Since her early 20s, Jennifer Venditti has worked with the superstars of the fashion world—photographers, designers and stylists whose work appears regularly in high-end publications like Vanity Fair and W Magazine. Well before her days as a 16-year-old working at Saks Fifth Avenue, Jennifer was cultivating an eye for detail. Ever since then, this businesswoman and casting maven has made it her mission to find and showcase “beauty” in the most unlikely places. Inspired by filmmakers like Claire Denis and John Cassavetes, and due to an insatiable appetite and curiosity for people’s stories, she brings an assurance and a confidence rarely found in first-time filmmakers.
Billy the Kid has already garnered accolades and awards this year, and is consistently an audience (and filmmaker) favorite wherever it plays. Winner of the Jury Prize at SXSW, the film and its director have also made fans (and collected many offers) at Hot Docs in Toronto and at its sneak peek at Full Frame this past spring. Its next stop will be the Los Angeles Film Festival at the end of this month where it is also in competition for the top doc prize. You can go to the film’s website to stay informed about other fests and venues in the near future, both in the U.S. and abroad.
At first glance, the eponymous subject of the film and its director wouldn’t seem to have too much in common. But as we spoke at her spacious and light-filled JV8INC offices in Soho last Thursday afternoon, it became apparent that she and Billy turn out to be soul mates on many levels. The film is intimate, emotionally powerful, humorous and inspiring. Watching and listening to this extraordinary 15-year-old kid as he experiences painful and triumphant moments in the small Maine town where he lives with his mother, Penny, I knew I had to meet and talk to Jennifer about the journey she took making this small masterpiece.
Still in Motion (SIM): Tell me a bit about your background and how that led to filmmaking? Was it something you always thought about doing?
Jennifer Venditti (JV): Since I can remember, the way that I’ve lived my life has been practicing the process of just being open to what I feel, to what interests me and intuitively finding ideas that inspire me. Now that I’m at a place where I’ve accomplished some things, I’ve taken some time to ask myself to think about how this has all worked, and to reflect on how things have happened and why.
As a child, I was one of these kids that, when left with the babysitter when my parents would go out, called the number wherever they happened to be and started asking a million questions. I was so curious to know what was going on where they were, what everyone was wearing, what the house looked like, what the conversations were about. My mom had to stop leaving the contact info with the sitter! But when they got home, I’d grill her on all the details, what everything looked like—and I would get very frustrated at her lack of recall. I’d want to know, “What color was so-and-so’s dress, tell me every word of the conversations you had or heard.”
SIM: Well, it seems at an early age then you had a very cinematic, a very visual sensibility.
JV: Yes, and very detailed, too. I’d want to know every word and who said what and to whom—almost like a transcript, in a way.
SIM: So you’d drive people crazy.
JV: Yeah! And I still do. In my everyday business dealings, I do that. And I think people misinterpret that as me not trusting them to get all those details right because I ask so many questions. I have an insatiable appetite for knowledge and bottomless curiosity. My parents still talk about that.
And then, of course, from the time I can remember, I’ve been an avid, avid people watcher. When I was a kid, I remember it as a visceral thing, watching people at the airport—as if I were watching a film. This was when you could actually see people off and greet people at the gate. I remember watching people re-uniting, the long, emotional goodbyes. I remember seeing people crying, or observing their excitement or their anticipation. There are also memories from the emergency room—I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was mesmerized by the things I saw and heard there, the pressure the doctors felt doing their job, the stories of the people that were brought there. . . . I never understood it when people said they were bored. There’s always so much to see and experience just sitting on the sidewalk, you know?
SIM: That explains a lot about the way you shot this film and the way Billy’s story was told. It goes beyond the verite style of the camera just hanging out and recording what’s happening. As a viewer, I felt absolutely ensconced in that world, invested in every moment of what was happening. And now I know that it’s because the woman making the film experiences the world that way.
JV: What really came out of that way of seeing the world was my “career” in casting.
