Story Seeking Teller: How Two Nurses Turned an Idea Into the Documentary The Milky Way

Two nurses walk into a bar… No, seriously, we did. And we really did conceive the bones of our documentary, The Milky Way, right there over dinner.

Jennifer Davidson and I are nurses and lactation consultants. Filmmakers we are not. OK, now we are, but we did not start out that way. There are a couple of daunting obstacles that we had to overcome in order to make The Milky Way: finding a director who shared our vision and knew how to complete a documentary, and finding money. We had neither when we dreamed up the idea of making a film.

The Story We Had to Tell

Jennifer and I had both been working lactation consultants for many years. Every single day we heard women describe the same issues—their babies were taken away from them at birth; they got conflicting information from every nurse; their pediatrician made them give formula because their baby lost weight; they had to return to work in six weeks; they were told to leave a restaurant for nursing their baby; they were separated for long periods of time from their baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

We were so frustrated with the state of breastfeeding support. Over and over again, we listened as mothers poured their hearts out to us, and we felt so powerless to help them. It seemed that the harder we worked, the less things changed. Hospital practices, the rigid system in place within American culture, were just too strong.

We were having dinner in the hotel bar after a lactation conference before Jennifer braved the freeway to go home, and during the course of our conversation, we cooked up the idea to make a film about breastfeeding. We realized that we had to reframe the cultural conversation if we wanted to see real change. A film was the perfect vehicle to define the problem, show models from other countries that work, and to bring to light the pervasive influence that big formula companies have enjoyed for over a century.

We knew we had access to an icon in the breastfeeding world, Dr. Jay Gordon, based in Santa Monica. Jennifer had worked with him for over two decades, and many people in his practice were associated with the film industry. Jennifer started asking her clients if they would be interested in participating in a revolutionary film to empower mothers. She got a resounding “Yes!

So began our long journey into filmmaking, which, from idea to completion, took about seven years. By far the most difficult hurdle to conquer was finding a filmmaker who was willing to work on this project with us. Breastfeeding is hardly considered a subject that will launch a career.

Looking for a Hero

The first step? Start wherever you can. We had the great fortune of Jennifer’s clientele. With the progressive practice that Dr. Jay provided, many of her clients were film producers, directors, DPs, editors, etc. So during their pediatric visits, Jennifer would mention what she was up to and a couple of people stepped into our fray. We met with several producers—Kimberly Acquaro (God Sleeps in Rwanda), Louise Hogarth (Angels in the Dust), Alexandra Dickson (Close to Home) and Randall Scerbo (Inshallah)—and they gave us some great information. Each one told us, “You can do this!” And we believed them.

Our choices were limited as to who was going to actually help us produce the film, though. We did meet one woman who was working on her own breastfeeding documentary, and she agreed to partner with us. We spent almost a year working with her, but eventually parted ways.

After several years of gathering footage on my little 8mm HD Handycam, we found a producer and her DP husband who took us on. Finally! We thought they were kindred spirits who felt as moved as we did to make this documentary. We were with them for about two years and they helped us make our sizzle reel. But in the end we had differing ideas about how to make the film and sadly, the break-up was not amicable.

I think that Jennifer and I annoyed the heck out of people we worked with because we were so adamant about what we wanted to say in this film. We knew we did not want an educational piece or a “Precious Moments” Hallmark piece. The issues facing mothers in America are complex: They have patriarchal, hegemonic, social, political, historical, and economic origins that evolved over the last 120 years into a broken system today. We were not willing to leave anything out. We very stubbornly stuck to our guns.

Copy of MilkyWay_KeyArt_28

So, after several false starts, in the summer of 2012, we found our director, Jon Fitzgerald, who was able to really see our vision. Jon’s kids were in Jennifer’s practice and one day she mentioned the film to his wife, Cindy. Having no other projects going on at that time, he was free to work with us.

Jon thought that Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” would be a perfect way to tell our complex story. He was willing to give us the reins and let the footage tell the story. We designated Jennifer as our Hero. She walks the audience through the complexities of this issue.

Jon really listened to us and sought out unexpected, profound subjects to interview. So, in addition to industry professionals, moms, and celebrity moms like Carrie-Anne Moss, Minnie Driver and Alanis Morissette, he arranged interviews with Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and Dr. Charlene Villasenor Black, UCLA Associate Professor of Art History, who studies the politics of religious art—including the idea of the “subversive Madonna,” and the transformation of images of holy women from the Old World to the New. They offered surprising facets to a documentary that might otherwise have been too one-dimensional. With footage collected over the years as well as from our DP, Dean Mitchell, and our two amazing editors, Amy Rosner and Meredith Raithel Perry, we created a film that will encourage and empower mothers for years to come.

First-Time Fundraisers (or, Beware of Kickstarter Pitfalls)

Once we found our director, the other—equally challenging—problem was money. (That remains an issue: Jennifer and I are still in serious debt.) Jon gave us a huge deal on his fee. Without that, we could not have moved forward. Jennifer and I paid his fee out of pocket, while we all planned a big fundraiser. We thought that a gala in Malibu would bring in a goodly amount that would launch us on our way. Based on our assumptions, we booked tickets for Germany and Sweden to commence filmmaking, scheduling the trip for two days after our fundraiser. Out came the credit cards… and they never went back into our pockets. We raised about $12,000, which didn’t even cover the trip to Europe.

Our high hopes for the influx of donations from supportive clientele in the Los Angeles area never materialized,  despite two of Jennifer’s clients giving us $10,000 gifts. We applied for more and more credit cards, and have been playing musical cards ever since. In 2013, just before post-production began, we launched a Kickstarter campaign. We even hired a Kickstarter consultant to help us succeed.

Kickstarter turned into a nightmare from which we have yet to recover. Our consultant over-promised on rewards, chose a high end-goal dollar amount of $118,000, and then disappeared part of the way into our campaign. He left me holding the bag and responsible for the entire campaign. Jennifer could do very little as she works about 50–70 hours a week. In the end, we had to get about $40,000 in loans from friends and family because Kickstarter is an “all or nothing” platform (i.e. you either meet your goal, or you get nothing).

We realized about $55,000 after paying back the loans and Kickstarter and Amazon Payments fees ($18,000 in all). While we were ecstatic to have that, we are only now able to fulfill the most menial of the promised rewards. Every bit of money we have made so far with screenings and distribution deals has gone to fulfilling rewards, leaving Jennifer and I still in debt. Note to self: Never, ever, do a Kickstarter campaign again. Ever.

We can now call ourselves filmmakers. We were involved in every single step along the way: the filming, interviews, fundraising, editing, writing, film clearance, preparing the film for VOD, and more. I can safely say that I loved all of it (except the money part), but my absolute, hands-down favorite part was post-production, because we had such wonderful editors and musicians.

If money were not an issue I would make film after film after film. What an amazing medium. MM

The Milky Way is available on iTunes and all other VOD platforms starting May 5, 2015, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. For more information about The Milky Way, visit the Milky Way Foundation website, the film’s Facebook page and Twitter.

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