Sarah Menzies

Filmmaker of the Month - July 2019

 Our June 2019 Filmmaker of the Month is Sarah Menzies. Menzies has been a freelance videographer and filmmaker since 2010, and she founded the production company Let Media in 2012. Her short documentary films, including The Mirnavator (Director/Editor, 2017), A Steelhead Quest (Director/Editor, 2017), and Catch It (Director/Producer, 2014) have screened at festivals such as Mountainfilm in Telluride, CO, Banff Mountain Film Festival, Port Townsend Film Festival, Wild and Scenic Film Festival and many others. Her work has allowed her to venture into wild spaces to bring back amazing stories of strength, courage, and passion that highlight our common humanity. Seeking personal character-driven stories, Sarah's films showcase the good that exists in the world, illustrating to audiences that everyone is capable of creating positive change. Menzies made her feature length documentary directorial debut at the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival with Afghan Cycles.



Filmmaker Interview with Sarah Menzies

Tell us your backstory.  How and why did you get into the filmmaking? 

I studied Broadcasting and Political Science in college, which taught me how to film and edit. However, after graduating my career took a bit of a zig-zag path. I got into environmental nonprofit work, which brought me down to the Gulf during the oil spill in 2010. When I was there, it all clicked. If I were filming it, I could actually *show* people what was going on down there, and they would in turn get it and want to do something about it. It was there that I began to understand the impact of film, so I basically came home from that experience, quit my job, and dove head first into making films and videos.

What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?

Ultimately it comes down to story. Yes, there are a lot of fun filming toys out there and plenty of pressure to be shooting on the newest, nicest gear. But at the end of the day, none of that matters if you aren’t telling a good story.

What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?

In the doc world, so many are flooding my brain right now. But one of the most inspiring films I’ve seen recently is TransMilitary. It’s a great example of the impact character driven documentaries can have. It’s so relevant, so important, and the individuals profiled in it are truly changing the world, and telling their story is certainly changing audiences perspective on the issues addressed. In the narrative world, which is something I hope to do someday soon, my all time favorite film is Joe vs the Volcano. I know that probably sounds like a joke, but I absolutely love the mix of humor, existentialism, and overall quirkiness of the movie.

What’s harder? Getting started or being able to keep going? And what drives you to continue making films?

Wow! This one just cut me to the core – I generally don’t have an answer to that because, like all filmmakers, I have struggled with both. Right now I will say that it’s harder to get started. Perhaps that’s because after making my first feature length documentary, I now know what I’m actually getting myself into. It was so easy to start Afghan Cycles, and looking back, that’s probably because I had no clue about the challenges that laid ahead for me and the film. Keeping that up for 5 years was really difficult, and damn-near killed me. Certainly took every dime I had. But I had made a commitment to the characters, and there was no way I could tell them that I was unable to finish the film. So as challenging as it was through the years, there was never a choice as to whether or not I would finish it. I told them I would, so come hell or highwater, that film was getting done. So no that I’ve gone through the full process and am back at the beginning, I'm really struggling to start all over again with a clean slate. But I’m almost there, I just needed catch my breath a little after wrapping that.

How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?

That’s a hard one. I’m not sure you ever really know, but you have to listen to your gut, and the gut of the team you’ve surrounded yourself with. I thought after numerous productions on Afghan Cycles that we were finished, but then something else would happen that I knew was important to include. Truth is, we could have kept filming that story for 10 more years and still felt like there was more to tell. But at some point you need to reassess what your story is, what is you’re trying to say – what are you characters saying – and share it with the world before it gets to be too much for them to grasp.

How many films have you completed? What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?

8-10 I would say. And that’s mostly short films with one feature doc, Afghan Cycles. Picking a favorite is always really difficult, it’s like picking your favorite child. Each one is so different from the one that came before it, and each one has taught me so much. Gosh, truly I’m going through and making a case for each film and writing out why it’s my favorite, then delete it when I think about another one. I suppose I should just say Afghan Cycles. I worked on it for 5 years, it’s completely changed my perspective of the role bicycles play in gender equality, the women profiled inspired me with their passion and courage, and I am beyond grateful for everything I learned on that film, from start to finish.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

The passion that lives inside of people. That seems to the consistent theme in my work, and I can't say it was intentional. But the parallel in each of the characters in my films is their intense passion for what they are doing. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt passion like that, so perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to it. And I believe it’s having that kind of passion that can truly change the world for the better, so I’m always excited to do my part in giving these passionate individuals a platform to shout their message from. 

What is your favorite aspect of film production? 

Being on production is definitely my favorite part. I love connecting with people, experiencing a new place and culture, and building the trust that is required to tell an impactful character driven film. Having a camera in my hands is when I feel most creative. While I do often edit my work, I love bringing in an editor when I can to bounce ideas off of. I don’t think that part of it comes as naturally to me and collaborating with creative people I trust makes all the difference.

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?

Truthfully I submitted because one of our producers, Shannon Galpin, lives in the area and wanted a hometown screening. I am so grateful we did because now I most certainly will submit many more film to the festival in the future. There are a variety of things I look for in festivals, but overall what I love most are the festivals that are accessible to the community in which they are a part of. I want to feel the pulse of the community when I’m there and be able to interact with them. That’s really exciting and it personalizes what we’re trying to do which is share stories with people outside of our personal networks.

You are a collaborator. Did you make any connections at the Breckenridge Film Festival that have led to collaborations with other filmmakers?

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the festival, but this inspiring me to make it happen next time I’ve got a film there!

Can you describe the business behind independent filmmaking and how you are trying to get your film seen?

Honestly, it’s a tricky industry and I wish it wasn’t as difficult as it is. One thing worth noting is that you’ll make a film following one “road map” but then your next one will take a completely different path. The best advice I can give is to keep talking with other filmmakers to hear what has worked with them and soak up as much knowledge as you can about the industry. My work is unique in that a lot of the shorts I make has a brand associated with it. When it’s finished and ready to be shared, there is a built in distribution channel with their audience. With films like Afghan Cycles, we signed with a distributor which has helped significantly in getting the film seen. But at the end of the day, a lot of the marketing comes down to you and your team. You need to be able to create a little buzz for it so people want to watch it once it’s available.

What are the hurdles you have had to overcome in order to recoup the costs of producing the film?

This is certainly an obstacle. I ended up putting a lot of my own money into Afghan Cycles to get it finished, and I knew I may never recoup all of those funds. But getting it finished and out there made it worth it. I was still doing my freelance film work during that, so I could still be paying myself during that time. But now that it’s finished, I’m trying to get back what I can as well as pay back our investors. Community screenings are a great way to do – you have created something you poured yourself, and your money into, so charge screening fees. Our distributor is also the one that’s made it available On-Demand, working through broadcast deals, getting it on college campuses, etc and all of that really helps in back-paying myself and my crew for the work we’ve put into it.

What are the next project or projects you are beginning work on?

I’ve got a few things going on. Because the thought of another feature doc is still daunting, I’m taking on a lot of freelance work now, making short films for clients and bringing their vision to life. But I am starting to dip my toes back into story mining for the next one. I’m feeling drawn to something environmental because it’s such an import issue at the moment that we can’t afford to waste any more time on. I’d like to have an impact there with a film and have been in early talks with colleagues about what that could look like. I’m also in the early stages of writing a script for a narrative piece – I'm eager to give that format a try.

If there is one more thing you think would make the film industry better, what would it be?

Simply put, the independent film industry would be so much better if there was more money going around for people to do this work. We’re all applying for the same grants, approaching the same people for funding. If that element expanded, there would be even more amazing content out there if creatives didn’t have to worry about their financial stability.