Skye Fitzgerald, Documentary Filmmaker-Episode #279

Jan 23, 2024 | 0 comments

“Talent is something that we earn, that we earn through grit, through perseverance, through sort of through a willingness to return to the same task and try to do it a little bit better the next time. I believe it’s a process, it’s a creative process of repetitive and incremental improvement.”
~Skye Fitzgerald

Skye Fitzgerald founded Spin Film to bear witness to unfolding crises with the intent to deepen empathy and understanding. He recently completed a trilogy of films on the global refugee crisis. The first, 50 Feet from Syria, focused on doctors working on the Syrian border and was voted onto the Oscar® shortlist. The second, Lifeboat, documents search and rescue operations off the coast of Libya and was nominated for an Academy Award® and national Emmy®. The third, Hunger Ward, explores the impact of the war and famine in Yemen on children, families, and healthcare workers and was nominated for an Academy Award®.

Lifeboat and Hunger Ward are both powerful and insightful explorations of people working to prevail under the most challenging and harrowing of circumstances.

As a Fulbright Research Scholar, Skye directed the film Bombhunters and has worked with organizations as varied as the Sundance Institute, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Mountainfilm.  He’s an honorary member of SAMS (the Syrian American Medical Society) for his work with Syrian refugees. And he’s a Distinguished Alumnus at his alma mater Eastern Oregon University for documentary work.

Skye also happens to be a member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Before filmmaking, Skye cut fire-lines as a member of a HotShot wildland fire crew.



Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat,

Skye Fitzgerald: I believe that. Talent is something that we earn, that we earn through grit, through perseverance, through sort of through a willingness to return to the same task and try to do it a little bit better the next time. Through an improvement of craft, through an improvement of technique. In the hope that if we repeat that cycle enough times, that our craft and our output, whatever that may be, and will, So I believe it’s a process, it’s a creative process of, repetitive and incremental improvement. And then if you do that enough times, you can become talented or people will view you as being talented.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden. A podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, Skye Fitzgerald, founded spin film to bear witness to unfolding crises with the intent to deepen empathy and understanding. He recently completed a trilogy of films on the global refugee crisis. The first, 50ft from Syria, focused on doctors working on the syrian border, and was voted onto the Oscar shortlist. The second Lifeboat documents search and rescue operations off the coast of Libya and was nominated for an Academy Award and National Emmy. The third, Hunger Ward, explores the impact of the war and famine in Yemen on children, families and healthcare workers, and was also nominated for an Academy Award. I’ve seen lifeboat and hunger ward and can tell you they are both powerful and insightful explorations of people working to prevail under the most challenging and harrowing of circumstances. I highly recommend Skye’s excellent work to you. As a Fulbright research scholar, Skye directed the film Bomb Hunters and has worked with organizations as varied as the Sundance Institute, the US Institute of Peace and Mountain Film. He’s an honorary member of Sam’s, the Syrian American Medical Society for his work with syrian refugees, and he’s a distinguished alumnus at his alma mater, eastern Oregon University. For documentary work, Skye also happens to be a member of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before filmmaking Skye cut fire lines as a member of a hotshot wildland fire crew. So for all those reasons and many more, it’s a great privilege to have the brilliant documentarian Skye Fitzgerald join me today on StoryBeat. Skye welcome to the show.

Skye Fitzgerald: Thanks. Happy to be here.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s a great pleasure to have you so let’s go back in time just a little bit. What inspired you at what point? To make documentaries?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, growing up, I read a lot, so I lived in sort of the world of imagination. and one of the reasons that I read a lot was that when I was pre high school, our family moved to a really remote area of Oregon, and, we didn’t have running water, electricity, or tv, of course, either. I went even deeper into sort of that imaginary world of books that I was already ensconced in as a think. I think that dual experience of living in a world of imagination while also living, practically in a place where you didn’t have many of the modern conveyances of american culture that most people in the US have. Running water, propane heater, a bathtub. I think that instilled in me a sense of empathy for those in the rest of the world who also don’t have those things. When I went to college, I fell into theater initially, but then that, eventually led to film and cinema for me. And I think, the world of, exploring how those lack of resources, play out in different ways across the world fascinated and interested me.

Steve Cuden: Would you say that’s the theme that runs through all of your work? Is people, dealing with a lack of resources?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, I haven’t thought about it in that way exactly, but I think that’s probably true, that that is a theme that makes its way through almost all my work.

Steve Cuden: It’s certainly in the two movies that I saw, lifeboat and Hunger Ward, that people don’t have much of anything in either of those movies.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah, for sure.

Steve Cuden: And so did you watch a lot of documentaries when you were in school?

Skye Fitzgerald: No, and I didn’t go to film school either. I went to study theater initially just liberal arts, and then, as I mentioned, fell into theater and just loved it intensely. and then also went on to graduate school in theater as well, to get an mfa in directing. And it was during that experience where I stumbled into a graduate level course of television directing, because I needed an extra elective one term, and just fell in love with directing for the little rectangle, frankly, and never looked back. And so I decided to at least finish my degree because, I’d already put almost two years into a three year program. Right. and I didn’t want to just let that fall by the wayside. And so I continued. But I also started working at a little cable company locally, shooting little commercials, and just learned there how to cut my teeth, how to shoot, how to edit all those things. So really was self taught, from the technical side of things throughout my career.

Steve Cuden: So I’m going to assume that the commercials that you were making were sort of little mini narrative stories. They weren’t documentaries, right?

Skye Fitzgerald: Correct. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: And so you also have this theater background, so you understand narrative and how to tell story from that perspective. How important is it that you have that background in terms of making narrative documentary that then holds together and works as a piece?

