'Passion Got Us Here': 'Be Natural' Filmmakers on Reviving the First Female Director
Can you answer this question: Who’s the first female film director? Don’t be surprised if you can’t, because it’s not really common knowledge. When speaking of filmmaking pioneers, Alice Guy-Blaché may not come to mind as readily as the Lumière Brothers or Georges Méliès, but her contributions to cinema, as well as the lessons we can learn from her story are as far-reaching as they are profound. NFS sat down with filmmakers Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs, who, along with executive producer Robert Redford, have gathered industry greats like Diablo Cody, Julie Delpy, James Bobin, and Ben Kingsley for the documentary Be Natural, a film that looks to inspire new filmmakers by uncovering the mystery of the first female filmmaker.
NFS: What made you guys get started on the project?
Pamela Green: I happened to click on AMC a few years back, and there was this special on TV called Real Models, and it was about pioneering women in cinema. And one of the women that they featured was Alice Guy-Blaché.
And of course, I didn’t go to film school — and neither did Jarik. So, after I’d seen the special, I looked it up on Wikipedia like everybody else. Again, I was even more surprised I hadn’t heard of her, not just because she was the first woman director, but because everything that she had accomplished, including the vast amount of films. So we felt that we had to find out more.
NFS: You said in your Kickstarter campaign that she was even predating George Méliès, yeah?
PG: By her own account she made her first film in 1896. 1895 is the beginning of moving images and the people who expose you to it are the Lumiere Brothers. They have a screening in March — there was another screening in December, and that was the one George Méliès attended — in March, Léon Gaumont and Alice went to see the screening that the Lumiere Brothers held, and she was fascinated by those images and she asked her boss at the time, Léon Gaumont, “Hey, do you mind if I try something?” And he’s like, “Oh that’s a silly thing. But yeah, go ahead.”
At the time, film was a novelty and not really a business, and it was experimental. So, she went ahead, by her own account in 1986, made one of the first narratives and it sold 80 copies. And eventually she became the head of production at Gaumont — she went ahead and started her own studio — she was the first woman to own her own studio.
She made a total of 1000 films of all kinds, which are pretty incredible. I mean, they look really modern. Jarik and I were looking at the films and we’re stunned that they were shot so long ago and they still feel modern in the acting and some of the approaches.
NFS: So, Robert Redford is an executive producer on the project, yeah?
NFS: How did that come about?
PG: We worked with Robert Redford on 3 films. We were asking several people in the industry if they’d ever heard of her, and he happened to be one of them. We solute him for being behind this. He loves untold stories, and he is there to help us tell this story. We’re very lucky.
NFS: Switching gears a little bit — so did you guys film all this yourselves, or did you have a crew?
PG: Oh, there’s no crew. [laughs]
NFS: Was it just you guys?
PG: It was just us [Pamela & Jarik], and one of the producers and 2 other people from our office. We’re David trying to beat Goliath here. We’re okay with that, because whatever it takes to tell Alice’s story.
NFS: You used the Canon C300 on the project. How did that go?
Jarik van Sluijs: It looks professional enough — it is professional enough – to make it look legit in front of everybody we’ve interviewed. That helps. And it’s small enough to not be something we’d need to get permits for, so that was kinda nice. I loved the ND filters, the fact that I could just turn that on and then go from inside to outside situations.
It’s great for interviews and handheld stuff. We put a handle on it, used it with a rig or on a tripod. But also it’s nice with tabletop stuff, because we’ve been doing a lot of — you know — looking through old photographs and films, a lot of close-ups of archives and scrapbooks and diaries — getting some nice images out of that.
PG: It keeps us light on our feet and keeps us looking good to the outside world. But then, we don’t look too menacing to people. We kind of get away with it. And it’s also good for people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I mean, we’re not cinematographers and we’re not ashamed to say it. We know what looks good — it’s what we do for a living.
NFS: So, I looked at the list of you interviewees, and there are a lot of insane people in there — as in good people. How did you go about deciding who you wanted to interview?
JVS: Well, first we looked at Alice, and we looked at all the tasks that she performed as a professional — a director, writer, producer –
PG: Studio owner, and head of production. How do you fill in those roles today? There’s only very few people who have done all of it. You kind of have to divide it up. You have to divide up the subjects of her movies. What’s going on in distribution? What does it take to make a movie? People’s perspectives on it. There are people who have adapted books. Their experience in film. There’s all these different pieces that come from Alice.
JVS: So basically we chose the people based on that, so that they could shed light on the craft — and on the specifics of the craft.
PG: And by the way, it was not easy. It’s important to say that we’ve worked with these people on their films, and we were able to get the access. And some people it took a while to get there. It wasn’t just handed to us. It’s not like we just walked in and said, “Hey, what’s up? You wanna be a part of this?”
