An interview with documentary filmmaker Sarah Moshman
Sarah Moshman is an Emmy winning documentary filmmaker, published author, and TEDx speaker. She’s worked with various recognizable companies and shows including Dancing with the Stars, NBC, the Food Network, Lifetime, AT&T, and many more.
Moshman has also created multiple documentaries with empowerment at their core. From Losing Sight of Shore to Nevertheless she has created documentaries with strong female role models and stories meant to inspire & uplift viewers.
We had the wonderful opportunity to ask Sarah Moshman questions about her new book, which guides filmmakers through the daunting process, as well as her career, and her goals. Here’s what she had to say.
You’ve made a number of documentary films, what drew you to documentary filmmaking?
I am a documentary filmmaker and director of 3 feature documentaries: The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things, Losing Sight of Shore and Nevertheless. I love filmmaking in general, but documentary filmmaking to me is such an exciting way to bring together activism, business knowledge and storytelling.
I love that the barrier for entry is low, meaning if you have a story to tell you can start telling it with very little resources and build from there. You don’t need a script or actors or a huge budget to get going and I love that. I also think people are endlessly complex and interesting, so there are an infinite amount of documentaries to see and watch and that’s exciting too.
Why is documentary film important?
Documentary film is so important to telling the stories of real people, social issues, historical events, and so much more. It’s art and education wrapped in empathy, and I think this is an incredible time for documentaries as a genre.
I love being able to peek inside the mind of someone I might never otherwise meet, and I can travel to far away places I might never otherwise see. We have so much to gain from sharing our stories and experiences with each other.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new book Empowered Filmmaking?
This book is for any aspiring or seasoned filmmaker to hear about and learn all of the steps it takes to make a feature-length documentary that can be profitable and impactful in the world. I use my 3 independent films as case studies, and I empower the reader to take control of their path and make the film they are dreaming about.
I talk about developing an idea, writing a treatment, fundraising 101, production, interview techniques, camera, audio and lighting basics, post-production, distribution, marketing and impact. I have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars independently for 3 films and I’ve helped create hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for those films, and I want to help the reader to do the same.
What made you decide to write a book about how to make documentaries?
My book Empowered Filmmaking: How To Make a Documentary On Your Own Terms has been several years in the making. I have been wanting to write this book for about 4 years, and after working with a literary agent and pitching to publishers with no success, 2020 happened: a global pandemic and I’m pregnant with my second child, so I decided to write the book on my own and self-publish.
It has been a wonderful creative outlet in a year that has stripped a lot of creativity from us, especially in the film industry. I have spent the last 7-8 years making 3 feature-length documentaries (The Empowerment Project, Losing Sight of Shore and Nevertheless) and learning so much about how to get a project off the ground, how to distribute films in a grassroots way, and so much more. I want to share what I’ve learned to hopefully help inspire other filmmakers to get out there and tell the stories that matter to them.
I hope the key takeaway of the book is that this is all doable, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to get started making the project you’ve always wanted to make. I take the reader step-by-step through my journey to make my films and it’s all in a very accessible and empowering tone.
Can you tell us a little bit about your history as a filmmaker?
I’ve been making films since I was a teenager growing up in Evanston, IL. Being a filmmaker is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I made my first documentary when I was 16 and I loved the whole process of coming up with an idea, making creative choices to make it my own and then piecing it together for an audience to watch and share in the experience.
I took that passion to film school at the University of Miami and then moved out to Los Angeles after I graduated in 2008. I worked in reality TV primarily for my first five years – as a field producer for the hit ABC show Dancing with the Stars for 10 seasons, and shows on Lifetime, Bravo, the Food Network, MTV, NBC, and more. I learned a lot but I wanted to create my own work and contribute more to the media landscape.
So in 2013 I committed to making my first feature documentary The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things because I was frustrated with the lack of strong female role models in our media. Since 2013 I have been focused on making documentaries, speaking, teaching, and now writing all in this space and it has been a dream come true for me. I hope to make many more films in my career, there is so much to learn from each one.
Empowered Filmmaking draws on your personal knowledge & experience, what is one of the most difficult problems you’ve encountered while making a film?
I would say fundraising is always the most difficult part of the filmmaking journey, especially as an independent filmmaker, where you don’t have those resources from the start. I am crowdfunding, applying for grants, pitching to investors, hosting fundraising events, doing whatever I have to do to raise the money I need to make the film I’m envisioning, and I so wish I could spend my time more on the making of the film rather than the funding aspect.
Some days can be so discouraging and you want to turn around and give up, but somehow you figure it out. I see so many parallels with the entrepreneur’s journey and the filmmaker’s journey, and although it is difficult it is that much more gratifying when you succeed, because you really earned your place and fought hard to get there. I talk extensively in the book about fundraising so if it’s your least favorite phase too, we got this!
Besides, of course, buying your book to get started, do you have any advice for people interested in starting a documentary film career?
Make films! You will learn the most from doing this yourself, making mistakes, having triumphs, and learning from both as you take that knowledge to your next project. There is only so much you can learn from a book, or a podcast or a friend.
Filmmaking is a lot of trial by fire and rolling with the punches, each project will present its own challenges. I would also recommend finding a way to shadow a director you admire, or interning or working as a production assistant on set so you can observe the process and ask questions. Shadowing in post-production as well where the film is really going to take shape is a good idea as well.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
My mission is to uplift, inform and inspire as well as showcase strong female role models on screen. We need more women behind and in front of the camera telling the stories that matter to them so we can have a more inclusive and diverse media landscape. All of my work tags back to that mission, and I try to support as many other filmmakers along the way.
What is the one documentary you saw that made you want to begin making your own?
