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SXSW 09 Interview: The Way We Get By Director Aron Gaudet

by David Cornelius

The South by Southwest rundown on “The Way We Get By”: A captivating and intimate look at three senior citizens in America as they struggle with the losses that come with growing old and the uplifting ways they rediscover their reasons for living. By greeting nearly one million U.S. troops at a tiny airport in Maine, Bill Knight, Joan Gaudet, and Jerry Mundy find the strength to overcome their own personal battles and demonstrate the meaning of community at a time when most Americans have lost faith in their country.

Just what is “The Way We Get By”?

“The Way We Get By” follows three senior citizens over the course of three years as they spend their days and nights traveling to their tiny local airport to greet troops heading to and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Greeting over 800,000 troops gives their lives a renewed sense of purpose and allows them to overcome their obstacles outside the airport, which can be numerous for an elderly person in America.

Your mother is one of the subjects in this movie. What made you decide to document her and her fellow troop greeters?

For a couple of years prior to discovering troop greeting, my mom had few friends and fewer hobbies and basically spent her days alone at home, literally watching birds. I was working at a television station in Michigan at the time, and would call home often, and one day she wasn’t there to answer the phone. It very quickly became nearly impossible to get her on the phone, and even tougher to have a conversation that didn’t involve the subject of troop greeting. So, when I went home for Christmas in 2004, the first thing I wanted to do was see how she was spending all of her time. I followed her to a late night flight and I was pretty instantly hooked. The emotion that was in that airport on a daily basis was amazing… it just seemed like if we could find the right way to tell a story, it would have heart. What struck me first was that this is a place where 80-year-olds and 20-year-olds are coming together and helping each other face their problems, and I couldn’t really think of anyplace else you could find something like that. Seeing first hand how this was transforming my mom’s life just made me so proud to be her son.

The IMDB credits page makes this look like a very small production. How small was the crew, and did that help or hurt production?

It was a very small crew. Through production it was a three-person crew. Co-director of photography Dan Ferrigan and I would operate the two cameras-- we nearly always had two cameras-- and producer Gita Pullapilly handled all the logistics of field producing and was the interviewer. Then during post-production it became a two-person crew. Gita was working hard to find funding and distribution opportunities while I was locked away in an editing room. We even logged and imported all the footage ourselves. I guess we discovered interns pretty late in the game, and then we got as many as we could find. But we really didn’t know any other way. I’ve always done every aspect of the editing myself, so it didn’t feel different, just a little more overwhelming.

As for helping or hurting, I feel like the movie would not be the same if we had tried to go in there with a bigger crew or a bunch of lights. Our goal from the beginning was to make these people forget about the camera, and create a comfortable atmosphere. There were many occasions when it really became just an intimate conversation between Gita and the subject, and in those instances it was my job and Dan’s job to basically become invisible. We shot on tripods as much as possible, and I would try to be as motionless as possible and really just hide behind the camera. Of course, there were times we could have used an extra pair of hands, but the trade off is what I hope is a really intimate film.

I’ll admit it: I got plenty misty just watching the trailer. How emotional was filmmaking for you?

I got plenty misty at times during production. Our three characters really bare their souls to us at times, and it always shocked us and left us a little shaken as well, that they would be so open and honest with us about how they were feeling and what they were going through, including my mom. I remember on more than one occasion leaving an interview and talking to Gita and Dan about how emotional we all were. We might not have been sure at the time how everything fit together, but we knew they were giving us some amazing material to work with-- and it definitely became a worry of mine that these three people put their trust in us and opened up to us, and I didn’t want to screw it up.

Considering airport security, how difficult was it to shoot at Bangor Airport?

First of all, the Bangor International Airport is a bit of an oddity. Because of the eastern location and the size of the runway, they are the perfect place for these military flights to refuel. This means for the majority of troops, Bangor is the last piece of U.S. soil they touch before going to war, and the first piece they step foot on when coming home. As far as gaining access, it was surprisingly easy. From the start, the officials at the airport really opened the terminal up to us. It certainly helped that the airport is pretty small, and outside of all the thousands of troop flights going through, it’s not a very busy airport. There were certain things that Gita had to work very hard getting us access to-- going out on the runway or boarding a troop flight-- but overall it was much easier than we expected. We were very fortunate to have that kind of access.

What got you started making movies?