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah, great question, Steve. I think there’s a lot of skills that sort of cross verbalize between theater and then other art forms. For me, I think it’s less the storytelling piece of it, perhaps, and more, I think, the soft skills of a creative team that I learned in the theater. So, on any creative endeavor, right. You have to work with people. You have to work with people who come from all different places, and ways of thinking. And I think that creative process that happens with creatives, regardless of medium, is what I learned studying theater.

Steve Cuden: That’s a very.

Skye Fitzgerald: Absolutely translated into m documentary.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s a really good point, that being in the theater is a team enterprise. It’s not a singular enterprise. And same thing with making movies. Rarely, does one person do all of the elements of movie m making filmmaking. Do you think that collaboration is a key to making a movie successful?

Skye Fitzgerald: Sure. Yeah. I think it plays out very differently sometimes in fiction and nonfiction. I think for me, in the nonfiction space, at least, I think that collaboration, in some ways, takes place between, the documentarian and their collaborators, who I don’t think of as primarily being the production team, but rather those who.

Steve Cuden: You’Re spending time with, the subjects of your piece.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. And I intentionally try not to use that word because I don’t think of the subjects, the people who I’m filming as being subjects. I think of them as collaborators, and I think that’s the only way, truly, in the nonfiction space, when people are sharing their lives with you to gain true consent. Right. That it’s a collaboration, not that they’re guiding the story. I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that, there has to be an active dialogue and conversation and understanding of what your intent is as a media creator, but also, they have to trust you. Right. And so it’s a relationship that I believe you have to build that’s very collaborative in nature.

Steve Cuden: Did they think of themselves as a collaborator with you? Do you convince them of that?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, I try to set it up that way in the beginning. for sure, I think everyone probably thinks about a little bit differently. But the way I pose it is that this is a relationship we’re building, and that it’s an open dialogue. And I’m very open with people about, what our intent is, at least our stated intent, because projects change over time. In the nonfiction world, of course, you may think you’re creating one thing, and then you end up creating an entirely different thing. That’s the magic of art, right? I actually have a term for that. I think of it as the three creations, because, at least in my documentary experience, every film that I have done has had three distinct lives or iterations in my creative process. The first is my vision of what I want to create before I create it. Right. So I have this notion that, okay, I’m going to go shoot a film about kangaroos in Australia, which I just did this summer. Right, okay. And I have this idea of, okay, here’s from all the research I’ve done, the people I’ve talked to. this is the film I’m going to do, right. And then you land. Right. And then you start working with everybody, and you start filming. And inevitably, in my experience at least, it’s not usually what you think it’s going to be. I mean, there are shared elements that certainly line up in the real world, with your research, but fundamentally, things are different as well. And I find that that’s a really important re envisioning of the project in the creative process every time. Because when you don’t do it, you’re trying to create something based on something that doesn’t exist or documentary. So that’s the second visioning for me. And I usually transform, really, or at least shift and evolve how and what we’re doing based on what I discovered. And then the third visioning or creation, of course, is you get back in the edit studio, and you actually go through all the footage, and you may or may not have the things that you thought you filmed. It’s usually a, whole nother process where I have to be really creatively frank and say that, well, it’s not this first thing that we’ve set out to create. It may not be the second thing either. So what is the best thing we can create now with these concrete assets that we have? So that’s a process I go through for every documentary that I.

Steve Cuden: And so you don’t set out to make a documentary with a preconceived notion of what the end story will be. Do you like a script?

Skye Fitzgerald: Typically? No. I’ll, ah, have an outline script. But it’s an outline based on all the research I’ve done on what I think I’m going to create. But once again, it’s the first iteration, it’s the first visioning, and it never holds up. It’s always very different by the time I get to the third, because reality.

Steve Cuden: Is different than what you imagined, of course.

Skye Fitzgerald: Ah. And that’s even having built relationships sometimes with people over a long period of time before we begin filming, right. Of the people we’re going to be collaborating with. Once you actually see how things play out in the real world, inevitably it’s different. And I think it’s foolish to try to hold on to these early notions. If you can create something more accurate, more authentic, out of what you.

Steve Cuden: Actually discover, the research that you do, is it very intense? Is it deep?

Skye Fitzgerald: Typically, yes. I typically spend a lot of time researching, and talking with people long before we film.

Steve Cuden: How much time typically do you think? Is it months?

Skye Fitzgerald: It’s been as much as a year.

Steve Cuden: So you dig in. Do you then do a lot of travel? Is that part of your research? Or do you try to do your research on the computer and libraries and.

Skye Fitzgerald: That kind of do. I’m a little old school, I think, Steve, in the sense that I still love the telephone, that strange little telephone thing. so I actually do a lot of talking with people because I think there’s something to be gained from real time dialogue that isn’t built out of email missives back and forth. So once I find my way to the people who are at the heart of the story, and they agree to collaborate, it’s a lot of conversations, actually, because I find that that generates a lot deeper understanding of what their situation is before we begin our process and helps us shape how we’re going.

Steve Cuden: To approach it as well as you’re talking to people, do you find information that then leads you down roads that you were really, truly unexpected?

Skye Fitzgerald: Oh, yeah. Every film, of course.

Steve Cuden: Every film, yeah. And the final product, of course, is then formed in an editing bay. And you’re going to come up with something very different at that point too.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yes, absolutely. That’s part of the joy. Right. It’s part of, the challenge, the risk, but also the joy of it, because, as you noted, it’s a creative process. And I think if you close that loop too early, I believe you create something that is less authentic, less visceral, less powerful.