SIM: Why didn’t you pursue something along the lines of journalism?
JV: You know, growing up, I was an awful student; I hated school. And, I think it was my way of rebelling. My parents were very conventional, there was a certain way of doing things, a formula one should follow. As a young person, I always felt different from everyone else and I never had an outlet to express that difference. I wanted to fit in and, to a certain extent, I did. But I wanted to go my own way so much, it was hard to totally fit in. So my way of rebelling was to do nothing, to be lazy. I didn’t want to conform but I didn’t really know what kind of options I had.
After struggling to find myself, knowing I had to do something, I took a stab at communications and psychology. I hated that environment, the structure of it all. I had always been interested in fashion, so I started researching fashion schools but knew I didn’t really want to be a designer, per se. At 16, I got a job at Saks Fifth Avenue in Troy, Michigan and I soon became the assistant manager—at 16, among all the old ladies in hosiery and handbags! There was a woman there whose job description was “fashion director,” and she was responsible for putting on the fashion shows and coordinating all the PR stuff for the designers and the store and I decided I wanted to do what she did.
After high school, I wasn’t ready to come to New York so I went to Chicago to the Academy of Fashion Design and Merchandising. It was my first experience away from the suburbs. And I blossomed. I basically took over the school and started running all the shows and everything else going on there. I had found my thing. I had this boyfriend at the time that modeled and was going to Milan for the summer and so I wanted to explore going to New York for a summer internship. This was at the time when Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui were doing this whole grunge thing, this was ’92, and I became obsessed with that and getting into that whole scene. And I heard that Anna Sui was coming to a mall in Chicago. So I stayed up all night doing my resume and the next day, my boyfriend and I turned up in our garb at this mall. Once we were there, of course, I was too shy to go up to her, but she noticed us and came up and started talking to us and I told her that I really wanted to come to New York City. She asked me what I wanted to do and I told her I didn’t really know. She said that she, herself, had a really small operation but that there was this company called Keeble Cavaco Duca that produced all the big fashion shows and did the PR for every designer of note. It sounded very corporate to me, but I did my research and found out that they repped Calvin Klein, Versace, Marc Jacobs, everyone. Anna said I could use her name and the woman there called me and told me there weren’t any promises but that I could come for an interview. So my parents drove me from Chicago to New York and I landed the job. My first gig was doing a show for Karl Lagerfeld and then I did a show for Calvin Klein. This was when Carolyn Bessette, John Kennedy’s wife, was there. And it was all so wonderful but somehow, I didn’t feel like I was really ready for all that. You had to dress a certain way, everyone was super wealthy. I was this indie kid from Chicago not ready to be that regimented and work that hard all the time. But at the end of the summer, they told me they wanted to offer me a job.
There are certain points in your life when you know you’re facing an important decision and this was one of them. But it just wasn’t what I thought I was looking for at the time and it frankly scared me, a Mid-western kid, moving into that world.
SIM: Well, I think a lot of young people, not knowing themselves as well as you knew yourself, even at 21, would have had their heads turned, no question. But rather than stepping into that foreign, intimidating world, would have turned tail and gone back to something safer, more secure.
JV: I think a lot of my success is due to looking fear in the face—I know that fear is the ticket to all the good things that come in life. It seemed like I had a chip planted in me. Once I felt something for certain, there was no going back, no matter how pressured I might have felt to go another way. I wanted safety, to feel protected, more than anything! So I knew I had to take this job that was offered, even though I didn’t feel like I really fit into this world. And it was, indeed, a sort of boot camp and I went through so many insecurities. But, it also was my first-class ticket to education and culture and art and fashion. Everything that I implement in my business today, I learned from these people—how to organize, how to run things efficiently and professionally.
