This is the seventh installment in our 6 Questions series, where we email creators, curators, and other people we admire with 6 questions about their work and process, and then share their responses with you. You can read our previous interview with filmmaker/all-around-cool-person Ben Nabors here. -Ali
Amy Finkel is the kind of person you hear about who immediately makes you feel bad about yourself. But it’s only because she’s so cool. A true renaissance woman, not only does Amy produce her own documentary films and run a web design studio, she also finds time to teach at NYU and the Parsons School of Design. Not to mention that metalwork studio she runs with her brother. Really, who is this woman?? We reached out to Amy to talk about her work, and here’s what she had to say:
1. You spoke with an extensive range of people for your film FUREVER — pet owners, taxidermists, and religious and scientific experts. How did you decide who to interview, and what factors informed those decisions?
I had a general outline of the film before I started to work on it, but, of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. So the scope of the project, as well as the subjects, was constantly evolving. FUREVER was always meant to be educational, and not merely an overly sensational mockery of some not very conventional characters. I enjoy that aspect of it (the colorful characters, not the mockery), but I was never making a reality TV show. That would have been the easy way out due to the provocative nature of the subject matter. There would have been no gravity to that project, and I felt that without the voices of experts guiding us along (hopefully in a balanced manner, though that was tough too, as I knew it wasn’t an even playing field), I would surely be exploiting the subjects whose trust I had worked so hard to achieve in the first place. My goal as a documentarian (and teacher) is to educate and inform, and in the case of FUREVER, to help our audience learn about themselves; to further our understanding of the human condition. We shy away from discourse on death—in our culture we avoid the subject. I, personally, don’t have the expertise to teach anyone about the sociology of death, nor about traditions of ancestor worship or the physiology behind the human-animal bond, for example, but I knew that I could find people to do so. And with the general outline, while I didn’t know what the content would ultimately be, I knew that I wanted to find specific experts to help explain some of the behaviors that I was witnessing. I planned some interviews with scholars in tandem with those of the more colorful characters, but I tried to save as many as I could for the end. I knew that their voices would tie all of the characters together and give direction to the larger narrative arc. It was sort of like going to a therapy or information session with various experts on my characters’ behalves. I could tell a scholar about something I had seen, and he or she would discuss their actions, and the context, from his or her vantage point. I was endlessly fascinated, and I hoped my audience would be too.
2. In a previous interview, you mentioned that you’ve allowed yourself to cry with your interview subjects if the emotions came, which ultimately made your subjects trust you more. What else did you do, planned or unplanned, that encouraged people to open up in front of the camera?
I’m just generally a very friendly person. I enjoy people, I like hearing their stories, and I like to see the good in everyone. Those traits, combined with the fact that I’m nonjudgmental, helps people to open up to me. But it’s always been that way, both in the documentary and non-documentary domains. Sometimes it was to my detriment. I’ve often had complete strangers come up to me on the street and cry to me about their horrific abortion or abusive relationship. I’ve accepted it and I try to help when I can. Or I get away as fast as I can. But that attribute is probably one of the reasons I wanted to make documentaries in the first place. As far as the crying goes, that was rare. I don’t cry easily, but I did, at times, get emotional. Really, it’s probably more empathy than anything else. It’s sad to talk about death with people! I think I’d be a sociopath if I didn’t get moved by some of the stories. I will say that I’ve definitely been told, and maybe this comes from my acting and improv comedy background, that I’m a chameleon. I take on the characteristics of my subjects, but a lot of that is subconscious. Regardless, I’m sure it does make people open up more. I also try to take anything that feels like an interview out of every shoot. I do extensive research and write my interview questions days beforehand. Then I try to, essentially, memorize them. Or, at least, get to the point where I’m not relying on them. That way I can simply have a conversation with the subject, and they’re less aware of the camera. Interviewing is all about listening, so it’s much easier to have a conversation. I just happen to have my conversations very close to one of the cameras. And I also work with an amazing DP, Gregg De Domenico, who shares that chameleon quality, and has an uncanny ability to fade into his surroundings and go unnoticed on the other camera.
3. How do you keep your documentary work honest?
I’m very honest and up front with my subjects. With FUREVER, I told them that I was not making a reality show, and a lot of them had to put their faith in me and hope for the best. But I would never tell people that, then go and make one. Some of my subjects had been burned before (specifically by reality TV networks, or reality TV shows posing as ‘news/science’ shows), so some were more reluctant to jump on board at first. Some declined entirely. But as long as I’m maintaining my integrity, being honest with my subjects and not exploiting people, then I suppose my documentary work is honest?
4. You seem to be quite a renaissance woman, not only directing documentaries but also running your own web design studio, working as a teacher, and running a metal studio with your brother (among other things!). How did you get into documentary film, and how do you see it fitting in with your broader vocation?
My parents are very creative and, as entrepreneurs, they encouraged my brother and I to do all types of creative work, in multiple disciplines, from a young age. As long as I have an experimental outlet and I’m using my imagination, pushing my design and problem solving capabilities, and producing original work (and, of course, that I can make a living in so doing), I feel most fulfilled. Perhaps I’m too curious for my own good or I simply get bored easily, but as long as I’ve created an interesting concept that inspires me, it’s all fairly similar no matter the media used to create it. That said, certain disciplines tend to allow me to produce more innovative, inspired work, and, due to client involvement or other factors, many do not. Ultimately I feel that I’m most free when I’m working in photography or video. I also think that, for me, certain parameters or limitations promote more exciting work and documentary filmmaking is the epitome of that. When working within the confines of ‘truth,’ I’m in my most creative element. I can’t imagine documentary work, or documenting subjects and stories in some fashion or another, being anything but my primary craft.
Oh and I originally got into documentary filmmaking in graduate school. I got my master’s in “Design & Technology,” but my main focus was on 2D motion graphics. For our thesis the program directors encouraged us, due to the nature of the program, to essentially build robots (“physical computing”). I knew that I could probably conceptualize or design a pretty neat robot, but there was no way my robot was ever going to work (microcontrollers, lasers, and motion sensors are a bit of an enigma to me), but I knew I needed my calling card out (the reason I went to grad school in the first place). So I told them that I was going to make a documentary instead—it called upon more of the skills that I’d built leading up to the program. I had a really positive experience making it and it ended up going to several festivals, so my career began.
5. Documentaries seem to be having a moment right now. Why do you think that is?
Truth is always the most interesting! I don’t know. Maybe people are less impressed by dream sequences or flashbacks these days?
6. What’s one thing you learned in the process of making FUREVER that you will take with you to the next project (documentary or other medium)?
There are too many to count! This is my first feature-length project, so it was an entirely different beast than anything I’d ever worked on. I learned a lot about working with a team, relying on others, will power, budgeting, distribution. I had no idea how long and difficult, yet also how incredibly fulfilling, the process would be. But a lot of my lessons had to do with trusting my instincts and pushing forward when I thought I didn’t have it in me to continue. That was probably the biggest lesson. You can always work harder, get less sleep, push yourself more. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I also learned a lot about gratitude. I could never have made the film without the help of countless people who offered everything from advice to their skills and time. I was absolutely bowled over by friends’ generosity and guidance, and also by their ability to deal with me when I was at my worst (my most tired, most drained). I will be furever grateful…