I remember going to my local video store and renting Winged Migration which was a documentary all about birds. I was so blown away by the cinematography and how seamless the camera incorporated into the flight of these birds. I think that opened up my mind to the possibilities of what documentaries could be. It wasn’t just a talking head. It was beautiful.
What are the kinds of stories you endeavor to tell through filmmaking?
I want to continue to showcase the stories of women that have never been told, especially “ordinary” women who do something extraordinary with their lives and lift up others in the process. A great example of this is my film Losing Sight of Shore, which follows the incredible journey of four women who rowed a boat across the entire Pacific Ocean.
I started making the film in 2015 and even though I had no experience in rowing, and I didn’t know if they would make it across the ocean (over 8,000 miles!) I knew in my heart that their story deserved to be told and that people would want to watch it. It took me 2 years in total to make the film independently and then we ended up licensing the film to Netflix in a six-figure deal which was a total dream come true.
The film was seen in 190 countries and subtitled in 25 languages. I heard from people on social media just about everyday saying how inspired they were by the courage, perseverance and bravery of these women. So even though I wasn’t the “right” or “perfect” director to tell this story at the outset, I proved to myself and to the world that sometimes you do things before you’re “ready” and you figure it out as you go!
It would have been a tragedy to not have any record of their journey, and I’m so proud of what we all accomplished – on land and at sea. Those are the stories I want to tell more of, and want to encourage others to tell as well.
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process when beginning a new film?
Typically when I have a new idea for a project, it keeps me up at night and it whispers in my ear until I start writing it down and thinking about it as a concrete vision. I’ll write a treatment, put together a rough budget, I will do research in the form of reading, listening, watching, possibly conducting early interviews on Zoom, whatever the project calls for.
I need to be an expert in the idea and in the pitch. Then when I’m ready I’ll start to share the concept with collaborators, potential funders, think about how I can raise money for it, who to bring on board, etc. Ideas are such a gift, and they often come at inconvenient times, so I am always ready for another one.
Which chapter of Empowered Filmmaking do you wish you had as a reference when beginning your own filmmaking career?
Along with fundraising not being taught in film schools, I think distribution is another part of the filmmaking process that is often overlooked, and yet is monumental to your success, and potentially your future as well. I wish I had a reference like Empowered Filmmaking to help me be aware of what to look out for in distribution contracts, how to work with a sales agent, and generally how to make money from your film whether it’s a mainstream strategy or a less traditional but still impactful strategy.
I wish I had known how to be clearer with my goals and definitions of success in distribution. The landscape is changing constantly, but there is so much filmmakers don’t understand going into perhaps the most important phase of all.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming projects you have? What are they?
I’m working on a short doc series right now which has been amazing, I can’t say much about it at this time. But I’m developing a couple of ideas that will hopefully become solid projects next year, and I’m always looking for another project to sink my teeth into as a director. I would love to make many more films in my lifetime. I also work as a teacher and speaker which is a huge source of joy for me, and supports the same mission of storytelling and activism.
What’s your five-year plan?
Well, the life of a filmmaker is up and down with many twists and turns so it’s tough to think 5 years out. I’m a mom, and I’m also pregnant so I’m about to be a mom of 2 kids, so in the next five years I’ll be parenting 2 small children and working to maintain my career as a filmmaker, which means so much to me.
I hope in five years I have a couple more big projects under my belt that I’m proud to be part of, with budgets and teams in place from the start instead of having to reinvent the wheel each time. I’d also love to find more steady work for one or more film companies as an in-house or go to director for doc content. I want to work with passionate people that share the same mission and enthusiasm I do.
And I love to travel, I’d love to visit at least 5 new countries in the next five years.
What’s your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
Production is magical to me. I love all the planning that goes into it, and yet when you get on set finding the perfect angle, asking the right question that gets someone to open up their heart to you, all the magical moments you can’t anticipate and evolving with the story is my favorite part. I feel so alive, alert and creatively present in production. It has an energy to it that is exhilarating to me. Each phase has its challenges and triumphs, but I love being behind the camera and seeing your vision come to life.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
I love how many different roles I get to take on when creating a documentary – I like that I get to use different parts of my brain to solve problems and be organized but also to be an artist and creating the perfect shot, choosing what lens to use, and piecing it all together in edit which is this enormous puzzle to put together until one day, it fits. I also love all the incredible people I get to share space with, and all the amazing places I get to travel to all because I know how to use the camera and I have films to share with the world. No two days are the same, I am constantly challenged, and I have learned so much about my own resilience and perseverance through creating my own opportunities.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Yes, absolutely mentorship is an important part of the journey, but I would also say you can be a mentor to your peers and they can be mentors to you. We have so much we can share with each other even while we are in the process of making a film. I would find someone whose work you admire and see if you can ask them to watch your film or attend a screening and then follow up with them and ask if they can informally be a mentor to you when questions arise.
Where do you often find inspiration for coming up with a new project?
All different ways, could be someone telling me a story, could be an article I read, could be a build up over time of an awareness of a social issue, could be an email from someone out of the blue. I am always open and excited for a new idea, concept, or story to hit me.
Who or what are your current filmmaking influences?
My dad Harvey Moshman is certainly my early filmmaking influence. He is a doc filmmaker and TV producer as well, so I’ve learned so much about what to do from watching him. These days I am so inspired by so many women and moms in the film industry getting out there, picking up the camera, and getting started telling the stories that mean something to them and doing it in an innovative, creative way.
I admire Liz Garbus, Ava DuVernay, Rachel Lears, Grace Lee, Jennifer Seibel Newsom, and many more. I admire filmmakers that find a way to tell the story, find a way to fund it, and find a way to get it released to the world.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
Well both! I grew up with cats and as an adult I’ve had dogs. I don’t have any pets right now, but I appreciate both.