But after a while, I quit, not really knowing what it was I was going to do. I had been working for Lori Goldstein who works a lot with Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Avedon, we worked a lot with Madonna and people of that stature, worked a lot of Vanity Fair shoots—high-calibre stuff. And one day, we were shooting the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue and I remember sitting there and feeling that it just wasn’t enough, there had to be something else I was meant to be doing. I loved all that stuff—the clothing, the photography, the traveling, staying at the Ritz in Paris hanging out with Madonna in her room watching Mario Testino work, it was incredible. And I remember I didn’t want it to mean a lot to me. I wanted to be too cool to be dazzled by it all. But I was a hard, hard, hard worker.
What did strike me, and was something I thought a lot about during that time, was the exploration of beauty and the lack of innovation in that exploration. There was a certain, very strict geometric interpretation of beauty, and as an observer of all this I would see all these other things that I thought were beautiful, too. There was a whole other range. And I knew it was time for another leap, even though I didn’t know where it was I was supposed to go from there. That’s how I live my life, I don’t really know any other way of doing it. And I know that I’ll figure it out because I’ve always had to, even as a kid. And consequently, I just don’t take “no” for an answer—that doesn’t exist for me. I know anything is possible. I just knew I wanted to get away from all that, that was the end of the road for me there at that point.
At that time, my friend, Carter Smith, was becoming an up-and-coming photographer and got this assignment for W Magazine. He directed a film called Bugcrush, which is where I found Billy. W had given him this story idea to run with and he was going to shoot this kind of Bohemian, street thing and asked me if I was interested in helping him cast it. He knew that I had done that kind of thing where I found street people and mixed them with “real” models for a fashion or advertising shoot, and so I found all these amazing looking people. We shot it and submitted our piece and the magazine credited me as the “casting director.” And that led to jobs for the big advertising agencies, companies like The Gap, and on and on and on. W Magazine has been my source for creativity, they’ve sent me all over the world, I’ve gotten to work with all the great photographers and travel just about everywhere there is to go, places like Brazil, Scotland, the small mountain towns of the West Virginia coal-mining country, to explore and then translate what I find there into beautiful photographs, which, in turn, are featured in a beautiful fashion magazine, accessible to people who might never travel to these places or meet these kinds of people.
And I remember thinking, “Oh my god, this is a job?!” As a rabid people-watcher from the time I was little, it was amazing to think I could make my living getting to walk into these worlds and say to the people I found there, “I think you’re beautiful and interesting.” That was a very powerful revelation for me. If we’re meant to be the light that leads other people to their own ambitions and dreams, then I wanted to be that force within my own environment, wherever I happened to be. I believe in being the force of what you want to see reflected in the world and creating that. That’s how it’s possible to make a change—it’s very powerful. This was my opportunity to expand people’s ideas of beauty. This industry has such power in the messages that it disseminates, the voice that it has.
And so that’s how I started JV8INC—we do commercials, fashion editorials, shows, campaigns, films—and the whole ethos behind it is to counter the typical way we’re taught to see beauty. The thing is, I’m always looking for role models for myself—I’m no different than anyone else who’s concerned with aging, beauty, how to be graceful and true to yourself no matter how you look, no matter your age or station in life. I want to live in the world of those people that Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon shot. And yet I can also live in the world of perfection and beauty. It was about finding that inspiration where one doesn’t expect to find it.
SIM: Well, I think that's what's key in having an extraordinary film watching experience—I may think I recognize and can parse easily what I'm seeing, who these people are, what they’re all about. And then I'm surprised, shocked, deeply moved despite my preconceived notions. And this film definitely led me to a place of emotional depth that I didn't expect at first glance.
