Bunk-beds. Blisters. Stunning landscapes. World-class snorers. Hot searing sun, freezing cold rain. Kindness from strangers. Debilitating injury. Unexpected romance. No toilet paper when you really need it. Profound grief and deep doubt. Hunger. Laughing with new friends. Total exhaustion. Total exhilaration.
Can a single film motivate you to experience all of this and more? Can one documentary inspire you to walk 500 miles? Make a travel film.
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Earlier in the year we reviewed “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”; a 90 minute documentary which provides up-close look at the ancient spiritual pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James.
The documentary itself was fantastic, and you can read our full review, though while watching the journey of each pilgrim unfold, I found myself equally as fascinated with the process of making the film.
How did they cast the travelers who took center stage? What was the budget for this kind of a film? How did the camera crew cope with completing this same trek but with all of their heavy equipment?
Determined to find out what goes into the making of a travel documentary, I decided to consult an authority on the matter. This week’s interview is with Lydia B. Smith, the director and producer of Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, on what it takes to make a travel film. She takes us behind the scenes.
What do you love the most about travelling?
It makes me feel alive – that I’m growing, learning and expanding. It opens my mind and my heart to new ways of living and looking at the world.
What inspired you to start travelling?
At age 15, I felt the urge to go to Spain for a high school year abroad program – despite the fact I had never left the country before and would be going without either of my parents. How to make a travel documentary.
I loved it and ended up living in Spain for more than six years.
What inspired you to make a travel documentary and put traveller experiences into film?
As soon as I returned home after walking the Camino in the Spring of 2008, I felt almost immediately that I was called to go back and film this documentary. I am a licensed Science of Mind practitioner trained under Rev. Michael Beckwith, founder of Agape, and through the visioning process that he created, I really wanted to make this documentary a film of how the Camino would want to present itself. Behind the scenes of a travel documentary.
So it wasn’t about making my point of view of the Camino – but share the universal experiences of walking that everyone could relate to.
What is the most rewarding aspect of creating a travel documentary?
The part that has been the most rewarding has been inspiring people to move out of their comfort zones, travel across the world and learn not only about other cultures and people, but also about themselves.
Many people have told me that the film inspired them to leave the USA for the first time ever and go do the Camino! Inspiring people to broaden their horizons is incredibly fulfilling for me. Best travel documentaries.
I think it is harder for us in the USA to get out of the country since the country is so big and I think it is so important to be able to see ourselves and our country from other people’s points of view.
Had you hiked the Camino de Santiago before the documentary? How did you know this specific experience would appeal to a global audience?
I walked the Camino Francés in April/May 2008. I knew that a documentary about the Camino would appeal to a global audience because the Camino is exactly that: a universally human experience that transcends race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status and nationality to unite us all.
While the Camino is traditionally a Christian pilgrimage and will always “technically” be one, it is open to people from all cultures, religions, nationalities … there are as many ways to do the Camino as there are to do life, and there is no “right way” to do the Camino – or life.
The themes of the Camino are so universal that it’s audience is naturally global.
How did you find willing travellers to document their journey?
I really wanted to be intentional about allowing the Camino to present to me the people it wanted to be in the film. Of the six main pilgrims featured in the documentary, I only knew Annie beforehand.
When I had mentioned the project to her, she felt immediately called to walk the Camino and participate in it. Everyone else we picked up along the way.
What does your role as director entail? Were you there on the trail with everyone during the filming?
Oh yes!! It was a HUGE job – I was not only directing but producing the film as well. What kind of budget do you need for a travel documentary?
I had help with producing, but it was an enormous amount of work – not just filming the pilgrims, but coordinating all the travel, where we were sleeping, permissions to shoot in churches etc. Making a travel film.
Tell us about the planning and process of making a travel documentary – what kind of work does it require beyond just the filming?
When you are making a travel documentary – it just makes everything a lot more complicated because you not only have to hire the crew and make sure they do their jobs and have all the equipment you need, but you have to work out all the travel, food and sleeping arrangements.
I had scouted the Camino in Feb 2009 and managed to get quite a few hotels to donate rooms to the film – so every once in awhile we had a night or two in a five star hotel then the next night we would end up sleeping in an albergue along with the pilgrims. Making a travel documentary.
How long did it take to complete the film, and what kind of budget did this require?
The production budget was $120,000 for a crew of 12 to film 300 hours of footage along the Camino. Because I had worked in the film business for over 20 years, I had lots of contacts and was able to pull in lots of favors and get professionals to work for just $100/day.
Everyone made the same amount – except for myself and the other producers – we all worked for free. how to produce a travel film.
From April/May 2009 when the film was shot, I had to raise approximately $350,000 dollars that came mostly from individual donations (and two small grants from the American Pilgrims on the Camino and the Pacific Pioneer Fund) in order to finish the documentary.
We had a double world premiere in April 2013 in at the Ashland Independent Film Festival and the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs – exactly 4 years after we filmed and 5 years from when I first walked the Camino. How to direct a travel documentary.
After the cross-country US & Canada theatrical tour the film did in 2014, we are still $90,000 in debt and working now to pay that off.
The camera crew obviously had to hike the Camino at the same time as the main characters – is it difficult to hike with so much equipment?
The crew generally only walked 5-10 km a day. We had vans that got us back and forth to the pilgrims. Generally speaking we would spend a morning with one pilgrim, filming them walk, eat, relax – do an interview with them, then we would get in the van and go find another pilgrim to shoot for the afternoon/evening. Advice on directing a travel film.
Generally speaking, we filmed each person every 3-5 days. We had large backpacks specifically for the cameras and other equipment.
Travel documentaries are really starting to take off – what is their global appeal?
The ability to see into someone else’s world and how they live is so appealing.
Your best advice for others considering making a travel documentary?
Only do it if you are 100% passionate about your subject matter and that it will fuel you as well during the process.
Where can people find your film?
The easiest place for people to go is our website, caminodocumentary.org. If you’re in the US, you can also find it available for streaming or download on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video as well.
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