Paola Mendoza is a filmmaker's filmmaker and could be easily marketed as the Indiewood poster child. Incredibly prolific, Mendoza has several things in the works, producing on one project, directing another, writing another, acting in another--you get the picture. One of a small group of up-and-coming artists that live in the Clinton Hill/Fort Greene section of Brooklyn (also my 'hood), Mendoza is engaged wholeheartedly in community, and is generous with both her time and her talents on behalf of other artists.
Autumn's Eyes, her directorial debut with long-time friend and filmmaking partner, Gabriel Noble, is a feature-length documentary about a 3-year-old girl living in extreme poverty with her family in New Jersey. While her teenaged mother is in jail, she is being raised by her grandmother, a woman with such severe health issues, there is a very real threat that Autumn will be removed from her home and placed into foster care. The film had its premiere at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival. She also just completed a short nonfiction piece called Still Standing, the story of how her own grandmother tried to put her life back together after losing her home to Hurricane Katrina. The film played at the '06 Full Frame Film Festival as part of a specially programmed strand called The Katrina Experience.
For her long-time filmmaking partner, Michael Skolnik, she produced the feature doc, Without the King, which will have its New York City theatrical release beginning April 25th at the Quad. Mendoza also starred in the 2007 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning narrative film Padre Nuestro, which also played at the prestigious New Directors/New Films Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The film will also have its US theatrical release this spring, following a successful run in Spain and in theaters all across Latin America.
The film On the Outs (which she co-created with Skolnik and Lori Silverbush and starred in and, also, where she first met Autumn who plays her daughter in the film) was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards and a Gotham Award and was a recipient of the Audience and Jury Awards at the '05 Slamdance Film Festival, as well as the Jury Award at the '05 Deauville Film Festival.
Like I said, prolific.
On a recent sunny, spring morning, we sat together over tea at a local neighborhood coffee house to talk about the state of independent film in this country, about the importance of community, and about the one ingredient that makes all this possible--hard work and plenty of it. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): You have several projects going on simultaneously and you play different roles in each of those projects—director, producer, writer, actor, etc. What is your threshold in terms of how many things you can handle at one time?
Paola Mendoza (PM): My whole philosophy when it comes down to storytelling is simply, “Go to work.” That’s the most important thing. And when I go to work, it’s enjoyable. I can spend twelve hours in the office or fourteen hours in the field. I’m constantly learning; it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When people ask me what it is I do, I think at the end of the day, I can say, I’m a storyteller and everything that that encompasses. I take every role I can in order to tell a story. I think in this day and age, specifically in film, we find ourselves in a place where no one really knows where the film industry is going, particularly documentary films; there’s not a lot of money out there for people to make a living, and in order for me not to have a “day job,” I just have to work in the industry that I love. I started out as an actress. In 2004, I had the opportunity to create and write a feature film, which I’d never done before called On the Outs, which I produced, as well as acted in. It was my film school. I didn’t go to film school. I went to theater school for directing and acting. With this film, I was in the process every single day, writing, casting, participating in the edit. The editing suite was where I really learned so much—I was there every day with the directors and the editor giving them my notes. That's where I first learned about Autumn's story. She played my daughter in the film. Her mother had been sent to jail right after the film wrapped. I heard about this and knew that it would be an important story. Everyone around me was busy doing other things, so I picked up a camera (which I’d never done before) and me and my co-director, Gabriel Noble, both just decided to go for it. Gabe and I have been working together since UCLA, college days. We had done a whole bunch of international projects with kids—we’d always worked with kids in the theater.
He was the assistant director on On the Outs, and that was his only film experience, as well. He’s also a photographer so did have some knowledge of lighting, framing, etc. We asked to borrow a camera from a friend; we asked another friend if we could borrow their car. We asked another friend for their EZPass [to get back and forth from New York to New Jersey], went and bought tape stock and, literally, learned on the job. This film became Autumn’s Eyes.
