Jennifer Redfearn thought she’d be finishing her film in a homeless shelter. Instead, she’s making her way to the red carpet.Name: Jennifer Redfearn
Location: New York, NY
Why we care: In June 2008, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn came across a story about the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands near Papua New Guinea, and was shocked to learn that the people were among the first in world being displaced by climate change. Rising oceans were engulfing their island and contaminating their fresh water, forcing the inhabitants to seek new homes.
“I thought, ‘I have a background in environmental science and journalism, and if I didn’t know this was happening, then probably a lot of other people don’t know this,'” she says. “It struck me as an incredibly compelling story to tell.”
Redfearn set out to document the islanders’ story on film, and produced her first independent documentary, Sun Come Up. She’s now headed for the red carpet this week — Sun Come Up is nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Documentary Short” category.
After you heard about what was happening to the Carteret Islanders, how did you initially get funding for the film?
I contacted the Pulitzer centre On Crisis Reporting, and they liked it because they were doing a whole series on climate change. That was how I got some of the funds to actually go there. I didn’t know if this was going to be a five-minute piece, or something much larger. There’s no electricity on the island, and no phones, so there wasn’t a way for me to communicate with the families on the island. It wasn’t until I got there and started filming that I realised that this was going to be a longer story.
How did you figure out a budget, and the amount of money needed to complete the film?
With independent filmmaking, it’s really just how much money you can get. That’s the reality of it, but there are some hard costs like getting out to the islands. Luckily my co-producer, and now fiance [co-producer Tim Metzger], is a cinematographer, and between the two of us, we have a lot of skills. Initially we had no money, and did this on a shoe-string budget. And we did it with two backpacks and solar panels to charge our camera batteries, and just enough money to get out there and sustain ourselves and get back. We shot over 120 hours, and later realised that this was a much longer project. I realised that I needed to raise significant funds to edit the film, and hire a composer — all the things that re needed to finish a film.
I’m guessing the Pulitzer grant wasn’t enough to do all of that.
I was pulling from my own savings to get this film done. The Pulitzer centre funded the travel, but the for the rest of the film, I had to pull from my own bank account.
How did manage to pay your own bills, and take money from your bank account to finish the film?
It was incredibly stressful. When we returned in 2008, that was the height of the financial crisis, and I figured, ‘OK, I’ll go out and make this film, and then I’ll return and do freelance work on the side and finish the film on my spare time.’ But it was really difficult to find freelance work. So 2009 was a really slim year. I didn’t go out, and I lived on very little. I was able to pick up some freelance work, but it was grim. I remember saying at one point to Tim, ‘I think I’m going to be producing this film from a homeless shelter.’ It got pretty dirty. It got scary.
Do you have student loans?
Yes, and I had to put a lot of them on hold. So, I mean, I also felt like having Tim’s support was amazing. He was someone who believed in the project, and he also came on board, and started putting his own resources into it, and that was helpful. It was hard. It was one of the most economically challenging things I had to do.
How did you overcome the financial challenges?
I applied to every grant possible. I talked to people constantly. I was driven by this story, and driven by the need to finish it. We’ve learned all this, and met these incredibly kind people, and have been with them for six and a half weeks, and my biggest fear would be coming home and have nothing happening with this film. I couldn’t let that happen. I worked the phones, I went to every single event I could afford, or get into, and talked to everyone I knew. Abby Disney came on board as an executive producer, and helped our project enormously. We wouldn’t have made it this far without her help and support.
Initially I got a lot of rejections, but then people slowly started to notice the project, and I slowly started getting grants. The first larger grant was from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), and it was a significant grant, and once we got that, I knew we were going to make it. It was just enough to get everything going.
I also heard that you used the crowdfunding site, Kickstarter.
