Melody Gilbert, Independent Documentary Filmmaker: Job Hacks

On urban exploring, the inability to feel pain, and getting access to hidden crannies of society.

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Melody Gilbert

Original Hometown: Chevy Chase, Maryland

Job: Independent documentary filmmaker. Her films cover subjects like urban exploring, people who want to become amputees, children who live with a rare disorder that renders them unable to feel pain, and more. They have screened at festivals and networks worldwide, including the Sundance Channel, TF5 in France, YLE in Finland, and RTL in Germany. For more, go here.

How did you get your start?

I was a broadcast journalist for a long time. I worked at TV stations around the country: New York, Florida, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota. I worked as a reporter, producer, I did investigative work, arts reporting — all kinds of things. I loved working in journalism. But I guess there was a point where I decided I didn’t like all of the equipment and short stories that happen when you work in news. I wanted more than what would happen when you go into an interview and about 15 minutes in, the good stuff starts happening and you have to say, “Oh, sorry, I have to go, I have to get this ready for the news.” I wanted to do longer-form journalism instead of short-form.

How did you make that transition?

When I was still in TV news, I started looking around for a place to do longer-form stories within the TV station. Like if there was an hour-long special that needed to be done, I would do that. That was the first transition. The second was when I left the business. I started teaching and decided to go freelance. The first film I made, I made on my own. I was teaching journalism at University of Minnesota, teaching my students how to work in teams. I’d always had a crew, and I wanted to learn how to do this myself.

My first film, Married at The Mall, was made at the Chapel of Love in the Mall of America. I spent a year hanging out there shooting weddings and interviewing people. I did everything myself: shot, edited, produced. It was so empowering to realize that I could go out in the world with a camera, a wireless mic, and tell a story myself.

Was there a learning curve to making your first film? What were some stumbling blocks?

I’d never shot anything myself before — I’d always had a cameraman or woman I worked with. But of course, I watched everything they were doing. I had a lot of problems with audio at first, because I had never done it alone before. And working alone is a challenge anyway, but the more I did it, the better I got. I loved the idea that there were no lights, no big team of people, just me, my little camera, my wireless mic, and I made a movie. One piece of advice I’d give is don’t wait. People wait until they raise money, have a crew, have a perfect camera. Some stuff I’ve shot has been on horrible cameras — but I did it, and I got it.

Have you ever had uncooperative subjects? How do you get people to open up and let you in?

People constantly say, “How do you do that, how do you get people to open up?” I always say I don’t feel like I get people to do anything. I’m just a curious person who is truly interested in whatever it is they’re doing. Even the film I’m working on right now, The Summer Help, about international college students who are working at summer jobs most American kids don’t want to do anymore — I just want to hear their stories. I think people sense that I’m not a person who’s out on a “get.” Being curious is something people can sense. One of the interesting experiences I had was when I was working on Whole, about people who want to be an amputee.

One of the people in the film was a college professor. At first he was really skeptical and didn’t want to be part of the film. He was based in England. If I was on my way traveling to or from somewhere else, I would go and have tea with him. The fourth time I went, I showed him some clips. He could see that I wasn’t making a film that was judgmental, I was just letting people tell their own stories and he decided to be in it. I tell people I’m not the media, I don’t work for anyone, I’m just making my stories and I’m saying, “Here’s an opportunity for you to tell your story.”

I’d never even heard of that before — the desire to be an amputee. How do you hear about these things? How do you find your stories?

I can overhear something in a coffee shop. When I hear something that sounds interesting and I go, “What?” that’s the main thing that motivates me to make a film. For A Life Without Pain, I saw a blurb in a local newspaper about that little girl in it.

I called the mother of the girl and asked if anyone had made a documentary about her. I always, by the way, bring my camera with me everywhere, just in case. I ended up originally making a film about one little girl, but through them I found a girl in Germany and Norway who have this condition too. It’s very rare, only a few people in the world have it. Every film I make, I have a question I’m trying to answer.

Even the students in my current documentary, The Summer Help — I want to know what is life like for them when they’re here in this country, cleaning hotel rooms, doing jobs most people wouldn’t want to.

Tell me about that — your current project.

I found these students through the American university in Bulgaria where I was teaching. When I was teaching there, I heard everyone talking about this program WAT — Work And Travel. That was the question I started with, I wanted to know what the program was. These students are from Eastern Europe, on a special program that allows them to come to America to work just for the summer. I started the film when they were freshmen and the last shooting I did was when they graduated. A lot are extremely motivated and high-achieving students, future politicians or bankers or journalists for their country.

For me it’s interesting to follow that journey and introduce people to their families back in Eastern Europe to see where they come from. So next time you see a maid in the hotel hallway, you might think more about who they are. In this film, the students I’m focusing on are from Eastern Europe, and their families are really struggling. It’s almost finished. It’s in a Kickstarter right now, which I’m trying for the first time. I’m hoping it’ll be ready by late 2015 or early 2016 to premier.

Since this is your first Kickstarter but you work independently, how do you usually get funding and distribution?

I’m very different than a lot of other filmmakers. I hear an idea and go and start filming it right away, because I can. I know how to shoot, edit, and get things done. I don’t have to wait for funding to get started. That’s a real plus for me. I tend to be more like a book author I guess, who writes a book and hopes people will buy it when it’s done. I was the first recipient of the McKnight Filmmakers fellowship. So that kind of thing has allowed me to work on my films and make them the way I want to make them. That’s how I survive as an indie filmmaker for most of my career. My other films have been quite successful at getting distribution from TV networks and film festivals, and most have been on iTunes and Netflix and things like that.

One of the things about the kind of work I do is that maybe it’s not the most cinematic — I can’t compete with people who are amazing cinematographers — but I get places and talk to people and do things other people don’t get to, because I can.

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

What I see is people wanting to make films for the wrong reasons. They like the idea of being a filmmaker. But it’s really important that people know when you do this work, it’s really intense. You live with your subjects for years, in fact forever, and you should really want to do that. You don’t just float in and out of people’s lives — you live your life with them. It’s not glamorous. You don’t walk away from it — you’re always in it. When you make a film about someone, you’re making a commitment to be part of their life.