Director Laura Gabbert and producer Caroline Libresco present us with a look at a different kind of retirement home where elderly political radicals are welcome to take part in debates with their fellow residents. And in doing so, these filmmakers have broken the impression that retirement homes are merely waiting rooms for death.
We spoke with Laura Gabbert and Caroline Libresco and this is what they had to say about their moving documentary Sunset Story.
What are some of the struggles you encountered in getting this documentary produced?
Caroline: Funding, funding, funding! It’s so darn tough these days to find money for non-sensationalist verite documentaries. We went to everyone we knew and to every possible foundation and broadcast strand to try to drum up interest.
Laura: Thank god for ITVS (Independent Television Service), which finally came in with about 90% of the funding. We are so grateful to them. Like no other funder, they tend to take risks and get behind seemingly less commercial projects.
Money is always a huge obstacle for filmmakers but especially doc filmmakers where investing is perhaps less glamorous sounding. How does one go about seeking funding for docs? Any resources you care to divulge?
Laura: We went to all the usual suspects: television, private foundations and individual donors. In television we approached POV, ITVS, Oxygen, Discovery and of course HBO. Among foundations, we applied to NEA, California Arts Council, Ford, MacArthur and smaller foundations like Women in Film, Pacific Pioneer Fund, Creative Capital, Roy W. Dean, National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Eastman Fund and the Paul Robeson Foundation. We even looked into foreign television entities with production arms like ZDF/Arte (Germany/France).
Caroline: Finally we learned that the absolute only way to get real money is to show your footage. And this footage has to be organized in a compelling way. It wasn’t until our FOURTH TRY with ITVS that we got their attention and I believe that this was because we finally had a sample tape to show the committee. Unless you’re already an established documentary team, doc-making is a dialectical process: you start fund raising and shooting simultaneously–and then you keep shooting and fund raising, fund raising and shooting. This process, while nerve racking, has a hidden benefit: it helps hone the story and the focus along the way.
Legal clearances is always an issue for filmmakers, were there any problems in this area and how did you overcome them?
Caroline: Thank goodness, none of our content posed those sorts of problems. And all of our subjects have been extremely cooperative and excited to participate.
Laura: As for the Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger tunes you hear sung live in Sunset Story, we had a phenomenal Music Supervisor—Jim Black of Clearsongs in New York—who worked miracles in getting us over some clearance humps.
Docs often take years, sometimes a decade or more to complete — how do you remain excited about the project in the face of so much adversity?
Laura: This is such a great and relevant question. In our case, this project took five long years to complete. I think what helped us persevere and stay with it was that we kind of fell in love with our subjects. We developed very real friendships with them, so that there was never a thought of “Oh let’s just drop this. We’re not raising any money anyway.” In a sense, we had a responsibility to Irja and Lucille once we got close with them. They needed us and we also needed them. In the end, Irja and Lucille, and Sunset Hall itself, became an integral part of our lives.
Caroline: I certainly learned how to be patient and to keep my eyes on the prize. As someone once said, being a producer means being a little bit crazy, because you have to keep believing in something that everyone around you is telling you is impossible. And I think Laura and I, and our co-producer Eden Wurmfeld, kept each other going when one of us had doubts.
Any general advice about making a doc, say, if you had to tell a friend one thing they must know about making their film, what would you tell them?
Laura: I would say: even when you think you’re still in the research/development stage, bring your camera to the site and shoot, shoot, shoot. When we were researching our characters, we recorded sound, not image, and later really regretted it. Some of the best gems come at the beginning of the process–when the interview subjects are fresh and excited. Also, make sure to always record good sound. The best investment is a competent sound mixer and good equipment!!!
Caroline: Keep challenging yourselves to figure out what the film is about. With documentary, obviously the story is not in our control; we have to be keen observers. But at the same time, it’s also possible to steer a bit. Laura and I had regular story meetings—creative brainstorming sessions—where we would discuss our characters at length and explore different structures and stylistic approaches to the film. Then we would use these ideas to bring focus to actual shoots. Likewise, we would come back from shoots and re-think our story and our structure.
Get the rest of the interview in part two of THE ELDERLY AND THE RADICAL>>>