Steve Cuden: Where would you say your ideas principally come from? Is it the news? Is it from talking to people, where do your ideas come from? The original notions. I’m going to go do, a documentary on kangaroos, in Australia. Where does that come from?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, that one actually came from, a magazine article that I read years ago. I was on a bike ride in Colorado and we were riding from cabin to cabin and we got to this one cabin. They actually had a batch of magazines and I was like, oh, something to read. And so, there was this great, I want to say it was outside magazine. It might have been Nat geo, I don’t even remember. But, it was an article about, kangaroo shooters in Australia and the reality that one of the two national symbols of Australia, the kangaroo, is an example of the largest mass slaughter of land based animals in the world every year, really. And it’s done with the full knowledge, of the australian government and by a lot of professional shooters who go out at night and can call as many as 70 kangaroos a night.

Steve Cuden: 70 kangaroos a night.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. And so I read that article up in the mountains of Colorado and I was kind of stunned. I was stunned that I’d never heard about this. I was fascinated. Right. because who doesn’t love kangaroos? And yet I knew that there had to be a really fascinating backstory to that too. One, why would the australian government sanction such an activity when it’s a national symbol of the country? And, two, what are the economic forces driving that that would cause someone to become a kangaroo shooter? I was fascinated by that, especially someone who grew up in an area of the US, deeply rural, where hunting for venison and so forth was just a part of life. It was something that everyone in the community did food to the fridge for the winter. And so I understand that culture because I came from an area where that culture was alive and well. And so I knew that there were probably deep economic underpinnings to that and probably a deeply blue collar sort of, context for it as well. And I’m often drawn to really sort of blue collar stories, given my background. And so I started digging in right away and started making phone calls and found photographers and the author of the story and then eventually worked my way into this relatively siloed community of professional kangaroo shooters who don’t want to talk to the media or filmmakers. But it took a long time to build those relationships.

Steve Cuden: And so once you got there, they trusted you to a certain extent, yeah.

Skye Fitzgerald: Because, I’d been talking with them on the phone from here and having, back and forth in terms of what they did. I tried to understand what they did and why they did it, and sort of kept myself open to any of their questions, which came out as well, because this is the community that is very media shy, for all the reasons you can probably anticipate. They’ve got a lot of bad press in the past, no doubt. Yeah. So it took a long time for them to say yes, frankly.

Steve Cuden: So you impress me as someone who goes into dangerous situations, or at least very difficult situations. What you said earlier is informative, that you came from that sort of, woodsy environment as a kid, and perhaps that was a little easier for you than someone who grows up in a concrete jungle like a city. Do you have any reservations as you go off into a completely unknown situation in a foreign country?

Skye Fitzgerald: Sure. Always. I’m a big believer in sort of mitigating risk as much as you can. How do you mitigate risk? It’s different for every environment. It’s different for every context. Right. So it’s absolutely unique to each project. But, I think the mitigation of risk is a key piece. Like, fully face it, is this a potentially dangerous environment and or project? And if it is, be honest with yourself as well that it is, and ask yourself whether or not your risk threshold, is met or not. And I think over time, probably my risk threshold has proved to be pretty high. I would guess so, yeah. but I’m very intentional about sorting through how I can mitigate that risk on every project I undertake. Because I have a death wish. I want to go out and tell the best story I can and make the biggest impact I can with that story. So I work very hard, to try to lessen that risk long before.

Steve Cuden: So then once you have a concept, whatever that concept is, what are the first steps you tend to take? Since you’re not going to write a script, do you start to outline right away, or do you need to do all the research in order to form even your beginning ideas of what’s going to happen?

Skye Fitzgerald: It’s sort of a hunt and gather process with the intent to understand, as much as you can understand before filming. And so, that’s the conversations that I keep referencing. Right. Is that I really believe that the more conversations I have with people who are at the heart of this thing, whatever it is, whether it’s conflict or famine or hunting zone, I seek to understand first, because I don’t feel like I can build out even a vision for what it is until I understand as much as possible why people are where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. So, it’s really a trajectory towards understanding. So I try to have those conversations, and once I feel like I found my way to the people who are truly at the heart of the story, of what I see as the story, then I start thinking about the how of it, the how I shaped this story, if I were to do it. And, that’s a visioning process, where I create a spreadsheet and just start writing ideas like, what could the point of view be, for example? Right, based on the people I’ve already met. Right. Based on the people I’ve already built relationships with. And that results in the first visioning of the project, of how I think I can go about creating.

Steve Cuden: Do you tend to think that you have a goal or an end product idea before you go, or do you always leave yourself wide open?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, there’s a tension there in my process, which is very real, and, exists just about every time I do a nonfiction project, because on the one hand, I think I know at the beginning what the film is going to be, but I also know it’s going to transform during the three phases. But before I internally commit to filming the production piece of it itself, I always have a firm notion of what the impact campaign is going to be for the film. So I’m m previsioning, okay, if I do this film like I think I’m going to create. Right. How would that film impact the real world? And if the answer is I don’t think it can, I usually don’t do the film.

Steve Cuden: It has to have some impact in your mind on not just you, but on the whole world.

Skye Fitzgerald: For nonfiction? Yes, absolutely.

Steve Cuden: For nonfiction, yeah.

Skye Fitzgerald: And that just goes to one of my. We all create art for different reasons. Right? Sure. But for me, for my documentaries, at least, I feel it goes to this fundamental belief. I hold that I just believe that we need to try to leave this planet a little better than we find it.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s a very noble thing to do, and I think that’s getting rarer and rarer. So I think it’s great that you’re endeavoring to do that.

Skye Fitzgerald: I’m not sure it’s, the smartest thing to do within the film industry, necessarily. It doesn’t lead to riches showered upon you. But you know what? I’m at peace with that, and I deeply enjoy the process and what I do.

