Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Jill Demby Guest Is Helping To Change Our World
Nobody knows anything. Yes, get advice, but no one can tell you exactly how your career or life is going to go. And it’s usually not a straight line. Miracles happen. When I wanted to leave film editing to become a director/producer I didn’t know how that was going to happen. But again, I got a call with the perfect opportunity I was looking for and ending up receiving an Emmy nomination for my first producing/directing work. Who knew??!!
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Demby Guest.
Jill Demby Guest is an Emmy nominated and multi-film festival award-winning filmmaker who has worked extensively for public television, broadcast cable networks, Disney, and Warner Brothers. With a passion for telling life stories, her most recent film, “And Now, Love,” profiles Jewish WWII veteran and psychoanalyst, Dr. Bernard Bail, whose pioneering work in transgenerational transmission of trauma has shed light on an important and timely issue. Jill is a member of the Producers Guild of America, Film Fatales, and serves on the Board of Directors for Fund Her (www.fundher.org).
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Several major things occurred. In high school, I saw the film “Blow Up,” and I was mesmerized by it. I didn’t know why but it elicited visceral feelings, played with time and story and certain images clung to me. Back then, I didn’t know then there was such a thing as a career in film, so I left it at that. But it stuck with me.
Then I was studying Russian and Psychology in college when I happened to take a Film 101 course and saw the film, “Last Year at Marienbad,” by Alain Resnais. It changed my whole world! I thought, wow, this is a medium that can play with time and mix things up in a way that elicits emotion and presents reality and a way of getting at the truth of life in a way I’d never experienced. It was very powerful and very visceral. The images haunted me. And when I was introduced to the films of Jean Luc Godard, I was, needless to say, “breathless.” His film, “Breathless,” took my breath away. And “Vivre Sa Vie” taught me a new way of seeing, with its documentary feel and breaking the fourth wall as a way to commune with your character and really get inside her skin.
Then I saw the Maysles Brothers film, “Gimme Shelter,” about the killings at the rock concert at the Altamont Speedway. I was mesmerized as I watched the real-time reactions of the Rolling Stones as they watched the killing at Altamont replay on an editing machine and I thought, we are watching real life unfold. Real emotions unfold. No artifice. Just the real thing. After that, I just wanted to make films that could reveal that kind of truth, stories that make you feel. The truth of what it is to be human. Also, more importantly, the editor of that film was a woman!
And then the miracle of all miracles happened. While working at Madison Square Garden Productions in New York, making money to attend graduate school at London Film School, I became friends with Chip Monck, the lighting designer and tour director for the Rolling Stones. He loved to help young people, so I told him I was looking for a place to edit my thesis film. He told me that his friends, the Maysles Brothers, who had just done “Gimme Shelter,” my favorite film, were helpful to young filmmakers. I called them and they let me use their editing rooms at night, a total blessing. I got to know them and everyone there and they gave me my first job in the business. They were huge supporters of working with women in a very male-dominated business. I did some assistant camera work for Al Maysles and then they trained me as a film editor. Lucky me.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
So many things! I barely know where to begin. But here’s a few snapshots.
When I met John Cleese, I did a funny sort of bow, and he asked me if I was a comedienne. As my comic idol, I was flattered. The following year I spent a raucously hilarious evening with John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Connie Booth, Prunella Scales, and others at the Groucho Club in London.
I had the joy of spending 10 days following Alan Alda, Jimmy Smits and “The West “ cast while making a documentary on the making of the live debate episode for Warner Bros. We put hidden “fly on the wall” cameras in the satellite truck that would film the director, Alex Graves, and his team as the episode was airing live. Exciting!
I worked in the recording studio directing comedian and actor, Dudley Moore, as he read an updated version of Aesop’s Fables audiobook for children. There was a piano in the studio and during our breaks, he would give me a private concert. Incredibly talented pianist. Unforgettable! As an aside, we always walked our dogs at the Marina Peninsula, and we had a “moment” when we saw our dogs sniffing each other’s butts. Totally lost it!
When I was presenting “And Now, Love” at the Esalen Inspirational Film Festival, it a given that all the presenters would go to the hot tubs at night. My colleagues were men under 50 and I thought, I am not going down there naked and then have to be face to face with them on a panel the next day. But my daughter, then 28, who had worked on the film, went down there. I stayed behind and thought, well, that’s a bold move. A few minutes later, I followed suit. It was so pitch black that night that literally we could not see each other’s faces even though we were in close proximity in the hot tub. But we had soulful conversations about life and our passion for making change in the world. The next morning, fully dressed, I met the panel, saying, “I think we met in the hot tub last night. I couldn’t see your face but I recognize your voice.” Incredibly amusing.
When we were producing the recreation portions of “And Now, Love,” we had to build the wall and doorway of the hospital room. The team built it off site but when they went to load it onto the sound stage, it was too tall to fit in the stage door. We had to cut the wall and add a seem with molding to get it onto the stage. Creative solutions in a short period of time.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I was once at a Christmas party with David Bowie, Robert DeNiro, and his father, Robert DeNiro, Sr. I spent most of the time dancing with De Niro’s father and watching Bowie play chess with his son. Robert DeNiro Sr. was a fabulous dancer!
