Over a period of nine months, Goosenberg Kent and the film’s producer, Dana Perry, along with their film crew, filmed at the National Veterans Crisis Line, the only suicide hotline dedicated exclusively to U.S. veterans. They spent long days filming responders as they fielded calls from veterans in crisis and on the verge of suicide. Rather than feature interviews with veterans and their families, the filmmakers presented the subject matter in cinema verite style through “overheard” conversations — where viewers can only hear the responder’s side. The result is the Academy Award-nominated HBO short documentary “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.”
Indiewire recently spoke with multiple Emmy Award-winning director Goosenberg Kent about how she managed to gain such amazing access, logistical challenges and the film’s connection to “American Sniper.”
How did you get such incredible access?
We had to ask the responders for permission. Then we had to promise that we wouldn’t make an effort to record the phone call or to pursue any of the callers in any way for a follow-up or reveal any identifying information about the caller. We had a written agreement with the hotline — that’s how we would operate.
The understanding was we would have access to one side of the call and only with the folks who agreed to work with us. So when we arrived to start filming, we didn’t know that the film would work. We weren’t positive that we were actually going to be able to make a successful film.
We got some seed money to go and work [at the crisis center] for a couple of days. We sat down with a large group of responders and emergency rescue coordinators in their lunch room. We told them that we thought they were doing life-saving work. With the suicide statistics and the crisis that was out there, we wanted to do everything we could to raise awareness about the hotline and raise awareness about the magnitude of the problem — and to do everything that we could to create a situation where we might be able to help de-stigmatize reaching out for help.
Over time, we found that certain responders and technicians, there was something about their way of communicating that was communicating also to the camera. They became our go-to people. Because at the beginning, when we got there, there were 100 people on phones. We couldn’t cover them all. You’re walking around doing your best – I’d be walking around with the camera and Dana, the producer, would also be canvassing, listening, eavesdropping, whatever word you want to use. We’d go to each other and say, “This seems like an important call about to start. Let’s film this.”
How did you know how long the film should be? It’s long for a short.
It was organic primarily because at the point at which HBO decided to go forward with us, they said, “Let’s try for a feature length documentary,” because that’s the goal always. You want to at least get to an hour. We had a longer film and we had some elements in the film that are no longer in the film. We had gone home with one of the responders to see what that was like. Did it make sense to open [the film] up? We had more interviews and personal material and more explanation of the calls post-call.
As we watched it, we started to pare things away. It felt like it should be pure. It felt like it should be essentially what it’s like at the hotline, even though it wasn’t one typical day. The film overall should give a sense of what it’s like to be there, what it’s like to be a responder who picks up the phone all day and never knows what he or she is going to encounter. The more we became faithful to that notion, the more we edited, the shorter the film started to get.
Honestly, we knew that it was emotionally powerful, but we also knew that the imagination of the viewer can only go so far. We’re already asking the viewer to stay with us and to only hear one side of a conversation. They pretty quickly would quickly realize they would never hear the caller. How much of that visual repetitiveness could a person stick with us even given the extraordinary compassion of the responders and their brilliance in handling the situation. How much of that can you sustain? Honestly, it turned out to be the length it turned out to be. Then we said, “Alright, it’s a short film. Let’s embrace that.”
Was the length of the film a concern in terms of marketability and the general challenge of finding distribution for short films?
We thought about how could it be out there? How could it be more widely seen? Could it work at a festival that had short documentaries? Though it’s long, maybe it could play in front of a feature-length documentary. In the end, none of that could have been what determined the length of the films. Sometimes it can — you make a film a certain length because it’s important to do that. You’re looking for a foreign distributor or you’re going to have a broadcast and it needs to be “X” for commercial breaks. But, in the end, HBO was completely supportive of it being the length that is warranted and that it would be a better film that way. We’re so happy because we agree. Now, because of the Oscars, we have a chance to have it be seen by more people. That’s been the extraordinary gift of the nomination.
There’s been talk about your film as the unofficial companion piece to “American Sniper.” Do you think it presents a more realistic take on PTSD disorder among veterans?
With a short documentary, it can only help when a major feature film is breaking box office records and deals with the same broad subject matter. To the extent that “American Sniper” shows the experiences and emotions of family members when a veteran returns from war and is alienated and emotionally estranged, it brings attention to this reality for many veterans and a greater understanding. It sensitizes more people to the human costs of war, the plight of veterans struggling to readjust and how the rest of us can make a difference. Our film does have a different lens since it focuses on veterans in crisis from the point of view of the heroic people on the front lines trying to help them through a rough time. But opening up this conversation and people’s eyes is the amazing outcome of having a Clint Eastwood directed feature, starring Bradley Cooper nominated in the same year as our documentary.
What would it mean to win the Oscar? Or do you not allow yourself to go there?
It’s so hard to think about that. The only thing I can say is that If we were lucky enough to win, it raises the profile of the film, which, at the same time, raises the profile of the call center. Last week, Obama passed a bill to increase funding for suicide prevention, etc. There’s momentum there. Maybe the film could be seen more widely by decision makers. We didn’t really make a political film. I honestly feel in my heart we made it for families. We wanted the families of veterans and active duty members to know that there was a place to turn — because it’s so hard to handle these situations when you’re emotionally involved. We made it for the families and for veterans and to some degree, anyone in the field or anyone who cares about veterans.