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Commonwealth Behind the Camera

By Lillien Waller

Thanks to a thirst for content, it has never been easier to go "behind the scenes" of our favorite movies and TV programs. But so much of what we believe about life behind the camera diverges from the reality. What's more, the Commonwealth alumni/ae profiled on the following pages—a director of episodic TV, an independent filmmaker, and a documentary film producer—remind us that "the film and television industry" isn't the only vehicle through which directors, producers, and writers disseminate content. The game is changing. And so, slowly but surely, are the players: current technologies offer a broad choice of platforms while an increasing emphasis on inclusion in the industry makes it possible for marginalized voices to begin to have their say.            

How did these alumni/ae make their way into a notoriously difficult business while cultivating their own voices? And what does it take to make and sustain this kind of creative work? Director Jesse Peretz ’86 considers the differences between directing feature films and working in the "writer's medium" of episodic television. Filmmaker Myra Paci ’83 demonstrates that independent filmmaking is not only about what you see but also what you don't, and gives us a glimpse into the personal challenges that often accompanied her professional accomplishments. And Emmy-winning producer Mikaela Beardsley ’87 shows that research and collaboration can make documentaries deeply satisfying work, but the art of telling true stories still faces its own unique challenges. 

Jesse Peretz ’86

Jesse Peretz is in a good place. Three weeks after he spoke with CM, Jesse was set to begin production on the first of two episodes he is both directing and executive producing for the upcoming Apple TV+ drama City on Fire. The show is one of a number of projects in recent years that he has helped bring to life—including episodes of The Shrink Next Door, also for Apple TV+; Amazon's As We See It; HBO's Girls; Nurse Jackie for Showtime; and comedy-drama series GLOW and Orange is the New Black for Netflix.

We've all witnessed television, with its many genres, styles, and platforms, explode over the last twenty years, forever changing what we watch and when, the devices we use, and—with particular thanks to pandemic lockdowns—how much we consume. But the quality and range of the storytelling has also deepened.

Episodic television, Jesse will tell you, is more writer-driven than feature filmmaking. City on Fire, created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, requires the typical tasks of hiring a crew, casting roles and scouting locations. The difference is collaboration. "We're making all the creative decisions together, but...it's really their vision that I'm trying to execute. But I've been hired because they like my ideas about how to execute," Jesse says. "It's a process of a director and showrunners working together in harmony but with a director understanding that the showrunner has the final say. With features, it really is a director's medium."
                        
Before he started in television, Jesse directed several feature films, beginning with First Love, Last Rites (1997) and, most recently, Juliet, Naked (2018). Before that, he spent years directing music videos, his entrée into the business, "waiting to catch a break." Jesse had previously played bass guitar for alternative rock band The Lemonheads, a band he cofounded while still a student at Commonwealth. Even then, he recalls, he knew he wanted to direct. "I was late getting into TV, but once I got it, once I started doing television, I just loved it," Jesse says. "TV has gotten great in the last decade or so. Luckily, I'm mostly directing pilots where I'm part of setting up the show from the beginning. I'm really enjoying how much I have become a creative partner with some incredible showrunners of each of the projects. I'm happy with what my career is built on these days and the fun material I get to work on."

Part and parcel to having such a broad canvas to work on is understanding that, as his possibilities have expanded, so have those of the industry. Inclusion now seems to be less of a buzzword and more of a real priority, as people of color, LGBTQ communities, and others are finding greater representation in front of, and behind, the camera. Still, a lot depends on not only providing access to opportunities but also cultivating talent early.

"I think that while it's important to give voice to a more diverse set of writers and filmmakers, it's much more important to start looking at entry-level jobs and really making an effort to diversify there. It's so crucial to give people the opportunities to learn the craft," Jesse says. "Things are moving in a fantastic direction, and inclusivity is something we need to keep prioritizing. Besides being the right thing to do—in terms of having a more inclusive industry—it's just so much more exciting in terms of the kind of stories that audiences can experience."

Myra Paci ’83 

There's a moment in Adventures in Peterland: A Mystery of Art and Love, Myra Paci's latest film, in which she holds photo transparencies of breast cancer cells up to the light, noting that, despite the disease's ugliness, the distorted red and purple forms nevertheless contain an accidental beauty. The transparencies were taken by her late father, Italian pathologist Piero Paci, who was a good friend of British pathologist and art collector Peter Bullough—the film's subject and Myra's "artistic mentor, queer uncle, and heartthrob since childhood." The scene is poignant, as it references Myra's own experience surviving breast cancer in her mid-thirties and points toward the film's themes of loss and the nature of love, betrayal and the constancy of art.

Adventures in Peterland is an experience that lands somewhere within traditional documentary, memoir and expressionist painting. It's an apt example of Myra's formal experimentation and a more evolved version of the DIY aesthetic of American indie moviemaking that emerged during the 1990s, when she got her start. It's also a moving document of disappearance.

