This is the first in a new series entitled “Filmmaker Forum” in which we catch up with directors from past festivals.
Since his documentary “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J Keith” received its New England Premiere as the Opening Night film at the 2016 MNFF (and also won the VTeddy for Best Documentary Film), director Jesse Nesser has been busy. We discussed his collaboration with Ford Motors, his love for documentary filmmaking and the utility of foot-long beards.
MNFF: Can you tell us more about this collaboration with Ford?
JN: I’m developing a new series with them [Ford Motors also supported the production of“Walk With Me”]. This [will be] an interview series in the master class style of filming, cinematically filmed interviews with people who have incredible stories to tell. The main point is to hear who you want to hear speaking about what [they’re interested in], but film it super cinematically. This will be a super intimate project; we have Civil Rights leaders, sports stars, musicians. We’re starting the first episode with the Tuskegee Airmen and we have committed two of the 14 living pilots. It will be their point of view entirely, no narrative, just like “Walk with Me.”
The project was Ford’s idea – they called me wanting to do something about Andrew Young, a civil rights leader, the former mayor of Atlanta, the first black ambassador to the U.S. and the first man to reach Martin Luther King Jr’s body after he was shot. We were going to speak with him first, but he’s now in the hospital and had to cancel all media appearances. Now the Tuskegee Airmen are slotted for episode one. These guys are incredible. One guy is 93 and one is 96. Really incredible people and incredible pilots. The exact type of project i’d like to be doing after “Walk with Me.”
MNFF: Master classes seems to be a popular form right now.
JN: Yeah, totally; David Letterman recently released his series on Netflix. This whole master class thing has been super popular. David Letterman is a lot more exciting to look at than me, though, so I’m working on that.
MNFF: Guess you’ve got to grow a foot long beard.
JN: Yeah, I’m on it! In 8 years I might be close.
The other thing we’re developing is a series about the Shakespeare in Prison program that’s based in the Detroit Public Theater (DPT) and led by the incredible Frannie Shepherd-Bates. She started at DPT and decided to merge theater with public action, so she founded this program of directing Shakespeare shows – the authentic Old English stuff – and casting only inmates from maximum security prisons in Detroit. This year it’s an all women’s prison and for the first time they’re doing a comedy: Twelfth Night. We’re getting closer to getting the permission, and once we do we hope to film a theater season of Shakespeare in Prison. You see these inmates transform from having their prisoner status as the only thing uniting them into a cohesive, professional theater troupe. It will be the first time this kind of access will be given to a Michigan prison. Right now I’m in the process of looking for producers and directors for that.
MNFF: Many of your films seem politically charged. Could you talk about that?
JN: When it comes to a project like “Walk With Me” — a movie that is about a central figure — you do everything possible to keep it authentic. I try to keep my own politics out of it. If Judge Keith’s politics and mine didn’t align, there were different types of documentary I could use — exposé, personal statement — but that wasn’t necessary. This project aimed to give Judge Keith a platform to tell his own story in his own way. I didn’t want my beliefs to come through other than creatively. I directed and edited the movie so I put my stamp on it. I didn’t need to say anything else. There might be other projects where the foundation is different in which case it would be more appropriate for me to insert my own voice in filming, but that call is so case by case.
MNFF: Have you intentionally built an identity as a documentary filmmaker?
JN: I love making documentary films. Growing up I never liked documentary films. I always associated them with what the teacher would play when they were out and you were stuck with the substitute. Even today I’ll see more narratives than I will documentaries. But when it comes to the making docs, there’s something special about meeting people and getting involved in real stories. I love becoming a mini expert on a topic. It’s like taking all of the electives you wish you could take in college. One day I hope to do a narrative project, but i’m not in a rush to do that. [For narrative], you have to be with the right people in the right place with the right script. It’s harder to have a successful startup narrative film. I will say that documentary has come a long way from when I hated the genre in school. Now you see documentaries borrowing techniques from narratives and narratives borrowing from documentaries. There is no longer a formula for documentaries the way there once was. Now you can be totally creative and original with documentary filmmaking.
MNFF: What are the biggest lessons of documentary filmmaking and what would you say to a budding documentary filmmaker?
JN: When you think you have a topic you’ve fallen in love with, take extra time to talk about it with people you trust and people you don’t know. I’ve had ideas that I thought were great and the more I talked about them I realized I was the only one who found them interesting. As much as documentary filmmaking is a passion project, think of where your work can go before you start making it. Sit down and think about what type of audience it might suit, where it might screen and don’t feel afraid to approach those places while you’re making the movie.
We did that with the Traverse City Film Festival [led by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore]. We knew it was a Michigan festival and this was a Michigan movie. We reached out to them and told them we were making a movie about Judge Keith and that we thought it would be a great film to premier at TCFF. We built a dialogue with that festival before even wrapping. If you can bring someone on board who focuses on what to do once you’ve made the movie, that’s a key producer to have. We focused on the making of “Walk with Me” and needed to find somebody who could focus on what to do after we made it.
MNFF: Are there any particular tips you would have for filmmakers attending MNFF this year?
JN: First tip would be to come, second would be to come and third would be to come. I not only came as a filmmaker, but I’m coming every year as a fan. MNFF is that kind of film festival. Take advantage of every networking event. Go see a ton of films. Eat at Two Brothers Tavern. MNFF was designed so you don’t have to make choices between seeing movies and going to networking events. That’s what I think is really smart. At other festivals you network and miss out on a ton of docs or you go to a documentary and miss out on networking. MNFF is an intimate festival and the people there will advance your careers. It’s the perfect combination. I have attended a lot of festivals and Middlebury is still one of my favorites when it comes to most things, networking especially. I’m still in contact with a lot of filmmakers I met at this festival. Who knows? You could find your next director, director of photography, producer. Hopefully you come out of MNFF with great friends and maybe even a new crew.
Catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Walk With Me team below.