An Interview with In My Father's House Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg

NFF alums Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, NFF 2010) bring their deeply empathetic and insightful storytelling to a different kind of subject with In My Father's House. Che "Rhymefest" Smith, the Grammy-winning rapper and writer behind Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" and the Oscar-winning "Glory," buys the Chicago home of his estranged father whom he hasn't seen in two decades and eventually seeks him out. We spoke to Stern and Sundberg about Smith's incredible journey and their collaboration.

NFF: How did you first meet Che Smith?

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg: Two years ago, we received a call from our friend Daniel Kellison, a producer in Los Angeles. Daniel was sitting with Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a Chicago rap artist he’d met when he was producing Jimmy Kimmel Live. Che, recently a co-writer on the Oscar winning song “Glory,” was then a Grammy-winning rapper who co-wrote “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West and had been a featured performer on Kimmel’s show.

On a hurried phone call, Che shared his story with us and we were hooked.

Che explained that he had recently purchased his father’s childhood home in the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago’s south side and had moved in with his wife Donnie, a Chicago school teacher, and his 14 -year-old son Solomon. Che was looking for stability for his own family and a safer neighborhood for Solomon, and Chatham has a strong history as a solid community that has held together against the increasing violence and gang pressures of the south side.

Che hadn’t seen his father in over 25 years. Che had grown up with his grandparents and his mother, who was 15 when she gave birth to Che and battled drug addiction throughout Che’s early childhood. Che had only vague memories of his father as someone who came by sporadically, drank beer in the basement, and occasionally took him to movies.

Not knowing if his father was still in Chicago - or even alive - he called his mother and with relative ease tracked down his father. He was drinking every day and living at a homeless center just blocks from where his wife taught school. The next day, Che met his father - whom he had last seen when he was 12 years old - at their neighborhood library. His father, Brian, was overcome with emotion but Che was wary. He was afraid to fully embrace the man he felt had abandoned him and he was not ready to call him dad. He wasn’t sure what this relationship would require, or if he wanted any part of it.

When Che finished telling us about meeting his father, we were concerned that we had missed the emotional trigger for the story by not filming the first reunion in the library. Che then explained that as a rapper, and as a person growing up without a sense of legacy and history, he was accustomed to documenting his life. Che had filmed the day he found the house, the weeks spent settling in and unpacking boxes…. and the day he met his father!

Che shipped us all this early footage overnight and we watched everything he had shot. One week later, we booked tickets to Chicago and began what would end up as an 18-month experience tracking Che and his father’s journey from homelessness and alcoholism to self-discovery and redemption.

NFF: Did you spend a significant amount of time with him before you started filming, given that the film documents a very vulnerable moment in his life?

Stern and Sundberg: We decided to follow his unfolding story and so we began filming right away, but we spent a lot of time on the phone talking with Che between shoots. We spent hours talking about his family, his life, his growing relationship with his dad so when it came to filming there was a sense of intimacy already established.

NFF: Were you ever concerned about Brian's willingness to participate in the film?

Stern and Sundberg: Brian has always been very open and willing to be filmed. He never indicated any concerns so we were never worried. We spent a lot of time with Brian just hanging out, having a meal, getting to know each other.
NFF: You've made character studies like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which played the festival in 2010, and broader, more political works like The End of America. Do you feel that you approach the process differently depending on your subject matter?

Stern and Sundberg: We try to ground all our films in strong characters, and even as we look at social issues, the stories emerge from the main characters in the film. In the case of The End of America, the film was driven by Naomi Wolf’s point of view that we brought to life.

NFF: Can you speak a little bit about your collaboration, and how you two work together as directors in the field?

Stern and Sundberg: We spend a lot of time talking about the project, how it will look and feel, the tone, the narrative through lines. We will both spend as much time in the field as we can either together or solo. There seems to often be a natural flow to how we work.

Elizabeth Giamatti on A Woman Like Me

Diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, Alex Sichel decides to rewrite her life's script by casting Lili Taylor as a fictional version of herself in a film about a woman who surmounts the exact same illness. Piecing together that narrative with behind-the-scenes documentary, Sichel and co-director/producer Elizabeth Giamatti forge an entirely unique hybrid film about facing and overcoming one's fears in life and art. We spoke to Giamatti about their collaboration on A Woman Like Me and what it was like to finish the film after Sichel's passing.

