October 3, 2022
Alumni Spotlight: Jeffery Gary '84
By Olivia Kuhn
Jeffery Gary '84 is a documentary filmmaker and photographer. He is the director of the documentary Creating Beauty, as well as the author of the children’s book Cats, Dogs, Birds & Words.
His most recent directorial undertaking is the award-winning Holocaust documentary Letters From Brno, made in partnership with the nonprofit organization Transports to Truth. The film has been selected for multiple film festival lineups and will have its Los Angeles premiere at the Museum of Tolerance on November 9, 2022. Jeffery joins us today to discuss how he came to be a documentarian and his approach to crafting Letters From Brno.
What classes and experiences during your time at SCA were formative to you as a filmmaker?
Keeping in mind that I was a student there in the 1980s and we had not yet made the transition to digital, it was all about the edit room. This was in the days of the bungalows and we edited manually in a bullpen type environment. I remember the collegial nature of things and how easy it was to bounce from one person to another, checking out what they were working on and seeking advice. Also, Drew Casper’s class was a favorite. He brought in films before their premiere along with the filmmakers and it was very inspirational.
How did you first become interested in making documentaries? Was it something you were always interested in?
I really wasn’t ever interested in making documentaries. You could say documentaries found me. I was hired to be cinematographer on a documentary short called The Odd Couple about seven years ago and then two years later, the same director hired me to be cinematographer on her second project, Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity, and Stereotypes. From there, I produced and directed my first doc short, Creating Beauty, which was screened at over 25 festivals and won several awards. From there, I was hired as director/cinematographer for Letters From Brno.
How do you determine if a story is one that you should take on? Why did Letters From Brno connect with you?
First and foremost, there has to be a compelling, emotional story that resonates with me on a personal basis. Secondly, I need to believe that I can bring a unique perspective to the telling of that story. Letters From Brno connected with me on a variety of levels, but primarily as a tragic loss of life and innocence. The story centers on a Czech couple, Armin and Herta Turkl, who made the ultimate sacrifice as parents when they made the decision to put their eight and ten year old daughters on a Kindertransport train to London in 1939 after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. As a father of two girls, that level of sacrifice resonated with me instantly.
What is your process for preparing for a documentary? How long does it take?
I like to jump right in, get some early interviews with the primary interview subject and then step back to reassess what’s working. Is there really a story here? Am I headed in the right direction? Was something unexpected revealed? After that, more filming, research and preliminary editing to see if the story is coming together. The production time can vary by project. Two of the docs I mentioned above took approximately one year, while Drawn Together and Letters From Brno both took more than two years.
With Letters From Brno, what techniques or processes did you use with the interviewees to fully capture their stories on camera?
Probably the most interesting and challenging aspect of bringing Letters From Brno to completion was the fact that a large percentage of the film was completed during the pandemic. We had completed only about 25% of the interviews before we went into lockdown. Not wanting to wait until the pandemic was over to complete the film, I created a mobile production package that consisted of: a Canon 6D Mark II, with a 24 to 105 lens, external mic, sound recorder, lights, stands, tripod, and accessories and shipped the package to the remaining three interview subjects in Florida, Virginia, and Michigan. The package also included detailed instructions on camera setup. The interviews were then conducted over FaceTime. This was challenging and the image quality and sound quality suffered a bit, but in the end, thanks to a great editor and mixer, we were able to pull it together.
In the process of documenting your subject, how do you find a balance between being close to your subject and maintaining a respectful distance from it?
That question presents quite a conundrum. The subject of the film is Holocaust survival, family destruction, and discovery of a hidden past. It was difficult to maintain any sense of objectivity when you’re presented with primary source material from family members of those impacted by the Holocaust. This is one family’s story, verified by public and private documents; photos, letters, official Nazi documents, etc. I wasn’t overly concerned about getting too close to the subject. My primary concern was doing justice to the story and the family.
How did working with Transports To Truth, the non-profit behind Letters From Brno, pose unique opportunities for storytelling?
The film evolved organically from conversations I had with Karen Kruger, the producer of the film and granddaughter of the subjects of the film, Armin and Herta Turkl. Transports To Truth was formed about halfway through the production, by Karen and her sister Tracey Liberson. As the project progressed, Karen could see that the film might provide a great opportunity to further Holocaust education at the middle school and high school level. Transports To Truth was formed to further that goal and capitalize on the attention gained by the documentary. They also financed the majority of the post production on the project.
In what ways did the documentary change over the course of its production?
The first rough cut was 3 hours and 51 minutes and the final version is 64 minutes, so it changed a lot. As the name implies, this is a film about letters. How do you bring the letters to life and the voice of the authors of the letters to life in an interesting, visual way that doesn’t bore the audience? We didn’t have that answer when we started the film, but we knew it was a problem we had to solve. Once we brought our editor on board and the project began to take shape, we realized that some combination of creative re-enactment, voice narration, and motion graphics was needed to make the letters come to life.
What are your exhibition goals with this documentary? How can readers learn more about Letters From Brno?
Currently, we are going through the process of securing distribution on PBS for a nationwide broadcast sometime in the spring of 2023. The film will have its Los Angeles Premiere on November 9, at the Museum of Tolerance, which will be a joint screening with the LA Holocaust Museum. Tickets will be available on the websites of both organizations. The film has also screened at multiple film festivals internationally and has won two best documentary awards.
What advice would you offer to USC students and recent graduates looking to enter the industry?
It may seem like a trite response, but it really is true: there are no rules. There is no one way to be a filmmaker. Have passion, be determined and don’t give up on your goals, regardless of the obstacles life throws at you. Finally, don’t wait for the perfect conditions to start a project. With the technology available today, you can start a project with your phone, a DSLR, a GoPro... it doesn’t matter. The audience really doesn’t care what platform you use. What they want is a compelling story, well told. There’s a shot in Letters From Brno that was shot on my iPhone and I dare most people to distinguish it from the rest of the footage.