is a filmmaker born to Filipino immigrant parents and raised in Maryland. After
graduating from Emerson College, Michele relocated to Los Angeles and worked as
a short-form video editor and in the Art departments on several feature films
and TV shows. She has been directing, producing, and editing documentary
internationally for various schools and non-profit organizations for over a
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is her feature film debut and will play at DOC NYC on November 20.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film
MJ: Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is a portrait of the life and tragic death of my friend
Matthew Shepard, the young gay man tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming
because he was gay. While many people around the world know Matthew the victim
or the gay rights icon, our film tells his story through the personal lens of
his close family and friends and reveals the Matthew Shepard behind the
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MJ: I was
a 19-year-old film student when Matt was murdered, and his death opened my eyes
to the vicious reality of hatred and inequality the LGBT community faces every
day. That was a very startling revelation to me at that age. As the
years passed, I watched a younger generation come of age that was oblivious to
the tragedy of Matt’s story. I felt an increasing urgency to tell his story and
have the world reconnect with Matt in a more human way and for young people to
learn his story for the very first time.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MJ: Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is my first feature-length documentary, so the professional
challenges were many, but they paled in comparison to how emotionally challenging
it was to revisit and re-open some very painful old wounds. Even now, in the
course of watching the film, it’s difficult to see Matt, hear his voice, and
then lose him all over again.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are
leaving the theatre?
MJ: I hope
audiences get back in touch with the outrage we all collectively felt back in
1998. Although Matt died 16 years ago, the hate and ignorance that killed him
is still prevalent in our society today. Many
in the LGBT community in the U.S. and around the world, particularly trans
women of color still face the threat of violence because of who they are. I’d like people to reflect on the
choices we make in life, the impact we can have on others, and be inspired to
live authentically with love, compassion, and courage.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
a Filipina-American female director who’s barely 5-feet-tall. Because of my
appearance, I’m constantly being underestimated, so I’ve just learned to work
harder than anyone else around me to overcome that. My advice to other
directors would be to work hard, be true to your voice, and to not get
discouraged or be overly concerned by what other people think about you or your
vision. Be tenacious and don’t wait around for someone else to give you
permission to tell your story. Most
importantly, believe in yourself and your voice. Have confidence that your
voice is important. There’s no one else who can tell a story in the unique way
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
MJ: Since Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is my
first feature film and so incredibly personal in nature, people often assume
that I’m not a “real” filmmaker. In actuality, I’ve been producing, writing,
directing, and editing shorts and non-fiction for many years. I just
really always wanted this film to be my first feature. It just took me over a
decade to build up the courage to make it.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? (Is it a studio film, a
crowdsourced film, somewhere in between?) Share some insights into how you got
the film made.
MJ: Our film was funded through personal savings, private investors,
and Kickstarter. We really were drawn to the idea of crowd-sourcing our film
and building a community before the film was even done. We raised almost
$100,000 in two successful Kickstarter campaigns for the film. The fact that so
many strangers around the world believe so strongly in our film is a daily
source of inspiration for us. This film literally would not have been possible
without Kickstarter. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of about the film. In
fact, everyone involved with the film has participated out of a genuine love
for Matt and his story. Together, we willed the film into fruition.
W&H: Name your favorite women directed film and why.
MJ: Hands down, it’s Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris). As a 13-year-old obsessed with
Saturday Night Live, I thought it was a masterpiece. Growing up, I watched it
so many times I wore out my VHS copy. I can probably still quote the entire