Steve Cuden: I’m aware of only one documentary filmmaker who’s made a lot of money and that’s Michael Moore. Otherwise, docs tend not to, Well, where do you see them? You don’t see them in big theaters, on long runs. You don’t really see them on cable. A little bit on cable, but not that many. Mostly it’s narrative fiction. You say that you’re interested in eliciting empathy and understanding, and in fact, that’s where you start. You have to understand your subject, what your topic is before you start. When you’re attempting to work on one subject or another and you’re doing your research, is it that you have to have the empathy first in order to actually go out and make something that elicits empathy? Do you have to feel something about your subject before you go do it, or can you be clinical about it?

Skye Fitzgerald: I think both. I, ah, think it can work both ways for me personally. Like take hunger Ward, for example, which.

Steve Cuden: You’Ve seen, and by the way, made me so uncomfortable, which I think was part of the point. And it was very challenging for me to sit all the way through it, because it’s right in your face and it’s very difficult to watch.

Skye Fitzgerald: As it should be.

Steve Cuden: As it should be. I agree.

Skye Fitzgerald: And that was the intent for me. What is as insidious as hunger or as fundamental, right. Especially a child who’s hungry. To me, that’s such a fundamental wrong that exists on our planet today. That when I saw a photo from Yemen that a journalist I know took, of a starving child who died days later, that was an affront to my conscience.

Steve Cuden: Fundamentally, there was that eliciting of empathy in your part.

Skye Fitzgerald: So I had empathy based on another artist’s work, right? Another craftsperson’s work. That elicited such a strong response in me that I thought, how I started asking myself questions, how could this be happening, right? How come I didn’t know about this? Why haven’t nation states intervened in a way that prevents this from happening? And I start asking myself all those questions because I’m not a politician, because I’m not a humanitarian actor, necessarily. Although I have flirted with the edges of that during the course of my career. what are my tools? Well, my tools are a camera and my ability to tell a story. And so I was so enraged by that photo, and it listed such strong emotion to me that I thought, this is something that is worth me devoting a chunk of my life to. To making sure other people know this as well, in the hope that they will engage and try to do something as well with their own toolkit. Right. With their own skill set. So, hopefully, over time, we can create a critical mass that can alter that dynamic so that this seven year old child doesn’t weigh 24 pounds. Right.

Steve Cuden: Indeed. I think that the rage that you’re talking about, I don’t think the movie looks like an angry movie, but the energy of that absolutely comes pouring off the screen, that you can feel that energy of your intention to show this in all of its full bloom, you’re not hiding very much. And that’s part of what really is, challenging to watch, because it’s so not what we’re used to seeing mostly here in America. Tell us about lifeboat, too. What’s that about?

Skye Fitzgerald: So, lifeboat was, the film that preceded hunger ward for me. And, it really came out of a similar place, but my approach came in a different way. Like, it didn’t come from a magazine article or a photograph, it came through colleagues, because I’d already done this film called 50ft from Syria that I partnered with a syrian american surgeon here in the US who was returning to the syrian turkish border, to volunteer as an orthopedic surgeon on refugees flowing across the border from syrian to Turkey. And so when I was working with the Syrian American Medical Society and other aid groups who were dealing with this refugee problem, we had a lot of conversations over mean. This doctor and my DP and I all sleep in a single hotel room. This very small circle of people, some of these aid workers who were in this area, started to share with us how the flow of refugees was shifting, because they were starting to close down the border to Turkey and because of the deal between the EU and Turkey that all these boats were starting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to know and to Italy. And that they anticipated that, the EU was completely unprepared for this and that they’re already seeing signs of that and that there’s going to be a massive loss of life. And these were people who were sort of in the trenches of refugee aid work throughout the Middle east, and the EU. So that sort of stuck with me and I started again researching at that point, right. And started doing my due diligence, started calling people, started reading as much as I could on it, and quickly discovered that it was happening. Absolutely. And that it was starting to grow exponentially, the number of boats, the number of people who were dying on these boats. And that triggered my interest. And I thought, this is something that more people should know about. And I thought, how can I make a film? that will move people, in a visceral way so that people can understand what that journey is like, the terror of that journey, the horror of that journey, and some of the reasons behind the journey itself.

Steve Cuden: Well, there’s no question it’s like hunger ward. Extremely visceral. It really is a gut punch. And that one in particular, from when I watched it, I thought that the work that you did was. That looked really dangerous. That looked like it was almost. You could have gotten into lots of trouble being out in the ocean like that. Am I wrong?

Skye Fitzgerald: lifeboat was actually a much safer, in quotes, film, to film than, hunger ward, really, because hunger ward is a conflict zone. It’s an active conflict zone to this day. With lifeboat, we had partnered with Seawatch, this german NGo that was one of, several groups, ngos, that were doing this rescue work. And so, was it unsafe being on a small zodiac in the middle of the ocean at night? Sure. But at least there weren’t missiles flying overhead or bullets. And we had a great relationship with this NGO on this third boat. And so it was absolutely a crisis, and absolutely people were dying, and it wasn’t as dangerous as the.

Steve Cuden: So you are clearly, attracted to very challenging subjects. You don’t make documentaries about factory work or, people working at offices. You’re going out into the field, around the world and dealing with these very challenging subjects. What was it about? And I think that it is, by the way, extremely humanistic, what I’ve seen so far. And whether you’re intending it or not, it has a political, tilt to it. Whether you’re trying to put that on there or not, it’s in there because you’re dealing with subjects that are political in nature. And so were you always attracted to that sort of thing about making the world better? Did that come from when you were a young man, that you felt like you needed to help the world see ways to make the world better?

Skye Fitzgerald: Excellent question. I don’t know. I don’t know, Steve.

Steve Cuden: I guess you’re compelled to do this rather than. It’s something that you’ve had a passionate thought about, a developed thought. It’s something that’s more of a compulsion.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s probably accurate. Yeah. What popped into my head was this, quote, art. I’ll probably butcher this, but it’s. Art disturbs science, reassures, and it’s by, I think, you know, the art disturbs piece. Right. I think is fundamental to my filmmaking.