JV: When I first started thinking about film, I did think of all those “alternate” worlds I would see on my journeys. I was in Budapest working for Yohji Yamamoto and we were in this art school there—he was doing a book project about gypsies and artists. And I remember going into this place and feeling so uncomfortable, so guilty. Here were these dedicated artists diligently doing their work in the most unglamorous of settings and in we come to do some kind of “fashion” thing. I struggled with feeling comfortable with what I was doing. There was someone actually filming me for a show during this shoot; it was a show that documented people in their process, how they created their projects. And by being under that microscope, so to speak, it made me really focus on what my intentions were in all this, focus on my own struggle of how to reconcile my discomfort with where I found myself and what I happened to be doing there. It forced me to get really clear about who I was and what I believed in and to be able to get what I needed in a pure way. This informs my eye, my talent in street casting. Because if I’m not clear about what I’m about, then I’ll miss everything I’m looking for. It’s not an exact science and there are deadlines, you have a finite chunk of time to do this—it can’t just be aimless wandering until you stumble upon what you're looking for by accident. That’s why, I think, I was able to make this film so quickly! [The film was shot in eight days.] And people respond to you intuitively when your mission is clear and uncompromising. You’re genuine, open, present; when you’re not, people sense that immediately. I have to be able to instill trust this quickly [snaps fingers], especially when I meet someone on the street and a minute later am asking them if I can take their photo.
I’m dedicated to celebrating people and their individuality—that is my larger purpose. Consequently, I’ve had extraordinary encounters with people whose language I don’t even speak, whose world is so foreign to my own it’s like entering a storybook. Yet that world makes sense to me. And, somehow, my presence there makes sense to them. It’s deeply moving and very, very emotional. I realized that I wasn't someone who just wants to play the role of the observer. I’m the type of person that wants to get “in there.” But as I started to experience this and actually videotape and collect some footage, the idea of filmmaking still didn’t really occur to me. I just had this box of tapes—that stayed in the box.
So then I started meeting people who were making films and thought that maybe someday I would make something or do something with this box of tapes. I believe that you do put yourself in an environment, whether it’s conscious or not, of where you want to be, where you want to go. I decided to take a class at NYU with Thom Powers. And I remember when I went, I thought, “Well, I have this business, I don’t even know how many times I’m actually going to show up for this. . . .” And as we went around the room and everyone shared their elaborate, detailed ideas for their films [laughs], well, when my turn came I said, “I’m a casting director and I have this box of tapes. Maybe something will come out of it after this.” So I was still the same kind of student that I’d been as a kid—not really wanting to do the work, not wanting to do the assignments, really. And I didn’t! My favorite part of the class, though, was listening to guest filmmakers' stories of how they made their films, their own journeys of discovery.
And this was the time that Carter was doing his film. We cast it and went to Maine—where I started filming Billy and his story. After we returned, I remember being at my place with my friend, Donald Cumming, the actor who starred in Bugcrush, and the person I decided to use to shoot my film. He knew that I wanted to make films but just didn’t know how. He showed me these experimental art films he had made, one on photographer Ryan McGinley, some other narrative stuff he had done, and after viewing his work, I went out to get us something to eat. And I had the most visceral emotional response—cried like a baby! And I realized that that emotional response was due to this kind of jealousy in a way, because I had this thing in my throat that was my creative urge to do something like that and it was suffocating me. I felt like I was going to just explode if I didn’t allow myself to release that. It literally felt like I was being strangled by not letting that creative urge out. I was waiting for that perfect idea to show itself. And Donald made me realize that I just needed to jump in—he told me to go film a tree for two minutes and edit something on my laptop, to exercise that creative muscle, to “unfreeze” myself.
And the irony, of course, was that when we were in Maine together, we were filming Billy the whole time! I’d go to his house, we’d sing together, I’d go interview him, I was filming, I was doing it. But I was so focused on waiting for the “perfect” thing—I wasn’t really paying attention. I didn’t see it. I thought what we were getting might be a part of a larger project but never really a film unto itself with Billy as the main character. But I knew when I left Billy and that love story happened. . . .
You know, we’re all here to learn from each other, we’re reflections for each other. Through Billy’s experiences, I was having all these feelings, reflections on my own life. I feel the same way about casting. The people that I find, that I respond to, help tell the story of where I am in my life.
SIM: Did you ever think of putting yourself in this film? I mean, of course, on the other side of the camera.