I was on a film location in Jerusalem with cast members Carrie Fisher, John Gielgud, Piper Laurie, Hayley Mills, Lauren Bacall, and Peter Ustinov. Gielgud, who I admired greatly, would sit poolside at the hotel in off-white linen shorts, a short-sleeved flowered shirt, and cream-colored suede oxfords with white socks obsessively reading gossip mags and trashy novels.
Other days I spent with Piper Laurie and Lauren Bacall, shopping in the old city where Lauren Bacall would try to bargain in English with the Persian rug dealers. Of course, they didn’t understand her so she thought if she just spoke louder they would. Her signature booming voice echoed everywhere but no deals were made. The same went for restaurants where she would order “toasted pita,” at the top of her lungs. Thankfully the waiters could understand the word, vodka, which she drank plenty of, and that helped tone her down. All very amusing.
Because we were associated with a film, we had carte blanche treatment. U.S. Ambassador, Morris Draper, consul of Jerusalem, got us into places we never could have seen on our own. We even had dinner at the home of the Mayor of Bethlehem. Really memorable. Even though Lauren Bacall still asked for “toasted pita.”
After working on a public television series called, “The Men Who Made the Movies,” with film critic Richard Schickel, I went to Los Angeles and spent the entire day with Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”). I had him all to myself and asked him every question I could think of. He was marvelous and loved helping young filmmakers.
There was a party for the premiere of the “The Men Who Made the Movies” series and I sat between Howard Hawks (“To Have and Have Not”) and William Wellman (“A Star is Born” (1937), “Public Enemy”) legendary film heroes. What an evening!
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Mostly women leaders. Anyone with the devotion and tenacity to stand up for the rights of others puts a smile in my heart. The courage and fortitude it takes to legislate is daunting. Some examples are Michele Bachelet, former Chilean President (2006), who rose to power with a mission to turn hate into understanding, tolerance, and love. Under Pinochet, both she and her mother had been victims of torture and her father, General Bachelet, had been tortured and died under the same regime. Yet she persevered and came back to her own country to create a sea change.
Benazir Bhutto, the first Pakistani woman Prime Minister to head a demorcratic government in a Muslim majority country. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she was a liberal force who promoted women’s rights. Facing much opposition from Pakistan’s Islamist lobby for her secularist and modernizing agenda, she was assassinated in 2007.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian President, (2006) first elected female head of state in Africa. Studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 for creating peace and economic progress in the country, strengthened women’s rights, expanded freedom of speech, and became an example for other African leaders.
I’m still enamored of Martin Luther King’s work and his “I Have a Dream” speech. Gives me chills.
Brene Brown for bringing vulnerability and shame out into the open. Thank you for your light!
Oprah all the time for her continuing work in listening to and uplifting others. She always leaves me with a smile or a thought to reflect on.
Amy Schumer because goodness knows we all need some levity.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Working on my documentary, “And Now, Love” was incredibly important because it cracked open the subject of love deeply. Who hasn’t struggled with love? How we get it, how we give it, how we keep it, can we get it, are we really able to love? All these questions about the one subject that makes the world go round. Bringing light to the transgenerational transmission of trauma as a block to love with a doctor and psychoanalyst whose ideas have helped many open up their love channels has been a worthy pursuit. Dr. Bernard Bail saw early on how the oppression of women had its devastating effect and that if women cannot take their rightly place at the table, we will never have peace in this world. He is someone who saw that and aimed to do something about it, believing that the greatest force that moves mankind is love. And there would be no end to war love as our base. So, step by step, person by person, ending the wars within ourselves we could finally end all our wars on our planet. It won’t happen overnight. But shedding light on that, to me, is of primary importance and has social impact for the existence of our species.
I’m on the Board of Directors for Fund Her (fundher.org), a PAC that funds progressive women candidates for California state legislature. Started by social justice attorney, Val McGinty in 2017, who realized funding was the missing piece, we have taken parity in Calif. government from 22% to 33% in just five short years. I call that success!
We were lucky to have Jamie Lee Curtis, actress, author, and activist, came on board as our spokeswoman to get our message out to the world. Our success has called us to serve other states who needed help funding candidates and we’re now in Iowa, Arizona, Michigan, and Minnesota and helped flip Virginia blue a few years ago. It has been my honor to witness the hard work and vision these women held for their communities. They come from all sectors; educators, lawyers, doctors, farmers, engineers, government administrators, infrastructure professionals, small business owners. Women of every color, gender and faith are represented with the first black woman governor of Iowa on the ballot this year with a good shot at winning. Bringing men and women together to run government is both a passion and a necessity to have equal voices heard and working together.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
There were a few things. When I was considering making “And Now, Love,” I read Dr. Bail’s book, “Irmgard’s Flute.” I was completely inspired by his devotion to healing mental anguish at all costs, even to the point of being ousted by his institute for having new ideas. That and his incredible resilience. Bailing out of two planes in WWII and surviving. In some way, he was born under a lucky star. And I think we all are to some degree if we can tap into it like he did. This was a man who was willing to stand up to oppression everywhere he saw it; Nazi Germany, antisemitism in America, oppression of women, oppression of thought. He was all about finding a way we could all have freedom, freedom of thought, freedom from hate, oppression, war, and primarily, the freedom to love fully. Well, who doesn’t want that?