SIM: It’s such an accomplished film on so many levels and, strangely, your inexperience may have stood you in good stead in terms of this particular story. You were totally open, with no expectations or limitations and this was a subject and a story that warranted that. What always strikes me the most, particularly in documentary, is the filmmakers’ relationship with the subjects. You can tell quite easily, at least I can, where there’s authentic intimacy and trust and where it’s not so genuine on the filmmaker’s part nor the subject’s. I would imagine it didn’t take long for them to embrace the two of you and give you that intimate access to their lives that makes this piece so extraordinary.
PM: Autumn and I had been working together for a couple of months prior to making the documentary. She knew me and the family knew me, also. We used their house for a location for the film. I agree; the key to documentary film is not technical know-how. It’s simply the relationship that you have with your subject. I heard a filmmaker say that your audience should feel privileged to experience what they’re watching. So I pay attention to those “privileged moments” and that’s what I want to share with the audience, specifically when you’re dealing with such fragile, intimate moments. We were with the family for a year and a half and there was mutual love and respect.
We completed the shooting and then knew we had a serious edit ahead of us. We were very lucky to find Joseph and Gloria LaMorte who are absolutely phenomenal.
SIM: The editing is really top-notch. That was something I noticed almost immediately. With no voiceover, no narration, no exposition, we’re very quickly ensconced in Autumn’s world just by walking through some potent imagery beautifully cobbled together. You just go right in there led by a very sure and graceful storytelling hand. It’s similar in the way you approached this project—the deep sea dive into another world. I like that.
PM: It’s a stylistic choice that we made from the very beginning and a way in which I like to work on all of my projects. I go into the storytelling with the notion that my audience is smart. I’d much rather have someone walk away with questions; perhaps they didn’t understand everything they saw and heard, but I don’t feel I have to tell them what they need to know. Also, this was Autumn’s story. She was taking us on this journey. If we didn’t understand everything that was going on, that was okay. She was only three years old; she didn’t necessarily grasp everything that was going on, either. We really focused on telling the story from her point of view. The title helped us keep that clear in our minds—it’s her vision of the way things are. We were advised several times to add narration or that I should be in front of the camera as part of the story. I certainly did not want my presence imposed in that way; it would not have served this piece.
This was Gloria’s first time editing a feature documentary. When we met for our first editing session, things in the studio were very serious, somber. We wondered what was going on. It was our first time sitting down with them and we were a bit concerned. She and Joe turned to us and told us that they needed to let us know that they had just found out that she was pregnant. Right then, we knew that we had precisely nine months to finish the film, so we got to work! We edited non-stop during that time moving through over 100 hours of footage. For your first feature-length doc and that much footage and a finite amount of time in which to complete it, it was a daunting task. But we finished the film, literally, the week before Gloria went into labor. We delivered our baby and she delivered hers!
We made that film for nothing, for pennies. And everyone who worked on that film did it for the opportunity, for their belief in the project, for the passion of making good films. We’re very indebted to everyone who worked on this. For us, that opened the door to so much, knowing that we could do something like that with no money, very little resources. I’m very proud of it. There are problems with it, of course, but I’m very proud of the film. It completely liberated me, this way of DIY filmmaking. It’s the urgency of now. We’re in a time, I believe, that’s very important and our generation can no longer depend on others to help us. It’s very empowering, that independence. That’s been the mantra of the work I’ve been doing and how I’ve approached everything.
For example, I did this short film called Still Standing, about my grandmother. I never intended to make a film but my grandmother was living in Mississippi, and her home was destroyed by Katrina. She doesn’t speak English, so I was dealing with the insurance people every day from my office in New York. I received a call from the insurance guy telling me that she was, basically, receiving $900 for her totally destroyed house. I was alone in my office when I got that call and that was a moment in my life when I think I’ve felt the most disempowered. I felt like I was two inches tall standing beside this enormous corporation and there was nothing I could do. And the thing I dreaded the most, was having to call up my grandmother to tell her how much money she was getting for her house. After sitting there crying my eyes out, I got on my email and wrote the story of what had just happened and sent it out to everyone in my address book. It was the only thing I could think to do at that moment to release this horrible feeling. Within 15 to 20 minutes, I got so many responses of commiseration and support. One friend wrote that I needed to get on a plane and take my camera and tell my grandmother's story, which, again, had never occurred to me. She offered to pay for my ticket and send me down there. So the next day I went. I also made this film for nothing, probably about $200. I thought maybe I could get it on CNN or some other outlet. It wasn’t only happening with her; it was happening to lots of people in her community.
