What’s in a Lab? An Interview with Docu Work-In-Progress Lab Alum Ali Cotterill

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By Rachel Baron | August 20th, 2018

For filmmakers at the start of editing their work, a work-in-progress lab is both an opportunity to receive meaningful feedback on their project and to develop a supportive community of fellow filmmakers. For the past several years, DCTV’s Docu Work-In-Progress Lab has helped dozens of documentary filmmakers in the midst of post-production reach the momentum needed to shape their cuts.

We sat down with one past participant, Ali Cotterill, who directed feature-length documentary North Pole, NY about Santa's Workshop, one of the very first theme parks in the U.S. Since completing DCTV’s lab in 2016, Ali and Producer Christa Orth have been busy on the film festival circuit.

    Rachel Baron: Can you describe your film’s journey in a nutshell?

    Ali Cotterill: It took five years to make, which is pretty typical. One of the biggest obstacles we met with was funding. On the other hand, there’s a real silver lining to that. It’s my first feature. It was truly the movie we wanted to make.

    RB: A love of theme parks inspired your documentary. Did you learn anything new or unexpected about them as you were interacting with the local community?

    AC: When I started the film, I wasn’t aware of how many of these places had closed. I love these kind of family-owned theme parks because it’s where I went when I was a kid. When I started working on the movie, I realized how few there were. They’re a real diamond in the rough. That’s what makes the story so compelling. The story with North Pole, NY is that the Catskills and Adirondacks were both big areas for theme parks. There used to be twelve, and this is the last one. Our movie explores why theme parks go away and why this one has survived. There’s this idea of progress that is about being bigger, and they took the opposite approach.

    RB: What impact did the DCTV Work-In-Progress Lab have on your film?

    AC: DCTV is awesome and played a huge part in our film. First off, even before the lab, we rented gear from DCTV before we owned it and that was a life saver. The lab was a huge turning point for us in breaking the story. Filmmakers can hold it close to the chest. You don’t want to show people until it’s ready. But showing it to people and seeing what was working and what wasn’t made it so much easier to move forward. We came out of the workshop with a much better rough cut. I’ve kept in touch with people from the lab. It’s a great community.

    RB: Can you describe how it felt to have your film premiere at IFFBoston?

    AC: We had just started applying to film festivals, so we were really excited to get this acceptance! It was a good match for our movie because there are a lot of festivals that are social justice focused, which is great, but we were looking for ones that were more quirky.

    RB: What hopes do you have for North Pole, NY?

    AC: We’re hoping for a hybrid broadcast, self-distribution scenario. PBS is our dream broadcast. We took it on tour this summer and have some more festivals coming up.

    RB: What is some advice you would give filmmakers just starting out?

    AC: Don’t be afraid to DIY it. I think a lot of the strongest films with the strongest vision have been DIY. Chris and I come out of a punk background. We used to be on a drag team troupe together so we’re used to booking our own venues. When picking a feature, it has to be something you want to follow for years. You can’t be lukewarm about it. Go out and do a test shoot and see how it feels.

Interested in how your project might benefit from dedicated feedback? Apply to the 2018 Docu Work-In-Progress Lab. Deadline: Mon 9/24. Details and application available here.