Steve Cuden: do you think of yourself as a provocateur?

Skye Fitzgerald: Not in a Michael Moore sense, at. No, no, not at all. I think of someone who tries. Think of myself as someone who believes that there are people in this world who are going through incredible trauma and trials that we ought to know about, that are solvable, right. They’re solvable by the global community, whether that’s made up of nation states or civic society groups or. They’re solvable problems. and that’s why I wanted to focus on the refugee crisis, is because that is a solvable problem that we, as a global community, have not, come together to solve. And consequently, there are millions and millions of people and kids who have lived their entire lives in refugee camps. And, that makes me sick to my Stomach. That’s a fundamental wrong in my book. And I wanted to tease out how that’s played out into parts of the world.

Steve Cuden: And there, on display, is what I was alluding to earlier, that that’s your empathy. You’re empathetic with that situation where I think there are literally millions of people who either do not know anything about it or just simply don’t care. And it comes through your work is there’s a deep sense of care about what you’re documenting. talk about a moment. I want to go back to the dangerous part of the job, which I do think is unique. I couldn’t do it personally. That’s not my thing. And, I’m wondering what you do to prepare to go around the world. How much equipment do you need to take with you? How much do you have to pack? How much safety thinking do you have to do in advance? How deep is that? Or do you just go?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, as I mentioned, mitigation is key. so there’s a lot of practical things that I do, for sure. Right. communication, for example, just to start there. Right. So if I’m going to a place where there are bad actors, then we communicate in certain ways and don’t communicate in other ways. Right. and that includes encrypted apps, of course. It includes dedicated travel phones rather than your regular phone. It means bringing only a wiped laptop.

Steve Cuden: only a completely wiped laptop.

Skye Fitzgerald: And a Faraday bag, if you know what that is. That’s a bag that blocks all transmission signals in and out. So that if someone’s trying to pull data from your laptop, it means satellite communication instead of cell tower communication. Because, for example, in Yemen, the cell towers in one of the areas we’re working were completely controlled by the United Arab Emirates. and they’re pretty savvy from a telecommunication, there’s. That’s just. Right. so, on each level, there’s preparation in terms of just physical security. a lot of that work happens with the people that I’m working with, wherever we are. Right. And that goes back to those relationships that we build up long before we are working in the field with them. and those relationships are very carefully vetted and developed over time. And the security precautions that we’ll take in country are also very carefully arranged before the. And again, that takes different forms in different places. Right. When I was in Australia this summer, it was Australia, it’s the outback. And so we lived in a motorhome and drove through the outback in a motorhome for a know, it’s completely different, but in know, we had to make sure know we were staying in the absolute most secure places at all times.

Steve Cuden: In, Australia, you were speaking English.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. Right. In Yemen.

Steve Cuden: M. You were not correct. So, what is it that is required in terms of how much you have to shoot? you’ve already said that you sometimes get back, get into the editing studio, and realize you didn’t get everything you needed. Do you have a rule, in general about how much you need to shoot in order to actually make a full doc?

Skye Fitzgerald: No, that’s gut instinct for me, at least. and I’m not sure how it works for other nonfiction filmmakers, necessarily. I think it’s different for everyone, but there’s not a rule of thumb for me. I know it when I have it.

Steve Cuden: You would just feel it.

Skye Fitzgerald: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Steve Cuden: And then still, you can get back to the studio and find that you still don’t have enough.

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, the thing. It’s not unique, but I think it’s an unusual paradigm for doc work, for, at least human rights and social justice docs, is that I really deeply believe that the worst thing you can do in shooting at least a human rights doc with something that’s meant to be intimate is to work with a large team. I just think it’s because of the relational piece of it. Right. Because of the active consent piece of it. Because I want to have an active relationship with the people I’m filming, rather than just parachuting in extracting something and then leaving. Right. And that’s where the relationship comes in. And so in order to achieve that, it’s very small teams that I create. How many? Me. It’s me. It’s a director of photography. and then it’s my field producer. Full stop.

Steve Cuden: And, are you recording sound through the camera.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. So we record sound, both a shotgun on the camera, and then we put lobs on our collaborators as well. So we’re always getting at least four sound sources, but it’s crap. My sound person hates me because I come back with true doc verite sound without a boom. Right. But we always make it work. Right. but what that enables for us is there’s no boom in the room, right. It also enables us to co shoot. So I always co shoot with my dp, and that frees me up to do a lot of the directorial relational work, right. To sort of shape what we’re doing every day, knowing all the time that my director photography is responsible for grabbing as much as he can based on our conversations every day. So we come back with twice the amount of footage we would if I weren’t shooting. But what that means is, oftentimes in the field, because if we’re working in the area without electricity, which is often the case, or limited electricity, we have our hands full just transferring each day’s rushes onto multiple hard drives and triplicate to make sure we have everything, and clearing the cards for the next day that I don’t have time to watch everything my DP has shot. Right. I know what I shot, and it’s in my brain. But that’s why the review process is so important when I get back, because I won’t have seen a good, probably third of the footage, because we simply won’t have had the time to review it while we’re on location, because we’re busy translating.

Steve Cuden: So, as a director, again, you’re not directing actors, you’re directing real people. And, it’s not fake. It’s the real world. And so, as a director, is it more about asking the right questions? Is it more about where do you put the camera? as a director, what are your big charges? What do you need to do?

Skye Fitzgerald: Understand. Yeah, the more I understand, the better I can tell the story. those decisions flow from the understanding first, or seeking to understand, and from that seeking to understand process, I make the decisions about what we shoot and how we shoot it.