Full Frame did this exhibition of Katrina films and we became a part of that, which was very powerful. I remember watching three films about the hurricane, back to back. I hadn’t really allowed myself to emotionally process all of what my grandmother and others had been through. I was by myself in the theater and just broke down. Six, seven months later, I was finally able to emotionally release all that had happened. For my grandmother, too, it was very empowering. She showed that film to everyone in the family so they could understand why she’s a little crazy today.
SIM: In terms of your artistic growth in filmmaking, and being relatively new to it, what other projects do you think of tackling? Not in terms of subject matter so much, but the way you go about telling a story.
PM: It’s still all about the story. Whatever story it is to which I gravitate will dictate the style. I don’t really put style ahead of story. Everything that I’ve ever been attracted to, or things that are percolating in my mind, start with story. I would definitely like to explore different styles of filmmaking.
SIM: But it needs to happen organically, stemming from the material itself?
PM: Yes, I think so. It’s only until recently that I feel I can call myself a filmmaker. I never intended to work in film; I always intended to work in the theater. When I sit down and talk to people who consider themselves “cinephiles,” or film buffs, I’m pretty ignorant. But I don’t mind that. My passion is telling stories. Film, right now, is the medium through which I’m telling them, but I can’t compare my film knowledge to an NYU-graduate filmmaker, which a lot of my friends are. But, again, I think that naivete has really been an asset. I don’t seem to need all the accoutrements, huge crews and whatnot to make a film. I can make a feature for $200,000. I don’t need a third AD! What the fuck does a third AD do? I need one AD and that’s about it. I don’t have that diva sense in me to need what I don’t really know how to use in the first place.
SIM: I think that the current independent film scene doesn’t really warrant that. A filmmaker, these days, needs to be able to know how to do it all, period. One needs to know how to execute in all aspects and be comfortable with an economy of resources. Most of the filmmakers that inspire me work that way—close to the bone—and wouldn’t have it any other way. Some, at this point, don’t need to do that anymore out of necessity; it’s an aesthetic and artistic choice.
PM: Time is going to keep passing by and the opportunity for doing what it is you want to do will pass with it. Certain stories have immediacy, an urgency to them that warrants taking action to capture it.
SIM: Are you optimistic at all about support for artists in this country? The industry has changed so much but there’s still such a desperate need for support that our European brothers and sisters have, to some extent, and that exists in other parts of the world for artists and filmmakers, a funding entity that will commission you. Financially, how do you keep your machine moving?
PM: I do have hope for artists today. I have to believe that it will get better; that things will progress and things will get a bit easier. We, as artists, need to apply our creative energy to writing, directing and other skills, including finding creative ways of financing. As an example, I’ve written my first narrative script which I’m also going to direct. It’s a project with a budget of about $500,000 and I’m looking at forming co-productions with countries that most Americans wouldn’t even think of. I’m Columbian. The Columbian government gives filmmakers $200,000 grants—that’s close to half of my budget. It’s a grant with no strings attached except that you have to go exhibit the film in Columbia.
I recently heard of a $3 million film that Ryan Gosling was executive producing shooting in Columbia. The production company has also formed a co-production there. He set it in Columbia for that purpose. We need to think outside of our insulated American box. Co-productions are a way to do that. It’s a lot of paperwork; it’s complicated; it’s frustrating. I’ve been doing paperwork for three weeks for this Columbian co-production—I’m about to pull out my hair. But those are the hoops through which you need to jump in order to get some money. Fundraising is essential—you need to do that, too. It’s a lot of work. We always wish that someone would come along and drop some dough in our laps, but it’s most likely not going to happen that way.