NFF: What was your collaboration with Alex like on the film? Correct me if I'm wrong, but initially you started out as just the producer.

Elizabeth Giamatti: You’re right. I can tell you how it evolved, and I will, but really the most central and important fact about the collaboration was its joyfulness. It was a fantastic creative relationship, and it mostly felt completely seamless in terms of how we each saw the film and how those individual visions came together to form a collective vision that we both loved and understood the same way. Our individual ideas at the beginning fed one another, and the movie that evolved was something that we both would have characterized, I believe, as “ours” -- there was never a “hers” and “mine” thing, regardless of who was producing and who was directing. We always saw it as “a film by” both of us.

During the initial development stages, we didn’t have clearly defined roles, but when we were ready to shoot the fictional scenes, Alex said to me, “I think I need to be the director.” It was a great moment for her to say that, and I was in fact happy to have some definition for myself at that point as the producer.

Then, after we shot the fiction, we spent six months together watching our footage every day with our editor, talking about every frame, making notes, talking about what worked and what didn’t and why, and during that time we were still defining our roles as director (Alex) and producer (me). But when Alex got sick, we had to have one of those very hard end-of-life conversations. She asked me what I thought about finishing the movie without her. She wanted me to do it, and I wanted to do it, and at the same time I knew it would be an impossible task for me as producer – without a director -- to sit there and think, “Okay, now what would Alex do?” I told her that in order for me to finish the film I thought we needed to be co-directors in order for me to be able to make the thousand and one decisions one has to make in order to edit a movie. And she agreed.

NFF: Did you or Alex ever intend to make the narrative portion with Lili Taylor as a standalone film? Did you always know it would be woven into the framework of the documentary?

Giamatti: Initially, when we very first started talking about this movie, it was a straight up pure fictional film – feature length, narrative, etc. Though we were also, on a parallel track, talking about a documentary version – or rather, maybe a video diary that turned into a blog. We were starting small. So this hybrid form was something that evolved over time and many conversations, but by the time we wrote and shot the fiction we knew that it was going to be part of this hybrid movie and we designed it as such – even though we didn’t know exactly how they were going to be woven together.

NFF: Alex passed away before the film was completed. What was it like to finish it without her there?

Giamatti: Well, it was hard in terms of the personal loss of my very dear friend and collaborator, but it was also, strangely, okay from a creative perspective, because by then I knew – or at least I thought I did, which is all that mattered – what our collective vision for the movie was. Alex was very present inside my head by then, so I actually had very few moments of sitting there in the edit saying, “What would Alex do?” And that is lucky, because I think that would have been paralyzing.

NFF: As far as the formal aspects and hybrid nature of the film, did you draw from any particular influences?

Giamatti: Strangely, most of the movies that we used as references were more because of their thematic and tonal resonances than because of their formal structure – maybe because there weren’t that many hybrids to draw from, and also because hybrids are all so different from one another in how and why and how often they choose to incorporate fiction. We did refer often to an incredible film by William Greaves called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, but then just as often we would talk about Day for Night or All That Jazz or The Wizard of Oz, which was a great parallel for us (in fact we had quite a lot of references to it both in the fiction and the doc that didn’t make it into the final cut – for good reasons, but the idea was incredibly helpful). Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes was also really inspiring – she’s so free in that movie to not follow rules, to tell her story however she wants to – and if a giant talking puppet serves her one minute, that’s great, but she doesn’t feel a need to return to it if it doesn’t serve her later in the film. That was incredibly helpful. Also, any movie that managed to treat heavy subjects with a certain kind of lightness and humor was helpful to us.

NFF Alum Ben Niles Talks Some Kind of Spark

Ben Niles' Some Kind of Spark is an insightful look inside Julliard's Music Advancement Program for underprivileged, inner-city children from the ages of 8 to 14. We spoke to NFF alum Niles (Note By Note) about his relationship to music and his filmmaking process.

