1/19/2009

An Interview With Documentary Filmmaker Melody Gilbert...

When I get the chance, I like to interview documentary filmmakers. I like to do whatever I can to promote their films. Melody Gilbert of St. Paul, Minnesota has made two films I have seen and a number of other films I intend to see. She made a film called "Whole" which I talked about HERE. She also made "A Life Without Pain" about people dealing with a rare medical condition which prevents them from feeling any pain. Her most recent film was about "Urban Explorers", adventure-seekers who explore sewers, abandoned buildings, and other forbidden places. You can read more about her other projects HERE. Answers appear in pink.

1. I'm always interested in how people get their start in documentary
filmmaking. I understand that you started out in TV news, but felt
limited in terms of the time you could spend on any one subject. Can
you remember when you first sensed that you had an interest in
television news and film? What has been the best part of making the
switch, besides having more time to devote to your stories? Is there
stuff you miss about working in TV news?

When I was in high school, I was a producer and host of our school TV show. I fancied myself some kind of Barbara Walters, asking probing questions and getting people to tell me their deepest secrets. In college, I gave up that idea and got a degree in sociology and French. After graduation, I got some random jobs with TV talk shows and magazine-style TV shows. Then I got a job as a news writer in New York. Ultimately, I did everything in the news biz from reporting to producing to editing. I really enjoyed investigative reporting and arts reporting (both good training for making documentaries). I was even a news anchor for a while. But I got frustrated by the equipment (too much of it on shoots, which caused people to freeze up) and time constraints. Whenever I could, I took on longer-form reporting/producing assignments, which eventually led me to do “special projects” at various TV stations. I did everything from 6 minute mini-documentaries for newscasts to one hour specials about important topics. That’s how I learned to make documentaries. I never went to film school. That was too artsy for me because I was a journalist.

There are two things I miss about TV news: deadlines and the paycheck.

2. It seems many of your films focus on small, obscure groups of people within our society - people you don't often hear much about.
I'm curious about the process involved in selecting the topics for
your films. For example, in the case of "Whole", what inspired you to
make a film about people who feel like they should be amputees? Why
do you want us to know about the people in your films?

It works like this: I hear about something that I find really interesting and then I go find out about it. The fact that the subjects of many of my films are “outsiders” is probably because I find those types of people (or subjects) really interesting. I simply have to know why anyone would want to become an amputee. I want to understand and see what it’s like living without pain (A LIFE WITHOUT PAIN). I’m curious about people who risk their lives to go “urban exploring” (URBAN EXPLORERS: INTO THE DARKNESS). And why would anyone want to get married at a shopping mall (MARRIED AT THE MALL). I just want to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes, even for a little while.

3. I think many people would find getting married at a mall a little
strange (Not me, mind you. I've seen too many docs to be fazed by
much.) Did you have any preconceptions before making the film? What
surprised you most about the people who do this?

Yes, I thought anyone who would get married at a mall would be tacky. They weren’t. They were lovely.

4. "A Life Without Pain" is a film about children with a genetic
defect that prevents them from feeling pain. One of the things I
liked most about the film was that you struck a balance in covering
the afflicted child as well as the other family members who are
affected in their own ways. How do you go about approaching families
with your film idea? Are there specific things that you do to
establish trust between yourself and your subjects?

I am often asked how I “get” people to open up to me. Well, honestly I am just really interested in what they have to say and I think they can sense that. And because I’m an independent filmmaker and not a journalist, I am not under time constraints (I just keep going until the story is done) and I am also not obligated to tell both sides of any story.
I just let the story tell itself. After so many years in the news business, it’s a pleasure to be free of those constraints.

The families featured in A LIFE WITHOUT PAIN were reluctant at first, but when they saw it was just me (I do most of the shooting myself) just hanging around with my little camera, they quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be intrusive and I think that really helps. They kind of forgot about me after a while.

5. I haven't seen "Urban Explorers" yet, but definitely will when
it's available. I'd imagine you have plenty of stories after making a
film like that. Were you even in a place that especially freaked you
out?

First of all, URBAN EXPLORERS: INTO THE DARKNESS is available for purchase through my website (http://www.frozenfeetfilms.com). I am self-distributing this movie, so that’s why it’s not available anywhere else (at least right now).

I loved making URBAN EXPLORERS. It was so fun to go around the world meeting these adventurous and creative folks. I think the place that freaked me out the most was probably in the catacombs of Paris (underground tombs). It wasn’t the bones. It was the fact that I could get lost down there with a bunch of people I didn’t know and I was worried I’d never find my way out. It’s happened before that people have wandered around the tunnels disoriented for days.

6. Often times I feel like there's a false perception that
documentary films are super-serious or depressing or even boring.
It's sad, because there are so many great docs that I think people are
missing out on. Every once in a while one breaks out, but for the
most part, it is up to the moviegoer to seek them out. Is there
anything that could be done to better promote documentary film and
attract larger audiences, or do you think it will always cater to a
niche and remain sort of "underground"?

I think documentaries are more mainstream than they’ve ever been. With docs by Michael Moore (he can be very funny) and films like “Mad Hot Ballroom” and “Spellbound” in theaters, there are more entertaining documentaries that are not as serious as in the past. And people are watching them. That’s good for all of us indie filmmakers.

7. Do you get a chance to watch many documentary films? Are there
any you've seen lately you've liked? Are there other films or
filmmakers that you admire or whose work has inspired you? Also,
whenever I talk to artistic-types, I'm curious about what other sorts
of stuff they're into: music, books, hobbies, etc.

I watch docs all the time. Some of my favorites:
DARK DAYS, TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, JESUS CAMP, AMERICAN MOVIE, GREY GARDENS & A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH. Most recently, I watched MAN ON WIRE. I really enjoyed it, except for the reenactments. But there was probably no way around doing that.

Other hobbies: Theater, good books, strong coffee , travel, teaching and spicy food.
I also enjoy cross- country skiing and walking my dog at night.

Thanks, Melody!

3 comments:

SkylersDad said...

This is great Chris, thanks for taking the time to pursue this and post the exchange!

raf said...

I think I sow "whole" on the documentary channel an year ago(they transalate it with another name).
I remember a men who was bending the knee in photos, pretending he didn't have this part, and then the wife found it out..
It's interesting to get to know different reality, although sometime they are so disturbing and then they leave me with a strange feeling for few days..

Sans Pantaloons said...

Thanks Chris! Thanks Melody! Excellent interview.