AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FILMMAKER:
QUESTIONS AND INSPIRATIONS
STEP ONE: LAY OUT THE QUESTIONS THE FILM WILL ADDRESS
A film needs spit on it to make it fly.
Before starting any artistic project, it’s important to have a goal or two in mind. This is essential. It would be ridiculous to begin an art project without a message, which might be as simple as “Kill that demon,” or “Get the man,” or “Explore the wonderful shade of green on that leaf in the sun.”
Professionals, such as doctors and lawyers are aware of this need for a clear objective through the nature of their everyday work. I’m a lawyer who usually begins a case in order to win some money for my client. Maybe the case will also send a message: people with full-blown AIDS cannot work a job; women should not be fired when they become pregnant: just the opposite. That’s when the job, and earning a living, becomes doubly important.
Lawyers solve weird problems every day. But the main goal of taking on a legal case is always to get money for the client. The message part is secondary, and harder to achieve.
With filmmaking, those goals are reversed. The message, and the mood of the art are all-important. Making money has to come second with independent filmmaking. If the money pours in, that’s an accolade. But a film that makes less money might ultimately be a better work of art. Look at Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. It was a flop at the box office. Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy, was an artistic masterpiece, not a blockbuster.
A filmmaker must begin by choosing that message or that mood. Otherwise, who cares?
HOW MUCH MONEY? The amount of money at hand may determine the length and quality of the film. To get top-quality results, the filmmaker should begin by thinking in terms of $1,000 per minute of film. Or zero dollars. With a camera plus some willpower and exploration, a film can also be created out of nothing.
There are many ways to raise money through grant writing and donor websites such as Indiegogo. But fundraising is an uncertain enterprise. The best way to approach a project is to have the money in hand up front, and then use funding websites such as Kickstarter for advertising purposes.
The professional (doctor, lawyer, pharmacist) who wants to make artistic films on the weekend has a big advantage. Money in the bank. With cash, the field of willing collaborators becomes vast and talented. But the professional may also have to deal with more big-headed cinematographers who want to take over the project. Control the editing. Suggest friends for acting positions. Money attracts problems like flies.
There are basically three types of indie filmmakers: the broke ones, the ones who have a few thousand dollars, and the ones who have enough money in the bank. Frankly, all face problems with unruly cinematographers and scheduling.
But the filmmaker/director who starts with a STRONG IDEA and sees it though to the end will come up with a worthy film – one that people play over and over again on Amazon Prime Video. I had that kind of success with White Rock Boxing and with “The Art House.”
If less money is in the budget, the filmmaker needs to call in favors or think about running the camera and editing by herself (and this might be an advantage because it means absolute control). Look around for film students. Get friendly with some artistic teenagers.
CHOOSING A MESSAGE: The message has to slug the director in the gut.
Human resilience. This was the story I wanted to tell through film. How do normal people survive the horror around them and come up smiling? My goal was to highlight people who are not famous, but should be.
All around me in South Carolina I saw people rising up stronger after being mashed up and spit out by the vicissitudes of life, not least of which was the horrible way people treated one other. And yet after all that mashing, people – fathers, grandmothers, children, teachers, doctors, and lawyers – stood there tall, smiling and beautiful.
Americans, in general, are crazily creative.
“The Art House” shows how a widow saved herself through art and the love of her family. White Rock Boxing illustrates that South Carolina is anything but “the armpit of the nation,” as I heard it referred to once at an airport out west. With “Mehndi & Me,” we highlight the spicy flavor of Bangladesh flourishing in my law office through the art of henna. South Carolina is not a backwater!
When people are succeeding, I want to show how and why.
A documentary project can change direction like a Frank Stella painting or a snake In the grass. When we began shooting “The Art House,” I imagined it would be about how art rescued the artist. Possibly her husband had been killed as a young man. Was it the art in her house that saved her?
But Ginger did not want to talk about her husband. That subject was in the past for her. She decided to leave a positive message.