NFF: What led you to Juilliard's Music Advancement Program? Your previous film looked at the creation of a Steinway, so it begs the question: do you have a personal background in music?

Ben Niles: I don’t have a musical background but have made several attempts to learn guitar and piano in the past. I just didn’t have the patience to keep after it. I begged my mother to teach me piano but had no patience as a kid. I took guitar lessons three times over the years, and even dragged a set of drums to perform Elton John’s SOMEONE SAVED MY LIFE TONIGHT in front of my class in 3rd grade. But we always had music playing in the house and I’m absolutely a firm believer in the benefits of music education.

I was drawn to my first feature NOTE BY NOTE (which also played at Nantucket) because it represented a dying breed of hand-craftsmanship that we don’t see much of these days, not necessarily the musical aspect of it.

The story behind SOME KIND OF SPARK inspired me when I read an article in the NYT about inner-city kids in an outreach music program at the Juilliard School. Sadly, the article was about the lack of funding and the danger of the program folding. I find it puzzling that the benefits of music education are so profound and well documented and yet, our society does not embrace it in the schools. The kids in SPARK come from communities that struggle with arts funding, like most, and it was inspiring to see them grow in so many ways through their music education. As one of the teachers, Bill Ruyle, so aptly put it, “you don’t have to become a musician to benefit from music or music education. It can inform you in many ways. It’s about being a human being.

NFF: You shot the film over a two year period -- how long did it take to edit all that footage, and what were some of the hardest decisions you had to make in the editing room?

Niles: We filmed SPARK over a 2+ year period and another year of editing. In the film we follow 6 kids but we documented about 13 over time. It was difficult to pin-point the group we really wanted at first. We were coming in very cold as no one had been allowed to film this program before and there were 60 kids at the first audition. That was tough in itself but then editing kids out after all their time and openness was hard. I tried to remind the families often that this could happen but surely there was some disappointment. But the hardest call was keeping in the scene where Ami has a very difficult recital. My editor, Sara Pellegrini, and I wrestled with this for weeks. It’s a hard scene to watch and we were sensitive to Ami having to relive this over and over. I screened the film for her and her mother and we discussed why we wanted it in. (It’s true to form for any musician and helped illustrate that learning/playing music is not all a bed of roses.) The next day, Ami’s mother called me and we discussed it further. in the end, it was their call and I’m pleased they gave their consent. Now, when Ami comes to festivals, she gets a standing ovation for her bravery and perseverance. She deserves every bit.

NFF: What was it like working with such a large cast of children and educators?

Niles: Working with a large cast of students and educators was difficult, at best. I learned a lot from this but each of our kids and teachers in the film represented something we felt we needed. Everyone was terrific to work with but logistically, it was a challenge and certainly made Sara’s job that much harder. Juilliard was great to give us such unfettered access but filming in any institution like that always has a certain amount of red tape involved. As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t have 3-4 people on staff to assist with stuff like that so any similar scenario like this in the future would have to be met with more support.

NFF: Do you have another project in the works yet?

Niles: I am very excited about another project I am currently on. Quite a departure from my first two films, STILL WE RISE is a feature length doc about 3 mental health clinicians in war-torn Liberia. I am co-directing with Molly Raskin, a seasoned journalist and filmmaker for the PBS News Hour, among others.

Liberia has only one practicing psychiatrist for a country of 4 million and 40% are believed to have PTSD—not to mention the trauma from the recent Ebola crisis. Our film follows Quendi, Helena and Aaron, all survivors of the war, as they attend school and ultimately graduate as the first class of mental health clinicians determined to help heal their country. Their perseverance and fortitude is palpable and inspiring to watch. The film is in production and we will return for a final round of filming later this summer with an eye on a finished edit early next year.

Jason Segel, James Ponsoldt and Donald Margulies Talk The End of The Tour

Check out this great video interview with the creators behind our Opening Night film, The End of The Tour, sponsored by Cape Air/Nantucket Airlines. At Sundance, Variety spoke to director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, NFF '13), screenwriter Donald Marguiles, and star Jason Segel about the process behind bring the story of David Foster Wallace and Jeff Lipsky to life. Get excited for June 24!