Humans constantly have experiences. These experiences help shape who we are; each experience is woven together to create a sort of fabric that can be explained to others through stories to build connections to one another. Annie O’Neil underwent such a life altering experience in 2008 when she answered the call of documentary filmmaker, Lydia Smith, and became a pilgrim and co-producer of Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. The Camino de Santiago is a several hundred-mile pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried.
Through Annie’s experience walking the Camino de Santiago, her story was told as part of the documentary Walking the Camino: Six Way to Santiago, in which various pilgrims attempted to cross an entire country on foot with only a backpack, a pair of boots and an open mind. After completion of this documentary, Annie wrote a book, Everyday Camino with Annie, further telling her story of the journey that challenged her very existence.
By sharing her story, Annie was contacted by Phil Volker in Seattle. Phil is a free-spirited man with stage 4 cancer who builds a Camino behind his house before walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. In meeting Phil, Annie realized that she was writing her book for him and people like him, and set forth to direct and produce his incredible journey in the documentary Phil’s Camino.
Please join the Breck Film Fest in welcoming Annie O’Neil as April’s Filmmaker of the Month as we highlight an artist that exemplifies the art of storytelling.
Tell us your backstory. How and why did you get into the filmmaking?
I originally came to LA to be an actress, and I still act whenever I have the opportunity. However, much of life as an actress is down time, so I started making little films for my nephews I had left behind in NY in my downtime. I didn't want them to forget me, so I would get all my fellow out of work cameramen etc. together and we would make short films. Mostly they were pretty mundane: putting oil in my car, lighting my barbeque and cooking something on it, etc. Just little films to share my life in LA with them. When I would go back to visit, my nephews would have watched them so many times they memorized them! This led to my making a series for kids called "A Day with Annie"... I had three episodes finished the first year: "A Day with Annie on the Farm", "A Day with Annie at the Circus", and "A Day with Annie in the Sky" (all about airplanes). Then in 2008, I heard from an old friend who was a documentary filmmaker, asking if I had ever heard of the Camino de Santiago. I had, and that phone conversation led to me being co-producer and featured pilgrim in the award winning feature documentary "Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago". That was the film that Phil Volker and his wife saw and contacted me. Once I heard that Phil had made his own Camino in his backyard, I had to meet him, so I went up to Seattle and walked his backyard Camino. The rest is history! We had our World Premiere at SXSW in 2016, and screened at about 25 festivals since then, winning awards at 16 of them. The Breckenridge Film Festival was one of my favorites!
What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?
What makes a film great for me is 1) story and 2) surprise. There are so many great stories out there, and I like to hear one that I haven't heard before, hopefully told in a new and inspiring way. I love a story that surprises me! I don't always need to have a happy ending, but for sure I like a surprise ending.
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
One of the most influential films I ever saw was the documentary by Michael Apted, "28 Up". I remember sitting in my seat after the film was over thinking "I didn't know a film could DO that!!!" On the festival circuit this past year I saw a film called "Ayiti Mon Amour" ("Haiti My Love") that blew me away. A similar moment for me, thinking about how different a film was, and once again, "I didn't know a film could DO that!!!" I find myself thinking about that film over and over, and it has had an influence on a new screenplay that I am writing.
What are the next project or projects you are beginning work on?
I had the great honor and pleasure of being invited to the White House last year as part of AFI's filmmaker's summit. They gave us an inspiring speech just before we left, to go out and tell our stories as only filmmakers can. The next morning I woke up and wrote down the idea for a film. I shot it in August and am completing editing on it now. It is very short (only about 2 minutes) and is called "Dear Congress". It is a bunch of little kids sharing with congress about how to get along. I hope everyone likes it! I am also moderating storytelling panels at film festivals. I was in one last year at the Port Townsend Film Festival and it is such a great addition to film festivals. After all, filmmakers are just storytellers! The panels are very popular and feel like a great addition to film festivals.
Can you describe the business behind independent filmmaking and how you are trying to get your film seen?
I feel like a whole lot of independent filmmaking is raising money. That is not my favorite thing to do, but it is necessary. I was fortunate to have written a book, Everyday Camino with Annie, and I used that in my fundraising a lot. I was able to funnel all book sales into Phil's Camino, and that helped. Still, a portion of all book sales of my book go towards Phil's Camino, as there are ongoing costs. As we move into finishing an hour long (for TV) version, big costs are coming up so I find myself in fundraising mode again. I am even planning a tour in Spain, a 'pampered Camino' in the Fall to help with costs. As for getting the film seen, I continue to figure out ways of getting it seen. If anyone has any ideas, I am open to suggestions! Once the hour long version is done then I will package an educational version, which will be for institutions and organizations and that may increase numbers of people who can see it. Until then, I have it for sale on my website, Phil's Camino.