FEARLESS & FIERCE FILMMAKER: FERNE PEARLSTEIN
If you’re like a lot of women, at some point in your life you probably fantasized about being in movies. After all, being a movie star is nice work if you can get it. But luckily more and more women are aiming at being behind the camera. And that’s not just good for the women making movies –that’s great for the women watching movies. So, while it’s good to be in movies, it’s badass to make movies.
One of those badass like a boss girl filmmakers is Ferne Pearlstein. Ferne does it all – she’s acclaimed director of photography, a feature film editor, and a writer/director who’s shot films in Haiti, Uganda, and Guyana and has even snuck her 16mm camera from the refugee camps in Thailand into the Liberation Army rebel bases in Burma. (And if that wasn’t fearless enough, she even shot a documentary on Imelda Marcos. Talk about brave!)
Ferne’s latest project has been producing, directing, shooting, writing and editing a documentary exploring one of the last taboo topics for humor: the Holocaust. Premiering in theaters this March, THE LAST LAUGH is thought-provoking and hilarious, and features Holocaust survivors as well as master comedians like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Harry Shearer, Susie Essman, Jeff Ross and Judy Gold.
the official trailer…
As you might imagine, the Holocaust isn’t an easy topic to talk about, much less mine for humor, and it took a certain amount of courage, chutzpah even, to make a film about the intricacies of finding humor in one of the all-time most horrific and heartbreaking chapters in history. (Didn’t I tell you Ferne was a bad ass?)
So, how did Ferne find her way into becoming this like a boss movie maestro? I was lucky enough to get a chance to sit down and find out first-hand how she went from fan to fierce!
What got you interested in making movies?
My favorite thing to do when I was kid was go to the movies. But it never even occurred to me that I could actually make movies myself. Filmmaking wasn’t an option. It was the pre-digital era and it still felt like becoming a movie director was as distant as becoming a movie star. Even when I was living in NYC after college and studying photography, it still never occurred to me, even though I continued to be obsessed with movies.
I actually studied to go into criminal law and wanted to be a public defender. I studied at the University of Michigan where my concentration was all in field work, working with kids in different training schools, halfway houses, etc. One summer I worked directly with public defenders at the DC Pre-Trial Services and watched the process at work. Seeing kids thrown in jail each night largely because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood they came from, rather than any crimes they committed, made me want do something before they were arrested instead of after. So my last semester of college I took my first photography class, and turned my camera on the kids I was working with. After a year of introductory courses, I was accepted to the documentary program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.
Is that what led you to documentaries?
When I was at college and starting to think about photography, I came across an article that was about “photography for social change,” and I thought—since I was going to be busy as a lawyer (!)—that this was something I could do “on the side.” When I scrapped the whole idea of becoming a lawyer and changed my career goals, I was interested in that particular form of documentary photography. Taking photos of the kids I encountered in my college fieldwork somehow felt like a continuation of that same work, just a deeper way to connect with these kids and make more of a difference in their lives.
I love the way you channeled your passion for helping people into telling stories to illuminate issues and tell stories through documentaries. But I also imagine that, in addition to the passion and creativity, there’s a hell of a lot of work, time and fund-raising…
Yes! For example, I began my first feature doc as a director (SUMO EAST AND WEST) in 1999 and finished it in 2003! After that it took me another eight years to raise the money to make THE LAST LAUGH, which I had actually been developing as far back as film school.
It sounds really rough fighting to get funding…
Nearly impossible for the films I have made. I don’t gravitate to conventional “social justice” documentaries, which are the kind of films that seem to attract grant money, so it is always a struggle. My last film, SUMO EAST AND WEST, was about Westerners breaking into the ancient sport of sumo in Japan. I’m very proud of that film, which is a much deeper story than people realize before watching, but on the surface it doesn’t feel like it’s “important.” I like to equate it to homework. People who go to see a documentary often feel like they are doing their homework. My films have a tendency to be more like “extra credit.” We’d all like to get extra credit, but don’t all necessarily have the time for it. And I kind of feel like that same mindset is sometimes at work with potential funders as well.
My funding struggles with THE LAST LAUGH were more difficult than that, though. In that case, it wasn’t a matter of the topic feeling “ unimportant,” but on the contrary, that the topic was so heavy that people were worried about connecting it with humor in any way, even a very respectful one. This was a more dangerous topic for funders to put their money behind.
Speaking of tough things to procure, how did you get so many wonderful people and celebrities to participate in THE LAST LAUGH?
Well, no one wanted to be the first comedian to say yes. In the beginning we got a lot of: “Great idea! Let me know when someone else comes on board!” A lot of that was when we were still trying to raise the initial funding, so it was all academic as we didn’t have the money to start shooting yet anyway. I don’t think they were afraid of the difficult topic, as they all deal with this type of humor in their work, but I definitely had to gain their trust and prove that I would deal with the topic in a tasteful way. When we finally did get our first start-up money—18 years after my friend first handed me the paper—we went to my husband/producing partner’s agent who immediately called Rob Reiner and asked him if he would agree to be interviewed. And Rob said: “Sure, How’s a week from Wednesday?” So that jump-started everything. Rob Reiner is so beloved and lent so much credibility to our project that we were then able to get a number of comedians based on his involvement. Among them were his father Carl Reiner and others like Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Alan Zweibel, David Steinberg, Gilbert Gottfried, and Judy Gold. And with each new interviewee we built our credibility and were able to get more and more people to agree. We had compiled a long list of comedians and artists who used taboo humor (and/or specifically Holocaust humor) in their work. From this master list, there were some people we knew we couldn’t make the film without—such as Mel Brooks—so in those cases we had to keep finding new and creative ways to approach and re-approach them until they agreed. Mel Brooks took a few years, a few very close connections, and a lot of luck to get him to finally say yes. But once we had Mel, of course his participation really opened doors and he was very supportive of the project. In fact, he personally helped us get Sarah Silverman, who was also on our “must-have” list and was also very hard to get. Mel personally wrote her an email encouraging her to do it, which was incredibly generous of him.
Joan Rivers was one of the first people to say yes but she was always so busy it was hard to pin her down with a time. We actually finally did schedule an interview date for October 1, 2014, but tragically she died two weeks before that date arrived.
Finally, do you have any advice for any Like A Boss Girls out there who want to get into making movies?
I once got incredible advice from a female filmmaker I really admired. I got to meet her when my first film was at the LA Film Festival. She asked me what I was doing next and I told her about my husband’s next project and how I was planning to produce and shoot it. And she told me: “Be careful!” You have a lot of talent. Make sure you don’t just ‘help’ make your husband’s career. Don’t put your work on the side for his. It will be too easy to not come back to your own. I’m lucky because I happen to have an incredibly supportive husband who tries to surround himself with as many fearless women on his projects as he can, and I know he will put me first when it’s my turn, but that knowledge only makes that trap easier to fall into. Her words made a huge impression on me.
Thanks for your time, talent, perseverance and bad-assery, Ferne! For insights, laughs and great post-movie convos, make sure you check out THE LAST LAUGH when it hits theaters!