Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.
Linda Hawkins Costigan and Linda Goldstein Knowlton directed “The World According to Sesame Street,” screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary section. According to Sundance, the film takes a look at the efforts of three Sesame Street producers to “localize” the children’s program for broadcast in Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa. Hawkins Costigan has directed and produced for TV and cable. Goldstein Knowlton was an executive producer on “Whale Rider,” which won the Sundance World Cinema audience award in 2003.
Please tell us about yourself. How old are you? Where did you grow up? What is your current job? Where do you live?
Linda Hawkins Costigan: I am 37 years old and have been living in Los Angeles for about 13 years. I grew up in Philadelphia and spent time in NYC before I moved out west. Thankfully, making documentaries has become my day job but [I] have had many jobs in the past. When I lived in NYC I did a stint in the camera department on “Law and Order” and then became a camera assistant on commercials and music videos for groups like U2, Bon Jovi and Madonna. I met an assistant director on the Bon Jovi video who asked if I wanted to be a 2nd AD on a David Fincher Chanel commercial in LA. Not knowing what an assistant director really did, I jumped at the chance. That led to several years as an assistant director in LA on commercials and music videos. My first job working in documentaries was [as] an archival researcher on Michael Moore’s “Canadian Bacon.” Since then I have worked on a lot of other people’s films in all different capacities: researcher, logger, producer and produced several reality TV shows. “Sesame Street” is the first film that I have directed.
Linda Goldstein Knowlton: I am originally from Chicago (go Cubs!), but I’ve lived in LA since 1989. I am 40 years old, married for 14 years and about to adopt a daughter from China right after Sundance. I have worked in science (internship at AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] in Washington, D.C.), politics (governor’s office of Rhode Island) and finally film. My first job (unpaid) in film, I was caterer and a PA on a $50,000 feature. Since then, I have worked as an assistant at Columbia Pictures, done a couple development jobs, and then I became an independent producer in 1992. (You know, the typical LA story.) I have produced four films: “Mumford,” “Crazy in Alabama,” “The Shipping News” and “Whale Rider.” I have always loved documentaries — and have been so inspired by their power — but this is my first experience making a documentary. It is also my first experience directing.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
HC: I started making films in college when I co-directed and produced a short documentary called “WORD: The Social Ramifications of Rap Music On Our Youth.” I have a baby and don’t have time at the moment for any other creative outlets.
GK: After working in politics in Rhode Island, I moved to D.C. where I couldn’t find a job in politics. I accidentally fell into a job at the American Film Institute. … And there I discovered film and the idea of making movies. My other creative outlet is knitting; aside from being fun, it is my antidote to the film business: I have full creative control, there is no development process, and I can self-finance.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
HC: I studied communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. There was very little film production there, and with the exception of my short doc, I had to learn the filmmaking process on the job.
GK: I studied neuroscience [at] Brown. I started learning about filmmaking from the low-budget feature I worked on and from experience as an assistant to Gareth Wigan at Columbia. But the only real way to learn about filmmaking is by doing it — I learned the most on the five films I’ve worked on. But I would love to learn more!
How did you finance your own film?
HC & GK: We were fortunate enough to have found a great partner in Participant Productions, who financed “The World According to Sesame Street.” Their mandate is to produce media that matters, so for this film it is a perfect fit.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
HC & GK: The first time that we heard about Sesame’s international work was when we heard that the workshop was trying to boost girl’s literacy and empowerment by way of its Egyptian co-production, “Alam Sim Sim.” Upon further research we found that there were culturally specific co-productions around the world focusing on each country’s specific needs. For instance, Sesame Workshop had produced a joint Israeli-Palestinian show with a curriculum of mutual respect and understanding. We were fascinated that something so inherently American, and a television show that was such an important part of our childhoods no less, could be used all over the world to educate children of so many different nationalities and backgrounds.
As we continued to research the co-productions, we became fascinated that Muppets could be the catalyst for social change. Through Sesame’s international co- productions, Muppets are tackling the world’s biggest issues for 2- to 6-year-olds. In South Africa they teach about HIV/AIDS, in Kosovo they are trying to overcome ethnic hatred in the aftermath of war, and in Bangladesh they are considering using them to address the issue of child labor. As Ed Christie, the Muppet designer for the Jim Henson Co. said, “When a puppet says something, a kid and many adults will listen to that puppet more than they’ll listen to another human being. For some reason, there is a certain magic involved.”
What are your biggest creative influences?
HC: I don’t know if I could call them direct influences for “The World According to Sesame Street,” but there are a few films that I have really resonated for me. The first is Stephanie Black’s documentary “Life and Debt.” It not only opened my eyes to the sometimes personal and devastating effects of the World Trade Organization policy, but also showed me, amongst other things, that a documentary can be both beautifully stylized and still tell an important story. Ray Muller’s “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” is a constant reminder that things are rarely black-and-white. After watching the film six or seven times, the question of Riefenstahl’s motives still linger; was she a Nazi supporter or merely a self-involved artist? When I saw Steven Silver’s “The Last Just Man” I knew that it was a film that I would never forget. I had no idea that a story told completely in that past, using archival materials and a sit-down interview could be as emotional and compelling as watching verite action unfold. It is a devastating film and after four years, it still haunts me. And very recently, Hubert Sauper’s “Darwin’s Nightmare” challenges editorial structure by daring to build to the thesis of his film in the last 10 minutes. His characters show how people are affected by capitalism on a local and global level.
