April 2019’s Filmmaker of the Month
Our April 2019’s Filmmaker of the Month Jeannie Donohoe is an award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She has written and directed several short films, including GAME (screening in 100+ festivals internationally), Lambing Season (selected for over 50 film festivals and multiple awards; named one of the “Best Short Films of 2014” by Indiewire; currently airing on PBS Film School Shorts) and Public (Palm Springs ShortFest, PBS Imagemakers). Jeannie was selected from over 4,600 applicants to write and direct GAME through the Lexus Short Films program. Jeannie earned her MFA with honors in Directing from Columbia University. She attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, and also earned an MS in Education while teaching middle school in the Bronx through the Teach for America program. Jeannie is currently developing her first feature-length film.
Tell us your backstory. How and why did you get into the filmmaking?
I've been drawn to creative pursuits my whole life, so arriving at filmmaking was an accumulation of everything I've always loved. One of my earliest memories is waking up before everyone to paint along with "Captain Bob" on PBS. He was like Bob Ross, but it was a local Boston show with all under-the-sea images, which totally captured my imagination. All through growing up, I loved writing stories, playing music, and making projects with friends. I also played and watched a lot of sports. I'd get wrapped up in player and team narratives, the thrill of a close game with seconds to go, (I still do).
I studied art as an undergrad at Dartmouth. Among other disciplines, I shot a lot of photography, focusing on people and their environments in rural New England. I then joined Teach for America, a program that trains and places recent college graduates in the country's most underprivileged public schools. I taught middle school in the South Bronx, which was a profound experience that really shaped who I am and how I see the world, especially the unique power of young people. After working in education for several years, I wanted to return to personal and creative work, and to tell stories inspired by some of the experiences I've had. I went to film school at Columbia, where I made a short film called Public about a teacher and a student one day after school. I later shot my thesis film, Lambing Season, on a sheep farm in Ireland. The climax of that film involves a sheep giving birth to a lamb, which was an exhilarating challenge to film. I entered that movie into the Lexus Short Films competition, a program that supports up-and-coming filmmakers, and I was selected as one of four filmmakers out of 4600 applicants, to write and direct my new short film, GAME.
What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?
The emotional experience I have watching a film is really the test for me, which usually derives from emotional truth in the performances and storytelling. Great films have an ability to move me and to expand my thinking and my sense of what it means to be alive. That impact takes a lot of different forms -- humor, heartache, pathos, thrill, visual and sensory brilliance, an ability to experience something or somewhere new. Films that stick with me also usually have something powerful to say, beyond the plot.
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
So many filmmakers inspire me and influence the work I've made and dream of making. I watch a pretty wide range of media -- foreign, art house, docs, classics, blockbusters, TV and web series. I'm most interested in naturalism and sincerely told, human stories.
Some examples of my favorite filmmakers and films include: Andrea Arnold (Wasp, Fish Tank), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son, Nobody Knows), Jane Campion (The Water Diary and the Top of the Lake series), the Dardenne Brothers (The Son, The Promise, The Child), Kelly Reichardt (Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station), Lynne Ramsay (Gasman, Ratcatcher), Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids are All Right), Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), Amanda Kernell (Sami Blood), Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, the film and the series), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), and classics from Wilder, Nichols, Akerman, Kurosawa, Coppola, Kazan, Varda, Erice, Melville, and Altman.
What’s harder? Getting started or being able to keep going? And what drives you to continue making films?
For me, it’s always been harder to get started on a new project (or even, several years ago now, to find the pursuit of filmmaking after a winding path) than to keep going. Once I’m in a project, the momentum builds and my attention and investment are sustained by the adrenaline and excitement of bringing the story to life in the best way possible. In a parallel to filmmaking, I’ve run several marathons. In my creative work, I think of myself as more of a marathon runner than a sprinter. I am driven to continue making films because I do really love the process and the ability to express myself in this multi-sensory format. It was a relief to me a little over a decade ago, to finally find the thing I wanted to do with my life, so even in my most challenging times, I do really feel that I’m doing something I love. I hope to have a long, engaging career in this field.
How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?
I’ve heard the expression that nothing’s ever necessarily “finished,” but rather, we just decide to stop or move to the next step. I think that pertains to writing drafts, shooting, and editing. There’s always more you could do, always new directions you could take something. But when you decide that something’s complete – that it says what you want it to say – I think that’s the form of closure you hope to organically arrive at. Sometimes (usually!) there are time or resource constraints beyond your control as well, and you have to accept that you’ll do the best you can within the given parameters. The big tests for me are whether something is clear, and whether I feel moved as a viewer. If these aren’t in place, I can’t reasonably expect to express my ideas or move anyone else.
How many films have you completed? What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?
I made a number of short films and exercises in film school and beyond, but I consider three short films (Public, Lambing Season, and GAME) to be the main work that I’ve sent out into the world. It’s hard to pick a favorite—I have a soft spot for each project (and I certainly see the flaws, or lessons, in each as well!) Publicand Lambing Seasonwere made on shoestring budgets with tiny crews of my close friends and collaborators – real labors of love. GAMEwas a much bigger, studio-level production with over 100 people involved and a much bigger budget and scope. I loved conceiving of a story on that scale and directing at that higher level. It was a leap for me professionally. But all three films are very close to my heart.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I’d say that across the board, my personal life experiences have been the inspiration for my films. None of the stories is exactly or literally autobiographical, but they all draw from experiences in my life, emotional truths, and striking moments when I’ve had profound realizations, growth, or turning points.
