Ten years ago, Emily Chapman graduated USF as a media studies major. Following her graduation, her biggest accomplishment was a documentary she worked on as a producer called, “A Trip Down Market Street.” Today, Chapman’s latest accomplishment has her working as a field producer for Ark Media on the latest Emmy nominated Ken Burn’s documentary series “Cancer: The Emperor Of All Maladies,” a series that lives up to the heavy weight of its title. Her past work includes “Superheroes,” “Clinton,” “Finding Your Roots,” “Constitution,” and “Panama Canal” for American Experience.” Chapman’s latest project, about the skinhead movement in the 1980s and 90s, is in developing stages. Due to the heavy weight of Chapman’s work, it asks the question of where does your work life end and your personal life start?
Was making a documentary about Cancer personal to you?
I’ve lost close friends to cancer and my cat just had surgery for a tumor yesterday, but beyond that I worked on the film for two and half years and got to know these families really intimately, as we were following and spending day in and day out with them in the hospital. It was a very personal project in that you’re rooting with the family, and going through these ups and down along with them, and they have been gracious enough to let you into their family. I still keep in touch with most of them from the show, and it was a very emotional and powerful two and a half years.
I read that the narrator Edward Hermann passed away of cancer too.
The first day he was recording he told us he had brain cancer and this was his last project, and I got know his family very well. I love his wife, and his daughter, who actually got to intern with me this summer. And I grew up watching “Gilmore Girls” too, so it was exciting recording with him. He and his wife would take the train in from Connecticut and I would go meet them at Grand Central so we could go into the studio together to record. So during this time when we’re in the car together getting to this studio we would just have story time, like, he has worked on so many interesting projects and travelled a ton and he was just such a powerful presence and it was a wonderful experience getting to know him.
It feels like that last documentary you worked on was kind of hard to separate from your personal life. Is there a line between your personal and work life when it comes to documentaries, do you even want there to be a line?
I remember in one of my journalism classes at USF talking about that line. In journalism you are meant to keep that line between yourself and your subjects so that you could keep that objectivity that is needed, but at the same time it is impossible to do in these kinds of situations; because the whole way you are going to capture these intimate relationships and interviews as needed, you really need to have an actual friendship or relationship with them. If you are maintaining this barrier–I don’t think you can do that. It took me a few years to figure out and I’m sure everyone has a different idea of what’s “appropriate”, which is a weird word to use because I think my relationships are very appropriate-of course, but everyone has to draw their own line.
When you were coming into USF did you know you wanted to do documentaries?
I actually was in a pre-med program in high school and I got kind of burned out on it. I saw “Do The Right Thing” by Spike Lee and I thought it was such a powerful use of film that really spoke to me. I guess in that way the kind of power that film had, documentaries can have as well. Once I got to USF I got really into experimental filmmaking and naturally found my way to documentaries. Specifically through, Melinda Stone and I produced a film called “A Trip Down Market Street” and I knew nothing except for what I learned through her but she taught me all these amazing ways to tell a story.
What is the most sound documentary you have ever seen; something that appeals to what you find important but also appeals to what you find to be technically inspiring?
Picking the film which I think is the “perfect” documentary is very difficult for me, I think mostly because I don’t believe in one definition of documentary. And I should probably leave the answer at that, but I’ll continue! Despite working currently on films that could be seen as traditional and structurally sound, other formats really sing to me.
Live cinema, something that both of my USF professors Melinda Stone and Sam Green explore in their careers is an incredible one-of-a-kind experience. I’d guess they’d say that no two showings are exactly alike. It becomes a very interactive experience rather than the standard passive viewing experience.
One of my favorite things to do for the past few years it to go to the Oscar documentary shorts in the theater. There is something spectacular about the documentary short. I love to see what directors decide to focus on in their limited space, and how they balance the “breathing room”. I remember that in one of the critiques I had with Sam Green at USF, he said that I was on the right track, but that my piece needed more “breathing room” and that really stuck with me. Those have become some of my favorite moments in films–the time when you can just observe and use those moments of peace to reflect on what you have taken in thus far.
“CitizenFour” had me on the edge of my seat for the entire time. “Land of Look Behind” is a vibrant portrait of Jamaica with plenty of breathing room which takes place in 1981 following the death of Bob Marley. “Koyaanisqatsi” manages to say so much without speaking a word in it’s vast imagery. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D” successfully brought me into another time. Sean takes you into a kids view of Haight Ashbury in the 70s (I saw this with a Q+A with the actual Sean while living in the Haight). It’s so rare to watch things happen in film as they progress. “Salesman” might be my favorite portrait documentary. “Buena Vista Social Club” had this warmth and beauty to it! Basically, I fail at this game! Sorry.
I know a lot of people who graduate with a degree in the Arts are nervous for what’s to come in the future. So what happened to you right after you got out of USF?
I feel like I came out with a with bang because of “A Trip Down Market Street,” but right after I waitressed and nannied for about a year and raised 10,000 to move to Jamaica and filmed there for a film I haven’t finished yet. It still hangs over my head until this day. After this I started working immediately and I got an opportunity to work on the “Sex and The City” movies and then right after that I got an internship with another company that works with PBS and I have been in the world ever since.
Photo courtesy of Emily Chapman