Journalist-turned-director Gina Levy, co-creator of Foo-Foo Dust

When Eric Johnson and I began shooting Foo-Foo Dust, winning awards was the furthest thing from our minds. But even though the 37-minute film was our first documentary, I’m proud to say that it ended up receiving a number of accolades.

It won Best Documentary Short at the IFP-LA Film Festival, was nominated for an IDA Documentary Achievement Award, was short-listed for an Oscar nomination and even screened at Sundance in January. How did we do it? We jumped in and learned by doing—and we learned a lot. What follows are just nine of the lessons we figured out along the way…

Lesson #1: Invest the time to get to know the place and the people—then seize the day.

Fascinated with inner-city lives, Eric had been taking still photographs in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco for more than three years. In late 2001, he met Stephanie, a 50ish prostitute who graduated from UC Berkeley and radiates an off-kilter charisma. Eric struck up a friendship with her and began photographing her and her 22-year old son, Tony. Creative and artistic (Stephanie sketches vibrant, colorful pencil drawings), she was open to becoming part of Eric’s photography project.

Over the next few months, Stephanie and Tony’s drug-filled existence, their mother-son relationship, their smarts and their self-awareness captivated Eric. They survived on the edge, moment-to-moment. For Stephanie and Tony, it was all about getting high—and finding the money to do just that.

But Tony was tormented by the life he was choosing for himself. Eric wanted to capture all this—but also go beyond the limitations of still issues/54/images. He invited me, a former journalist who had recently abandoned the dot-com world to pursue a directing career, to work with him on a documentary about Stephanie and Tony. We complemented each other. Eric interacted with them because he knew them well, while I focused on the camerawork and on unearthing their stories.

First day of shooting: Eric and I waited for Tony outside his hotel in the seedy Tenderloin district. Eric cautioned me about what I would encounter—the chaos, the drug use. Having lived and worked in foreign cultures (India, China, Japan) for seven years, I convinced myself that I could comfortably enter Stephanie and Tony’s life. But the first day of shooting—which ended up comprising the first 15 minutes of Foo-Foo Dust—was more emotionally difficult than I imagined. Convinced that her son had just cheated her out of crack and unable to find a working lighter to get a hit, Stephanie embarked on an hour-long screaming rampage. Finally, she left to secure more crack, with Eric trailing behind. Tony, agitated by his mother’s rant, proceeded to shoot up more heroin than his body could take and passed out on the floor. Tony was overdosing, but I didn’t know it—not realizing that passing out from heroin use is more life threatening than passing out from alcohol. Stephanie burst in and revived him. I had entered Stephanie and Tony’s world.

Mother and son Stephanie and Tony are at the center of Gina Levy and Eric Johnson’s Foo-Foo Dust.

Lesson #2: Keep it simple and cheap. The subjects’ ease, naturalness and honesty are paramount. Large crews and expensive equipment are not necessary, and may impede authenticity.

Our goal with Foo-Foo Dust was to capture truthful moments unaffected by the camera. I shot with a small and inconspicuous three-chip Sony PD-150 camera—no tripod, no lights. I recorded sound off a camera-mounted mic. I kept the camera close to Stephanie and Tony, but out of their eyeline—so they often seemed to forget its presence. Since I own the camera and Final Cut Pro, our shooting and editing budget were relatively minimal.

Lesson #3: Just because you have the hours of documentary footage to create a feature doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

While we shot the film in just four days in May of 2002, editing enlisted us on a long journey. Documentaries—lacking a script—are crafted in the editing room. We had captured hours of compelling footage, but it was only through the editing process that we discovered the film’s shape and length. We toyed with making the film feature-length. However, we felt that a documentary feature should possess: 1) a strong story arc, 2) people that change and 3) complex, interacting story lines. Our footage only exhibited the third—it unfolds a story of both drug addiction and of the powerful, dysfunctional love between a mother and her son. It was clear the material didn’t merit a feature.

Lesson #4: When you’re stuck, get feedback from experts. Contemplate their input to make sure it aligns with your
creative goals.

Four months after production, we submitted an edit to film festivals. By early December, we had collected a large pile of rejection letters. We knew the material was riveting, but also emotionally disturbing. Were we being rejected because the edit was weak? Because the film was too long? Or because the material was too distressing? At that point, we don’t have a clue.

