For #FemaleFilmmaker Friday, I’ve brought you an interview with Seattle filmmaker Michele Gomes, co-founder and Creative Director of InterChange Media who I was lucky enough to meet at an #NABShow several years ago. I produced an interview for her project Combating Ebola, a series of emergency response videos that aired throughout West Africa. We talked about her new feature length documentary, Saving Sea Turtles, co-directed with her production partner Jennifer Ting. The film won the Green Spark Award at the American Conservation Film Festival.
What got you interested in the plight of the stranded sea turtles?
I grew up in Rhode Island and spent my summers swimming in the Atlantic and I’d never heard of sea turtles swimming off the shores of New England. Then, during a visit to the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Cape Cod, we met a naturalist who told us that the rarest sea turtle in the world was washing up cold-stunned (hypothermic) annually every November and December and dozens of people were volunteering to go on patrols to save them. So we decided to rent a place for 5 weeks in order to capture this phenomena.
Did you set out to make a full-length feature doc or did the project evolve?
The project definitely evolved. I was interested in filming the conservation efforts and finding out what was going on with the sea turtles. Jenny wanted to make a film about the naturalist, who she thought could even make a good host for a television series. We both agreed we needed to capture what a “sea turtle stranding season” was like. After being on the ground, witnessing an environmental crisis—the largest sea turtle stranding in Massachusetts history–and seeing how the local community came together to try and save 1200 sea turtles, we knew we had to tell the whole story. The species is Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, and marine wildlife specialists and volunteers are working hard to prevent them from
What were some technical challenges that you and Jenny faced with production and what were your solutions?
While we brought a lot of equipment, we were not prepared for the weather conditions during the winter on the Cape. The patrols happen after every high tide, day and night. The first time we went on a night sea turtle patrol, we had plans to shadow a retired private school teacher named Nancy Rabke. The wind was so intense that when she came over to our car I could barely get the door open and she had to fight to wedge herself into the car and said, “I don’t think you should come out with us tonight. The wind is just too strong!” We completely agreed. Cape Cod is an enormous sand bar that sticks out 60 miles into the ocean and the sand gets wiped around by the wind and it can be painful. If we had tried to film that evening, our lens would have been destroyed and we wouldn’t have captured the rest of the events as they unfolded. So we had to adjust and be patient and practical.
Because of the wind storms and the volume of sea turtles that got pushed ashore, everyone around us was overwhelmed and dealing with the unexpected. So we had to think and move fast, be resourceful and ask lots of questions without getting in the way.
We also lost the main character because he ended up having a major health problem just when the mass stranding was taking place. So we shifted our focus a bit and found another lead. Luckily, this story didn’t rest on one man’s shoulders. The film reveals a community network that involves thousands of people from states all along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as from across the US and Mexico.
Every documentary hits financial challenges. How did you approach the funding?
This was a passion project of ours, so we mainly ended up funding it ourselves. We tried a Kickstarter campaign, but didn’t reach our goal. We applied for grants but didn’t receive any. Getting funding for a film about conservation is notoriously difficult. It is not typically a flashy subject. Women Make Movies in NYC became our fiscal sponsors so anyone who wanted to donate money towards the film could do so through them.
Are there any tools–camera rigs, workflow management tools, etc.–that you used that made the process easier?
Go-Pros helped us to capture the underwater footage we needed as well as helping us to put the viewer into the footsteps of a volunteer (think pre-VR). We discovered that the shoulder rigs we rented were too heavy and didn’t fit our bodies, so we went with hand-held except for sit-down interviews.
Not only do you have to be technically prepared, but you also have to be mentally prepared. I’ll never forget the moment about a week before the production began that I realized that we will not only be shooting live sea turtles, but dead ones as well. Being prepared to expose yourself to some potentially traumatic content/experiences can be helpful.
What is your top piece of advice for any first-time long-form documentary makers?
Be sure you are focusing on a subject that is meaningful and inspiring. If it is a meaningful subject, you’ll get it done no matter what obstacles you face (financial, time, technical, etc.) Witnessing the dedication of the sea turtle patrol volunteers going out at 3 AM in 20 degree weather in harsh conditions inspired us every step along the way. We finished the film to honor their work and to help out with the plight of species. So in the end, we felt good about all the work we put into the film and we are so grateful that we get to share it with others. Also, Jenny and I put down our cameras to help save sea turtles and that was a transformative life experience.
Any final thoughts?
Be sure to bring your post-production partners into the project early. We’re so happy that we had meetings with an animator well before the film was in picture lock. The more you can prepare your post-production team the better. Talk to everyone about your film because you never know who is going to make a great suggestion. It was our roommate who recommended our narrator and we were blown away by our experience working with a living legend, Dr. Sylvia Earle. Creating a feature length documentary is a time- and energy consuming commitment. Our film took 2.5 years + and was demanding work. Not only are you a filmmaker, but you have to be a social media expert, distributor, promoter, web designer and endless advocate.