by Erica Ginsberg, Docs In Progress Executive Director
All the rules we always hear about making a documentary can be confusing and often conflicting. Always secure your funding before turning on a camera. Expect to go into debt when making your documentary. Make a film about what you know, but don’t film your family…unless they are truly dysfunctional. Work with people you know, but don’t ruin your relationship by working with a spouse or boy/girlfriend. And don’t make a film about war unless you take a stand on war.
Well Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly decided to mute the button on all the rules when they set out to make The Way We Get By.
The film itself begins about one thing (the story of several senior citizens who volunteer to greet troops returning from Iraq through their nearby gateway airport) and ends up being a much deeper story which delves into the lives of the three main characters, Joan, Jerry, and Bill, and particularly into how their volunteer work reflects their own experiences and reflections on aging and mortality.
The film seemingly followed a fairly conventional path from an idea to a festival run to a PBS broadcast to other ancillaries and an outreach campaign which included everything from partnerships with nationally-recognized organizations to screenings at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Conference on Volunteering and Service to a special screening for Vice President and Mrs. Biden and a companion web project, Returning Home, which provides an online space to communicate with troops.
But neither project would not have been completed if the filmmakers had followed all the rules. I recently talked with Gaudet about this experience.
Q: What inspired you to make the film?
A: My mother Joan is a troop greeter and one of the three subjects we follow in the film. Seeing firsthand the transformation in my mom’s life– from being retired and a bit of a recluse to venturing out at all times of the day and night to go to the airport and greet troops– really inspired me to tell her story and a larger story about finding purpose in your life at any age.
Q: How did the film change at all from its original conception to its finished product?
A: I think we initially set out to just make a short film about the troop greeting and what was happening inside the airport in Bangor, and we ended up making a longer film about life, and a lot of very universal issues that anyone can relate to. It really became a story about the three greeters lives outside the airport as much as a story of what they did inside the airport. That transformation took place very early on…basically the moment we first went home with the Bill Knight and saw how he was living.
Q: Although this is not a personal film, one of the main characters is your mother. How did you approach filming her and other family members from a third person perspective?
A: I really did do whatever I could to treat her like any other subject. The good thing is we decided from the start to let Bill and Jerry into our lives, as they were opening their lives to us, so they became like family members as well. But we would approach interviews and time we spent following her a little differently than Bill and Jerry. I would try little things to make her comfortable and forget about the camera. We would sometimes set the camera up on a tripod recording, and walk away from it for long periods of time so she would kind of forget about it. But then she surprised us and forgot about the camera pretty quickly, and also was very open and it made things much easier.
Q: What surprised you the most as you were making the film?
A: I think the biggest surprise was just how open and honest all three people were with us from the very start. I had reservations about following my mother around, and questioned whether she would open up to us and forget it was her son she was talking to, and she really did, but also the raw honesty that Bill and Jerry provided took us by surprise. It was one of those things that we did everything we could to create an environment for something like that to happen, but it was still great to actually see it happen. It made for some very emotional days of shooting.
Q: In addition to including your mom as a character, you had another personal connection in that you worked side by side with your significant other, Gita. Were there any special challenges of that? How did you approach separating your work relationship from your personal relationship?
A: Well, I’m not sure we were ever able to separate those two relationships entirely…even now. But it also leaves me questioning how you could have a significant other that was not your partner in filmmaking. That seems even more challenging. I feel like I would never see Gita, and have as much to talk about with her if we didn’t share this same passion for storytelling. Our lives and relationship became so intertwined in the making of The Way We Get By. I guess it only seemed natural that the film would eventually lead to us getting married and pave the way for our amazing wedding in Maine. [For more on how Aron and Gita's wedding was an extension of their film, check out this article.]
Q: Were there ever any moments where you thought the film wouldn’t get done, such as creative blocks, filming challenges, or funding limbo? How did you overcome these?
A: Yes. All of the above…and then some. First off, we found we needed to relearn our craft a little, adjusting from our television news backgrounds to documentary filmmaking. Our shooting style, and our interview style really was completely different doing short form news content. But we were able to recognize those differences early on, and change our approach.
Then we struggled with letting go of any preconceived time constraints to the story, and letting the story unfold– even if it meant years and years of following our subjects. That was tougher than we ever thought. When you have no funding, and every shoot is on a shoestring budget, time spent becomes a precious commodity. We jumped in without funding of any kind and actually made it to the rough cut stage with no outside money– working full-time jobs on top of making the film, and pouring every extra penny into it. So we had funding challenges from the start, and overcame them with hard work. The most important thing was we did it with no debt, which was a promise we made to ourselves from the start.
