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DOC NYC 2015 Women Directors: Meet Sharon Shattuck – ‘From This Day Forward’

DOC NYC 2015 Women Directors: Meet Sharon Shattuck - 'From This Day Forward'

Sharon Shattuck is a filmmaker and animator. She is the co-creator of the New York Times Op-Docs series “Animated Life,” which illustrates historical moments of scientific discovery using storytelling and paper puppets. “Animated Life: Seeing The Invisible” won a 2015 CINE Golden Eagle award. Her animations are featured in several award-winning documentary films and shorts, including the Emmy-nominated feature “The City Dark” and “The Search For General Tso,” which was distributed by IFC/Sundance Selects. Her short video and animation work has appeared on PBS, Slate, Vox, ProPublica, Vice and Radiolab. (Press materials) 

From This Day Forward” will premiere at the 2015 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 14.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

SS: My dad is transgender and began to transition to a woman named Trisha when I was really young — I was maybe seven. My mom, Marcia, is straight and attracted to men. When my sister and I were younger, we desperately wanted my parents to divorce so that we could be “normal” kids with a single mom — but they chose not to separate. As an adult approaching my own wedding, I wanted to understand and make peace with my parents’ decision to stay together no matter what.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SS: I’ve worked in documentary film for years as an animator. I animated the films “The City Dark” and “The Search For General Tso,” among others. I’ve always wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t think my parents would let me.

So when I set out to make my first feature documentary, in 2011, I told people I was going to make a film about all kinds of LGBT families, rather than turning the spotlight on mine. I started traveling the country and meeting and interviewing other families. It wasn’t until I started filming my dad doing stuff around the house that I realized my parents might be okay with me telling their story. At that point I asked them for permission, and once granted, I changed the focus of the film.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SS: Making a personal film is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to figure out what is appropriate and necessary to include for the story, and what is exploitative or extraneous. I relied a lot on my team — producer Martha Shane, winner of a 2015 Emmy award for her own film “After Tiller,” and editor Frederick Shanahan, as well as our advisors at IFP Labs, Chicken & Egg Pictures, the Sundance Documentary Film Program and Good Pitch.  

Freddy, Martha and I had a lot of arguments, lots of back and forth where I’d push to remove something and they’d push back, or vice versa. I tried to keep my dad’s gender transition in mind when we were constructing the story, because I knew that experience more viscerally than they did, but they had a great sense for what the story overall lacked or needed.

We took a two-week break after finishing our festival cut in December, and Martha and I both realized that what we had sucked, so we frantically reworked it and turned in the new cut to the early spring festivals.

Word of advice to new filmmakers: Always take a break before you turn in your “final” cut!

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

SS: I hope people realize how important it is for the transgender community to have a positive story, a love story — a story that doesn’t end in someone’s murder or ostracization. I’m not sure that straight audiences always get that, and in the age of Caitlyn Jenner, some people might wonder why we’re still talking about the transgender experience. But, frankly, 99.9% of people don’t have the privilege or wealth of Caitlyn Jenner.

In many ways, Trisha and my family are the anti-Caitlyn — my parents are regular, Midwestern people, living in a small, tight-knit town in Michigan, far from any urban center. I hope that audiences recognize how challenging it still is to be transgender in most of America and feel compassion for people like Trisha.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SS: Network more. My biggest joy on this festival tour has been meeting other directors — both male and female — but it’s been particularly awesome to meet other women directors and feel inspired by their drive and the breadth of their incredible work.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

SS: I created a paper-puppet science series called “Animated Life” for the New York Times Op Docs, and I do a lot of animation work for other directors, so I guess for me, it’s that I want to be a full-time animator.

I’m so happy that “From This Day Forward” has no animation in it. It was a nice break from the form for me!

I look forward to telling stories in new visual ways, including with animation, in the future, but my storytelling stands on its own, and doesn’t always need to be accompanied by animation.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SS: We began with a Kickstarter to kickstart — ha ha, sorry — the production, back when we were known as “Project Dad.” We were then very fortunate — we received funding from Fork Films, Artemis Rising Foundation, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Chicken & Egg Pictures, the Frameline Completion Fund, NYSCA, The Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and we received non-monetary support from IFP Labs and Good Pitch.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SS: I’m just in awe of the social change that Gabriela Cowperthwaite continues to inspire with her heart-wrenching film “Blackfish,” [especially] because I’m also a scuba diver and am passionate about ocean creatures and conservation.

I also loved Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” the films of Ondi Timoner and I’d be remiss to not mention my friend and producer Martha Shane’s beautiful, nuanced film, “After Tiller,” which was co-directed by the wonderfully talented Lana Wilson. 

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