By Rachel Montpelier
Women and Hollywood
Based out of Cleveland, Ohio, Laura Paglin is a producer and director who has made a name for herself by bringing the stories of marginalized communities to a worldwide audience. Paglin’s prior work includes “The Nightowls of Coventry,” “Shadow of the Swan: A Composer’s Story,” “No Umbrella: Election Day in the City,” “Facing Forward,” and “Facing Forward: A Student’s Story.” “No Umbrella” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by HBO Documentary Films, while “Facing Forward: A Student’s Story” was nationally broadcast on PBS.
“Unseen” will premiere at the 2016 DOC NYC film festival on November 11.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
LP: “Unseen” looks into how a serial killer was able to operate — almost in plain sight — killing 11 women and assaulting many more within a two year period before he was ever caught.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
LP: I live 10 minutes away from the scene of the crime, so it was hard to ignore. Initially, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute beyond what the news was already covering but, after the media frenzy died away, I realized that there was a deeper story to be told — that of the victims and the community.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
LP: I want them to think of a drug addict they might pass on the street as a human being and realize that we, as individuals, aren’t insulated from the circumstances that impacted these women. The killer, Anthony Sowell, took advantage of the attitudes already present — the idea of treating women with an addiction as non-people or as “crack heads.”
I think there’s quite a contrast with the current heroin epidemic. These addicts, many of whom are white and middle or upper class, are being treated with more compassion. Even conservative lawmakers are now imploring us to treat heroine addicts as people with an illness that need to be treated, not as criminals who need to be locked up.
Sadly, there wasn’t this same compassion for Sowell’s victims and the generations of mostly-African American families destroyed by the crack epidemic.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
LP: I think the biggest challenge was gaining access to the women who survived, as well as some of the families of the 11 victims, especially in an atmosphere where they were already being sought after by numerous tabloid news show producers.
Being a Cleveland local and unattached to a known entity such as CNN or Discovery ID made some suspicious of my intentions, I think. But as time passed and I remained after the media circus left town, I think some understood that I was serious and felt a genuine cathartic need to talk about what happened.
The other biggest challenge was pinpointing the story angle with a subject that could go in so many directions.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
LP: I applied to just about every film fund out there and was not successful. When I did get feedback, it was very critical. One reviewer said that I was “exploiting the women” and laid out what they thought the story should really be about. Another wrote that my treatment of the subject matter was “not constructive.”
I did, however, get a grant to conduct an editing workshop, so I used the film as the central project, with the participants editing together potential scenes. The workshop enabled me to bring in our fabulous editor, Nels Bangerter, to work with the apprentice editors, as well as brainstorm about the possible story structure.
Additionally, several of the workshop participants became so engrossed, they wanted to become more involved and continued to work as interns and crew members. Others who have admired my past work and saw great value in the project generously contributed their time and talents.
A pitch competition at the Paley Center yielded a $5,000 award, and $25,000 in artist fellowships from our county and state arts organizations in Ohio allowed me to devote more time on the film. Otherwise, I funded it out of paid marketing projects I was working on and, later on, Shawn Rech and co-executive producer John Fecek came in with some finishing funds and worked to acquire our sales agent, Submarine Entertainment.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at DOC NYC?
LP: It means a tremendous amount. This is a top-notch festival in the middle of a film industry-rich city, full of some of the finest documentary films, with excellent screening venues, fascinating guests, and enthusiastic audiences.
In the last few years, as the number of films being produced has soared, it’s become very, very difficult to get into festivals that now have anywhere from 5,000–10,000 entries competing for 50-100 spots.
I’ve been on festival evaluation committees and have seen many fabulous films be turned down, so I realize how lucky I am to be part of DOC NYC.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
LP: The best advice came from my editor, Nels Bangerter, who advised me from the outset to plunge very deeply into the interviews, which became more and more in depth as we went along, to raise the production values, and keep the style simple.
The worst advice didn’t come from any single person, but one thing I learned is that there will always be people who want your film to be like some other film they’ve seen — or to be the film they would like to make. So I think being clear about your theme and story is very important, and can help you filter advice from others.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
LP: To master at least some technical aspect of the craft, be it operating the camera, sound recording, or editing. I think one reason there are more low-budget films and documentaries directed by men is because they seem to have a greater mastery and, perhaps, passion for gadgets and technology. I also believe men are more confident about their talents — whether they have them or not — and are therefore better salespeople, and more successful at convincing others that their visions are “great” and that they and their projects are something worth investing in. Maybe, if you are the modest type, find someone — guy or gal — to sell you and your project. That’s all easier said than done, of course.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
LP: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but Jane Campion’s “Sweetie” really made an impression on me. I like the fact that she focused on an unglamorous woman. The film felt real and gritty and more like a documentary. All of Campion’s films have a distinct style and she’s not afraid to take risks.
W&H: Have you seen opportunities for women filmmakers increase over the last year due to the increased attention paid to the issue? If someone asked you what you thought needed to be done to get women more opportunities to direct, what would be your answer?
LP: There’s certainly been more discussion about the topic, and when I’ve been invited to speak on festival panels, it’s often the one about women directors — which, I must say, I find to be an energy-sapping downer, though no less depressing than panels on fundraising and distribution.
I have seen a few new funding initiatives specifically for female documentary directors, but the subjects usually have to be about women’s issues or about women doing positive things. That’s all well and good, but female directors should be able to direct films on any topic they want.
Overall, I think the people at the top need to step out of their comfort zones, question their choices and assumptions, and consider hiring more women and minorities to direct films in any topic or genre from “chick flicks” to action films.