Interviews with New Day filmmakers based in the Midwest
by Lynne Sachs
New Day filmmakers live all over the United States, although many are concentrated on the East and West Coasts. In the following interviews, New Day filmmakers from the Midwest reveal how living there has impacted their personal – and filmmaking – choices.
By Lynne Sachs, New Day Member
Jeff Tamblyn interviews John Calvert
Why did you make Kansas vs. Darwin at the time and place you did?
As I watched the school board hearings in Topeka taking shape in May, 2005, I knew it was going to be a documentary, with a cast of characters and a story arc.
Is this just a Kansas issue?
This was part of the debate for which Kansas was already synonymous. I was under the impression that this controversy mainly took place in rural states like mine, but I learned that it happens to a large extent in all 50 states.
Where did the idea for the film come from?
I got the idea for the film the day before my father died. I was reading a newspaper article that talked about the hearings to test the validity of evolution, and it was almost like a hand was on my shoulder and someone or something was whispering in my ear: “This is the film you should make” so later on when people asked me, “What are you doing?” I responded “We are on a mission from God!” It was kind of like the Blues Brothers, if you know what I mean (laughs).
What kinds of challenges pushed the film in directions that you might not have expected?
There were many challenges every step of the way. People on both sides refused to talk to me. I told the crew that we would never tell people what we believed, and so I had resistance on both sides of the issue.
Were you considered a threat?
One school board member made me drive seven hours just to convince her I would not be a threat to her. One of the principle figures on the pro-evolution side would not talk to me either because he thought I was against evolution since I would never directly claim my own position.
Then what kind of “voice” do you express in your marketing for the film?
My film is about provoking the audience and encouraging discussion. When the audience walks away, they are often upset, they want to talk and talk and talk. Whoever you are and whatever you think, this film is going to bring you face to face with people who think just the opposite.
Will teaching evolution end as an issue?
When I market the film, I try to remind people that this controversy over teaching evolution isn’t going away anytime soon. I want to connect with people who are struggling to teach evolution or to understand the political situation around the topic.
What are the challenges to being a filmmaker in Kansas?
There is less infrastructure here in terms of funding and fewer local networking opportunities, though we do have a large production community of technicians, bigger than you would think in a metro area of 2 million.
How do you actually make your life as a filmmaker?
For money, I make corporate films. On a personal level, the people I find community with here are not always filmmakers but writers, actors, musicians, arts administrators.
Has New Day (ND) changed your life?
It has totally transformed my life as a filmmaker. There is a huge community aspect to ND that is easily accessible through media and I see ND people when I travel to festivals and conferences. I also represented ND on a panel called “Film Distribution from A to Z with a Capital E for Education.”
Have you found kindred spirits in ND or films that share issues with your movie?
Yes, Greta Schiller, (dir. No Dinosaurs in Heaven) and I have spoken frequently about our shared topic and audience, which has led to our collaboration on a rather large science-education initiative involving a distinguished group of academics.
What impact has New Day had on your distribution?
Developing outreach partners who have a vested interest in a topic – such as science teacher organizations. Together, we develop programs using the film at state and local conferences. This is a very smart type of partnership that’s indispensable in today’s marketplace.
What have you brought from Kansas to New Day?
Common sense (laughs). I deal every day with a lot of different kinds of people, maybe it’s easier for me to have empathy with some of our viewers.
By Lynne Sachs, New Day Member
Director Susanne Mason works with Editor Karen Skloss to select images for “Writ Writer.”
Did Austin Texas spark your work as a filmmaker?
In The University of Texas’s graduate school I made a film about women convicted of murdering their alleged abusers.
Was that easy to do?
I had a hard time getting permission from the prison system to interview the incarcerated women that I wanted to include in the film. In the process of jumping hoops and seeking permission, I was inadvertently introduced to the Texas prison system’s history and became fascinated by it.
Did that change your film plans?
In the end I obtained permission to interview five women, but the real fruit of that graduate thesis film was that it inspired me to study the Texas prison system’s transformation as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.
How did Writ Writer happen?
When I learned about the story of Fred Arispe Cruz, I thought it could be a remarkable biographical and historical documentary about a prisoner and a southern state prison system.
Do prisoners have rights?
Fred Cruz, who came into the system in the early 1960s and began studying law in order to fight his own conviction, eventually focused his legal attention on unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Writ Writer tells his story within the story of the emerging prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Could you have made your film anywhere?
Had I not lived in Texas I don’t think I ever would have told that story. It was my ability to hop in my car and drive to little towns all over Texas to interview former prison officials and prisoners that allowed me to piece together the history in a cinematic way.
