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“I was back to work two days after I gave birth.” On making documentary films, with Stephanie Wang-Breal

Today I am chatting with documentary filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal. In this interview, we discuss the risks she has taken as she navigated her career, and the many ways that she make hard decisions that lead to more meaningful work.

It was incredible to research her work, and two key things jumped out at me:

  1. The nature of how a documentary film is made. That she begins without knowing who the characters will be, where there story will go, and if it will lead anywhere. Also, that funding can only happen after she has committed a year or more to the project, and from there, it can take an additional three years for a grant to actually come through.
  2. The topics of her films focus on sometimes controversial social causes: the foster care system, the child welfare system, and human trafficking. She immerses herself into the families going through the most pivotal and emotional moments of their lives. How does she navigate that from an interpersonal perspective, and within her own emotions?

Stephanie’s recent films:

Besides independent documentaries, Stephanie also directs commercials and art videos for nonprofit organizations, and stories for various media outlets including CNN, UNICEF, MTV, Discovery, DeSantis Breindel, Radical Media and the Biography Channel.

Stephanie Wang-Breal and Dan BlankIn our discussion, we cover:

  • How she creates stories without a roadmap
  • Her process for collaboration
  • The ways she develops trust with collaborators
  • The emotional toll of telling important stories
  • The complicated process for funding her work
  • How she balances freelance work
  • Why she now develops three projects at once
  • The value of bringing a formal partner into her work
  • The importance of ‘good arguments’ with collaborators, which makes the work better
  • How she diverged from the professional path that her family set for her
  • How she achieved, but then rejected, a successful corporate advertising career that paid her well and kept promoting her. The reason: to do work that felt more meaningful.
  • How she managers professional and personal responsibilities

Click ‘play’ above to listen to the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes, or download the MP3.

Here are some excerpts from our chat:

CREATING STORIES WITHOUT A MAP

“I don’t start a film with a character in mind. Some filmmakers have a subject or person in mind – I never have that. I have to find my characters. I have a subject matter I am interested in exploring, then through the observation work that I do, which usually takes three months to a year without any filming, I learn and find the stories and the people who are going to tell that story. I don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who I am. Over time, we get to know each other.”

“I’m working on three new projects, one of them is related to child welfare in the sense that I’m looking to bring to life a story about human trafficking. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Brooklyn and Queens APA Court, which is a new human trafficking intervention system, and also spending time with a lot of service providers learning about the stories, the shame, the trap doors, the no sign on doors that exist in human trafficking.”

“Lack of confidence that you go through while you are making a project; whether or not you can see it to fruition due to funding. You don’t know where the stories are going to go. You don’t know if they are going to want to continue filming with you. With my last film, Tough Love, I had more that two parents that I was following. I also throughout my process give the characters a lot of leeway. They sign a release, but I always say to them, ‘in six months, if you are really not comfortable, we can stop.’ So some parents did. I’m filming one of the most traumatic periods of their lives. I’m filming them, trying to prove to the courts and the system, that they deserve a second chance to be a parent and have their child returned to them out of foster care. These are people who have substance abuse issues, domestic violence issues, who grew up in a world of poverty and don’t know how to parent, never learned how to parent. They are at a huge deficit.”

ON WORKING WITH COLLABORATORS

How do you find a great collaborator – someone with vision, is dependable, etc. At the outset, she is telling me that her collaborators have proven they are not the best collaborators. How does she prepare and select?

“When I look for families, I like for people who are honest, that is the most important thing. Their honesty comes across in the camera and the way they talk to you, and they way they talk to audiences. That true humbleness, the sincerity about where they are coming from and where they want to go. That is what makes a good film and reaches people’s hearts. I am rolling the dice in the sense that it doesn’t mean they will want to continue doing this. I am asking a lot of people to be in this film.”