The focal point of the project veered from my original plan and became exactly what Ginger Westray desired – an ode to her life as an artist. She didn’t need anything to save her. She was succeeding by creating these beautiful walls and sculptures – that was the story.
Ginger told me – “I’m sick of being considered a black artist. I’m an artist!” That also gave me something to think about.
“The Art House” changed my life.
Before meeting Ginger, I congratulated myself on being an intellect, able to grasp the words and the math. Ginger was better. She could do the words, the math, and the emotion. The 9-minute film explains a lot about her spirit.
Documentary subjects tend to take over and control the outcome of the film. This is good news. If the interviewee doesn’t tell her own story, it isn’t a true documentary. The filmmaker is there to record, not interpret the message.
INSPIRATION Filmmakers come to the storyboard inspired from the get-go, not looking for inspiration. Their pants are already on fire.
Artistic inspiration comes to me from my weird friends, my motley legal clients, and my strange family. It also comes from other works of art, such as music, painting, and favorite films. Ideas spring up from nature.
My clients are amazing in their resilience. They have a lot of heart. As a disability attorney, I help people with serious illnesses, both physical and mental, obtain financial support and Medicaid or Medicare. As a filmmaker, I tell their stories. This is the main advantage of being a filmmaker who is also a working attorney.
Without my clients, we would not have the stage play and screenplay, Bermuda, which arose from an anonymous person I saw in court, who had (maybe) stolen her son’s VA disability benefits. Bermuda is also a tribute to how I would like to change society to make it better for me and my clients: more colorful families, more tolerance; more women in charge of society.
“You Feel Me?” is a television pilot about an attorney, bewitched by one of her clients, who begins turning into her other clients – with all their legal and substance abuse problems. Maybe with a better script, I could turn this into a series. All of the stories in this series would be real, except for the magic. One client did tell me her husband was a warlock and I’d better watch out.
THE DISEASE DETECTIVE SERIES. I began making a three-part series about chronic illnesses. My law practice at that time (and still to this day) was all about illness, and one of these maladies, prevalent in South Carolina, was particularly mysterious: Sarcoidosis – an inflammatory disorder that often affects the lungs but can appear anywhere in the body. For 25 years I had seen a steady stream of clients of all ages with this illness.
What is this disease?
Nobody (not even doctors) knew what caused it or triggered it, although it seemed to run in families. Diagnosis usually involved a biopsy. There was no cure; doctors could use prednisone to treat the symptoms which could include difficulty breathing, difficulty walking. Blindness.
At first, I thought the disease only affected black South Carolinians. Then I found out this wasn’t true. People of African, Asian, and European heritage often got the chronic illness. It has been prevalent in Sweden for a long time. In 2008 actor Bernie Mac died of the disease. Suddenly, Sarcoidosis was in the news.
I had many questions about Sarcoidosis. Why has research taken so long? What is the cause? Does the lag in research have anything to do with misconceptions about skin color?
The documentary could be 20 minutes long, or 30; an hour for a TV documentary; the first part of a series. I had to guess up front in order to plan.
At the edge of filming, lots of critical decisions were being made, such as who would be the cinematographer, what music would be used, which interviewees to approach, and what style to use in filming them. How to raise money was a big question, as always. So far, I’ve paid for my documentaries myself.
Finding a doctor to interview would be a hard nut to crack. Traditionally, doctors don’t like attorneys. Medical people hate thinking about the law because they make mistakes like everybody else, and they often get sued.
Lacy Jones agreed to be the cinematographer. She was working full-time for South Carolina Educational Television and taking on side projects like mine during her days off. Lacy and I usually worked with a skeleton crew (director (me), cinematographer (Lacy), and a sound engineer who could also do lighting and take production photos. Obviously this was a non-union set because we required the crew to perform multiple tasks.
Sometimes when we film, it’s just the two of us. I respect Lacy and enjoy her company because I feel we can be honest with one another. She gives her professional perspective. Plus, she listens to new ideas. She knows how to edit film to my specifications.
