5 min read

Q&A: Nathan Willis, 30 Pitches and 6 Stories

Q&A: Nathan Willis, 30 Pitches and 6 Stories
Nathan Willis shoots an above-ground cemetery in New Orleans for Fusion.

As a freelancer, persistence is paramount. Storyhunter Nathan Willis knows this well.

Nathan pitched over 30 ideas on the Storyhunter platform. Six of them got commissioned. The publishers that worked with him — AJ+, shift by MSNBC, Fusion, TakePart, and the New York Post — all gave him rave reviews. His hard work finally paid off.

With a few great reviews under his belt, Nathan pitched to a highly competitive assignment on Storyhunter: a call to produce a short documentary on the the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina for TakePart, the digital division of Participant Media. The 5-minute documentary focused on how New Orleans is hiring veteran medics to apply their military training in a city where street crime has become a growing issue in recent years.

Nathan talked to us about filming in New Orleans, tips on documentary production, and how to build a freelance career.

STORYHUNTER: Tell us a bit about how you landed all these gigs.

Nathan Willis: One thing I’d like to say is that I think perseverance is key in being a freelancer. For example, over the past few months I’ve pitched a lot of stories to Storyhunter that have been denied for a variety of reasons. It’s easy to get discouraged, but I just kept at it and somehow over the past couple of months I’ve been able to get a lot of exciting projects booked through the platform. Not only was I able to produce this story for an Academy-Award winning company [Participant Media], but one of the pieces I made for shift by MSNBC was aired on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show a few days ago. These are things I never would have imagined possible even a few weeks ago. I just think it’s important to keep at it in general and to always be improving your craft whether that’s through studying what other people are doing or just going out there and making something even if no one is paying you. I by no means have it all (or most of it) figured out, but I’m just trying to get better one story at a time.

SH: You got some amazing soundbites in the TakePart piece. Any tips you’d like to share?

NW: Learning to be okay with silence while interviewing someone is something I’ve been learning lately. I have a tendency to want to fill the silence with another question, but I find I get some of my best reactions and statements when I just let an answer to my previous question sit for a few seconds before I go onto my next question. I also think it’s important in documentary filmmaking to always be shooting. I edit 98% of the stuff I shoot, so when I’m shooting I also have a tendency to be editing the final piece in my head. Sometimes I’ll stop shooting as much when I already feel like I have enough to make the piece work, but I’m learning that when I continue to shoot as much as possible the piece is always stronger for it.

SH: Did you shoot on your own? How long did it take from start to finish?

NW: The nights of the shoot I had a sound guy and a PA. The deal we made with the New Orleans mayor’s office was that we could ride along with the paramedics to where the patients were, but once they started working on the patient we had to turn our camera off and we couldn’t ride with the ambulance until after they dropped him/her off. So our PA just followed us around and picked us up after each scene. He also got individuals to sign release forms. We shot for a total of 2 days. We only did one ride along with the paramedics and the rest was spent getting additional interviews and b-roll. I turned the rough cut over 24 hours after we shot the ride along, and after some minor notes from TakePart we were finished about a week or so later.

SH: You usually work as a one-man-band. How was it working with a sound guy?

NW: It was a bit difficult fitting in tight places at times, but for the most part it worked seamlessly. The smallest space we were in was the back of an ambulance, and the ambulance we were in was pretty roomy so it wasn’t a problem. One thing I was concerned about at first was syncing audio in post since audio and video were recorded separately. Normally since I’m running sound myself, I can just hit record and begin shooting, but I wasn’t sure I would have time to tell the sound guy to start rolling or how we would communicate in a run and gun situation. I just told him to basically always keep rolling. I used the program PluralEyes to sync audio and it did a phenomenal job of syncing up the audio files with my video so I didn’t waste a lot of time syncing. I knew things were going to be moving very quickly, and I wanted to be ready for anything. Plus there was a budget to hire a sound guy. I knew I could have kept that extra money, but ultimately it was well worth it for the peace of mind.

SH: What gear did you use?

NW: I shot on a Canon 5D Mk III and a Canon 24–70 L. I used a Glidecam for a lot of the shooting, and when I was in a tight space I also had a neck strap on the camera that I threw around my neck to help me balance the camera when I couldn’t fit the Glidecam. This is my camera set up for basically everything. I love the 5D Mk III because it’s really amazing in low light situations, and since 80% of this piece was shot at night I felt like it was the right fit.

SH: Was there a moment when you were filming and knew that you were getting great footage?

NW: The most interesting scene I filmed was when we were called to the site of a shooting. It actually turned out that while there had been a shooting, no one had been injured. So Scott and his partner were able to just hang out for a few minutes. Since they weren’t treating a patient, I was able to film the scene and Scott scoping things out. As I was getting generic b-roll of the scene, I noticed a couple of bullet rounds on the ground and pointed them out to Scott. He was able to talk to the camera about those rounds and tie it to his military experience which created my favorite scene in the entire piece. If someone had actually been injured, I never would have gotten that special moment with Scott. I think in that regard I just got kind of lucky.

Nathan is an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in the southeast U.S. His work has been seen on MSNBC, Vice, TakePart, AJ+, and PBS. He’s passionate about producing character-driven documentaries that touch on issues of social justice.