The Mad Hot Adventures of an Unlikely Documentary Filmmaker Review
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In 2003, Amy Sewell was a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom who did a little freelance writing on the side. But when her local paper asked her to write a feature about local kids learning ballroom dancing, it sparked something in her. She was so amazed by the kids and their dedication and their transformation throughout the classes that she wanted to document it all and share it with the world. This wasn’t just a feature article for the local paper—it was a movie.

Though Sewell had no experience at all in filmmaking, she knew someone who did—her old friend, Marilyn Agrelo. Amy put her idea on paper and presented it to Marilyn, who came on board as the film’s director. Together, with a small crew, some funding from friends and family, and a bunch of kids, they created Mad Hot Ballroom, the documentary that took the country by storm in 2005.

In The Mad Hot Adventures of an Unlikely Documentary Filmmaker, Sewell tells the story of “the little movie that could”—and how it grew from the idea of an inexperienced stay-at-home mom into a blockbuster documentary. She walks readers through every step of the way—from concept to post-production and beyond. The book is both a story about the process—her thoughts, her dreams, her reactions, and plenty of anecdotes—and a basic how-to for documentary filmmaker hopefuls. Sewell shares the lessons she learned along the way, documenting all the steps in “action plans” at the end of each chapter.

Fans of Mad Hot Ballroom may find Sewell’s anecdotes interesting—but this isn’t really a light, behind-the-scenes kind of book. Unless you’re especially interested in the filmmaking process, you’re likely to get bogged down by the details about lawyers and agents and release forms.

If you’ve ever thought about making a documentary of your own, though, Mad Hot Adventures is a great starting point. This small book doesn’t go into great detail (Sewell suggests a list of books for further research), but it gives a general overview of the process—through the eyes of a first-timer. In short, it’s a reality check—supportive and encouraging, yet sometimes painfully realistic. For those who think it would be easy just to throw together a movie and make millions of dollars, this book will make you think twice—especially after Sewell points out that, considering the number of hours she put into the film, she ended up making less per hour than she did as a waitress in college. At the same time, though, she encourages those who are passionate about their subject matter—and readers are sure to be encouraged by the fact that Sewell, who went into the project intending to make “just one” movie, is currently working on her second. So if you’re thinking about picking up a camera, pick up this book first.

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