The beauty of DIY is that you get to dream the biggest dreams you can.
The challenge of DIY is people don’t usually care to finance someone else’s dream. The myth of DIY is that you do it yourself. In truth, you need someone to share the dream.
You don’t make a film—you make a team that makes a film.
I wanted to do something big, and yet I had no money and few connections. At the time, I was reading Henry David Thoreau’s admonition to build castles in the sky and fill in the foundations later. The highest castle I could imagine was a project that explored the word “beauty.” Researching that topic led me to a poignant Helen Keller quote about the secret of beauty, and then to Keller’s former school, Perkins School for the Blind. I learned that the unemployment rate for the blind was a staggering 75 percent. It was obvious to me that the reason for this unconscionable statistic was a continued perception of the “other.” So I made it my mission to tell a compelling story from Perkins that was not focused on disability. Simple as that. That would be my castle in the sky.
This six-year story is the journey of finding others who believed in that castle: Best and Most Beautiful Things.
I developed my principles by reading about beauty, the science of seeing, disability and Helen Keller. The next step was to get access to Perkins, an institution that rarely allowed cameras inside. I started by volunteering, without cameras. After a few months, a captivating protagonist walked right up to me and introduced herself as Michelle Smith. She was a warm and very bright student who was widely admired at Perkins for her charismatic personality. She spoke of taking on the world after graduation despite her private fears of failure.
At the same time I heard about a famous Hollywood producer, Kevin Bright, executive producer of the TV show Friends, who was also volunteering at Perkins and teaching filmmaking to Michelle and other blind students. One day I heard him tell them they could do it “because all good films are a collaboration.” Those words inspired me and I began to wonder, would Kevin Bright ever consider collaborating on my film as a mentor? It took a long time developing relationships with students and faculty before I could approach someone like Kevin Bright.
I had to start capturing the magic of Michelle’s transition to adulthood. Luckily, Michelle was taking English from an extraordinary teacher, Jeff Migliozzi, who taught equal parts Shakespeare and Bob Dylan, and, despite being blind himself, he understood the power of film. Jeff was the first person at Perkins to grant permission to film in his classroom.
But I wasn’t a cinematographer, and I knew this film would require very intimate storytelling. So I placed an ad for “A compassionate female cinematographer to shoot film at a school for the blind.” From that ad came Jordan Salvatoriello—my first true teammate behind the camera, and later on our producing team. Now we were shooting, but like most indie filmmakers, we shot around our day jobs, which meant weeks turned into months and suddenly we’re into another year.
We had access, a protagonist and a cinematographer. But we needed someone who had done this before—an experienced producer who knew how to make a film dream into a film reality. I was introduced to Ariana Garfinkel, but I wasn’t hopeful she would do it because we had limited funds and not much to show yet. But Ariana actually had a personal connection to the story. She was inspired by a close friend’s young son, who had been blind. She joined the team, and the professionalism and integrity of Ariana became the concrete walls of our foundation.
Then came the first true good news and bad news. I was developing several storylines and I showed some footage to Kevin Bright. He was adamant that we focus on Michelle and forget everything else. When Kevin Bright suggests something I listen, and that was the start of a mentorship and support I never could have imagined. But it was a change of course to redirect the focus, and that takes time.
We filmed Michelle through graduation, assuming this would be the ending. Now we needed an editor, but I had been self-funding the project from my salary as a full-time bartender and my credit couldn’t stretch that far. We needed real money. So we launched a Kickstarter campaign where we raised funds for the next step—whoo hoo! Through that nerve-wracking crowdfunding process, we bonded further as a team and developed a community around the film. I asked myself, who would be my dream editor? The first name that came to me was Jeff Consiglio, who had edited the Academy Award-nominated film War/Dance, the film that had actually inspired me to make documentaries in the first place. I Googled his name, found his website and emailed him out of the blue. Like Kevin, Jeff fell in love with Michelle right off the bat.
Jeff agreed to produce and be another creative mentor, but when he dove in, we found ourselves facing the next big challenge—we weren’t done shooting after all. Michelle had graduated full of hope but the real world was holding her back in so many ways. This was a common problem with Perkins graduates and many young adults with disabilities. Jeff pushed hard for us to go to another level and raise the castle up even higher. When you’re lucky enough to gain the insight of award-winning storytellers like Jeff and Kevin, you’re sometimes unlucky enough to learn you still ain’t done yet.
As a team we started up yet again with a new plan and renewed vigor. Kevin and Claudia Bright officially became our executive producers and began giving us invaluable support and insight. We engaged a talented up-and-coming filmmaker, Sarah Ginsburg, to film this new phase over a number of shoots in Maine, and together Sarah and I sorted through years of footage to begin shaping scenes editorially and explore possible story arcs with the guidance of our producers.
The Kickstarter money got us this far, but now we were again dangerously low on funds. Then—Praise Helen (something I found myself saying often)—we started to gain industry recognition with a prestigious LEF Foundation Moving Image Fund grant that gave us funding, visibility and credibility, followed by selection for IFP’s Independent Film Week. This led to invaluable contacts including our sales agent, Preferred Content, and a works-in-progress award at Independent Film Festival Boston! With this industry support, we finally locked in the private investment funding to fill out the rest of our budget.
They say “Fake it ’til you make it,” but nobody tells you that you might have to fake it for years.
When you’re making a film about a person’s life, you can never predict what will happen, so we had to keep adapting to those twists and turns of reality—always trusting in our subject, Michelle, and the team. Michelle had found her footing again but was also now experimenting with some very unexpected and provocative things. We needed to document yet another new and fascinating angle to her story, and then craft it together carefully with our existing story. Jeff Consiglio was now able to step in as editor. The final critical team member was our amazing composer, Tyler Strickland, whose incredible music carried the film up the last stage to the castle. My dream team was complete. We owed it all to Michelle (and to Helen)! We dodged financial collapse, Michelle’s real-life roller coaster and endless other challenges over six years of production, and we made it to picture lock.
South by Southwest!
Out of over a thousand documentaries that applied to the South By Southwest Film Festival, we were one of 10 accepted into competition. It had to happen exactly the way it did to reach this point. I’m proud to share this story about embracing our differences, and erasing limits and labels that divide us. #HackNormal.
Whenever egos, doubts or hopelessness tripped us up, I was reminded of something Lou Wiley (the executive editor and founding member of Frontline) told me when I was an intern: “To make a film, the question is ‘Do you have the wherewithal?’” Documentary filmmaking is a war of attrition. I didn’t have the experience but I had tenacity and patience, so I knew I could see this to the end. Sure, there were many more talented people than me, but damned if anyone was gonna be tougher than me. The ultimate lesson I came away with is that it’s the team that has to be tough together. And that’s a beautiful thing.
“We can do anything we want to if we stick to it long enough.”
– Helen Keller MM
Best and Most Beautiful Things screens at the 2016 SXSW festival March 14, 15 and 16, 2016. Visit the film’s website here for more information.