Later, it was a different funding challenge– we knew we needed to find funding, but nobody seemed interested in funding a film about troops and senior citizens. Then at times, it really does feel like you need some luck in securing funding. It is such a competitive process that, even with a great proposal, it still comes down to someone believing in your project as much as you do.
Q: At what point did POV come on board? How did this change the trajectory for the film?
A: We first met with POV early on in post-production while we were Filmmakers in Residence at WGBH in Boston. It started with sending them 20 minutes of rough scenes from our film, and was followed by a meeting at the POV offices. We walked in expecting them to tear apart what we had sent them. Instead, every single person at POV had watched our scenes, knew our characters by name, and gave us a one day workshop full of advice tailored to our film. It was certainly the highlight of our residency. We walked out of POV convinced it was the perfect home for our television rights, and depressed that it was such a long shot to get chosen to air on POV.
But it did change the trajectory of the film. It gave us a deadline to strive for. If we had a rough cut done by the end of the summer in 2008, then we could send it to the POV Open Call. It became our mission to meet that deadline. I think deadlines are keys to motivation.
Getting picked up by POV allowed us to embrace the DIY distribution model we ended up using. We knew the only piece of the puzzle we couldn’t do ourselves was a national television broadcast. Once that fell into place, we knew with enough work, we didn’t need a distributor to swoop in and save the day…we could do everything ourselves. It was very empowering and continues to be to this day.
Q: You took your film to the next level by creating a companion web project called the Returning Home Project. How did this come about?
Returning Home was definitely inspired by something we experienced makingThe Way We Get By. We interviewed hundreds of troops on their way to and from war, and heard about the difficulties that year-long deployments had on them and their families. Particularly, it was often a real challenge for families and friends to find ways to open the lines of communication with troops during and then after deployment. It was difficult to find ways to show support for their loved ones serving when they weren’t sure what you could talk about or what they going through mentally following deployment. This really hit home when my niece Amy (who deploys at the end of The Way We Get By) returned home and I watched my family struggle with what questions they could ask, or how to show their support for Amy as she worked on adjusting to being back.
When we heard about the BAVC Producers Institute, we sat down and talked about what might make a great companion web piece to the film. We decided an online resource that gave people the chance to, in effect, become troop greeters and support for our troops without the politics would meet a need that wasn’t available mainstream yet. We also wanted to find ways for the website to help facilitate communication between the troops and their friends and family. That was really what we brought to BAVC, and then we developed the idea into theReturning Home site.
BAVC was really an incredible experience. What they do so well is support and enhance your vision. We went there with a basic idea, and in 10 days built a working prototype for an amazing online resource tool. We launched Phase I of the site during our national television broadcast of The Way We Get By. We expect the full website to be operational by May 2010.
Q: 2009 seemed to be the year in which social networking really became a must-have for documentary filmmakers not only to promote their films but to engage with audiences. You seem to have found some success with it. Could you talk a bit more about your approach to social networking?
A: We certainly seemed to come along at a time when social networking was in a tremendous growth period, and we tried to use the different networks to connect to our audience– with varying degrees of success.
I’m not sure anyone can prove to me that there is a right or wrong way to successfully use social networking. Some things definitely work and some things don’t, but I think it is still an ever-changing world, and what worked for The Way We Get By probably won’t work on our next film. I already feel like there are so many people now using Facebook, Twitter etc. to try to promote their products and find an audience that it all becomes white noise to me. Something really needs to be special for it to break through all the garbage getting tossed my way. But I do feel like we were able to tap into a core audience on Facebook and Twitter and use the social networks as a way to get information out about the film, and connect directly to our audience.
Now, the big question I am trying to answer is how can we keep that audience and take them on a journey to our next film, and then one after that. Can we transfer them to our next project?
Q: Are there any other things you would recommend to first-time filmmakers?
A: Don’t wait for your funding to all fall into place before you ever start shooting. I feel like if we had waited to get funding, we would still be waiting– talking about the film we hoped to make. But jumping in and just starting changes the game. Suddenly you are more invested in making the project happen, and you will surprise yourself at just how inventive you become at keeping things moving forward. Plus now you will have something to show potential funders beyond words on a piece of paper. You can cut together a fundraising trailer. You can show that the project is on the way to becoming a reality. At the end of the day, the equipment you need to start working on a documentary is now affordable enough that there is no excuse to not jump in and pursue a project.
© January 2010, Docs In Progress®This article may not be reprinted without permission.