I'm thankful that as a documentarian, I'm able to continue the work. And with these videos that I'm doing for the hospice care center, I'm able to do this work, but also to be able to pay rent with this. For me, that's the big part of it. That's what keeps me going.
Fei Wu [21:12] Absolutely.
I want to close the conversation on something I was going to bring up at the very beginning. In your director notes, you mentioned something which I highlighted, is that as a first-generation Asian American, it was a difficult decision to define your parents career wishes to pursue art, and that it was an even tougher one to try to make it as a documentary filmmaker, which has been much of what we talked about.
What would you like to say to your younger self if you could go back to when you made that decision to pursue art?
Ken [22:00] I would say “Go for it”.
I think part of the Asian American civil rights movement is to appropriate all the different spaces. When we first came to America, we weren't allowed to do certain jobs. We were gold-digging, we were working the transcontinental railroads. Then they restricted us to only work in restaurants, be a merchant, that kind of stuff. And then, as we went along, as immigration opened up, we got the education and became lawyers. Eventually we have started serving in the military and even having elected officials.
So, for me, to be an artist, to appropriate that space is a continuation of Asian Americans being in those spaces and showing “Hey, we are Americans also, we can add to the landscape”. To choose this journey is existential, but also do the work is existential on many different levels. Also, to do the work, to educate people, or to help bring about better understanding, compassion, it still took me a while to realize that you have to find your voice as an artist, and that’s really what it's all about. It's not just one film that is the result of all this work. It's about a bigger picture, for me, to try to build a career out of it, making that first film, and I didn't realize that I need to be able to make another film, I need to have to end up with a body of work and continue. So it took me far too long to understand that you want to be slow and steady, maintain the course, be self-sustaining. That's what I should be working towards.
There are some people that will make the first film and make a bunch of money from it, but that was not my journey. As someone who came from the poor community of Boston and still trying to figure out how to pay the rent, I’m also continuing to make creative work. It's identifying what you can do with the opportunities you have, and also it’s important to try to take it to the next level.
Fei Wu [24:24] That's awesome. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and knowledge.
Ken [24:33] My pleasure, Fei, anytime.
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