June 12, 2017

Faculty Profile: Lisa Leeman

“From the Heart to the Head”: An SCA Film Professor’s Take on Narratives and Social Change

By Gabby Cohen

Professor Lisa Leeman

Lisa Leeman, SCA professor and alum, is an award-winning filmmaker best known for her social-issue documentaries that are driven by powerful character-driven narratives. In this interview, Leeman talked about her classes, inspiration, and experiences working on her directorial debut, Metamorphosis: Man into Woman, which follows a transgender animation artist’s transition. The film is thought to be the first American film to chronicle a gender transition and was awarded Sundance’s Filmmakers Trophy (1990).

Leeman is currently working on the sequel, which follows the artist at a new crossroads, twenty-five years after the release of Metamorphosis. Some of Leeman’s other film credits include the feature documentary Awake, about the influential Indian swami Paramahansa Yogananda  (which has screened theatrically in 17 countries and is one of only 17 films directed by women in the 250 top-grossing films of 2014), and One Lucky Elephant, the story of a circus producer doing right by his ‘star’ elephant and retiring her, named by Roger Ebert as one of the best documentaries of 2011, and was broadcast on OWN as part of Oprah Winfrey's Documentary of the Month Club, and selected for the U.S. State Department's American Film Showcase.

Leeman’s work has been seen on PBS, HBO, Discovery, ARTE, and in theaters and festivals worldwide. She is a frequent juror, moderator, and panelist at documentary and independent filmmaking events.   In addition, she is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), and has served as a judge at the Sundance Film Festival, president of the International Documentary Association, and on the boards of the IDA and the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers. 

She cares deeply about mentoring, expanding diversity in filmmaking voices, & in cross-cultural media education.  She has taught master classes on documentary filmmaking for USC & the U.S. State Department in Azerbaijan, China, Jordan, Malawi, Portugal, the West Bank, and the Republic of Georgia.

You’re currently a professor in the Production Division at the School of Cinematic Arts. What kind of courses do you teach?

LL: SCA is organized in tracks by our craft: producing, directing, editing, cinematography, and sound. While I do all of these on my films, I teach within the producing track. I currently teach producing in the graduate third semester 547 Documentary Course and the 310 undergraduate second semester production class.

310 is mostly a fiction class, but once in a while, a student will make a documentary. People often have this idea that narrative means fiction, and that a film is either a narrative or documentary.

Really, the distinction should be non-fiction versus fiction because most documentaries use every narrative tool there is -- character development, protagonist, antagonist, and three-act structure with rising tension. Documentaries are incredibly narrative and there are even hybrid films being made that question and challenge notions of reality, fiction, and narrative. This sort of integration is also happening at SCA. For those interested in studying and making documentaries, there’s going to be a lot of potential to cross-pollinate between writing, directing, gaming, animation -- among all the SCA divisions. It’s exciting to think about what the incredible possibilities of this amalgamation will look like.

Many of your films focus on very specific social issues. Can you tell us about some of these projects, where their inspiration came from, and/or why you’re drawn to these issues in particular?

I like to say that I make ‘sideways social-issue films’. While I love a good advocacy film, my way into a subject is really by entering a person’s life and following them as they wrestle personally with some issue or challenge that society at large is also grappling with.

In my own experience, I’ve seen that social, behavioral, and attitude changes usually happen from the heart up to the head. Social change doesn’t usually start from the intellectual level. We have to empathize first with someone. Film is primarily a visceral medium, so when you can really empathize with someone in a film, when you can ‘walk a mile in their shoes,’ that’s a much deeper experience.

When the character becomes someone who you can connect with and when you’re on the journey with them, those choices and dilemmas they face become so much more real for you.

In my first film, Metamorphosis, I followed a transgender artist transitioning over three years, which took place in the 80’s, during a time when not much was known about the transgender experience. I started making this film right out of college and I was one of about six women in film school. I realized while making this film that this was a way for me to explore gender roles.

Watching someone transition was really a way for me and my audience to work out questions like, “What are gender roles in America? What do we think about men and women and how they’re supposed to behave?” And not only was I able to sort out these gender issues and think more deeply about them, but audiences were too. The film went on to win an award at Sundance and aired on POV/PBS, and we received a ton of letters from people.

I will never forget one letter from a woman addressed directly to the film’s protagonist, Gabi. The woman who wrote the letter identified herself as a Christian and said that before she saw the film, she truly thought that people who were having “sex changes” were the work of the devil. But after seeing the film, her perspective changed and she sincerely wanted to wish Gabi success. And to me, that moment illustrates the power of film to create social change. By exploring these questions and issues through someone’s personal experience, this was the end result. An empathetic narrative journey will inevitably open up hearts and minds.

To quote the renowned film critic Roger Ebert, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief. This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I'm not just stuck being myself, day after day. The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.?”

You’re currently shooting a sequel to your first film shot twenty-five years ago. What is it like to be shooting a sequel with so much time in between?

It’s an incredible privilege and honor to revisit someone who you made a film about twenty-five years ago. The truth is we all age and we go down unexpected paths that we might not have predicted when we were younger. The process of revisiting someone you filmed earlier in your life is a challenging opportunity because the film’s story can’t just be solely about the situation occurring twenty-five years later. There needs to be a narrative reason to tell this story.  There’s so many things going on in Gabi’s life today; it involves intense soul searching as a filmmaker to figure out where to focus the story, to identify the real essence of the story.

