February 2, 2023
Alumni Spotlight: Tiller Russell '01
By Olivia Kuhn
Tiller Russell '01 is a documentary director, producer, and podcast host. After graduating from SCA with a MFA in Film & Television Production, Tiller has become known for his documentary work in the true crime genre. He is known for Netflix's docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (2021), which he executive produced and directed, as well as the feature-length documentary Operation Odessa (2018). His newest undertaking is his podcast The Dangerous Art of the Documentary, featuring conversations with documentarians—ranging from newer faces to Oscar winners—to discuss their filmmaking processes and the stories behind their work. Tiller joins us today to discuss his journey toward creating his podcast and how the project has enriched his artistic perspective.
When did your love for documentaries begin? Did you always want to be a documentarian?
I had a fortuitous meeting with Errol Morris when I was a young print news reporter in Northern California. He was doing press for a film, and I was tasked with interviewing him for my local paper. After a long day of answering questions, he was starving, and, since I was last in line, he invited me to join him for dinner and ask my questions there. Over that meal, he told me I would either spend the rest of my life writing about people like him or I would go try my hand at it myself. So, I quit the newspaper and enrolled in USC's film school.
My love of documentaries began in a class at SC under Professor Mark Harris, who took me under his wing and encouraged me in many ways. My thesis film at SC ended up being my first professional outing when it was acquired by PBS.
How did your time at SCA inspire you as a filmmaker? Did you work on any documentaries as a student?
At USC, I met a wonderful group of people, and the guy who was my 508 partner ended up being my filmmaking partner for a number of years. The film we made, like I said, functioned as my outing and launched my career. And though we eventually went our separate ways professionally, we recently reunited for a project for Netflix. So, the relationships I formed there were instrumental in my journey as a filmmaker.
How has directing prepared you to take on a podcast?
I think the act at the very center of making documentaries, at least the way I do them, is listening closely and bearing witness to other people’s stories. The podcast is just a looser, more freeform approach to the same enterprise. I enter with curiosity about a particular person and a particular film, ask them the things that I’d love to know, and listen closely to their answers.
What similarities are shared between podcasting and documentary filmmaking?
In both instances, real people are telling true stories. What I particularly enjoy about the podcast format is the ability to have freer, more rambling interactions that are less produced and finely honed than in some ways a documentary. But it has the same spirit of exploration.
Tell us about your podcast, The Dangerous Art of the Documentary. Why did you decide to focus on this topic?
The path of a director, whether in narrative filmmaking or nonfiction, is a pretty lonely one. Rarely do directors get to spend time with other fellow directors, because they are usually working on their own films. So in a way, this is an extension of the educational experience, where it’s an opportunity to sit with people who are either the very best at what they do, or up and coming talent making their mark in the medium. In both instances, I relish the chance to understand their individual process, approach, and methodologies.
How has the podcast platform fueled your exploration of documentaries?
Behind every film is another story: the story of making that film. The podcast is an attempt to uncover and mine those substories. It’s also a rich opportunity to connect with other filmmakers and examine the craft involved in what they do. For me, it’s awakened not only the possibility of collaboration with some of these people, but it’s been a humble learning experience where other people are explaining to me how they do what they do and why. It has opened my mind to new approaches to the medium.
How do you prepare for each podcast episode? Is the preparation structured or free form?
My producer selects the guests for the show. Together, we watch their films before conducting the interviews. I typically jot down the things that captured my attention in terms of practical filmmaking techniques and approaches, as well as thematic intent. During the discussions, I have my notes on hand, but when the interview actually begins, I rarely look back at them because it’s more about closely listening to the other person and being engaged in a back-and-forth conversation rather than working down a specific list of questions.
Documentaries are an inherently risky form. How has recording your podcast challenged you to take risks?
What I find so fascinating about the documentary medium is that it’s much more malleable in many ways than traditional narrative filmmaking. There are so many subgenres within documentary, and the form itself is constantly reinvented, pushed, bent, and refracted by innovative filmmakers. Those that are out there taking risks inspire the rest of us and challenge us to raise our game and think outside of the box to push the genre even further.
For you personally, what has been the most fulfilling part of the podcast?
The process of regularly sitting down and watching both new and classic films with a close critical eye has been deeply instructive and quite inspiring. Then, the opportunity to connect and form relationships and bonds with these filmmakers, whoever they are or whatever stage they are at in their career, has been something I deeply enjoy. It’s one of my favorite things I’m doing right now.
What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers and podcasters?
Learn by doing. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Seek out great collaborators. Trust people and listen.