After Storytellers': Jake DeNicola '15 on his first feature doc and first year out of Skidmore
Interviewed by Jesse Wakeman, MDOCS program coordinator
These past six months have been a whirlwind for Jake DeNicola '15. Like any new graduate fresh out of college, he immediately started questioning, "What do I really want to do for the rest of my life?" As an anthropology major, Jake found himself fascinated with sharing the stories from his studies through the use of video documentary. This led him to apply for a spot as a fellow in the inaugural year of the MDOCS Storytellers' Institute. As our current students are faced with a fast-approaching deadline for this year's institute (January 25), we pulled Jake aside on a recent campus visit to talk about how his time at the institute steered the initial path he took directly out of college and shaped his current work.
So all of the students want to know, what is that next step once you leave school? Describe what that process was like for you.
I think it’s different for everyone obviously, but for me it was a little hard at first because a lot of my friends were getting, you know, were applying for jobs that were pretty permanent in some ways. They were definitely laying out what they were going to do for the rest of their lives, and for me I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do in the film world. So a lot of the jobs that I was working on were sort of freelance jobs, so doing freelance cinematography for some startup people and some startup businesses, and then I also just tried to PA, which was sort of like the entry-level job on a film set, for whoever I could. But I’m really glad that I found this documentary story that I really wanted to tell because now I’m in the process of making my first feature-length documentary.
So in some ways it’s great because I’m very free and I can create my own schedule a lot of the time and I’m able to pursue my passion, but it’s also a little scary because I don’t have a permanent job right now, or I don’t have a stable job right now. So there’s really pros and cons about it, but for me the next step was to just go straight into doing what I want to do and make a feature-length documentary.
How did Storytellers’ Institute play a role in that for you?
Storytellers’ was incredible. I mean, there are several things that it did. Number one, the group of people that were in Storytellers’ was so supportive and really brought me outside of thinking that, you know, really brought me to a different way of thinking about my own work because people were pretty honest, but in a supportive way. Before that, because Skidmore doesn’t really have a film major, it was really hard for me to get my work critiqued or have people help out on certain things. But Storytellers’ really helped me have these outside perspectives from people from all different documentary backgrounds, you know, audio, photography, video.
It really changed my perspective of what documentaries could be and what I want my own project to be. So I’m really thankful for everyone, the fellows and the students, helping me workshop my ideas. And other than that, it’s such a short amount of time, but there’s so much that you learn, and you really develop a relationship with all these people. I mean, two of the fellows from this past Storytellers’ Institute, I still keep in touch with and they’ve actually set me up with a few PA jobs, which I’m really thankful for too. So it’s like totally long-lasting relationships and great networking opportunities for everyone. And all of the guest speakers that came in were incredible and really established and successful people that I could see myself wanting to be.
Describe a little bit your creative process … did you come up with the story first; did you have skills that you wanted to use first; did it begin at Storytellers’; did it begin before that … how did it all evolve?
So I was sort of working on two projects. One of the projects was more based on anthropology, and that was the one where we went into the production stage at Storytellers’. So I was working with two professors and one student on a project about Oaxacan Mexican migrant workers in Saratoga Springs and their daily lived experience. And that one was more of a teaser that we were creating so we could maybe do more of a long-term project.
The other project that I worked on, that I would definitely call, completely my own project, I brought in with just a bare-bones structure of what I wanted it to be and then I came out of it with a developed proposal. I definitely wished I had been able to work on it more because now I realized how helpful everyone was with developing your idea and taking it from an idea to something that is gonna become an actual project, you know, an actual tangible thing. That project went from something that I just was always thinking about to something that like, "OK, I’m gonna do this," and I’ve taken the advice from all these people about how to develop this proposal into something that I actually can do, without having to raise tons of money. Something that I could do on my own, which I think everyone can do for a documentary. And then I did it! You know, without that help from everyone, without that point of taking an idea and turning it into a tangible actual project, I don’t know if maybe I might not have actually continued and started this journey that I’m taking to making a documentary.
Where would you say you’re at with the project right now?
Right now we’re taking a little break (laughs). We were out there, they live in mid-California area, we were out there for about 3 ½ weeks and it was pretty intensive. So now we’re taking some time off, we’re all kind of, (me and the other two people I work with), we’re all taking some time off to work on separate projects. We’re probably going to come back out to California to shoot more of them, but right now we’re taking the initial footage that we got and seeing what story we have and what story we want to continue to tell so that we can really be prepared when we go back out to shoot exactly what we need and maybe sum it up somehow, but we’re not quite in post-production stage yet.
Any future plans for the film if everything goes perfectly in this vision?
Yea, absolutely. We would love to submit it to film festivals; that would be sort of our first step, and then a lot of private screenings possibly and some private theater screenings. That’s sort of our hope, is to get into some festivals and make a name for ourselves as people that are seriously into storytelling and documentary storytelling specifically.
What would be your words of advice for students going into this year’s Storytellers’ Institute?
I would say, take advantage of every possible thing you can at Storytellers’. Because every workshop, every faculty member, every fellow member, and every student, every guest speaker, everyone is really going to help you with a certain thing. And I would say, reach out to every single person that is in the group, and keep in touch with them, and keep in good relations with them, and learn from them, because it’s a really short amount of time and it’s really intensive, but if you utilize it completely it can do really wonderful things for your career and for you as a person. It will definitely shape you in about a three-week period (laughs).
You said that Storytellers’ changed for you the definition of what a documentary is. What would you say now a documentary is?
Well one thing is, I wasn’t as open to documentary storytelling to be outside of video documentary. That’s something that was very kind of closed-minded of me. Now I realize that there’s so many ways to tell a documentary, there’s so many ways to tell a story, it doesn’t have to be a video documentary. It can be through any sort of medium, and I think that’s something that’s important to understand because even if you are making a video documentary, it will make you think about every aspect of it. It will make you think about, how can I creatively tell something through sound right now, or how can I creatively tell something through a photograph, or just the way things are laid out on a table. It really makes you think about every aspect of storytelling, you know, it’s not just the typical PBS documentary that you might see; it’s way more broad and multi-layered than that.
Any lasting thoughts that you want to say?
I would say, if anyone applying has any reservations about the fact that they might
not want to go into documentary storytelling, I think it’s still something that everyone
can learn something from. Storytelling is going to be something that’s important in
everyone’s lives, you know, no matter even if you don’t go into documentary storytelling.
So if you’re worried about the fact that you might not want to be a documentarian
for your entire life, that’s fine, you should still do it because as I said, it will
shape your career no matter what it is and it will also shape you as a person no matter
what you’re interested in. I think it’s something that can be applied to everyone,
To learn more about Jake's first feature documentary and his production process, read the full transcript of the interview here. Stay posted on Jake's film and other work at vimeo.com/jakedenicola.