GK: I’d say Hal Ashby’s films have had a huge creative influence on me — “Harold and Maude,” “Being There,” “Shampoo,” “The Last Detail.” He had an incredible ability to capture all the shades of human nature. Working with Niki Caro has also been a great inspiration. Other narrative films that mean a lot to me are “Dr. Strangelove” and “My Life as a Dog.” As for documentaries, some of my favorites are “Hoop Dreams,” “Spellbound,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “Legends,” “Hands on a Hardbody” and “Bowling for Columbine.”
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
HC & GK: The biggest challenge was definitely dealing with the infrastructure of the countries we were in. Bangladesh was, without a doubt, the most challenging. Communication via telephone and Internet was inconsistent at best, not to mention language barriers and the 13-hour time difference. And don’t get us started on the traffic there!
Kosovo was also logistically challenging, but in a different way. Because the region is divided according to ethnicity, everything was more complex, particularly travel and communication. For example, when traveling in Serbian enclaves, your car had to have Serbian license plates. Then you had to have Albanian plates when traveling in the rest of the region. So either we would have to change plates on our vehicle, depending on where we were, or we would have to meet another vehicle at the “border areas” and switch cars. We also had to find to two crews, one Serbian and one Albanian to film in each region. If one crew went to shoot in another’s territory, we would be jeopardizing their safety. Finally, security was very tight and after the March 17 and 18 riots in 2004, there was real concern for the safety of our crews.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
GK: I was in the mountains outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, with my in-laws, celebrating Thanksgiving. Apparently, we had missed a phone call at our office from Caroline Libresco, one of the Sundance programmers. … So I got the news via e-mail. I immediately called Linda in Hawaii. It was an amazing feeling — to be both thrilled and shocked at the same time!
HC: I have never been to Sundance and was secretly hoping that my first time there would be with a film that I had worked on, especially one that meant so much to me. However, I figured that for us to get in was a long shot. Neither Linda nor I had ever directed a film before, and there were so many entries. I tried my best to put it out of my mind, but getting into Sundance has become so important to documentary filmmakers, because it means that your film has a real chance to be seen. I heard that we would be notified by the Thanksgiving holidays and was resolved that if we didn’t, it probably wasn’t a good sign. Well, we didn’t hear anything. I went away with my husband, daughter and some friends, and although I did my best to put on a brave face, was definitely disappointed. The day after Thanksgiving, my partner Linda called and told me to check my e-mail. There it was. I felt like I got the acceptance letter to college all over again.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
HC: I have never been to Sundance, so I don’t really know what to expect. I am hoping that people come to see our film and really enjoy it. I also hope that we have time to see some of the other incredible films. There aren’t enough outlets for documentaries or independents, so when I go to a festival, I like to see as much as I can.
GK: I’ve had two incredibly significant experiences at Sundance: I met the man I’ve been married to for 14 years there in 1990, and we had our U.S. premiere of “Whale Rider” there in 2003. I guess going now with this film, I’ve hit the Sundance trifecta. I am hoping to see as many films as possible, especially the docs. And of course, I hope people come to see our film as well!
What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance and why?
HC & GK: As always, there are so many incredible docs at Sundance this year. We’re really looking forward to seeing “Thin” [dir. Lauren Greenfield], edited by our amazing editor Kate Amend and “An Inconvenient Truth” by our friend Davis Guggenheim. Also, we hope to see “American Blackout” [dir. Ian Inaba], both Iraq docs [“Iraq in Fragments” and “The Ground Truth”], “TV Junkie” [dirs. Michael Cain, Matt Radecki] and “Wide Awake” [dir. Alan Berliner]. And “Friends with Money” — Nicole Holofcener is brilliant!
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
HC & GK: Easy — we’d make a boatload of documentaries! We have several ideas that we’re working on — raising the money is always the hardest part.
What are some of your favorite films of 2005?
HC & GK: Between making our film and Linda HC having a baby, we didn’t get to see as many films as we would have liked this year. But our favorites are: “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Darwin’s Nightmare,” “Capote,” “Syriana,” and “North Country.” But we really want to see “The Squid and the Whale,” “Transamerica” and “Walk the Line” … among others.
If you took President Bush’s job, who would you hire/fire and why?
HC & GK: We’d step aside and make Ernie and Bert co-president (we find working as a team makes us more creative and reasonable). We hope they would be a bit nepotistic and appoint some of the other Muppets to certain cabinet posts: The Count at Treasury, Cookie Monster at [the] FDA, Grover as chief of staff, Khoka (who teaches girl empowerment and education on the Egyptian co-production) as secretary of defense, Big Bird as secretary of education and Kami (the HIV-positive Muppet from South Africa) as secretary of state.
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