Human beings resist change most of the time. To my mind, the future is the Internet. How it relates to getting films made and seen, I’m not quite sure yet. But there are sites like IndieGoGo that are based on certain DIY models that are very interesting to learn and know about. You’re not going to fund your entire film online, but it’s possible to raise some substantial money—maybe a couple of thousand to get you started or set up your production. My partners, Michael Skolnik and Lori Silverbush, and I distributed On the Outs by ourselves and we got two distribution deals. We did the festival circuit—we premiered in Toronto and also went to Berlin. We were nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, a Gotham Award. We received a lot of critical acclaim in the indie world. No one wanted to distribute the film; it deals with difficult subject matter; there are no stars.
We submitted to Film Forum [for a theatrical release] and were accepted. We had a two-week guarantee there. We had, basically, $500 in our bank account for marketing. We made 16,000 postcards and Michael and I handed out 10,000 of those postcards two weeks before the theatrical run—out on the streets, 10 hours a day, handing out postcards and telling people about the film. That’s all we had. We were lucky that we got very good reviews. We knew the film would play well to a young audience, specifically a young audience of color, so for our press screenings (and this is something which we now do all the time), we reached out to nonprofits that work with young people and invited two people from each nonprofit. They came and most of them loved it and they went back and urged their constituents to see the film. These are the people invested in the issues we talk about. They’ll do an awful lot of legwork for you—they’re invested, they care. We were number two in the country in independent box office receipts for our opening weekend. The only film that beat us out was the one about the penguins [laughs]. We felt great about that. We put in the work and it paid off. We simply reached out to people that cared.
For Without the King, which opens at the Quad April 25th, we did the same thing. We invited nonprofits that work in Africa and, again, are hoping that they go back to their constituents and tell them that this is a really important film for Africa and to come see it. We, as filmmakers, need to embrace that way of working now—it’s essential for the success of our projects. I’m also a very strong supporter of Indiepix, for example, because it’s a different kind of model than we’re used to. If we put in the work to make money, and you find a distributor or co-producer that really cares about the filmmakers, which Indiepix definitely does, then those relationships can grow into great collaborations for the future. Last month, I got a handful of phone calls from filmmakers asking about the company because they see I have a couple of projects being distributed there with a third one coming up.
SIM: That’s one of the ways, too, in which funding can come to you, through those long-term relationships. Do you tend to work with the same core group of people over and over again, sort of your own mini-studio, if you will? Do you see yourself, in future, perhaps becoming an executive producer yourself and helping to fund and support other independent filmmakers? Is that something in which you’re interested?
PM: Absolutely. There are definitely a couple of people I work with constantly, one being Michael. We’ve worked on four projects together—On the Outs, Autumn’s Eyes, Without the King, and Still Standing. We produce for one another and support one another in whatever way the project dictates. There’s also Gabe. We’ve worked together since college. Gloria LaMorte, my editor on Autumn’s Eyes, is now my co-writer and co-director on We Can, a new feature project. The idea of a community network is very, very important to me.
Last fall, Michael and I partnered with CurrentTV and Fader Films. We did a symposium for nonfiction filmmakers held at the Tribeca Cinemas. We invited fifty up-and-coming nonfiction filmmakers based out of New York. Michael and I produced it—it was our idea—and it was a fabulous event. In the morning, we had what we called the “inspiration session” of the day in which we brought in mentors, people like Marc Levin, Barbara Kopple, Rachel Grady, St. Clair Bourne (that was the last event he did before he passed), Alex Gibney, people like that. Each mentor would sit with about eight or ten young filmmakers and talked about process, issues, how to stay inspired, resources, a multitude of subjects pertaining to filmmaking. They were able to have intimate sessions with these people for 90 minutes at a time. We also had a directors’ studio session with Albert Maysles and Marc Levin. Albert talked about his process with these young people for about an hour, which was really beautiful, listening to him talk about everything he had learned, passing it on. In the afternoon session, we turned to more practical things like festival strategy. We had the head programmers from Tribeca and Hot Docs, we had sales agents, we had some executives come and, again, have those roundtable discussions with a handful of up-and-comers. In the evening, we screened some work and then had a big party.