JV: No, because I’m interested in creating the experience that I’m having and wanting to get out of my own way to do that. I’m interested in films that leave space and leave unanswered questions, that leave room for one’s own feelings and interpretations. I just saw the film Once. The two characters in this “love story” never really even touch and it just made it so much more powerful because of that. There are certain things that I left out in my film, intentionally, such as Billy’s official “diagnosis,” or more details on his father. To me, the most successful pieces of art, no matter the form—whether it’s music, fine art, whatever—are those that make you a participant, almost a co-creator, if you will. That’s the point of art to me and the thing I want people to experience when they watch my film. Because, as a viewer, that’s what I’m looking for.
SIM: Historically, it seems, that’s how you intrinsically operate. You were making a film on Billy before you even knew you were making a film about Billy—it was that visceral and intuitive on your part, you didn’t even consciously understand it at the time.
JV: I could describe my whole life that way! I’m always doing these things and not fully understanding what I’m doing or why.
SIM: But as you said, you make sure your intentions are pure and clear, that they’re well-defined in your own mind. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, that’s cropping up as a common theme for filmmakers that are making these incredibly moving films where one does walk away changed somehow. At least for me, my world seems fuller, there seems to be more possibility. And you’re right that that is a gift, an important one. It goes beyond biography—what film school one attended, the people one met along the way, one’s resume, etc. It’s uncovering and trying to illustrate, in a way, the creative impulse—that’s the fascinating part. As we know, we’re all capable at this point of picking up a camera and shooting something, editing it to music and throwing it up on YouTube.
JV: My two secret weapons are curiosity and intention—that’s my ticket. You can’t teach someone how to have those things. Those things move you along and make whatever journey you embark upon possible.
SIM: I keep flashing on Alice in Wonderland a lot as we talk—those two things led her down that rabbit hole, that’s how she ended up at the Mad Hatter’s table. And nothing in her life really prepared her for that except this insatiable curiosity. That, of course, can get you into terrible trouble if you’re moving through with some twisted agenda. But you’ve said that Billy became and is a hero for you, and that’s how he’s portrayed—heroically. You didn’t really even use a traditional DP to shoot this—but Donald’s emotionalism and personal involvement with the subject is quite palpable. There’s no hiding behind the lens for him. It reminded me almost of a dad lovingly filming his kid. And Billy plays for that person behind the camera because he intuitively knows he’s admired and loved. That’s really beautiful to me.
What you have in common with Billy is how well defined your personal vision is about how you see the world and your place in it, proper ways of doing things be damned.
JV: Yeah, but unlike Billy when I was his age, I never was really speaking my truth—I did belong to the popular group, I was accepted and my wacky inner voice was suppressed in favor of that. I still struggle to do that today. I think we all do. And here’s this kid who’s wired in such a way, that that’s not even an option for him.
SIM: And the other thing that’s so beautiful is that he’s teaching the wonderful woman who’s parenting him how to accept herself and heal all the hurt that she’s been through. Their relationship is so complex and rich—it’s almost as if they’re parenting one another.
JV: Yes, they speak a common language that belongs to just the two of them. This is one thing this girl, Heather, Billy’s love, couldn’t even begin to do. That was way too much for her to handle. And I knew that about her before Billy did—I interviewed her before he really realized she was, with the encouragement of her grandmother, disengaging from him. That was painful for me and I really didn’t relish going over there and having to experience the kind of pain I knew he was going through.
But we were leaving for West Virginia and I had to get that one last interview with him. And, when I got there, he just blew me away. He was able to sit and talk about all the things that he was grateful for in his life; he was really strong. He understood the notion that if you really love someone, you need to set her free. He totally got that. I put some of his musings up on YouTube—Billy holding forth on politics, the environment, his thoughts on his mom and how they saved one another’s lives, all kinds of things—there’s this wisdom and depth in him that’s uncanny.