How has Austin served you?
When I committed to making Writ Writer, I was lucky that one of Austin’s most famous filmmakers, Richard Linklater (dir. Slacker), had created the non- profit Austin Film Society. AFS became the fiscal sponsor for Writ Writer, and I received my first grant from the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund, a thrilling confirmation of what for me was an incredibly ambitious project.
Was Writ Writer your first feature documentary film experience?
I had been an Associate Producer of three hour-long documentaries for PBS, but I had never single-handedly produced a feature documentary. Writ Writer was a long shot, because it relates an obscure history about people who weren’t famous and hadn’t been filmed much. It was difficult to pitch. But AFS believed in me and the story.
Did you ever want to give up on your film?
I sought funding from the traditional sources, including the Independent Television Service. I was rejected by ITVS eight times before I was finally awarded finishing funds. I don’t like thinking about those years. I had invested so much sweat and tears, and had no idea if I’d ever be able to finish it. My confidence was shot. Having a community of film friends in Austin was absolutely crucial. People close to me saw the progress we were making and that encouraged me.
How has New Day helped you?
New Day Films is a community of filmmakers, many of whom have had similar experiences making films that would otherwise never be produced or released were it not for an independent spirit. Having new friends and colleagues who are willing to go out on a limb for a story that can shed light on a difficult history or social circumstance gives me hope.
Has New Day helped your distribution plans?
Being part of a distribution company with a national reputation for releasing high quality educational films has helped me to get Writ Writer into librarians’ and professors’ hands much more easily than if I had done it by myself in Texas.
Are other New Day filmmakers dealing with prison and criminal justice issues?
Yes. Goro Toshima (dir. A Hard Straight), Tony Heriza and Cindy Burstein (dirs. Concrete, Steel & Paint), Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold (dir. Every Mother’s Son), Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko (dirs. Girl Trouble), among many others. It’s a terrifically inspiring group of dedicated documentary filmmakers.
Has New Day led you to new filmmaking plans?
New Day has made it possible to meet veteran filmmakers from all over the country whom I never would have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I have the camaraderie of a league of excellent filmmakers. This is very empowering, and has encouraged me to embark on a new film about prisoner re-entry and reintegration into society, an issue that became a concern of mine while producing Writ Writer.
By Lynne Sachs, New Day Member
Esau Melendez filming
Was living in Chicago significant when you made Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream
There was a national law called HR4437 that criminalized everyone who was undocumented. On March 19, 2006, half a million people came out to march against the bill here in Chicago. That day, I saw that the mainstream media was mostly covering the anti-immigration group.
Did that motivate you?
I wanted to reveal how large the immigrant movement actually was, to show that this march was a lot bigger than what people were seeing on television. You see, this is currently the biggest civil rights movement in the US, but the media will never recognize that.
Was there something or someone who started you on the film?
I decided to follow my main character, Elvira Arellano, in order to show her as a symbol of the undocumented. She had been fighting her own deportation for a long time here in Chicago, and so she had a history of activism. When she received a deportation order, she refused and sought sanctuary in a church. This was just the right moment for me to begin following her journey.
What has happened to the cause your film champions?
If a community unites, there is no one that can stop them. Justice will be served. And as we can see today, the federal government is finally challenging those state laws.
What makes your film timely today?
When the Arizona anti-immigrant law came out, my film, Immigrant Nation received much more attention. I discovered a new momentum for the film’s distribution. It became a clear media response to similar anti-immigrant bills across the country.
How do you make ends meet as a filmmaker?
I work in a local PBS station here in Chicago. I edit, shoot and sometimes produce, which helps me develop skills for my own productions. I wish I could just do my own work but here in Chicago it is very difficult to get enough work to make a living in media.
What about funding your film?
I applied for an Independent Television Service grant and wrote on my application that I worked for a local station. This disqualified me immediately! Everyone knows it is so hard to make a living as a filmmaker without a regular job. So I made an argument in my own defense and ITVS finally changed their rules based on my complaints. I still did not get the funding, but that is another story.
Has New Day helped you distribute your movie?
My best decision was getting into New Day. The sales from my distribution are helping me to pay the debt for the film. It is now being used as an educational tool for one of the biggest movements in American history.
How do artists deal with the ups and downs of making films outside the mainstream?
Let me tell you a happy series of events: The Sundance Film Festival had just rejected my film but then right after that Latino public broadcasting offered funding. I told my pregnant wife “Let’s go celebrate!” and she responded, “I don’t think so, I am having contractions.” Such unforgettable moments are what make this journey so worthwhile.