What was important for me and Michael was to shift aside any kind of competitive atmosphere and create a network, a community so we can reach out to one another and help one another realize our projects or create a place in which future collaborations might take hold. Five of those filmmakers are now, in one way or another, working with one of those mentors. A lot of the filmmakers that were there are now working together, we have a Facebook page, we talk to one another all the time. I’m in Tribeca All Access with our new film, along with two of the filmmakers from that group that were there with me. So, it definitely has created a community and that’s so important. I believe the future of film relies on us as a community pushing ourselves forward. I’ve always believed that—that once I get in the door, it’s not just me. I’ve got so many people with me on my shoulders and we’re coming through the door together. It’s not about me; it’s about us. It would behoove all filmmakers to really start thinking in that way.
SIM: Going back to the theater for a minute: how does that training resonate with what you’re doing now? Because theater is creating a holistic experience from the time an audience member walks through the door and sits in his or her seat waiting to be transported somewhere else. What has translated the easiest for you from that world to a cinematic one?
PM: In the theater, the story is the most important thing. The playwright is God in the realm of the theater world. He or she is the one that knows the story the best. In the theater, you can make a play with just a chair and just one or two people and have nothing else around. If the story is strong enough, as an audience member, I’ll be transported and I will believe that a rock is a chunk of gold; I’ll believe the importance of that. It’s much more difficult to fake a good story. There aren’t those tricks that you can use in the theater like you can in film to fix the holes in the story. For me, it’s that idea that the importance of the story is what’s translated from one realm to another. And while there are divas in the theater, at the end of the day, it’s a family and it’s very humble. You enter into the theater and it’s about the work you’re going to do that night, it’s the story that you’re telling that night. I’ll sweep the floor of the theater if that’s what needs to get done and I feel like I bring that ethos into the film world, as well.
SIM: Going back to Autumn’s Eyes again: has there been any negative reaction to the film and what you chose to portray in it?
SIM: And from what quarter did that reaction come? It is a very harsh film in a lot of ways. There were a couple of times where my jaw, literally, dropped in astonishment at what was going on. It seems you did capture some things that we really weren’t meant to see, that privilege, as you put it earlier, particularly in the way an adult might relate to a child.
PM: The most difficult thing for people has been that the protagonists of the story are black, and the directors are not. The majority of people that have spoken to us and have been upset and critical have been white people. And while the story is not really particular to the “black experience,” to me it’s very particular to the poverty that exists in this country. We didn’t put this in the film, but one day I asked Rose [Autumn’s mother] why the hell she was allowing us to film their story, to intrude upon them with cameras. She only asked me to turn off the camera one time during the whole shoot. She told me that she wanted people to see what it’s like to be poor. It’s not a black thing; it’s a poor thing. And I purposely chose not to include that because it would have felt like I was defending myself in some way from those that might have a problem with me being the one to tell it.
That being said, being a woman of color and having my image distorted and being offended by that in various ways, Gabe and I and our subjects were very honest with one another; we had numerous conversations about the images that we were putting on the screen and what we were saying with those images. And while it wasn’t a black story, we were very clear that the characters were black—that’s an essential part of this. As an artist, if you understand why you’re telling the story you’re telling and you’re genuine in your approach, I feel that anyone can tell anyone’s story. But, you cannot negate the historical context of what you’re portraying, whether you’re a Latina telling a black person’s story or an Asian telling a Latino story. You need to be clear about where you’re coming from. A lot of white people have had issues with us because they feel that we’re being exploitative and putting black people in a bad light. And I asked them why they thought I was being exploitative.
They tell me that I’m exposing this person that’s uneducated, poor, doing all these questionable things. Their question is how can I possibly relate? How do I know where she’s come from? And I love that question because I can say to them that my father was in prison, I grew up poor on the West Coast, I’m Latina, I was gang-banging at twelve years old; I almost got locked up numerous times; I was dealing drugs. So, now, does that make me eligible to tell this story? The assumption is that because I can get in front of an audience and speak articulately and eloquently about all this, I did not come from this world. But that’s exactly where I came from. I relate to these people much better than I relate to the people who criticize and question my motives. Let’s watch our stereotypes because, ultimately, these people are passing more judgment on the subjects than I ever could.
SIM: Good answer.