“Being a journalist, being a filmmaker, being a storyteller, I think that when you are telling a sotry about someone else’s life, I think it is a different type of collaboration than a true creative collaboration. It is one-sided, it is more weighted in the storyteller’s perspective, than the characters. I know that, and I take that with great sensitivity when I do my work. They share their story, and we shape it. It is a different type of collaboration than I have with my editor, my producer, my sound designer. That is where there is more creative tension. With my characters, it being there for them, and document what is going on. So it’s different. They are involved, but it’s uneven.”

To gain access to the court system, she described it as “intimidating,”

“It’s not easy to get access. For the New York courts, I could not get access. That is why I have one parent in New York, and one parent in Seattle. The reason I went to Seattle is that I met a judge in Seattle who told me that she had nothing to hide; that I could come in and film there, and that she would help me get the necessary film permits. It took some time to get the film permits because she had to take it up the ladder. A lot of people in the system were very wary of me. Even today in the court room, some people look at me like, ‘Who do you think you are coming in here.'”

“What I do at the beginning of each project is observe all that so I can really get a bigger picture of the kind of story I want to tell.”

ON BUILDING TRUST

So she faces skepticism because they may not understand or agree with her intentions, and they may have concern of how they will be placed in the story she creates.

“Especially today with Michael Moore, with Andrew Jarecki and The Jinx, the documentary filmmaker role has been elevated in pop culture today. Operating as a documentary filmmaker today vs 10 years ago is a totally different environment. So yes, people are much more skeptical of your intentions, and who you are, what you are planning to do. And rightly so. For the New York courts, I could have been a Michael Moore, I could have tried to go into the New York courts to try to show all of their biases, and that would have been easily done. But I don’t work in the system, I’m just a documentary filmmaker. I’m just there to document.”

“I spend a lot of time with them before I start filming, develop a relationship with them. Having my presence around a lot, makes it feel like I’m just there. For this new project, where are just going into courts. We have great relationships through our last film to the judges, some of the lawyers, some of the service providers, social workers, so we spend our days right now observing, talking to them, learning from them all the parts and pieces that make up the system.”

“What sucks about it is that I think this time is so invaluable in terms of the art and craft of storytelling, but financially it’s hard to fund this period, because we have nothing to show. Almost all grants except for maybe one or two, want footage. They want to see what your story is, who your characters are, to get a development grant. Our development phase is largely unfunded. It’s just our time.

“It complicates everything, working with a child. Each film, I have decided to treat the way I work with children differently.”

THE EMOTIONAL TOLL OF TELLING IMPORTANT STORIES

The nature of her topic adding complexity – the emotional toll of such tough topics.

“I have a very amazing support system with my husband and my two kids, but it is very emotionally challenging. I was very depressed working on Tough Love, because I couldn’t believe the injustices this mother faced. It made me want to move out of New York City. And I still want to move out of New York City because of that. She got really bad treatment throughout her entire life. Some people just never have someone look at them and try to help them. That really pissed me off.”

“She looked up to us a lot — my team is all women usually. My DP [director of photography], my producer, and I were always with her. We were all women of color, and she was a woman of color, and she could see something that was so different that she has never seen before. I try to think of what I represent, and how I can help with the resources I have. I try to be, as much as possible, clinical about it. ‘What can I do? How can I help, in my limited ways?'”

Does she get backlash of her opinions — via reviews, criticism, etc?
“There is always the critic. What we do is art, so it’s so subjective. It does hurt emotionally in that it makes you question some of your artist choices. But at the end of the day, I am very proud of my work. I know that my films are changing how people think about these subject matters.”

GETTING FUNDING

“On thing that was really hard with the second film was the funding, I thought it would be easier with this film because of the success of my first film, but who wants to fund a film about parents who have neglected their kids? It’s a really hard topic for people to get around when they don’t know where the stories are going. And that made me mad.”

“[For the third film], what we will probably do is try to get something on paper in the next month, because we have enough observational notes so that we can put together a treatment of what we think this film might look like. It will be very rough, but it will give a sense of what we are trying to do, to potential funders.”