JVS: We had to kidnap 3 of them. You can let us know which ones you think it is. Probably the ones with the worst lighting.
NFS: The ones with the spotlight on their faces?
JVS: Yeah. The ones not shot with the C300.
PG: You would think this was a no-brainer. I mean, seriously. This is one of the most amazing people in history. At 23 she made her first film just by seeing one screening.
JVS: If you look at the story, you kinda go, “Wait, what am I missing here? There must be a documentary about her,” and there is — it’s an older one. But there must be one that encompasses everything she’s done. The old documentary that was made, was made in a time when most of her films weren’t rediscovered yet, and a lot of them have been rediscovered since.
Basically, we looked at it, and it felt like we found money on the floor. You know? Kind of looked around and said, “Wait a second, we get to tell this story? Nobody’s done it before?”
So, it’s amazing that it hasn’t been told. It’s amazing that it’s been difficult to get it funded. But it’s still amazing that we get the chance to tell this story.
PG: Who comes to a foreign country and doesn’t speak the language, and decides, “Oh, I’m going to build my own studio. I can’t vote, but I’ll build my own studio.”
I remember when I first told my grandmother about this, she’s like, “Are you sure nobody else is doing this? You know how it is in Hollywood. There’s probably 5 other people working on it.” Nobody else is doing this, and I’ll tell you why — it’s very simple: You might’ve walked down and found a treasure in the middle of the road, but you gotta continue to explore. When it comes to these kinds of stories, you gotta do the digging.
We did the digging in order to humanize Alice to show the world that there’s an Alice in all of us. If you have a dream, passion, you can do it.
NFS: To think about a woman to go into a very male dominated industry, especially back then, and not only make films, but start her own production company, is just astounding to me.
PG: And not only did she start her own production company, what the interesting thing is, when she starts working at this place it’s a photography studio. And she comes in for a job and León Gaumont looks at her resume and says, “It looks good, but you’re a little young.” She’s like, “Oh, that’ll change.” The attitude and the tenacity — that’s what makes that person.
Anyway, she gets the job, and the photography studio loses its patent. So, she’s nervous because she’s going to lose her job and she says to Gaumont, “Why don’t you get some investors so we can stay in business?” Who says that at 23 years old in 1896? So, who does he get? Mr. Eiffel Tower himself! I would say that the woman has some entrepreneurial in her.
I think this story is great from the cinema historical aspects, but it’s an inspirational story — if you get up and go out there, you have a dream, you can do it. It doesn’t matter what the obstacles about you are.
NFS: That’s a message I think independent filmmakers need to hear. The fact that this woman from the 1800s is saying that with her actions, is just incredible.
PG: You know, when you start out you don’t know what you’re doing. She didn’t know what she was doing. When I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t think Jarik knew what he was doing. But, you gotta go out and do it and learn as you go.
JVS: I still don’t know what I’m doing, so –
NFS: I don’t know what I’m doing. I called you guys for this interview and I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I barely knew how to make a conference call.
PG: That’s what the message is. It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing.
NFS: Why did you guys decide to go the crowdfunding route with Kickstarter?
PG: It got to that point, because we were using most of our resources — we had gone around town to try to get it financed. The list of what we needed to do kept growing. It became a little bit too much. And we just felt like we — we know this is an amazing story, and we have to believe this world wants to hear it. We just can’t afford it. It’s just too expensive to be able to put it together at the level that she deserves.
And I think you’ll be the first person to hear this out of everybody that we’ve talked to. Alice was a perfectionist. If you look at her work, from the people that she hired, to the sets, to the editing, everything had to be perfect.
Therefore, we have to do this woman justice and tell her story the best way we can, even though it’s a tight budget. Why not get the best for the person who went after the best — who influenced people like Hitchcock? Why not get somebody like Jodie Foster to narrate, because she speaks perfect french? Why not talk to Diablo Cody who didn’t know how to use Final Draft in the beginning, who was there writing Juno, when Alice didn’t know anything about writing scripts? Why not go to Lorenzo di Bonaventura who started out being the head of production and now he’s an independent producer? Alice was the head of production and an independent producer.
What you think you know about history is going to change based on what we’re going to expose, and hopefully that’ll open the Pandora’s Box to other amazing stories like this.
NFS: For the indie filmmakers who will read this, what’s your message to them?
PG: If you have an idea, you have no excuse. Just do it. The hardest part is just going out and doing it and not being afraid. It’s not going to come knocking at your door. You have no choice. If you’re shy, you better get over it fast, because it’s about going out there and speaking your mind.
When people see your passion, whether they like it or not, if you’re passionate people will get infected and they will follow. That’s just the way it is. Our passion got us here.
A big thanks to Pamela and Jarik for sitting down and talking about Be Natural, Alice Guy-Blaché, and kidnapping celebrities. For more info, or if you want to contribute and support their project, check out their Kickstarter campaign here.