Director Heather MacDonald made a splash on the indie scene in 1995, winning the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival for her documentary “Ballot Measure 9” (tied with “Unzipped“) about an anti-gay amendment proposed in 1992 in Oregon by a conservative group. Her latest film, “Been Rich All My Life,” chronicles the story of a troupe of tap dancers, the Silver Belles, five former showgirls who danced at the Apollo and Cotton Club in the 1930s and ’40s. The young women made history when they were the first to hold a strike by African American performers, walking out of the Apollo on a Saturday night. The women re-grouped in the mid-’80s and kept on dancing. Now in their 80s and 90s, they have been performing together and have received standing ovations at Carnegie Hall. First Run Features will open the film beginning in New York on Friday, July 21st.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Toronto, but grew up in the Midwest. I moved to New York City in my twenties, and cannot envision living any length of time anywhere else.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
My mother was a professional photographer, she gave me her old Nikkormat camera, and gradually I started taking my shooting more seriously, selling my B&W photos, exhibiting as I could. During this time I was making my living as an actor – which I did for about a dozen years. When the acting work became harder to come by, learning to shoot movies seemed like a natural move.
Did you go to film school?
I took filmmaking classes through the New School program in New York. During those two years I also took classes elsewhere in the city in subjects like film budgeting, grant writing, video production and editing, and a semester intensive at NYU in the technical aspects of film and camera technique.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
I saw an article in the New York Times about this amazing dance troupe, rehearsing for a performance. They were in their 80s and 90s, tap dancing! They were the original dancers from the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater in 1930s Harlem, and I thought, “My god, they must be remarkable, interesting women, I need to meet them!” So I did.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
Challenges in making “Been Rich All My Life”:
1) Finding funding is paramount, of course, and I sent out hundreds of requests. The Rockefeller Foundation got behind it in a big way, and that was an enormous boost.
2) My subjects are fierce, independent women, in their 80s and 90s. You do not coerce or convince them of anything. If they’re not in the mood, they are not in the mood. So I had my camera ready all the time, and if I didn’t have a chance to get someone to come with me on an impromptu shoot, I shot and mixed the sound on my own (wireless lav, shotgun on camera, and mixer hanging over my shoulder).
Aside from Rockefeller, how else did you finance the film?
The first year I worked two jobs (photo research and paralegal), and shot one day a week. With a small grant from NYSCA, I got to finish shooting. I wrote hundreds of grant proposals, and finally got what I absolutely needed, thanks in large part to the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, and Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.
What are your biggest creative influences?
I was most inspired by the freedom of documentary making when I saw Dziga Vertov‘s “Man With A Movie Camera.” I loved that he walked through revolving doors and up onto waterfalls with his camera and tripod. At the same time I was enchanted by the formality and beauty of the great documentaries of the 1930s and ’40s, the work of Joris Ivens, Pare Lorenz, Flaherty. My work in no way resembles theirs, but it still inspires.
These days, I am awed by the number of courageous documentary filmmakers out there, scraping by, trying for years to convince funders of the worth of their project, getting it done and out despite the odds, and making a mark on the world. Truly awesome.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
Independent film: Low budget, made with money found from non-studio, non-corporate sources, so there is no question that the creative team has the last word (though that is based necessarily on the fund limitations).
What are some of your recent favorite films, and why?
I really enjoyed Rodrigo Garcia‘s “Nine Lives” last year, the acting was flawless. I love anything by Zhang Yimou, especially his village trilogy (“The Road Home,” “Happy Times,” “Not One Less“), or Krzysztof Kieslowski. I am generally grateful we have Ang Lee making movies for us.
I think I love these all because they give space to the story and the actors, the directors give the actors the opportunity to shine, and the writing makes emotional sense, on deeper levels and with more nuance than we might see in a Hollywood film.
What are your interests outside of film?
Photography, travel, dinner parties, picnics, literature, theatre.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
For me personally, my definition of success as a filmmaker [is] that people respond to my movies and an audience of some size generally gets chances to see them (However, applause is nice, standing ovations are even better!) My goal is to make at least a couple more films, and enjoy whereever it takes me.