“With my past two films, they were entirely funded by grants and Kickstarter (you can see her first Kickstarter campaign here, and the second here.) I don’t want to do that this time.”

“What we would like to do with this treatment is find an executive producer because human trafficking is a much hotter topic than child welfare. I do think that we will be able to find more philanthropists who might be interested in getting involved in a project like this. We have more of a track record now, with two films that have done well. We are hoping to find an executive producer who can help do the fundraising. We will also do grants, but do it a little differently.”

“Usually what would happen is we would write up a treatment, send it around to people with a budget we think we can make this film for, and just start trying to raise money through grants and individuals this time. Sometimes the grants would come in in a year. Sometimes the grants would come in in two years. Sometimes the grants would come in in three years, when you are almost finished. That is very often the case, they come in at the end.”

She has clearly become an expert in a variety of funding methods.

“The main benefit of doing a Kickstarter campaign is that you reach people that you would not normally reach. We ended up meeting up with a bunch of social workers, and organizations that were really excited about the film. Outside the child welfare community, no one is talking about it in this way. They really helped spread the word. For that reason, as a marketing tool, it’s great. But it’s just a lot of work. it really is.”

“I had given birth to my second child two days after I launched my Kickstarter campaign. I was back to work two days after I gave birth, asking people for money. It’s just sort of soul-sucking, it really is. But it’s helped so many people raise money. I can’t say I won’t do one again, because my producer might make me. And she’s right, too. We just need to get the funds to finish the film. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the funds to finish the film.”

ON DIVERGING FROM HER FAMILY’S EXPECTATIONS

“Until recently, I didn’t really see myself as an artist. I still felt like I was proving myself to everyone, that I was an artist, because of my background. I didn’t study film, I studied economics and history. I come from a family of doctors. I got into a six-year pre-med program when I was 18, and I begged my parents not to make me go, and just try to pursue liberal arts. They said, ‘Okay, but you’ll have to study economics. If you are not going to become a doctor, then you would have to be doing something with economics. Get an MBA, be on that road.’ Or a lawyer, but they didn’t think my writing was strong enough to become a lawyer.”

HER CAREER PATH — REJECTING SUCCESS IN FAVOR OF MEANINGFUL WORK

“I graduated from college with my degrees, and I decided I wanted to make films. I spent all of my summers in Taipei with my grandparents, and those were vivid memories — visual memories. In college, I added history, because I loved the stories I read in history. Then I focused on east-Asian history in college. Then I started seeing through those stories that I was reading, the memories of my childhood. I thought, if there was a way I could bring these stories to life, because no one is telling these stories in a visual way in America. So, [I asked myself], how can I learn how to do that.”

Her first job was as a production assistant for CNN. How she describes it in terms of her family’s approval: “It was a brand my parent could recognize, and that they could talk about. Then it was also a great job. I got paid to run around, learn about production. It was really hard, it was horrible hours. A live newsroom is not exactly a cup of tea, but I learned a lot of good things there.”

As she takes me through her career path, we hit upon something that another person I interviewed, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, also mentioned: she moved into the corporate world, and did very well. She was promoted, well paid, and had to make a stark decision to leave that money, that validation, and that career in order to pursue work that felt meaningful to her. After CNN:

“From there I worked on independent films, then I met [my husband] and we moved to France. I worked in advertising in Paris, because I couldn’t get a job in production, because all the production companies I spoke with told me I didn’t study film. After doing well in the advertising world, I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m so far from that idea that I had.’ I was climbing the ladder, getting paid a lot of money, I was successful, I was being promoted all the time. I found the work so boring. I applied to grad school for film.”

Thank you to Stephanie for making the time to meet with me. You can find her online at:

For more interviews and behind-the-scenes stuff on my book Dabblers vs. Doers, click here.

Thank you!
-Dan