On a Roll: Documentary Filmmaker Dan Krauss (’04)

October 2, 2015

Dan Krauss: “I teach at a journalism school. I started as a journalist. I believe in factual reporting. But I tend to identify more as a nonfiction filmmaker than I do a journalist. When I incorporate conflicting viewpoints, it’s less out of obligation to report all sides, and more a desire to form challenging ideas.

“Point of view is also critical in my work. I just did a film, for example, about an attempted whistleblower in the U.S. Army, and I didn’t interview the Department of Defense — not because I didn’t think they had something valuable to say, but because my film was firmly rooted in the point of view of soldiers on the ground.”

On awards season
DK: “This is the fun part. DGA one week, the Spirit Awards the next week, it’s the Hollywood part of the experience. Hanging out with celebrities, taking pictures with celebrities, and then going back to our documentary caves.

“The Hollywood time is the icing on the cake. Or … I’ll come up with a more original metaphor. It’s a wonderful dessert course for the meal, but it’s not the nutrition.

“The nutrition of the meal is being on the road with a film and having people respond to it in all the emotionally complicated ways that you want. That feeling when the lights come up and 25 hands shoot up in the air … It’s intoxicating, that level of engagement.”

On doubt
“It’s incredibly difficult. There are tons of rejections, moments when you are ready to give all the money back, wondering if you’re a fraud. Any person who’s taken a creative risk in their lives knows that feeling. No matter where you are in your career, this is just part of the creative life. Without it, I would feel concerned. If I feel everything is going brilliantly, that’s a red flag. There should always be some tension, some question, pushing you farther and deeper and making you pressure-test every moment in the story to make sure it deserves to be brought into the world. That’s why you need people you respect and admire. You bring in people that you trust and have them react.”

On mentors
“Debbie Hoffman and Jon Else. When I was a student at the J-School, they were my thesis advisers, and I’m still in touch with them a lot. Debbie was an executive producer on my last film. I’m in touch with her weekly, sometimes daily, about creative projects I’m working on. Jon, we’ve been on shoots together, we talk about curriculum and academic matters at the J-School.

“I’m constantly trying to convince them I’m worthy of their respect. I think of them as my documentary parents. They gave birth to Dan Krauss the filmmaker and I’ll spend my career trying to impress them.”

On passing the torch
“I think Orlando [Bagwell] is one of the most respected and admired documentary filmmakers, producers and advocates alive today. Getting him to lead the program at the J-School is a coup.

“The handoff from Jon [Else] to Orlando is sort of a beautiful moment to witness. Longtime friends and partners, they have a deep connection. It feels inevitable in a way that Orlando would take the program from Jon and elevate it. It’s the beginning of a new era for the J-School, but we’re not leaving behind anything. We are building on what Jon Else has created.”

On setting the J-School apart
“What distinguishes our program is it allows for diverse forms of storytelling that are journalistically robust. We can have a film that is artistically astonishing to witness, but we don’t sacrifice any of the reporting and research and factual complexity to make a beautifully told story. Every film that comes out of the program has a foundation of journalism that gives it a strength and imperviousness.

“There’s an impulse in some corners of the nonfiction world to disguise storytelling with beautiful images. There are documentaries that lean too much on art and not enough on storytelling and reporting, and there are films that lean perhaps too far in the opposite direction. The doc program at Berkeley has found a way for those things to live in symbiosis. The architecture can be beautiful to behold, but the story at the center of the film is beyond reproach from a factual standpoint.”

On falling for filmmaking
“The experience at the J-School is unique and precious because when you are making your thesis film, it is perhaps the one time in your life when you have total creative freedom. The one time in your life when you have the attention of a filmmaker like Jon Else or Orlando Bagwell or Debbie Hoffman, and a top-notch crew who will accompany you for free. You don’t have to answer to anyone with concerns about investments, or broadcasters with various standards. You are uniquely focused on the art and craft of nonfiction storytelling.

“That is a special place for students to be because after they leave the halls of North Gate, they will probably never have that experience again. For most of them it’s the first film. You only fall in love for the first time once. I will never have that feeling of exhilaration and euphoria again, that awakening that happens in the process of making that first film. It is so special and so unique and you’re in such a privileged position to make the film exactly the way you want. You’re answering only to questions of storytelling process. The funding allows you to get there, to execute it the way it should be done.”

On teaching
“I teach the first-year students. One thing I repeat often is that we’re not allowed to tell simple stories. A lot of times in class, people will propose stories that they’re afraid are too happy. The issue is not so much happiness or sadness, it’s simplicity or complexity. Happy is fine, as long as that happiness is earned by navigating complex threads.

“It’s also about the willingness to give credence to a perspective that you may not personally agree with. Embracing that contrary voice is important. A story type that comes up in class a lot is David and Goliath, a story of someone without means going up against a corporation trying to take advantage of them. We are constantly pushing students to understand the motivations of the bad guys. It suddenly makes the story much more complicated and provocative. You create conversation, and the space between the voices is meaningful. You want those viewpoints occasionally coming into contact and showering sparks. A simple voice that leads us in one direction, people just nod in agreement. If a piece forces an audience to walk in lockstep with each other, it hasn’t done its job. We have to be brought into collision a little bit.

“Having sat in their chairs before, it does help me understand the experience they’re having, but it doesn’t change the scrutiny I give their work. It may amplify it. It’s a tough program. I take that very seriously. My students will probably tell you I’m constantly applying a pretty hard standard to everything they bring to class, from pitching to writing to editing — every part of the process. We are not there to pat each other on the back. To produce the best work we can requires a lot of serious work together.”

By Jenna Lane


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