Music for this documentary had already been selected and secured. (More about that process later.) Music is the heart of any film. Lack of music can hold up completion and distribution of a film indefinitely. The producer/ director has to think long and hard about copyright problems associated with music. Good thing I’m an attorney.
Next I needed to decide on the approach and what kinds of shots to use. Talking heads are boring. I watch a lot of Wim Wenders and Woody Allen for style ideas. I worship Wim Wenders. I wanted to make my interviews as much like Wim’s as possible.
This would not be a documentary about victims, I decided. Overall we would focus on how a chronic disease – even one that blinds you or cripples you – can make a person stronger. The smaller focus would be to uncover the reasons behind the lack of research on Sarcoidosis. Or so I thought at the beginning.
I told myself that my mind needed to remain open. I was an attorney-filmmaker, not a doctor. My only knowledge about Sarcoidosis came from anecdotal encounters with clients and the internet.
I stuck my neck out with my own clients. I made bold statements. This was all in an effort to help, but I didn’t know the answers.
“My grandbaby has trouble breathing. We applied for Social Security disability for her,” a grandmother told me.
“Has she been tested for Sarcoidosis?” I asked.
“No, but her mother died of that disease.”
“Maybe you should have the baby tested.”
I once asked an expert in public health at the University of South Carolina, “Why isn’t there more Sarcoidosis research?”
“Sarcoidosis? What’s that?” she said. This was an individual with a Ph.D. in public health. She had never heard of the disease.
One of my neighbors, a native of South Carolina, exhibited the disease. Her husband told me she lost lots of weight and became very sick while searching for a diagnosis. Her search for a diagnosis took 18 months. My neighbor has white skin. I guess that some of the assumptions about the disease hurt her.
JANUARY. At this stage, I had pinpointed my initial questions about Sarcoidosis, secured some preliminary music for the project, and hired a cinematographer.
There was a deadline approaching on February 8th. It was for an ITVS grant, very rare and difficult to win, that offered production money and a home for the finished film on PBS. We’re talking Independent Lens! The immediate problem was that I had to show them some video. ITVS only funded projects that were currently in production. The cameras needed to be up and rolling.
I sat down for lunch with Lacy. We would need five or six shooting days, and I wanted to interview at least one doctor and several patients.
“Tell me exactly what you want, the angles, the B-roll.” As usual, Lacy was very demanding about getting specifics about camera angles.
“Don’t give me any of that traditional interview shit,” I told her. “You know, with the interviewee looking toward the center of the shot and white space on the other side. I don’t want that!”
“You can center the interviewee or show him walking around. I don’t care. Just as long as it isn’t boring.”
We discussed how to twist the interview subject around and surround him with flowers and photographs that would give the shot some depth and pizzazz.
“How can we get B-roll?” Lacy was very insistent, and rightly so, on capturing many minutes of “secondary” footage – the interview subject walking, talking, working, cooking, running, his house, his car, his family photographs – to use as transition shots or to break up a stodgy interview. The more B-roll the better.
Now I needed to nail down people to interview.
None of the pulmonologists in Columbia were willing to talk. Their employers, the hospitals, nixed the idea. If I couldn’t find a loquacious pulmonologist, I could not make the documentary.
MARCH. Just as I was chasing down medical doctors, a new client entered my office. She told me she had Sarcoidosis – did I know about this disease?
This client had a doctor in Charleston who treated her for free, or at least his clinic did. He was a pulmonologist, an expert in Sarcoidosis, young and good-looking. W. Ennis James, M.D., from Greenwood, South Carolina.
I began by emailing Dr. James directly and asking him for an interview. No response. I sent him a list of questions and described the project. Crickets.
Luckily he worked for the Medical University of South Carolina which had a button for donations on its website. I gave a hundred dollars to MUSC and asked that it go directly to the Sarcoidosis clinic. What followed was a barrage of emails and snail mailings that probably cost a lot of money. All of the messages asked me to respond to a particular person, giving a direct phone number and email address, and reveal why I had given money to MUSC. I was scared to call. What would happen when I told this charitable foundation that I expected them to do something for me?