Growing up in Maine I was always interested in making movies. I loved movies, but I also knew I was just about as far from Hollywood as I could possibly get. I ended up going to a small broadcasting school in Maine, before starting a career in local television news. I was thinking this would at least give me access to similar equipment. I could use cameras every day and learn to edit, but it was very unsatisfying. In fact, I hated it, but it was my life for ten years. When I started thinking of making a documentary, I guess I was hoping it could be a bridge to filmmaking. I could use my experience in television and make the switch to something I really wanted to do. Of course, what I discovered is I had to completely relearn how I did many things in television to make them work within the world of documentary filmmaking.

This is your first feature, although you have several shorts under your belt. How was the transition to long-form filmmaking?

It was very rough at times and really, really fun. I basically spent most of my career editing 30-second promo spots for television news. The last two years, before going full-time into filmmaking, I was working at New England Sports Network (NESN), which is owned by the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins. I was editing fast-paced, music-driven sports promos. So to go from that, to editing an 85-minute movie about people that don’t necessarily move very fast, meant I had to adopt a completely different pace and style. The short films I worked on helped, but it was still a really different experience. But I loved it. I loved the challenge of making entire scenes work with no music, and finding the perfect pace to match the subject matter. I think the result is some of the most powerful scenes in The Way We Get By are these silent moments.

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

I’ve learned too many lessons to cover here. I really learned how to make a movie over the last four years. It was my film school. Every aspect from pre-production through distribution is full of lessons, trial and error, strained and broken friendships, and learning from mistakes. There really is no right or wrong way, and nobody is getting in line to tell you how to do everything. It really comes down to learning how to do-it-yourself. And I’m still learning every day. In television, the whole distribution part of it is already in place for you. I would shoot and edit a promo and it would be on the air that night. Now, the biggest challenge is figuring how to get people to see your movie after it’s finished. The one thing I will not do is be a filmmaker that finishes a movie and expects it to magically find it’s way to an audience. Gita and I work 7 days a week now, trying to figure out the best ways to get the film out there. Our biggest accomplishment came when we found out we were picked up for a national television broadcast by P.O.V. on PBS for later this year. To us, that was the one area we couldn’t do-it-ourselves. With the television broadcast in place, it really comes down to how hard do you want to work to push your film out there using alternative avenues. Are you willing to take your film city-to-city, town-to-town if that is what it takes? And the answer is yes, we are.

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

I would say I am excited more than nervous. Maybe I should be more nervous, but I really am hoping to just go there and have a fun time. I think I have a movie that is probably a really tough sell to some-- as soon as you mention the war and old people you’ve already lost a lot of people, but I feel confident if people give the film a chance they will be surprised by how much they will connect with it. The issues our characters deal with in the film are the same issues so many of us deal with every day, and the uplifting way they deal with these issues I find very inspiring. I do understand though, that this is basically the coming out party for our film, and this is where we will launch the film and then hopefully take advantage of every opportunity we can through to our national broadcast in November. So, while I am not nervous…yet, I do recognize there is pressure for us to try to reach the right audience at SXSW that can help our film gain awareness on a national level.

Would you like to continue working with documentaries, or do you plan to jump to fiction? (In other words, what’s next for you?)

It’s hard to say exactly what will be next because sometimes I feel like we’re only half done with our job on “The Way We Get By”. I still feel like we will have to dedicate a lot of time over the next year and beyond to maximizing what we can do with this film. That being said, I have thought a lot about what I would like to do next. I love to write and have a few different screenplays in the works. After struggling for so long finding the story in “The Way We Get By”, it is really appealing to me to have a written story where we know the ending from the start. I also love the idea of being challenged to learn the process of making a narrative feature, and working with actors. But we also have a couple ideas for documentaries that we would like to pursue. In the end, I really respect filmmakers like Werner Herzog that let the story they choose to tell dictate the form in which they tell it, and they are able to move seamlessly between narrative and docs. If I could have that opportunity I would be very happy.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be...

…editing a Red Sox promo at NESN.

Rock, paper, or scissors?

Rock. Funny you would ask this since the majority of the decisions we made over the last four years were decided by rock, paper, scissors. Lucky for me, Gita is a notorious scissor thrower.

In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll call your parents… I promise.

“The Way We Get By” has its world premiere as part of the SXSW Documentary Competition. It screens 11:30 AM March 15, 12:00 PM March 16, and 7:00 PM March 19.

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originally posted: 02/17/09 01:46:46
last updated: 02/21/09 13:30:14
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