SIM: You would have to be a pretty closed-off individual not to respond to that. Which brings us to John Anderson’s review of your film in Variety. It seems he experienced a different film than most of us did. I first read about that review on Agnes Varnum’s blog Doc It Out, followed the link to the review and read it. And I remember that was the first time I ever wrote to her because I had just seen your film at Full Frame and was gobsmacked at what he had to say about it. I basically said that his take on the film said way more about him that it did about the filmmaker and her subject!
JV: Yeah, the fact that he accused me of setting the whole movie up, my extensive manipulation of whatever happened to be going on, how stupid and ignorant my subjects were to not realize they were being exploited, that that was the only way I could have shot this in eight days, blah, blah, blah—unbelievable! I’ve been laying the groundwork for doing a project like this for almost a decade through my work, what I’ve built. I was actually kind of flattered in a perverse way. [laughs] And it helped that everyone, from my editor [Michael Levine] to people in the documentary community, begged to differ with his interpretation. Filmmaking is changing, that’s the bottom line.
We have a distribution offer from someone right now—I’m very flattered, considering the heavy hitters that are interested, but I’m having such reservations that this company just isn’t innovative enough to get this film out there the way I think it could be, and should be, marketed. The model I have in mind doesn’t really exist right now, I’m still a bit ahead of the curve and that’s giving me problems with people who still want to do things in a traditional way. There’s no cooperation yet between the entities that could work together to create what I want to happen with this film.
And after the film plays in L.A., we’re thinking about trying to qualify for the Academy shortlist. But then that has to happen before August—there’s a lot of pressure, rules and regulations, and it’s very expensive, as well.
SIM: Well, I know that AJ Schnack is on this track, too, with his film and writes extensively about these issues on his blog All These Wonderful Things. These issues are becoming increasingly important to the documentary community, now more than ever. What is construed as a “socially relevant” film is changing. I think it has to because of the innovations and creativity in how people are crafting nonfiction.
JV: That’s a very narrow definition of documentary, that it needs to inform or teach people something about an issue in some sort of didactic fashion. This was the struggle with defining Billy’s “condition” and my refusal, ultimately, to buckle under to the pressure of including this stupid end card explaining about Asperger’s Syndrome and making him this poster child for it. I couldn’t do it, I won’t. I will never include that. That’s not the film I set out to make.
SIM: Let’s go back to your ideal distribution scenario—I’m interested in what that looks like for you.
JV: What I’m looking for is a company that is willing to reach that huge demographic out there that isn’t being reached for traditional documentary. It goes beyond the college or university audience or the festival audience that might have a better chance of being exposed to films like mine. Viral marketing is so key—that needs to be addressed by these more traditional distribution companies. The online community is building steam like no one’s business and that needs to be recognized.
SIM: This will actually be one of the bigger topics at the upcoming AFI SilverDocs fest in Maryland next week.
JV: These companies don’t yet have this kind of infrastructure in-house. And working exclusively with these new scenarios would be a huge risk for me, at this point. There needs to be a more cooperative spirit, new models need to be created. The music industry’s going through very similar issues. I just don’t want that potential audience for this film to miss out—it’s very frustrating. So while all these calls from all the major studios are wonderful, and I’ve gotten so much love about this piece from so many different circles, I can’t find the right people to help sell my film! But this is the way it’s been ever since SXSW—the film is about an underdog who, ultimately, triumphs—people respond to that, they love that. It’s how everything that’s happened on this journey has worked, thus far.
SIM: It seems to me that that might be your typical scenario for everything you’ll do. Being on the crest of a new wave—well, most of the time one’s concentrating so hard on staying the course. There’s intense focus on what’s right in front of you and you are feeling your way along, just like you did with your project. Considering your sensibility and the kinds of projects you’ll do, it will always feel a bit scary because you’re facing the unknown. It seems to be the way your life works.
JV: Yes, I live for that kind of experience—I wouldn’t have it any other way. I trust myself; I trust my eye and my heart implicitly.
SIM: Billy apparently did, too. As he does his own. Let’s hope it’s catching. Thank you for making this film.