PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: (L–R) Sudeep Sharma, Carla Gutiérrez, Lucy Lawless, and Lana Wilson discuss filmmaking at a Cinema Café event at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Stephen Greathouse/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Annie Lyons
Lucy Lawless never intended to be a director. But when she got a cold email from the heir of New Zealand–based war photojournalist Margaret Moth’s suitcase of photographs, the idea enthralled her fully — a sentiment that resonates with fellow documentary filmmakers Carla Gutiérrez and Lana Wilson. The three women convened at the Filmmaker Lodge on January 23 for a warm, wide-ranging conversation about chasing down their obsessions with their 2024 Sundance Film Festival projects, the craft behind representing their singular subjects, and the generosity of the documentary film community.
“I was instantly possessed, I made this rash promise immediately, within 90 seconds of reading it,” Lawless says of that initial email that led to her documentary Never Look Away. “I said, ‘I’ll find the money, I’ll find the producers, we’ll get this made for real and then was castigating myself going, ‘Oh my god, who am I to say that? I don’t know how to do this.’ But I was so dialed into that decision in that moment that it turned out there was nobody more intensely focused on this project than me.
“That possession of the idea — when it owns you and when the story is so big, it wants to use you to tell itself — gives you a kind of charisma that [makes] other people want to get on board,” she adds.
Guitérrez comes from an editing background, and that same feeling drove her to make her directorial debut, FRIDA, an intimate look at the life of artist Frida Kahlo. “Her story has been told many, many times. A lot of people have done a lot of intellectual work about her art and her life. But it was really discovering her words in those books and then realizing that she could maybe tell her own story that was really exciting and urgent for me,” Guitérrez says. “But it wasn’t obvious, and I think it was my editing eyes that saw that, because nobody had done that before.”
Four-time Festival alum Wilson had an idea for a documentary about psychic readings for a few years but knew the timing for Look Into My Eyes was right after experiencing the first few months of the pandemic in New York City. “As soon as the pandemic began, that’s when I thought, ‘This is the moment to do it.’ We’re all obviously more isolated than ever, lonelier than ever. The preciousness of human connection has new meaning now,” she explains.
As the conversation went on, the three women couldn’t help but take over moderating duties from Sundance Film Festival programmer Sudeep Sharma, eager to delve deeper into each other’s processes.
Wilson notes that she worked on Look Into My Eyes at the same time as Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (2023 Sundance Film Festival), a project for which Guitérrez contributed editing work. Wilson loved going back and forth between the two “wildly different” films and how that allowed her to think in different ways, especially in regard to structure. Describing her intentions behind the more elliptical structure in Look Into My Eyes, she says, “I wanted it to be this flipping, mirroring experience so that over the course of the film, you realize that all of the psychics were themselves once clients, and they’re there because they had a transformative experience, and they felt that they wanted to give that to other people.
“Without giving anything away, in the final moments of the film, something happens that punctures the construct of the whole film. I hope that you think, ‘Wow, this was all artificial and I know that now, but this experience I had was still real and still meaningful.’”
For Lawless and Guitérrez, part of the difficulty was that their subjects are no longer alive. Speaking of Moth, Lawless notes, “Because she was a cameraperson, she was always behind the camera [and there’s] very few moving images of her. She also comes from a background that fostered no introspection, no self-kindness, no love for self.” By including a “constellation of opinions,” Lawless hopes to give the film the feeling of a choose-your-own-ending type of book.“You piece together who this woman was, from being a thrill-seeking iconoclast and total hedonist to being somebody who does achieve some kind of grace in the end, but through a really treacherous journey with a lot of wild friends,” she says.
Though there is no existing recording of Kahlo’s voice, Guitérrez explains that allowed her to be more creative with her choices. “When we got the actress for her voice, we were looking for this combination of maturity but also curiosity,” she says. “One of the things that was really important for me was to be authentic to her voice, guided by her voice and obviously, you know, her voice is mostly in Spanish, although she wrote in English as well and some Spanglish. The flowery language that she uses, especially when she’s talking about French intellectuals or rich New Yorkers, is a really special experience.”
All three of their films premiering at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival grapple with real stories of people with real pain. When asked about how they can take in and deal with those emotions, Guitérrez explains, “I feel that I’m my work and I’m my creative output.” This naturally makes it difficult for her to separate the work from the personal. “But I think that as an artist, I don’t think you want to stop that blended line of your feelings and your heartbeat coming and really tapping you into other people’s realities,” she says.
“I go to therapy, and I spend most of my time in therapy talking about my films, because there is so much to process,” Wilson adds. “I actually work with a therapist who mostly works with artists, and she’s told me over and over, ‘I have never worked with anyone who says, you know, ‘How was your experience making that movie or creating that sculpture installation?’ You’re never like, ‘It was great. It was fun, and everything went smoothly.’ That doesn’t happen!”
As demanding as the creative process can be, the filmmakers stress the value of collective effort and community. “The really nice thing about documentary filmmaking is that you can do it in community. That’s the support that you get also to lift you up and keep you sane,” Gutiérrez explains.
Wilson adds, “I’ve had some people say, ‘Who do you get to watch these in-progress cuts?’ Other filmmakers! They say, ‘They’re willing to do that?’ Yeah, unbelievably. So Lucy, welcome to the club.”
“I can’t even get my family to watch a rough cut,” Lawless replies to laughter.