With Public, my years of teaching in a public middle school in the Bronx were the inspiration for the script and all the details of directing it. In Lambing Season, my Irish heritage and family, travels in the West coast of Ireland, and some specific personal experiences were the inspiration for the story. For GAME, I’d played a lot of sports growing up and I'm a big fan of basketball--I love the game and all the human narratives that surround it. I've also had a lifetime of experiences feeling and observing the world's troubling inequalities between women and men. I wanted to talk about gender constraints and possibilities, but to do it within an entertaining sports film with a twist. In addition to my actual life experiences, I’m also inspired by other work that I see, whether it’s a film in theaters or a friend’s courage or sincerity in a script.
What is your favorite aspect of film production?
The biggest joy I experience in film production is collaborating with a talented and committed group of people in the cast and crew, whether it’s 15 friends on Publicand Lambing Season’s productions, or 100+ professionals on the set of GAME. I really enjoy and learn so much from the teamwork.
For example, the cast of GAME– 35 young basketball players, NBA Champion Rick Fox, and veteran actors – was inspiring to be around and learn from, let alone direct in an action-packed, theme-fueled story like that. The crew was also super talented, and it was mostly women in the key roles, which made for a unique set.
Additionally, one of the most rewarding, ongoing aspects of making films has been sharing the stories with audiences and hearing all kinds of people respond to the work. People come up to me a lot after a screening and tell me how much the story meant to them, or they share their personal stories of overcoming obstacles like the lead characters. It's been very meaningful to connect with audiences through screeningthe work.
Why did you choose to submit to the Breckenridge Film Festival? What do you look for in a festival where you hope to show your film?
A family friend named Sharon Koblinsky lives in Silverthorne, and she’s been a big supporter of my work for years. She told me about Breckenridge Film Festival and how great a community it is, and I was instantly excited to submit. Sharon, my mother and my aunt all came out to the festival with me to celebrate the screening, watch a ton of films, and explore the gorgeous region together. We had a blast!
One of the main things I look for in a film festival is community engagement. It’s very gratifying to have a packed audience of local film lovers who connect with the work and share their own experiences. It’s also great to meet other filmmakers and see exciting work that you might not be able to see elsewhere. Breckenridge Film Festival packed the house and brought so many great movies and filmmakers to town – it was an amazing experience! We also had a terrific film liaison at BFF, Neil Groundwater (and his wife Beth) who personalized the experience and made the logistics so easy – and that was on top of an extremely well-run operation with thorough communication and filmmaker support.
You are a collaborator. Did you make any connections at the Breckenridge Film Festival that have led to collaborations with other filmmakers?
I met so many awesome filmmakers at the festival! I’ve continued to see some of them and their films at other festivals, which is both fun and great in terms of building a community of artists.
Can you describe the business behind independent filmmaking and how you are trying to get your film seen?
I had a rare opportunity with GAME to be able to write and direct a short, independent film that had a studio-level production and a lot of support. That said however, the efforts to get the film seen have been largely the same as with my other films. Submitting to film festivals and promoting and attending screenings has been a big priority and commitment of time and personal finances. Having the film online (on Amazon, YouTube, and Lexus’s website as well as Vimeo and GAME’s social media pages) has also yielded a lot of international views and engagement. I’m still working regularly on our social media campaigns (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) to spread the news of screenings and awards.
We’ve been honored and thrilled to have a long, wonderful festival run, playing in nearly 200 film fests around the world and winning over 60 awards. I try to attend as many festivals as possible to make the personal connection with audiences in the Q&A’s. Some of the festivals have been geared towards children or women or sports content, so there’s often a unique take among different audiences. I’ve also screened the film as an invited guest at a few schools (Cal Poly State University, Pratt Institute, Barnard College, and the Bronx middle school where I formerly taught, Community Intermediate School 303). It’s been terrific to share the project with film students, among our many other audiences.
What are the next project or projects you are beginning work on?
One of the exciting things about sharing GAME with audiences is that people keep saying they want to see more from these characters and the story. It's great to hear that, because I've been working on a feature-length story related to GAME, which I plan to direct as my first feature. I also recently wrote a feature-length script entitled Flock, which is set in Ireland and builds on the story of my short film Lambing Season.
if there is one or more thing you think would make the film industry better, what would it be?
There’s been some recent movement on the diversity front in terms of access to opportunities and a valuing of lesser-seen stories, but there’s still a very long way to go. Statistics of women and people of color working in the top tiers of the industry continue to expose longstanding problems. I would like to see much more variety and diversity of voices in storytellers and stories -- to see the pool open up in terms of who's able to get work out there and who’s making decisions in every aspect of the industry, from financing to hiring to writing film reviews. Equitable representation in positions of power is critical if we hope to see true and lasting change.
Additionally, in this media-saturated time, I also admire the people and companies who are prioritizing bettercontent over morecontent. I’d love to see more high-quality, uncompromising, original work.