I had briefly met Yana Gorskaya, the editor of the acclaimed documentary Spellbound, at a moviemaking event in 2002. I knew she wouldn’t remember me. Nevertheless, after receiving the rejection letters, I dug up her card and contacted her, asking if she would take a look at Foo-Foo Dust. She did—and her notes on the film opened up a number of editing possibilities that we hadn’t seen. Not everything she advised resonated, but most of it did.

Lesson #5: Don’t give up prematurely. Just because you are rejected from film festivals, doesn’t mean your film is not valuable or that people aren’t responding to it.

Disappointed and confused by the rejections, we abandoned Foo-Foo Dust. Though we sensed that Yana’s notes would strengthen the piece, we needed a break. The film languished on my hard drive. Then, in April of 2003, Roberta Marie Munroe, the programmer at Sundance, e-mailed us. She was unable to program Foo-Foo Dust, she wrote, but “loves it” and would like us to submit it to the IFP-LA Film Festival, where she is also programming shorts. Roberta’s belief in the film revived our devotion to the project.

Lesson #6: Guide your audience into the story. Make sure that the audience is connected before you hit them over the head.

Between December and April, Yana’s feedback jiggled around in my brain. Our original version immediately threw the audience into Tony and Stephanie’s chaotic hotel room. We wanted the piece to be authentic, powerful and not watered down. Yet, based on screenings with friends and family, I knew we were losing some of the audience. There was no time for viewers to get their bearings and to bond with Tony and Stephanie. In response to Yana’s notes, we cut 10 minutes and changed the beginning; we took time to establish the place and, in a one-minute interview segment, allowed the audience to connect with Tony—and thus ease into the pair’s rough existence.

Lesson #7: Festival programming decisions are strikingly unpredictable. It’s all about taste, expectations and fitting a film into a cohesive program. It often seems as if there is no such thing as merit.

Once we had completed our final edit, many festivals—including Sundance, Bilbao and Florida—accepted the new version of Foo-Foo Dust. And many, including Mill Valley, Full Frame and Cinequest, rejected it. The film was one of eight short-listed for an Oscar, but it did not receive a nomination. (Short films don’t require premieres, so they have the opportunity to screen at many festivals.)

Some people find Foo-Foo Dust to be amazing, riveting, powerful and unique; they marvel at its intimacy and honesty. Others think it’s too disturbing, relentless and painful to watch. By showing Stephanie and Tony’s lives without demonizing or glamorizing drug addiction, we hope to engender empathy for people who often are dismissed and frequently experience “us” versus “them, the drug addicts” encounters. Some viewers, however, reject this approach. They want judgment, answers and ultimately redemption.

Lesson #8: Don’t be afraid to ask for support from industry, family and friends. People who believe in you and your project will help you.

We had self-financed Foo-Foo Dust through credit cards. However, in October of 2003, we learned the film was short-listed for an Oscar—and that we were required to deliver a 35mm print to the Academy. At a retail cost of $400 to $550 per minute for transfer, this was not something that our credit cards could bear. We gained fiscal sponsorship through Filmmakers Alliance and sought support both from the industry and from friends and family. People who believed in the
film—fellow moviemaker Bill Gilman, producers Diana Williams and Lauren Moews, post-production supervisor Erica Frauman—called around soliciting assistance for Foo-Foo Dust. In the end, we were able to make a beautiful 35mm print through a combination of support from E-film, Deluxe, Skywalker Sound, NT Audio and Dolby, as well as donations from friends and family.

Lesson #9: For short docs, don’t expect to get your money back.

Foo-Foo Dust continues to be invited to festivals—and Eric and I remain excited about the opportunity to share Stephanie and Tony’s story. The film has been a labor of love for almost two years. Unfortunately, few commercial outlets show short films—be they fiction or documentary. We are in touch with cable outlets, but it seems that the film is viewed as too emotionally disturbing for even pay cable. A number of theatrical distributors seem interested in the film, but its length and subject make it difficult to distribute theatrically or on television. While it would be nice to recoup the money we spent—and perhaps pay ourselves something for our time and effort—ultimately, this is not what has driven us to make and show the film. We wanted to share Stephanie and Tony’s story with the world. Making this film allowed us to do that. MM

Visit for more information on Foo-Foo Dust.