Nobody needs to tell you what a dumpster fire 2020 has been. But for director Dawn Porter, who has put out two of the year’s best documentaries—both of which make you want to rip off your quarantine sweatpants and take action—2020 has somehow turned into one of the busiest and buzziest.
“Lately, I’ve been really interested in this question of, What makes people get up and do something?” she says. “What gets you out of your chair and into the public space?” That fascination is woven through both of Porter’s recent film subjects. First, there was the critically acclaimed documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, which was released in July, only two weeks before the civil rights hero passed away. Porter wasn’t even finished with postproduction edits on John Lewis before she started filming another prescient project—a documentary about photojournalist Pete Souza, Instagram’s resident Trump troller and the former chief official White House photographer under President Obama. The result, The Way I See It (available October 16 on MSNBC), is a deeply moving time capsule that follows the photographer on his journey from front-row observer to cunning, outspoken protestor.
When asked how she managed to juggle both films at once—a Herculean feat—Porter doesn’t miss a beat. “I also have two kids,” she says. “My whole life is a balance.” The mother of Eli, 19, and Will, 16, saw parallels in Lewis’s and Souza’s stories that she simply couldn’t pass on. “John Lewis’s whole life was about getting people to speak up, and that’s exactly what Pete is doing in his sixties. It felt like the perfect complement,” she says. “They both have respect for other people, are really good listeners, fearless, and think beyond their own personal safety or comfort. They’re both thinking about what it means to be a good citizen, and I’m thinking about that a lot these days too.”
Despite Porter’s credentials—oh, we forgot to mention that she’s currently directing a docuseries for Apple TV with Oprah and Prince Harry on mental health—she never went to film school. Prior to entering the volatile world of documentary, Porter was a successful lawyer, working a steady job as a litigator for years before moving to an in-house counsel role at ABC Television. She ultimately transitioned into the news department before going solo as a filmmaker. “I was not a miserable lawyer, but there was a part of me that wanted to do something more,” she says. And while observing the newsroom and soaking up everything she could from producers, the transition from lawyer to documentarian wasn’t as crazy as some may have thought: “As a lawyer, you tell a story. You make something that’s complicated easy to understand.”
While many thought Porter was crazy to jump ship with literally no film experience, she had a larger goal: to live her life pursuing the things that she loves. “It’s taken a while, but I make as much money, if not more, than I did at that time. I have so much more control over what I do. But the most important part to me is that my kids know that I believe in what I’m doing. They see me make sacrifices for work, and they understand that the work is not just a paycheck. It’s really, really important to me.”
Here, Porter shares with Glamour how leaning into fears can lead to victories: “As Mr. Lewis says, you only pass this way once.”
At the end of the day, everyone is just a person. (Yes, even Oprah.)
I’ve worked with a number of high-profile people recently. It can be daunting, but if they’re participating in a documentary, it’s because they care about something. And if you care as much as they do, you can quickly find that something in common. I tell the people I’m working with that I’m a big fan. I mean, come on, it’s Oprah—you can’t pretend! But then you need to move beyond that to the reason you’re all there. Once you do, you get to the place where you can dig deep and find the story to tell. Famous and powerful people are just like everybody else. They’re multifaceted and want to be respected for all of the parts of their personalities—not just the one thing they’re famous for.
Afraid? Good. Go get it.
I was working as a lawyer in D.C. for five years, when a woman who I was very close with passed away in her 30s. I had a moment of clarity when I realized just how quickly things can change, and that there was so much more I was interested in exploring. But I also wanted to take a risk and do something not safe. I said to myself, “I’m going to say yes to the next exciting thing that comes my way that I’m a little bit afraid of.” That was how I found myself moving to New York to work as a litigator at ABC Television. I worked in their in-house counsel as a litigator for a year and a half, and then moved into the news division doing standards and practice. I’d watch producers and reporters news gathering, and watched how stories got put together. It was really instructive and put me on the path to what I do now.
Take a chance on someone.
In 2007 I had a full-time job in television, but I really wanted to make my own content. Since I’m a lawyer, I like to do things step by step, so I created my own production company, Trilogy Films, and started casting about for work. The cable community is pretty tight, so I told producers about my business plan and the things I was interested in doing. A producer friend finally said, “Someone just needs to give you a chance.” She had a budget for a special on the chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli, who’s now on Chopped and Top Chef, and she let me do it. That was the first thing I ever produced, and I was like a duck to water. While working on that special, I developed what would become my first feature film, Gideon’s Army, and I got a grant from The Ford Foundation after pestering, pitching, and persisting for over a year. I quit my job, and leapt into filmmaking right then.
The stable job isn’t always the right job.
When I left ABC to become a filmmaker, my husband said to me, “I don’t know why you’d leave a vice president title at a major corporation with stock options, direct deposit, health insurance, and paid time off.” In the short term, it might have looked kind of crazy, but there’s a part of me that knew it could work out. After all, I could always go back to the corporate life. But it’s been 10 years and that hasn’t happened so far.
Find your community.
You have to understand what’s happening in your industry so that you can speak the same language as the people you’re asking for funding or work. Ultimately, gatekeepers have to be conservative—it’s expensive to do things and they have deadlines, so they just want to know that you can deliver. The three basic things you’ll need to answer are “Can you do the job? Are you good at the job? And are you nice to work with?” So if you don’t have a track record in an industry, surround yourself with people who do. People took a chance on me, but I was working with a producer and editor who had made a lot of films. They were intrigued by the material, but were comforted that they had each other’s support while working with a first-time filmmaker.
Learn from your money mistakes, and know your worth.
About four years ago, I was offered a one-hour special about President Obama’s mentoring program. I had a salary for the project that I was fine with, but my agent was like, “Nope!” He asked for double and got it—literally double what I was going to take. What I was willing to accept and what the job was actually worth were so radically different, and it really made me think. Everyone wants to do the noble and artistic thing. That’s great, and I want to do that too! But we get paid for this work, and that’s how we continue to make work, build stable, solid lives for ourselves and our families, and support the things that we believe in. There is no shame in figuring out your worth and then being aggressive, firm, and realistic about it. That was a huge lesson for me.
Collaboration is key.
No film gets made by itself. You can’t do any job without great partners—Jessica Congdon was the editor for both the John Lewis and Pete Souza movies. We were able to roll from one production to the next because we worked so well together. I knew that when I was busy with Pete Souza, she would be fine to push along on postproduction with John Lewis. I’d come back at the end of the week and we would sit in a room together and watch scenes. I trust her so much.
Work wisely, as well as loudly.
I think people have to speak up and stand up for themselves. That can be difficult because it’s not everyone’s personality. But I think the most important thing is to work wisely, as well as loudly. As women, sometimes we can be too self-deprecating and look to be perfectly qualified for a job. I didn’t go to film school, so it took me a while to say, “I’m a director.” If you have a vision and a story to tell, you have just as much right to claim a moniker as anyone. So claim it—claim the thing that you are good at. No one is going to promote you as well as you can promote yourself. Of course, there will be disappointments along the way, but you can only get a yes if you ask.
Caitlin Brody is the entertainment director at Condé Nast.