After two weeks of nail-biting. I finally telephoned the head of charitable giving at MUSC, a woman named “Jane.” She was surprisingly gracious and easy to talk to. I don’t know why I was surprised. It was her job to extract money from people. What astonished me was her sincerity. She sounded real.
I explained my project. I admitted I had donated only one hundred dollars. Jane seemed interested in my film.
After that call, things snapped into action. I was given a contact, a young woman at the charitable giving office, who arranged the interview with Dr. W. Ennis James, and with the benefactor – Susan Pearlstine – who had given five million dollars to establish the Sarcoidosis clinic. We set up a date.
Surprise! Lacy was unable to work on that date because her father was hospitalized. At this point I was lucky to be able to call Genesis Studios and ask Cliff Springs to send me a cinematographer (Shae Winston). Genesis charged me what I would have paid Lacy for that one day. He also provided a car and an intern to help load and unload the equipment.
The trip to Charleston was successful and fun. Shae drove us down. The charitable giving office had reserved a parking space for us – no small feat in Charleston. Shae, the intern, and I ate lunch at a swanky place and then filmed the interview.
I was gratified at how much Dr. James was willing to say on camera. A young white man who grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, he was very liberal about medical questions, about social justice, and health care reform. He gave us an excellent interview, and he argued for single-payer healthcare. Without his expertise and credibility, the film would not have been created.
I learned, once again, not to judge people. Just because Dr. James was a white Southerner did not mean he was conservative or uncaring. Not in the least.
Now we had our interviewees in a row. One doctor. Five glimmering patients. All of them anxious to talk on camera. Two of them provided us family members to interview, including two young children. A wife who was a pastor. The woman who donated five million dollars for the clinic in Charleston. We were ready to go.
To finish a film project – conceive of it, film it, and promote it for the following five years – the producer needs to be a little nuts. A film project must involve passion, or it will not succeed. At the same time, the director must keep her head on straight. As the producer/director I aim to be crazy, with a purpose.
MAY. I finished “The Disease Detective Looks at Sarcoidosis,” the first in my series about chronic illnesses. I spent about $12,000 to make it. I was pleased with the result. MUSC loves it. The Sarcoidosis Foundation of Chicago loves it. The Orlanda Film Festival accepted it immediately.
I never got the ITVS grant.
The second and third parts of the series would be about (2) my friend with Friedreich’s Ataxia who re-learned how to drive, and (3) the connection between addiction and mental illness. My aim was to obtain grant money, or sponsorship, for at least one part of this series. It could be $2,000 or $12,000.
The money was tempting. I needed to try for it. But lack of grant funding would not prevent me from making these films.
UNEXPECTED RESULTS Now that I have finished the second part of my series “The Disease Detective Looks at Friedreich’s Ataxia,” totally financed by myself, I can reflect on some lessons learned.
MONEY IS ONLY A MEANS TO AN END. In this case, the end is learning about disease, spreading knowledge about disease, and coming up with two excellent films. Those ends include connecting with my friend, Ginny Padgett. By filming the story of her life, I can see once again the quality of her life, and the importance of her friendship. It’s not just that neurology patients have extra resilience and extra sweetness: they do. But I can see that Ginny’s obstacles in moving around, and the patience that the Ataxia requires, make her live her life as a philosopher.
Taking time and reflecting are important qualities we all need to cultivate.
DOCTORS CAN BE AWESOME. Holly Hunter has this great line about doctors in The Big Sick. “They’re just winging it like the rest of us.” But I do have to give them credit for being there and attempting to help.
I learned that doctors are not the painful monsters I’d always imagined. Sometimes they enjoy their professions and they work hard. My goal is to make them look good in my Disease Detective series. Doctors who make mistakes go unnamed. Doctors who come up with solutions get crowned as heroes.
One of the best results of “The Disease Detective Looks at Sarcoidosis” is that It introduces doctors to each other and leads to consultations.
Maybe the film can help cure somebody. Maybe it can lead to answers.