Steve Cuden: So that’s something that you have already thought about before you get there, but you then have to also understand what’s happening on the day.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. Which often changes. Like, oftentimes I have four things we want to shoot that day, and then something occurs. A child goes into cardiac arrest. That happened in Yemen, in the south, where we were doing an interview with Ayad al Sadiq, the doctor in the south who you see in the film so much. And we were literally in the middle of an interview with her, and a child started to die. And a nurse came in and she rushed out to go try to save the child. So we followed her because we’d already built a relationship with that family, and they’d given us consent to film whatever happened.

Steve Cuden: I did notice that, occasionally there would be somebody you were following, and it was like you were really intruding on their private world, their private thoughts, especially after, I believe, a child had died. was that agreed to in advance, that you would have that access?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, I wouldn’t use the word intrude. What I would say is that I don’t know which moment you’re talking about, but everyone who is in that film, and I assume you’re referring to scenes in the south, the first thing we did when we entered that facility, we already had permission to film the facility, is that we went and talked. This is before filming. We went and talked with every single family who had a child in the facility and had conversations with them, right. And told them what we thought we wanted to do and asked them whether or not they would be okay with us filming them and their child. And, all but one said yes. And that one we didn’t film with at all. And we made sure we cropped her out of all scenes.

Steve Cuden: Did you need to clear rights with everybody?

Skye Fitzgerald: Well, we did it every day. There’s this notion in the field, and maybe it comes out of the fiction world, that consent is you sign a piece of paper and then you have full permission. Right. And that’s been the protocol forever. You know this. Yes, sure. But in many of the places and the ways that I work, it just makes no sense at all. What if there is, a woman who is completely illiterate, right? So, yes, we can have, my field producer read a paper released to her in English or in Arabic, right? And I have her put an x for her name or her thumbprint, which is standard protocol many times. Right. But that sort of truncates the entire consent process in my mind. So what we do is we have conversations with people first, let them ask questions, ask if they want to collaborate again. And then if they do, then we get a recorded video consent from them. Right. So we actually see the person. They can ask questions. We record that it has nothing to do with being literate or not. Right. We have that which then could stand up in court if it ever came into play. But the most important part of that is that we reinvestigate that consent process daily because it’s based on relationships. Right? So even if we have a stamped document or recorded permission, what if they do change their mind?

Steve Cuden: Has that happened to you?

Skye Fitzgerald: Of course. It happens to everyone sometimes. Right. We want to know that. and we want to give them a chance to withdraw if they want to. In a situation like Hunger Ward, emotions are high, people are dying. We knew that all sorts of things could happen. So there was only one time in the filming of Hunger ward where a woman who said, yes, she wanted to collaborate with us. We could film whatever we wanted, came to us during the course of filming and said, I don’t want you to film anymore. So we stopped. We stopped filming with her, right. And interestingly, because of the relationship we built, she then came back to us later and said, okay, you can film with me again. And so the hard work we’d done early on to understand, to build relationships paid off because she came back around. So I don’t know what moment you’re referring to, but everyone there gave us consent over and over again, or we wouldn’t have filmed.

Steve Cuden: There was a woman, I can’t remember at this moment whether it was a mother or one of the doctors. And, they went off into a room alone, and they were extremely upset about, I believe, the death of a child. And it was, the camera and her in a room, and it was really uncomfortable to watch, let alone seeing the children suffering. That was really uncomfortable. But that this woman was very upset, and it seemed like she was trying to find her way through it. And yet she was on camera, and she’s clearly not an actor, so that’s the part that I was referring to.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. she was a beautiful woman. Her spirit was just. She was the matron of the ward. She died of throat cancer about a year ago. She probably is one of the people we had just about the strongest relationship with as a production team. And that’s why she allowed us to film her, because we built such trust over so long period. She never would have let us in that room with her unless she wanted us there, as hard as it was.

Steve Cuden: So I guess what I’m thinking is she appeared at, moments in there wary of the fact that she was on camera. She was aware of it. It was clear that she knew somebody was photographing her, and she seemed a little wary of it. And she kept turning her back a little bit, and then she’d come back around and face you, and that just seemed extraordinary. It was extraordinary to me. I don’t think you could find an actress that would pull off a more powerful moment. It was very powerful to me.

Skye Fitzgerald: yeah, I think we talked to her about that moment after we filmed it, and this was near the end of the shoot, so we’d already been working with her for about a month. What I walked away from that conversation with was that she wasn’t uncomfortable that we were there. She was uncomfortable showing her emotion. She’s the matron of the ward. She controls the ward. She controls which families come in and out. Right. she’s the one who is always the strong presence with all the families when others are grieving. And so she was uncomfortable that her grieving. This is why she went into the room. Right. Because she didn’t want the other families to see the person who’s in charge of the ward underneath the head doctor grieving publicly. She was supposed to be the strong one, and that’s at least what she expressed to us when we tried to unpack it with her activities.

Steve Cuden: Yeah, that makes total sense. it’s a great moment. It’s a truly great. For me, it was, anyway, how do you stay disciplined for so long in the field? When I assume there are days when you just don’t feel great or where things are, the pressure is mounted in one way or another, how do you stay disciplined? Do you have any techniques or tactics that you use?

Skye Fitzgerald: Thought about that?

Steve Cuden: Are you ever in the field and you get sick or don’t feel well?

Skye Fitzgerald: Oh, sure, yeah, of course.

Steve Cuden: How do you work through that? How do you work through that?