So the NYSCA grant got us into the edit, and at that point, I was picking up more freelance work, so it was great. We were using the funds to help us finish the film. Chicken and Egg [a non-profit production company] got us further along in the edit, and then Kickstarter was our last push. We were pre-selling DVDs to finish the film, and we needed a certain amount to get to the finish line. I think we raised $14,000 on Kickstarter.
So, it’s true? It’s hard to get money to make documentary films?
Yes. Unless you are independently wealthy, or have made several films and have already made a name for yourself, it is incredibly difficult to finance independent films. And I know a lot of people that have made serious sacrifices to get their films to the finish line, or people who work years on a film just to get it to the point to where they can finish it. It’s hard.
Does working as documentary filmmaker allow to you save traditionally? Would you like to own a house someday?
I also freelance. I’ve been doing work for MediaStorm, and I’ve been there quite consistently since June. So I had steady freelance work for a long time. Usually other people have some other thing that they’re doing while working on their films. Some documentarians will do commercial work, and will get paid very well to make commercials, and then they will make docs in-between. It’s certainly isn’t as lucrative. I’d like to own a house someday, but I can’t imagine it. I don’t have health insurance. Like, I’m just getting health insurance right now.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go down a similar career path?
You have to be resilient in the face of rejection because, you will get rejected. All good projects get rejected at some point so you just have to find a way to keep moving forward, and not let that become an obstacle. Sometimes it’s because funders like your project but they want to see it in a later phase. They see something there, but want to see it get a little further along. So don’t take rejection personally. Be resourceful and look at alternative sources of funding. Kickstarter is a great example of that. It’s great because you can use Kickstarter to raise funds, but also to build your audience. People who support your project early on will certainly want to see your finished project. And you have to collaborate. I found a lot of people who was interested in Sun Come Up, but I found two main collaborators who believed in the project.
How did Sun Come Up get the attention of the Academy?
For the Academy, there’s this entire process you have to go through to qualify. The first process of qualifying is that it has to screen in a theatre in New York or L.A. for a week, and it has to be listed in one of the local well-known newspapers, listing the times that it’s screening. So it’s very particular. There’s a local organisation, International Documentary Association (IDA) that has a documentary showcase, and they put short films into theatres after a selective process. Our first step was to get accepted into that showcase, and we did, and it was amazing — we were completely surprised that we got that far.
From there, you have to send all of your stuff to the Academy to make sure it qualifies, and then it goes to voters, and they vote on a short list. And then we made the short list, which, we were amazed and surprised! And then the next step is the nomination. To vote you have to see all of the films in the theatre, because it’s a different experience if you were to watch it on a DVD. There was a two-month wait, and then we got the nomination. I was able to put it out my mind the whole time, but now it’s real, and so surreal.
You’re also using the attention from the Academy to raise some money to build homes for the Carteret Islanders.
In collaboration with our partners at Chicken and Egg, we came up with the idea for a house-raising plan. The islanders are incredibly resourceful. They are taking matters in their own hands and we thought, how could we support that? Some of the support they’ve received is for other programs, but for the actual building of houses, they haven’t received very much support, so we thought, well this would be a great way for the support to happen. The idea is threefold: To raise awareness of climate change and forced displacement, to raise funds for the Carteret community, and the third thing is to literally raise the roof and build some houses. [Ed. note: Learn more about house-raising campaign here.]
What are you going to say if you win the Academy Award this weekend? Do you have a speech prepared?
I think you have to! We went to the Oscar luncheon, and they talked to us about what people find interesting and engaging, and they’re actually going to send us this DVD that you can practice with. It’s what you’ll see when you’re up there, and has time disappearing. You have 45 seconds.
I have to ask this: Do you know what you’re going to wear?
I don’t know yet! I have no idea. I hope some generous designer will donate a gown for me, because I’d really like to get dressed up, but those gowns are very expensive. One idea was to get an eco-friendly designer who wants some exposure to let me rent a dress from him or her, but there’s been so much going on with the film that I haven’t been able to think about it.
This post originally appeared at Bundle.
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