I’d had my own struggles with love so I wanted to be witness to someone who was on that battlefield and so I took the leap of faith and jumped in to do my part in having a wider audience share in his journey and make it their own, hence, “And Now, Love” was born. I learned so much from him on the journey and felt like it was my lucky star. After the film, I fell in love, not so coincidentally matching the title of the film.
When it came to Fund Her I realized the missing thing for many women is money. We make less. For the same work. We tend to work harder, take things more seriously, and feel like we have more to lose. As a single mother in the mostly male-dominated entertainment business, I managed to thrive, but there were challenging years as well. I remember as a young film editor being told they wouldn’t hire me because “women get their periods and are moody.” Yes, a man really said that to me, but somehow I managed to find the right men to champion me without requiring sexual favors in return. It wasn’t always easy, but I found my tribe. I knew how hard it was for women to be given the same big opportunities as men, certainly as directors in my field. The opportunities were sparse. Change is happening now, but it’s been a long time coming. When Fund Her came along, I found it the perfect place to participate. The government suffered from many of the same foibles as the entertainment business and I’m thrilled to be a part of making the pathway for women running for office a little bit easier. They have all it takes; they just need a little funding to lift their wings.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Well, there are 39 women now in California government that we helped get elected. I would call that major impact.
When I interviewed some of Dr. Bail’s patients, I could feel the impact of his work. Some patients said they didn’t think they’d be here without his treatment. His kindness, his devotion to their healing. They had freedom in their lives. I could feel it. And when we had initial screenings of the film at UCLA, Museum of Tolerance, LA Holocaust Museum, libraries, and other schools, people would be crying and emotional at the end, telling us they finally saw their lives clearly for the first time in a way they never had before. Not having been privy to his theory, they could still get the impact for themselves. I witnessed a lot of “Aha” moments happening. I’m glad Dr. Bail got to witness them too.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Yes. Take the time to watch “And Now, Love” and give us your feedback. We’d love to hear from you. If the film is of value to you, we are free to do screenings either virtual or in person in your communities with a Q&A. We like to share the love.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- As Ted Lasso says, BELIEVE. If you believe, you receive. Faith is paramount, whether it’s religious or otherwise. There were many times when I didn’t know where the road would take me, but I always had “believe” shepherding me on, somewhere in the back of my head. One day I left a job interview that I knew wasn’t right for me and I said to myself (I may have said it out loud) “God, please don’t make me have to take this job.” Within about a minute I got a call with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
- Nobody knows anything. Yes, get advice, but no one can tell you exactly how your career or life is going to go. And it’s usually not a straight line. Miracles happen. When I wanted to leave film editing to become a director/producer I didn’t know how that was going to happen. But again, I got a call with the perfect opportunity I was looking for and ending up receiving an Emmy nomination for my first producing/directing work. Who knew??!!
- Be nice to all the assistants you meet. Finally, it’s all about the relationships you develop along the way. I recall really wanting to do a biography show for television and I made friends with the assistant at the production company who became instrumental in getting me across the finish line.
- Do the work that fulfills you, not necessarily the work you are competent to do. Many of us have multiple talents. For a period, I was producing commercials for an ad agency, and it wasn’t really a fit. It was more of an administrative and oversight position, and I felt I was more of a creative. I would read through all the scripts and think, “I can do that.” So, I took it upon myself to write a variety of scripts for one of our client’s shows. I then set a meeting with the head creative director and showed him my scripts. He was impressed and gave me my first shot at writing. The rest is history. I never looked back.
- You can’t control the universe. Leave room for serendipity. Again, it was when I was at a crossroads. This seemed to happen every seven years. Out of the blue, or call it serendipity, the opportunity to make “And Now, Love” came along. Timing, luck, and good fortune were with me as all the pieces came together rather effortlessly. It was a fortuitous event. I started my own company, Dreamscape Entertainment, and put a stellar team together to help the dream come true. I thought it was a lucky break but as Oprah explains it, “I believe that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.” And that couldn’t have happened without many years of creative and production preparation that allowed me the skills, wisdom and big picture thinking to see it through.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Move forward in the direction that puts a smile in your heart. Whatever that is, social justice, climate change, education, technology. If you have passion for it, go for it. That’s where you’ll make a difference.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to connect with Annette Porter, Director of the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund at Johns Hopkins University. I’d also love to meet and collaborate with Ava DuVernay. Not only do I admire her work, but she’s done more for women filmmakers in a short period of time than anyone out there. Demane Davis, is also someone I’d love to collaborate with.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I do my best to follow Maya’s quote and walk her talk. After talking to someone or meeting someone new, I try to see and feel the best in them and reflect that back to them in some way that uplifts them and acknowledges their uniqueness. If they leave with a bounce in their step and a smile in their heart, I’ve done my job.
How can our readers follow you online?
Personal social media:
“And Now, Love” social media:
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Thank you. It was my pleasure!