Skye Fitzgerald: Just take another breath. Take another breath and, suck it up and get back to it. I think the fact that I’ve been a lifelong cyclist, which involves a lot of pain, if you do long distances, at least. So I don’t ride as much as I used to anymore, but I used to. Used to ride centuries during the summer, almost every weekend, so I’d ride 100 miles on the weekends. There’s a certain joy in that that I think is just one. It’s the freedom of the bike. But I think I heard someone say once that documentary filmmaking is an act of benign masochism. And that stuck with me. I don’t remember who it was, but I heard someone say it. My soul sang when I heard it because it rang so true. I was like, exactly right. And I think long distance cycling is the same way. It’s sort of an act of benign, masculine. There’s a lot of pain involved, but also joy. And so I think that level of sort of commitment to endurance, to enduring through something, through the hardship, through the pain, is just something that is part of how I make films. And so I expect that there’s going to be those very hard moments. There’s going to be that moment where you drink some bad water, like happened to me in the Congo once, and I passed out alone and hit my head on a piece of concrete alone in the middle of the Congo. And luckily I survived. But that’s a hard moment, right? There’s going to be moments where, sadly, in hunger ward, a child dies, and you watch a family go through this horrendous process that no family should have to go through, but that they’ve invited you into that is hard to bear witness to. And yet, in my book, vitally important as well. I think it’s more important to me that I stick and work through those moments. So to ensure that I can get the story out to as many people as possible.

Steve Cuden: Do you ever find yourself becoming emotional while you’re working or you have to suppress it? Like an oncologist would have to suppress emotion over a patient that was not doing well, or the ward, folks that worked in Yemen, they have to suppress it when they’re working, but then they can go into a room and let it out.

Skye Fitzgerald: I try to keep a pretty stiff demeanor because I think I have to. And I think a lot of that stuff comes out later.

Steve Cuden: And you are affected by it, I assume, at some point?

Skye Fitzgerald: Of course. Yeah. As a human being, how can you not be?

Steve Cuden: Well, I think that’s a good question, because I do think, unfortunately, there are people who would never let it show, even to themselves alone. That’s what I think. M I could be wrong about that. How important, then? We’ve talked that. We’ve alluded to it a little bit. How important is the editing process to making the movie, what it becomes?

Skye Fitzgerald: Oh, it’s critical. Yeah, it’s critical. And it’s critical to stay open. Right. to stay open to what you actually come back with, because, as I mentioned, I won’t have seen all the footage until I return. Often, my process, my creative process on that front is just something that I’ve sort of organically created over time. I’m not sure everyone does this, but it’s probably just part of my dna. like when I review films, documentaries, every shorts for the Academy awards I watch every year. Every single doc short that is qualified before voting. And that’s super time consuming. Right. It’s, like, really time consuming. But I want to know what people have done. I want to try to, in my own small way, hold up the best of the best. Right. And I want to see how people have done things as well. And so in my own projects, when I return, before I begin the editing process, the critical step for me is watching every single frame of what we have on the hard drives.

Steve Cuden: So that takes a while, doesn’t it?

Skye Fitzgerald: Oh, God, yes. Really time consuming. It usually takes about a month.

Steve Cuden: A month.

Skye Fitzgerald: If I’m doing it full time, it takes a full month just to go through everything, because I watch everything and take notes and create a huge excel spreadsheet. That’s my shot list, basically. So I have then a reference of where everything is and the shots to use when you go into the edit bay. And from that, for hunger ward, that spreadsheet is 1200 lines long or 1400 lines long. Wow. It’s a massive document with exact timecodes. Right. And it’s out of that, then I sit on that for a week or so after I reviewed everything. And then out of that, I create an outline. That is the document that goes to my editor.

Steve Cuden: And so you have an editor. That was my next question. You don’t edit it yourself.

Skye Fitzgerald: Correct.

Steve Cuden: But are you sitting with the editor the whole time, or do you let them take a pass and then come and review it?

Skye Fitzgerald: Both. I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t edit only virtually, which is something that is really taken off, as we all know, since post Covid. During and post Covid. So we have a hybrid approach, because I think some magic only happens in real time in the edit process. You discover things together, you argue together, you solve problems together. And so for the initial assembly, I’ll create an outline that, sort of details every single scene that I think is going to exist in the film. And it’ll have key, shots that I want in that scene. I’ll have approximate, running time for the scene, and then what the intent of the scene is. and that’s the document I give to my editor. And he usually will do a cut of that based on the outline. And then usually it’s 50 50. So we’ll edit together half the time, and then we’ll go away and he’ll do a cut and I’ll give notes, virtually, maybe a couple of iterations, and then we’ll come back together to solve some big problems that we haven’t been able to solve virtually. So it’s about 50 50 for us.

Steve Cuden: Do you have any tricks that you use when you are missing footage. Is there a way that you can mitigate that?

Skye Fitzgerald: When I’m missing? Yes.

Steve Cuden: In, other words, do you ever use stock footage or anything like that?

Skye Fitzgerald: I try not to, but sometimes it’s necessary, too. I’m a big believer in rather than using stock again, building on the relationships with the people in the community we’re working in, and asking them who has filmed this story locally? And then we go to those people and we try to source what we think would be the equivalent of stock footage from the people in the community, whether it’s from their cell phones or wherever. That’s what we did with hunger ward in the one shot, where the man takes the phone and turns it back on himself in a selfie mode. Right. That’s the only stock footage or sourced footage that we use in the entire film. But there are other tricks we use. Like, I use an after effects artist, a motion graphics person. I’m in all my docs to solve problems.

Steve Cuden: Part of the editing process is rhythm and timing and knowing where to cut and how long to leave a shot, and those kinds of things. Those are very important to editing. I’m wondering, as you’re shooting, are you starting to form any kind of editorial in the field, or do you wait till you’re all the way back?

Skye Fitzgerald: Oh, no, absolutely. It’s constant editing in my head as I’m shooting.

Steve Cuden: You’re starting to see things forming as you’re shooting.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yes.

