When Lana Wilson had the idea for “After Tiller,” a profile of American abortion doctors, she approached her Wesleyan classmate, documentary producer/director/editor Martha Shane. “Bi the Way,” a previous co-directorial effort of Shane’s, looked at how the scientific and social attitudes towards bisexuality are changing in America. After studying film as an undergad, “After Tiller” marks Wilson’s first foray into filmmaking. The pair spoke about how they approached this understandably difficult subject and the specific logistical hurdles they had to overcome during production.
What It’s About: “‘After Tiller’ follows the last four doctors in America who provide third-trimester abortions after the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller.”
Now What It’s REALLY About: “It’s really about the incredible obstacles these four doctors confront every day in order to do work that makes them the number-one targets of the anti-abortion movement, but which they believe is profoundly important to their patients’ lives. What interesting is that rather than being political zealots, these doctors actually see the moral complexities involved in doing this work better than anyone. We think that’s one of the most compelling things about the film.
“The doctors in ‘After Tiller’—two men and two women—have to deal with extraordinary challenges: ranging from restrictive state laws that threaten their practices, to the effects doing this work has on their family lives, to challenging ethical decisions they face at their clinics every single day. They are also acting as emotional and spiritual counselors for their patients who are having to make wrenching decisions at important crossroads in their lives—so this work goes way beyond just being a doctor.
“When it comes to the abortion issue in America, we are often presented with two very different, black-and-white versions of what is right and what is wrong. As a result, sometimes it seems like the nation’s shouting match over abortion has become increasingly distanced from the real-life situations and decisions faced by those people most intimately involved—the doctors and their patients. It was for this reason—and with a desire to shed more light, rather than more heat, on this issue—that we decided to make ‘After Tiller’ an intimate, nuanced profile focusing very specifically on these four physicians.”
Biggest Challenge?: “It took us about a year to convince the two female doctors—Dr. Sella and Dr. Robinson—to be in the film. We think they became a really critical part of the project, so are very glad that they ultimately said yes.
“Like Dr. Tiller, these two women had originally made a decision not to do press, but they eventually agreed to be interviewed for a Rachel Maddow documentary called ‘The Assassination of Dr. Tiller.’ The fact that there was no negative fall-out, and no upsurge in threats, following that broadcast, convinced them that it was worth at least meeting with us to hear about our ideas for the film.
“Ultimately, it was our plan to include patient stories, as seen through the eyes of the doctors, that persuaded them to be involved. Both hoped that by them participating in this film, people would gain a better understanding of why women seek late abortions—that these are not cavalier decisions, but rather decisions made by women in truly desperate situations, who view this as their best option. The incredible thoughtfulness and openness of the female doctors, particularly in talking about their own moral and ethical struggles with their work, made it well worth waiting for them to participate.”
What I Shot On: “Mostly a Sony EX3 with a Letus (35mm adapter) attached to it. We shot the interviews with Canon 5D Mark IIs or Canon 7Ds.”
What I Want Audiences To Remember: “That this issue is much more complicated than most people think it is. Our agenda is really humanist, not political, so we hope that no matter where audiences stand on this issue, ‘After Tiller’ will lead them to look at it in a very different way. Pro-life people will need to consider patient circumstances they might never have conceived of, and pro-choice people will have to think about whether or not they can accept other people making decisions they may vehemently disagree with. How do you judge stories? How do you judge people? Who has the right to make those judgments, in any circumstances in life? Those are the questions we want audience members to be asking themselves when they leave the theater. As Dr. Tiller once said, we are all prisoners of our own experience, and we hope that our filmmaking will help people evaluate their positions in a more honest, thoughtful, and complicated way.”
Films Used for Inspiration: “We were really inspired by everything we have learned from watching The Master: Frederick Wiseman. We also looked specifically at ‘Last Train Home’ in terms of trying how to shoot the film in a restrained, sensitive style.”
In the Works: “Martha is currently finishing ‘Make the People Happy,’ a short documentary that follows the Xylopholks, New York’s only animal-costumed, xylophone-playing, subway-busking ragtime band on a whirlwind tour of India. She is also in production on ‘The Mystery of Marie Jocelyne,’ a suspense-filled feature documentary that unravels the many mysteries surrounding alleged con artist and former film festival director Marie Castaldo.
“Lana has a lot of different documentary ideas she is now starting to develop. She is also looking forward to lying on a beach somewhere for a week.”
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.