Thursday, February 18, 2016

Emily Abt (CAS’ 97), Director, Writer and Producer, shares her Advice for Aspiring Independent Filmmakers

Emily Abt
Selected as one of Variety magazine’s “Top 10 Directors to Watch,” Emily Abt is an award-winning filmmaker dedicated to creating fiction and documentary projects with social-issue themes. She has produced content for broadcast on PBS, MTV, Showtime and the Sundance Channel and also directs documentary-style commercial campaigns.

Can you tell us about your experience at NYU?

I loved my experience at NYU. One of the advantages of going to NYU is that you can work through your career-related interests and aspirations during your time as an undergraduate student. I always had some kind of internship in the city. While you are getting your academic education, at the same time you can have a professional education.

What did you study at NYU?

I was a Politics major with a Sociology minor. Politics’ Professor Lawrence Mead was an incredible mentor to me. I wrote my thesis on welfare-to-work programs and welfare reform. And I ended up working at America Works as a caseworker after being introduced to it by Professor Mead.
Emily Abt: her story continues

What drew you to filmmaking?

I had an unconventional path to filmmaking. I had always loved films, but had never thought of it as a viable career option. I am the daughter of an immigrant, so I was definitely encouraged to take a more conventional path. During my time at NYU, I was on an intense law school track. Then, when I didn’t get into the law school I wanted, it made me reassess, and I started to make my first documentary Take It From Me. When I was a caseworker after graduation, I became very inspired by the women I was working with. I felt that they were misrepresented in the media. There were so many negative stereotypes about welfare recipients that did not match my experience of these women. I really wanted to tell their side of the story first-hand.

What was your experience making your first documentary?

I got a camera and Final Cut Pro editing software and I started filming and editing. I taught myself while I was making the film. I sold the documentary to PBS as part of their acclaimed P.O.V. series, and I used it to apply to film school. I went to Columbia University, which is where I really honed my writing and directing skills.

Can you talk about being a writer, director, and producer, and having your own production company Pureland Pictures?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to be a successful independent filmmaker. One of the things that I have observed over the years is that filmmakers that have a strong technical skill, in addition to writing and directing, are the filmmakers that progress quickly. The filmmakers I most admire all have technical skills, for example: Reed Morano (TSOA ’01) is a cinematographer and a director; Rachel Morrison (TSOA ’00) is a director of photography (DP) and a director; and Lynn Shelton is an editor and a director.

I think the more skills you have as a director – producing, writing, editing or shooting - the more likely you are to move your work out into the world. I cultivated my writing skills in film school, but I have been honing my shooting skills and editing skills since. Filmmaking is a combination of art and technology, so for young filmmakers it is important for them to work on those technical skills. I have found that is a way to really succeed as an independent filmmaker, because it feeds and informs your directing abilities. It is not enough anymore to just write and direct.

You recently premiered your documentary feature Daddy Don’t Go. What can you tell us about the project?

We shot the film over two years. It is an intimate portrait of four disadvantaged fathers in New York City as they struggle to beat the odds and defy the deadbeat dad stereotype. My work is frequently about dismantling stereotypes and building bridges between people by shining a light on those who don’t normally get to tell their stories while still allowing people’s complexity.

I am very much a feminist and all of my previous films have focused on female protagonists. Even though this film centers on the stories of four men, I feel that Daddy Don’t Go is my most feminist film to date. If you can inspire men to lean in to the domestic sphere and the role of parent, then that creates a space for women to move forward in the professional arena.

We premiered the film in November at DOC NYC (the largest documentary film festival in the U.S.). Our executive producers, Omar Epps and Malik Yoba, attended the premiere and all of the fathers in the documentary were there. Throughout the process we have received a lot of support, starting with a successful Kickstarter campaign where we raised over $83,000. We have also received production grants from NYSCA, NYFA, Jerome Foundation and the Yip Harburg Foundation among others. We are now in the process of finalizing our broadcast deal for the film.

What is your next project?

I am producer, screenwriter and director for a narrative feature called Audrey’s Run about an African American woman running for Mayor in Boston, which is my hometown. The film has a fantastic cast (Paula Patton, Mike Epps, Pablo Shreiber and Jurnee Smollett) and we are planning to shoot in the summer. It feels very timely, given Hillary Clinton’s current campaign. And it is a topic that is close to home for me, since my mother ran for public office twice when I was growing up. I am very excited to be able to offer audiences a peak behind the curtain of a woman running for office at that level. The protagonist is juggling her family life with her career.

My work is always rooted in journalism. I met with fifteen female politicians and interviewed them about their experiences. It takes real effort to create stories that are rooted in real life, but I feel like the research really pays off, in giving the work an authentic quality.

What are you watching and reading? What inspires you?

I belong to Film Fatales ( a female filmmaking collective, created by Leah Meyerhoff (TSOA ’14).  We get together every month and support each other’s work. As a filmmaker, you have to always be watching movies.  A few films that I really enjoyed recently were Beasts of No Nation, by Cary Fukunaga (TSOA alumnus) and Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.

I am currently listening to a podcast called The Wandering DP (follow this link: which is about cinematography. And I just read this incredible book called Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy, which is about the high murder rate of African American males in Los Angeles, told in the point of view of the detectives. I am very drawn to sociology books, going back to my minor at NYU. That is what motivates me as a filmmaker - I want to tell important social-justice related stories.

To find out more about Emily’s projects, visit the website or follow her on Twitter @emilyabt.

The trailer for Daddy Don’t Go can be accessed at this link:

The trailer for Toe To Toe, Emily’s narrative feature that premiered at Sundance in 2009 and was distributed by Strand Releasing in 2010, can be accessed at this link:

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