Finding Gabi after all those years was a lot like reconnecting with a family member. When we make films about someone, we develop these relationships with our characters. And you really couldn’t make an empathetic film if you didn’t develop a relationship with your character. While you’re a filmmaker telling their story, they are participating too. And it’s just incredible to pick that up again after all this time.

When I was filming this, I wasn’t thinking it was going to be a longitudinal thing. If I knew I would revisit it, I might have shot periodically throughout all these years. So now, I have to do the work of documentary archaeology. There are really interesting filmmaking questions about how you visually represent that time when you weren’t filming. You’re faced with the challenge of representing a time period that you don’t have footage for. And Gabi’s life now is nothing that I could have predicted years ago.

I am filming this crossroads now that she is 66 years old and she’s telling me what happened in her life from her perspective, and I have to dig deeper to understand the story from my perspective. What I do have in my original film Metamorphosis is a record of her transitioning from the late 80s and that’s extraordinary. Plus, Gabi is an animator. She’s a character designer and a world-builder, so it’s very exciting to experiment with including animation in the new film – especially as a way to represent the twenty-five years in which I wasn’t filming.

What are the biggest challenges that you face when making a documentary (or any film) in general?

The biggest challenge is probably figuring out what the story is. If you have an issue or situation, how do you turn that into a story? Who do you cast as the characters? In documentaries, there really is a sense of casting because you have to consider finding people that can embody the themes or issues you’re exploring. Real life doesn’t present itself into a neat and tidy three act structure, and that’s what is really so exciting about documentary filmmaking.

Ultimately, we’re interpreting reality and constructing our own perspective. Our own truth. Everyone who makes docs knows that truth is a subjective notion. Another challenge is the balance between staying connected to your original inquiry while also being flexible enough to change the focus or direction of your film when life happens. You have to be able to figure out how to make a story out of quirky, unpredictable reality.

For example, I was hired on “Out of Faith” to make a film about an Auschwitz survivor. When I met the woman’s family and started to understand her story, I realized there was a totally different, very interesting story to be told. Her grandchildren were marrying out of faith and that was hard for her to accept because she had lost almost all her family in Auschwitz, simply because they were Jewish. And this resonated very deeply with me because I am a product of an interfaith marriage. It became a really heartfelt look at three generations in this family grappling on a personal level with an issue that millions of Americans are also dealing with, whether they are in interfaith or inter-racial or inter-ethnic relationships. And again, it was a way to follow people dealing with something personal that society also faces.

Are there any particularly valuable lessons, whether about documentary filmmaking, the industry, or anything else, that you feel film students should know? What would you tell your 21-year-old self if you could go back?

Follow your filmmaking passions, follow your curiosity, follow your intuitions. Keep a filmmaker’s journal.  When I made my first film, people told me repeatedly that no one would care about this story and questioned why I was even telling it, but I was persistent. I knew there was a story, both a specific and a universal story. Learn how to identify your creative voice. Learn how to nurture it, nourish it, cultivate it, and keep listening to it. In today’s information-saturated environment, it’s very easy to get distracted by so much information and to lose that connection. So whether it’s keeping a journal, watching films and writing about them, or another process, find what helps you stay connected to your creative voice. 

Also, having a mentor helps. I’ve had a series of mentors in my career, two from my time in film school, who are still a mentor to me now. And immerse yourself in the film community. Wherever you are, there’s probably a group focusing on filmmaking. For documentaries in LA, there’s IDA and Film Independent, which both have fantastic programs, workshops, and filmmaker labs.

You have to believe in yourself and to protect the solitude that you need to hear your creative voice and to nurture it. It’s important to have alone time, but also don’t self-isolate. Especially as an independent filmmaker, you want to meet people and be part of the creative community, because filmmaking is a collaborative effort.

For students getting out of school, try to look for work that is as close to what you want to be doing as you can. If you want to make fiction, get jobs on fiction films. If you want to make documentaries, look into the doc world. It’s going to be much more rewarding and interesting for you to get experience that is applicable to what you’re interested in. Keep your eyes on the prize and stay within the realm of the world you want to work in.

Lisa’s bio on the USC website

Leeman's articles on the ethics and craft of documentary filmmaking include:

Bridging the Credibility Gap: Drawing the Line on Manipulation in Documentary

The Quandary of the Unreliable Narrator

How Close is Too Close?  A Consideration of the Filmmaker-Subject Relationship

Money Changes Everything – or Does it?  Considering Whether Documentaries Should Pay for Play

Creating the Best Score for Your Film,

Beijing Doc: A Report on Nonfiction Filmmaking in China,

Amman With a Movie Camera: Teaching Documentary in Jordan,

On ‘Out of Faith’ and Intermarriage:  The Director’s Perspective

Video Coverage: 

 Lisa Leeman's Career Retrospective, on Ondi Timoner’s online show BYOD

Video Interview, Lessons in Film, Art and Multimedia da Universidade Lusófona
(Lisbon, Portugal)

Print Coverage: 
Profiled in book: Rountree, Cathleen. On Women Turning 30: Making Choices, Finding Meaning.  Jossey Bass, 2000.

Premiere Magazine, “Women in Hollywood”  (by Jaime Diamond) pp. 116-119