Steve Cuden: And I think that’s really an interesting aspect of what you do, because most narrative film, they know what they’re shooting in advance. They really have it all planned out. You, on the other hand, you have a summer planning, but it’s more free form than that. You’re going out into the field and shooting. I would be remiss. Before we wind the show down, to, talk to you for a moment about your work with the hotshots. How did you get into that? From theater to hotshots? How’s that work?

Skye Fitzgerald: It was actually the other way around. It was hotshots and then theater. Yeah. having grown up in eastern Oregon, my first summer job was washing fire trucks when I was 15. And, the next year, I got a job on the helicopter crew at 16 to be on the helicopter crew for first response on wildland firefighters. So at 16, I was flying off the fires and directing the pilot where to go to land. I fought fire in different forms all the way through college and graduate school. And that’s why I paid my way through college and graduate school.

Steve Cuden: Wow. That’s very interesting.

Skye Fitzgerald: And I did the hotshots for a couple of summers.

Steve Cuden: Forgive me for using this term, but I think that you’re a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. Would I be wrong?

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah, probably not less so now, but yes, that has been a big part of my life.

Steve Cuden: You like to go out into things that are very on the edge a little bit and somewhat risky.

Skye Fitzgerald: I like to live in the real world.

Steve Cuden: Well, okay. But we could have a conversation about what the real world is. For some people, the real world is stuck in their house. but you like to go out and see things and be there and travel.

Skye Fitzgerald: True.

Steve Cuden: And so I think that’s very obvious. I’ve been having the most marvelous conversation with Skye Fitzgerald for close to an hour now. And, we’re going to wind the show down a bit. And I’m just wondering, in all of your experiences and you’ve had many, are you able to share with us any kind of a story that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, odball, or maybe just plain funny?

Skye Fitzgerald: So many. One of the extraordinary experiences I was fortunate to have was in 2019, we were blessed to be nominated for Academy award for lifeboat. And one of the things you’re invited to, is the nominees luncheon. And the nominees luncheon is, a really special event. It’s a thing where only the nominees plus one can go. So it’s all the nominees in all the categories come to this luncheon and photos are taken and you can sort of mingle freely. And so I kind of went in small, little documentarian from eastern Oregon to this really spiffy event. And I walked in and everyone’s in a lot of black tie, really beautiful suits, and I dressed up, of course. And I was sort of getting my bearings and trying to orient to how to operate in this particular atmosphere with all the nominees there. And as I was sitting there trying to sort of orient myself, in comes, you know, the actor Sam Elliott. And he was nominated that year. I think it was supporting actor for a star is Sam Elliott is, you know, one of my all time favorite. So I thought, I looked around and I was kind of by myself, and he just stepped in the door and he was kind of looking around and obviously getting oriented. And I thought, if I’m ever going to talk to Sam Elliott, it’s right now. If I ever want to introduce myself, it’s right now. So I just mustered my courage and I walked over and introduced myself and, you know, I’m blah, blah, blah. I think you’re such a big star and one of the hugest. Forget Sam kind of looked at me with that great look he has, and he grabbed my hand and he says, Skye well, thank you for that, but if you’re in this room, you’re a star. Oh. And then he gave me a big hug. And I’m paraphrasing this exchange, it was some iteration of that, right? But that was such a special moment to me, right, where I’d been embraced by someone who’d been in the industry for so long, so talented, has done so many beautiful performances over the course of his career. That moment kind of summed up what that experience was for me. And, it was really nice to talk to someone who has had so much success and was so down to earth.

Steve Cuden: I’m fascinated by the fact that you can go around the world into jungles and into war zones and out in the ocean, but you were a little bit nervous and had to screw up your courage to talk to Elliott.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t think I can unpack that one. Very.

Steve Cuden: Where you’re. Wherever your neurosis is, it’s in meeting your heroes from when you were a kid. Okay, well, last question for you today, Skye Do you have a solid piece of advice or a tip that you, like to give to folks that are starting out in the business, or maybe they’re in a little bit and trying to get to that next level?

Skye Fitzgerald: That’s such a great question. I’m not sure this is advice, but I have a belief, and I have this belief that talent is not necessarily ingrained, that talent is not necessarily something that everyone is born with. And this comes directly from my experience. Right. I believe that talent is something that we earn, that we earn through grit, through perseverance, through a willingness to return to the same task and try to do it a little bit better the next time. Through an improvement of craft, through an improvement of technique, and the hope that if we repeat that cycle enough times, that our craft and our output, whatever that may be and whatever will improve. I believe it’s a process, it’s a creative process of repetitive and incremental improvement, and that if you do that enough times, you can become talented or people will view you as being talented. But regardless, your work will improve. And that’s my goal in every film that I do. so at the end of every film, I make a list of the things I can do better on the next film, the things I can improve upon in my process to make a better film. The next time. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, but that list is always there to guide me.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s wonderful advice and a great belief system. Do you feel as if each movie you have actually gotten better and better?

Skye Fitzgerald: I feel like there’s definitely been an improvement of craft and an improvement of process. between 50ft in Syria, lifeboat and hunger ward. The next film I did, was a fictional piece that we haven’t released yet, and so I think it falls into a different category, but I’m very proud of it. so, yes, I think generally speaking, that has been my path.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s, really terrific and I do agree. I think that the more that you do something, the more that you do it, the better you’re going to get at it, generally speaking, in almost everything.

Skye Fitzgerald: Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Cuden: Skye Fitzgerald this has been an absolutely wonderful hour plus on StoryBeat today, and I can’t thank you enough for your time and your wisdom and your experience and for just doing what it is that you do. So I’m grateful to you for that.

Skye Fitzgerald: Appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time.

Steve Cuden: And so we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Skye Fitzgerald: M.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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