Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.
“The Way We Get By”
Director: Aron Gaudet
On call 24/7 for the past 6 years, a group of senior citizens transform their lives by greeting nearly one million U.S. troops at a tiny airport in Maine. [Courtesy of SXSW]
“The Way We Get By” will screen in the Documentary Feature Competition.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Aron Gaudet. I am the director of “The Way We Get By.” I grew up in Old Town, Maine, and went to a broadcasting school in Maine before starting a career in television news. I made the jump to full-time filmmaker around 18 months ago when I entered post-production on “The Way We Get By.” My last television job was as a promo producer at New England Sports Network (NESN) in Boston, owned by the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins. Basically, I spent my days writing, shooting and editing 30-second Sox and Bruins promos. I currently live in Boston.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I’ve always been interested in making films, but as a teenager in Maine, it just didn’t seem feasible. I think working in television was the best alternative I could find at the time, but it never satisfied my passion for filmmaking. I would work on short films with friends and try to find people interested in making films that I might work with. The day I met Gita Pullapilly, producer of “The Way We Get By” everything changed. A television reporter at the time, Gita shared my passion for storytelling and truly took the ball and ran with it. The very next day she was working out the details to form a production company and we were talking about possible ideas for a documentary. I really couldn’t have made the jump to documentary filmmaking without her support and hard work. I guess that’s why we’re now engaged!
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
My mother, Joan Gaudet, greets troops and is a character in the film. Prior to her becoming a troop greeter, she spent her days at home looking for something to fill her life. As a mother of eight children (I’m the baby) I think she had a very severe case of empty nest syndrome. She had taken care of people her entire life and now had no one to look after. When she discovered troop greeting it was a perfect fit. She was suddenly out at all hours of the day and night, making the drive to and from the airport, to greet hundreds upon hundreds of troop flights. As I watched this become her mission and really transform her life, I started to think it could make a great short documentary. After I met the other two troop greeters we follow in the film, I knew it could be much more, and we set out to make it a feature.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
Coming from television news, the first thing we knew was that we didn’t want our film to feel like an 80-minute news story. We wanted to shoot it differently, and we wanted the story to breathe and have a very cinematic feel to it. We also wanted the characters to each tell their own story, rather than utilize narration. This meant relearning some of the skills we might use in telling a television news story. We also decided early on that we would shoot with two cameras and use tripods whenever possible. With my friend and accomplished photojournalist Dan Ferrigan operating the second camera, we had a strong three-person crew.
We started to joke that since our three subjects didn’t move very fast we were able to stay ahead of them and find beautifully composed shots that they would then walk through. It became this sort of leapfrogging technique that Dan and I would use to follow our subjects around. I really hoped to make our characters forget the cameras were there and create an intimate atmosphere they would feel comfortable in. I am really thrilled with the results too, as one of the first comments from viewers is usually how intimate and honest the film feels. A big part of that was also Gita’s interviewing technique. She really has a gift for getting people to open up to her.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I think the biggest challenge was finding funding. Getting potential funders to understand that the film is about so much more than just senior citizens shaking hands with troops was a very tough sell. Convincing them that the film was really about life and all the struggles that present themselves each day, and how these simple handshakes dramatically change the lives of the greeters as well as the troops in really emotional and poignant ways. Needless to say we were rejected from nearly every funding source. But when we needed the money the most, we were able to find an executive producer to come on board with the funding to finish the film.
The other big challenge was just the sheer amount of time it took. After being accustomed to working for a day or two on a 30 second promo, it was very hard to work for four years on something that never really seemed to have a defined finish line. More than once we wondered if we were crazy for pushing forward. Only now after sticking with it and seeing all the hard work pay off, do we fully understand the reasons for never quitting on a project.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Right now, just being considered a filmmaker and working full-time as a filmmaker is a success for me. After trying to make the switch from television for so long, I really feel like I have a very rewarding job. Also, having the opportunity and the knowledge now to do it all again, feels like a success. I know I have learned so much through this process, and I’m excited to put all of these ideas to work in our next project. That leads to a personal goal of just growing with each project– Challenging myself and stretching in terms of what I think I am capable of accomplishing. There are also so many things we would do differently next time around right from the start that would make the whole process easier.
The biggest success for our film to date, was finding out it got picked up for a national television broadcast on the acclaimed series P.O.V. on PBS. We had gotten a chance to visit P.O.V. early in post-production, and had decided it would be the perfect place for the film to broadcast. We then sunk into a deep depression thinking we didn’t have a shot with such a competitive selection process. When they called to say we had been accepted I think Gita may have wet her pants! Don’t tell her I said that.
What are your future projects?
My first project is doing whatever it takes to get “The Way We Get By” out to as large an audience as possible. Right now, that feels like a big and altogether different project than actually making the film. In television, distribution is done for you. In the film industry, and especially independent film, distribution is a little like the “Wild West”…anything goes right now if it works for you, and gets your film in front of an audience. I find that very exciting. I know many filmmakers see it as a very grim time, but to have that power and control over your product is something we need to take advantage of. We are really working very hard at developing a marketing and distribution plan that will maximize the exposure and awareness of “The Way We Get By.” The P.O.V. broadcast will definitely help to achieve this.
In the meantime, I am also working on finishing a couple of screenplays that we would like to produce. One takes place in a small town in Maine, and we’re hoping to trade in on some of the goodwill we’ve built up there to make an inexpensive narrative feature. And we’re also developing a couple documentary projects, so I guess we’ll see what comes together first.
Watch “The Way We Get By” trailer here.