"The day I graduated from Yale in May of 1988, [my father] felt really sick. And it turned out he had pancreatic cancer," Myra recalls. "So, in the summer of ’88, I stayed on in New Haven, working at a café and visiting my father and my mother while he was getting treatment. I bought a video camera—it was VHS at that time—and I started videotaping him. I was also videotaping an unhoused former nuclear physics student who had been a customer of mine at the café. I just started making stuff on my own. And I think my tendency was always pretty experimental." 

That tendency continued into graduate school at NYU. Myra's second-year film, the nineteen-minute Transeltown (1992), attracted the attention of director and performance artist Miranda July, who picked it up for her alternative distribution project for women filmmakers, Joanie 4 Jackie, and recommended it to the Criterion Collection, which now distributes it. Myra's M.F.A. thesis film, the twenty-nine-minute XXX-tasy: Two Days in the Life of a Saint (1992), garnered significant critical attention that would open the door to the world of advertising and production—work she continues today as a principal of SLAP Agency.

Myra's writing and films have received widespread critical praise, starting with her debut feature. Searching for Paradise (2001) was developed at the Sundance Institute's Screenwriting and Directing Labs but failed to get picked up by the Sundance Festival—which she calls "the kiss of death...I thought I was headed for the big time." Nevertheless, the film had a strong festival run and was distributed on the Sundance Channel, Showtime, and Netflix.

"Losing my father when I was fairly young and then having breast cancer," she explains, "I think I always knew that in a contest of career over life, I was going to choose life and self-expression and not compromise. I've continued to make films. But I call all the shots." It's the story of independent filmmaking that we recognize because she and her peers showed it to us. Indie film influenced a generation of filmmakers, artists and writers, and even now we feel nostalgic for it, from the return of the auteur and way-out-of-no-way budgets to the guerrilla production tactics.

Myra knows what it takes to do this kind of work and make some- thing beautiful that still may not find its audience—and she encourages young filmmakers not to give up or be swayed by the obstacles. Because of "technology, access to technology, and consciousness-raising," at no other time has it been easier to make films independently—though that doesn't make it easy. But it is, she points out, the next generation's turn. "I feel like I've had my turn to say my things, and it's not going to stop me from making my own work," Myra says. "But there are younger people and women and people of color and trans people who need to get the funding and the space and the place. We shot on 16mm and 35mm. It was really expensive to make movies back then. I don't care what you shoot your film on—you can shoot it on your smartphone—it doesn't matter. It's really about the storytelling." 
                    

Mikaela Beardsley ’87

In a world that wanted MTV, Mikaela Beardsley chose public television. She recalls getting her first internship at WGBH a year after graduating from Princeton. "I had a friend from college who was working at WGBH in radio, and she tried to get me an internship there but there was nothing available. But she had a friend who worked in documentaries, and I interned on his project, which was a series on women scientists. The producer just wanted someone to explain the science to her. I pulled out a chemistry textbook, and I went to MIT and talked to people. I thought, 'This is a job?'" she says. "The revelation was that there's a job to be had where you get paid to learn. That was the hook for me, and it continues to be the hook for me."

Mikaela says she has told this story, often to young people, emphasizing the lightbulb moment she had discovering work that suited her interests and her personality. Her story also illustrates the hard work and hustle involved with telling true stories for a living. Western audiences have an almost insatiable appetite for true stories, particularly true crime, and major film studios—whether they are responding to a need or creating it—are more than happy to feed them.

But when Mikaela talks about documentary filmmaking, she is pointing to fact-based truth that asks tough questions on a range of topics that reveal who we have been and who we might become. Mikaela develops her own projects and produces projects for others. Emmy-winning and twice-nominated, she has produced more than a dozen nationally broadcast films by directors such as Martin Scorsese, Alex Gibney, and Wim Wenders, among others. She originated and executive produced Half the Sky Movement, a global media project aimed at improving opportunity for women and girls in the developing world and based on the bestselling book by journalist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. She also produced Reporter (2009), which followed Kristof's work in the Democratic Republic of Congo and played at the Commonwealth School Film Festival. She is currently a producer on a film about climate change negotiations and another on restorative justice, and is developing a project about local government. 

"There are more audiences, for sure. I think people are making things that feel less like a textbook come to life and more like a narrative experience. It remains a really good way to learn important things about a topic in a short time. It's a lot less of a time investment than reading a book. But documentary has always been hard, always been a small bullseye." By "hard" she means everything from securing access to the film characters to finding financing and distribution to wrangling over content with the institutions that support documentaries—something with which even filmmakers who make studio films have to contend. Documentaries, however, are more collaborative.

"[Documentary filmmaking] tends to be non-hierarchical," she says. "The bigger the production, the more money there is for different people to perform different functions, and the more hierarchical things become because you manage all of those resources. When you have fewer resources and fewer people, everybody just does what needs to get done."
 

Meet More Commonwealth Alumni/ae
 

Lillien Waller is a poet, essayist, and editor. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets, and she is editor of the anthology American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry (Stockport Flats). Lillien is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts. She lives in Detroit. This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.