PM: Also, it’s well known that American audiences don’t like unhappy endings. They like things to be all wrapped-up. The end of this film is not a wrap-up; it’s a continuation of life. There are all kinds of questions we’re left with about what’s going to happen to Autumn. Yes, there’s a glimmer of hope but there’s certainly no “happy ending.” A lot of people have had problems with that, as well. They want to know what I’m saying with an ending like that; what’s the message supposed to be about? That’s not my job to tell you that—they’re real people; they’re living their lives beyond the film, obviously. I want people to wonder and question and discuss what they saw. That’s why I tell stories.
SIM: I often appreciate that kind of ambivalence. It’s one's responsibility to, maybe, try and finish that story oneself, or continue that story. That's what makes it communal in nature—as audience, that’s what we are, a community of humans sitting and watching the same thing. It doesn’t have to be a passive experience. That speaks to your idea of community, as well.
Who’s inspiring you right now? Whom are you watching now with interest, who is making you sit up and take notice because of the work he or she is doing?
PM: In a general sense, it’s the Latin American film movement out of Mexico right now. A lot of interesting stuff is also coming out of Brazil. Filmmaker Walter Salles is a huge inspiration. I think that he is brilliant on so many levels. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to emulate him in some way. He tells universal stories that are very specific in nature in ways that I have always related to. I’ve heard him speak a couple of times and he’s so eloquent. He’s also a good person.
SIM: You sense that in his photography. He has an unflinching gaze and captures such beauty anywhere he turns his lens—it’s a loving gaze.
PM: When he was doing Motorcycle Diaries, he said something that has been my mantra for years since. He basically said that when they were making that film, he realized that it was an “intimate epic.” I thought that was so brilliant. That concept has been at the center of the script that I wrote with Gloria, it's impacted how it translated onto the page, how it will translate visually into a film.
SIM: What is We Can about?
PM: It’s about a woman from Columbia who comes to the US with her two kids, one aged ten, the other five. She’s coming to be with her husband who’s living in Queens. She comes illegally and they re-unite. Very shortly after they come together, he abandons the family. That’s when the story really takes off. It’s about how this family survives on their own, without anyone, not speaking the language. Together, the family ends up collecting cans on the streets of Queens in order to put food on the table. It’s also a coming-of-age story about a young man becoming, at a very young age, the man in the family, the provider. It’s also a coming-of-age for the mother who’s finding independence, discovering her own voice. It calls into question the notion of the American Dream. Is it still navigable and realistic for the new generation of immigrants that are coming to this country? It’s inspired by my mother’s story when we first came here. We’ll be in production this summer. I’m very scared but also very excited.
SIM: It wouldn’t be worth doing if you weren’t a bit fearful--that's a good sign. I try to do things that scare the crap out of me on a regular basis. It builds character.
PM: We submitted the script to the IFP Market. That’s also something of which filmmakers really need to take advantage. There aren’t many organizations out there, but there are a few that really help and believe in filmmakers and IFP is one of those. We ended up winning a camera package, which we never expected. We didn’t even know if the script was any good. We thought we’d submit it and see what kind of feedback we got. We took a lot of great meetings and after that we realized, well, shit, we have a script, we now have a camera package, we have a year to make a movie! I was talking to a producer and he told me that maybe next year, I’d be in the co-production section. And I was like, next year? I’m going to be making a movie in the summertime—I’m shooting this movie in August. He laughed at me and wished me luck.
So now we need to go and try to find some money, which is something I’ve never really done before in any significant way. I’ve self-funded or borrowed everything to do what I needed to do. Gloria and I have about 30% of the budget so far and, again, oddly, our naivete and inexperience is working for us. But we do know how to make things happen. I’ll go back to that idea of the urgency of now. That’s the most important thing.
SIM: What other stories do you hope to tell in the near future?
