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Making Lenny Lipton Proud: Learning to Be a Truly Independent Filmmaker

By Steven Okazaki

Steven Okazaki is a three-time Oscar nominee for his documentary work

When I graduated from film school in 1976, I had everything I needed--except the money and connections--to be a documentary filmmaker: I had a rent-controlled apartment and a paperback copy of Lenny Lipton's Independent Film Making.  

Independent Film Making was the bible. I opened it daily and said a prayer for a job. The cover was day-glo orange with a photo of the author--hippie-rugged, loaded down with a 16mm camera, light meter, sound recorder and boom microphone. Lenny, also famous for penning the lyrics to "Puff the Magic Dragon," took the word "independent" seriously. He wrote about being a "total filmmaker," knowing how to do everything--loading, lighting, directing, shooting, recording audio, synching dailies, editing, even cutting the negative.

Of course, one can't do everything. In film school, I learned to find the best people to work with, lean on and trust. I knew how to load, shoot and edit, but was faking it when it came to sound and lighting, so I latched onto people who actually knew what a foot candle was (Thank you, Steve Erkel and Bob Shoup, and later, Joe Kwong, Steve Condiotti and Takafumi Kawasaki) and hung with them. I could see that my friend Lynn O'Donnell had the makings of a great producer (as she proved on Crumb), and I partnered with her on numerous projects. I worked on their films, they worked on mine, everyone did everything--boom operator, actor, sandwich-maker.

I embraced Lipton's concept of a "total filmmaker," ready and able to film anything, anywhere, anytime. My heroes were Maurice and Katia Krafft, the famous volcanologisst/filmmakers. Based in a little village in France, they lived their lives on-call, ready to grab their camera and travel to the other side of the world to film an erupting volcano. Filmmaking seemed like a great adventure.

For me, the adventure grounded to a halt when I filled out my first grant application... "Who is the anticipated constituency for this program, how will they benefit from it and what methods will you utilize to measure its effectiveness?" 


On my first documentary, I spent most of my time grant-writing, fundraising and applying for 501 (c)(3) status. The actual filmmaking felt secondary, and it was, since you can't shoot until you pay for the film stock. When filming went badly, I thought about raising more money, not making a better film. I learned quickly that a good story has to be a good, fundable story.  

I got better at it and it got easier. Early on, I benefited from the understanding support of the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation in San Francisco (Thank you, Tom Layton) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Of course, just when you think you've mastered the funding game, it changes. A new party moves into the White House; the leadership at PBS changes; the applications get more complicated; the programming becomes safer--which means more animal docs, more BBC programming, more Ken Burns...and the independents are pushed into little niches.

Sometimes it seems ridiculous. Once, I was listening to the radio and a local news story about the racist killing of an Asian-American man broke. I thought, "I should jump in my car and film his family, but it would take nine months minimally to write a proposal and get the first grant."

My career went fairly well, but I wasn't happy. I was nominated for an Oscar for a documentary feature in 1985 and won for a short documentary in 1990, but work was feeling less and less challenging. Then, I went through a mild but disturbing censorship experience on one project, then watched a second project crash for the same reason.

By then it was 1995: I was married, buying a house, thinking about kids--and I felt the pressure to make safe documentaries about the past that could be sold in boxed sets.  That was the opposite of what I wanted to do when I started, so I decided to quit. But before quitting, I wanted to make one last documentary--something where I didn't know where the story was going before it started.

On a previous project, I'd become friends with an ex-junkie/social worker who ran a needle exchange for young adults on Polk Street in San Francisco. Cheap but potent black tar heroin was taking over the city and no one seemed to notice or care. I volunteered, helped pass out bleach and condoms, and got to know the young addicts. I liked them a lot. They were smart, resourceful, moody and funny, with a lot on their minds. Horrible things had happened to them, they had good reason to hate the world, but they still said, "Thank you" when I took them out for pizza.

I don't think Sony knew what they had when they put out the VX-1000 mini- digital camcorder. After a few frustrating days of shooting with a $1,500-a-day DigiBeta camera and four-person crew, I bought the VX-1000 for $3,000, cut the crew to two--just me and soundperson Jason Cohen--and went back on the streets. We shot in the worst hotels and darkest alleys of the city and in abandoned buildings turned into "shooting galleries," with huge holes in the floor and no electricity. As difficult and painful as the filming was, it made me love documentary filmmaking--for the first time, really. With a small, light digital camera, you could finally film anything, anywhere, anytime. I carried extra batteries and tape, a folded piece of typing paper for white balance, and a flashlight and a votive candle for back-up lighting. It was liberating. All you needed was the patience to wait for the moments to happen.

We were out there for six months. Then, HBO Documentary Films got involved and we filmed for another 18 months. Working with executive producer Sheila Nevins, who knows documentaries better than anyone, I realized that, most of the time, the thing holding the film back is the filmmaker. The hardest thing is to push the film beyond your own preconceptions and fears. Black Tar Heroin was both a creative challenge and a life experience for me. Now I hope for that on everything I do. I guess I needed to learn this the hard way.


Steven Okazaki is a three-time Oscar nominee for his documentary work, and he won an Academy Award in 1991 for the short documentary Days of Waiting. His most recent film is White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, produced for HBO Documentary Films.