PM: I have two stories. One is just a plain old love story, which is so not me on many levels [laughs]. I’m in love with the idea of love right now. I just finished Love in the Time of Cholera [by Gabriel Garcia Marquez]. I like to pretend he’s my grandfather. I’m kind of seeing this as a play, going back home to the theater. I also have this epic historical story I want to do which is about a well-known Columbian figure—she’s not really known outside the country. They call her La Pola [Policarpa Salavarrieta] and she helped Columbia gain independence from Spain. I’ve been doing research for a while but got sidetracked with other projects. She was a freedom fighter and died for the cause. At her execution, she was tied up and yelled to the crowd that even though she was young and a woman, she was willing to die for freedom—"let freedom live!" It’s very dramatic and inspiring. It’ll be a fictionalized version of her story.
SIM: What do you think of the hybridization of fiction and nonfiction?
PM: I think it can be done really, really well. I thought Ghosts of Abu Ghraib was a brilliant film. I, personally, have not found that story where the two could be melded together in an interesting and exciting way. Someone called On the Outs a docu-drama. We didn’t make it with that idea in mind. But it felt very much like a documentary on some levels.
I like to look at what I do holistically—I’m creating a body of work. It’s not about one success or one failure for me. I think of storytelling as a career, a lifelong pursuit of something. If you want to do this for a lifetime, you need to think about the body of work you’re creating. Within that body of work, you need to take chances—some things work, some things won’t.
SIM: And your thoughts on the festival landscape right now? And how do you, as an independent filmmaker, view competitions at these fests? I’ve talked to many people who have ambivalent thoughts on the competitive sphere of what we do, particularly in documentary. But that recognition, those prizes are so important in the current landscape.
PM: The festival circuit is great for independent films. It’s our theatrical release. It’s how people around the country and around the world are going to see your film, because most likely, they’re not going to be in the theaters. That’s great. What I’m tired of are film festivals demanding world premieres. I think it brings down the level of films that are going to be in your film festival in terms of quality. You have filmmakers vying for all these world premieres and at the end of the day, does it really fucking matter? So I had my world premiere at Austin and now I want to come to Tribeca and you’re going to tell me “no”? I want to show my film in New York! That pisses me off. I think it’s completely unfair; it’s a power thing, an elitist situation.
Yes, the circuit is insular, absolutely. I’ve been on the festival circuit with one project or another since 2004 and I see the same people over and over and over again. I love them all, but it does bother me a bit that it is the same folks, year in, year out. The reality is that it’s very difficult for a filmmaker who doesn’t know someone in the film festival world to have their film screened at one of the top festivals. 3,000 films are submitted to Sundance and you know that not every film is being watched. I don’t think that’s fair and I don’t know the solution to that.
Having been in competition on various levels and won some prizes, I think that they’re crucial for films. I’ve never been on a jury, so I’ve never had that experience but to have a film be recognized and nominated for a Spirit Award, or being in competition at Sundance and winning, like Padre Nuestro did, is wonderful. But how much does it really help with distribution? It does give it recognition, though. As difficult as it may be, I think the jurors need to pull through. I’m sure it must be difficult, especially for filmmakers on juries, but you know you’re giving this prize to one film and it’s going to help that film and that filmmaker tremendously. To me, having filmmakers judge other filmmakers’ works helps to build that community I keep speaking about. I think it helps us all, in the end. I know jurors take this responsibility very seriously and I know that it’s extremely difficult. Competition can be healthy.
The possibility of making money is slim. And that’s why I also feel like an independent filmmaker needs to be responsible to one’s investors. If we want to continue to have those people who fund independent film keep giving us money to make our films, then one needs to be responsible with that money. I believe in micro-budget filmmaking. I understand that not all films can be micro-budget, but all the films I’ve done—produced, directed, written—have all had budgets of under half a million. I’ve made a documentary in Africa, as well as a feature film here for less than that amount.
I sent out an email to about twenty female artists about this website I stumbled upon called The Fund for Women Artists. It’s an amazing resource, completely categorized by discipline with information on grant resources. The information is so accessible, so easy to find.
SIM: Once you start applying for and receiving grant money, you know how to tap into that resource and do end up getting funded. Money begets money—I think that’s true. People are more apt to support you once other entities have done the same. The perception is that you’re a good investment. You appear to fall nicely into that category. I wish you all the best with all of your various projects.
PM: Thank you so much!