November 10, 2009

Coming Home: 'The Way We Get By' Salutes the Troops

It's not often that you produce your first independent documentary feature, marry the director, and then have your film debut on one of PBS' premiere series, P.O.V.  But that's just what happened in the past month to IDA member Gita Pullapilly.

She met fellow IDA member and director Aron Gaudet in 2004. Soon after, they began dating and looking for a project to do together. In December that year they started shooting The Way We Get By. The documentary, about senior citizens who greet both outgoing and homeward bound US soldiers from the Iraq War at a local airport in Bangor, Maine, premieres this Wednesday, Veterans' Day, on P.O.V.; a companion interactive website, www.returninghomeproject.org, also launches that day. Their wedding was recently covered in The New York Times Sunday Styles section and all the film's main characters attended.

The idea for The Way We Get By started when the couple, veterans of local TV and other doc projects, went to Maine to introduce Pullapilly to Gaudet's mother, Joan. He had noticed that his mom, now a 76-year-old widow, rarely answered his phone calls to her home anymore. He soon found out why: She had joined a group of approximately 200 others, the core group made up of senior citizens, who traveled to the tiny Bangor International Airport day or night, good or bad weather, to welcome the troops, shake their hands, and talk. (Bangor, because of its eastern-most location on US soil, is often the first or last airport the troops go through.)

"We stumbled onto the idea," says Pullapilly, "and we connected to it in a personal way." During that first visit, they shot at the airport and began looking for compelling characters. One was World War II veteran Bill Knight. "That first morning we shot, he found out he had prostate cancer," explains Gaudet. "He was so open and honest. He took us back to his house; no one had been in it since his wife died four or five years earlier. He immediately trusted us; it was pretty amazing." The filmmakers settled on following three of the greeters--Gaudet's mother, Knight and 74-year-old Jerry Mundy. The result is a touching and honest look at their volunteer work, as well as their daily lives as they get older. Gaudet is cheerful yet worried about the eminent departure of two of her grandchildren to Iraq. Knight is battling cancer and debt, and Mundy is faced with new health problems and the loss of a dear friend.

 

 Left to right: Bill Knight, Joan Gaudet and Jerry Mundy--the protagonists in Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly's The Way We Get By, which airs November 11 on P.O.V.

"Through the three characters you get drawn in," explains P.O.V. executive director Simon Kilmurry, who helped select the documentary for this year's lineup. "It is a film that has such heart and soul. Emotional power like this is hard to find. You don't often see stories about aging, and they told the story with no sentimentality; that was the key. "

Getting permission to shoot any film involving the military is never easy. Pullapilly earned the nickname "Mad Dog" for her persistence with requests to film inside the airport tower, on the runway or even on a troop plane. Because of security concerns, that last appeal took 18 months to make happen. Say the couple, "The military wanted to embed us on a flight to Iraq so that we could fly back on a troop plane. We finally convinced them to just let us on the plane in Bangor after it arrived and before the soldiers got off."

But the Pentagon had nothing on Joan Gaudet; she was the hardest access to secure. "When we were growing up, she hated to have her photo taken," says her son. "But we wore her down. We would leave the camera rolling and leave the room. Eventually we made her comfortable."

Originally, The Way We Get By included Iraq War footage. Says Kilmurry, "It felt distracting, and that they were trying to do too much." The couple agreed; the footage also dated the film, "It was not the story we were trying to tell", explains Gaudet. Pullapilly adds that the film was really about the seniors and their need to honor the soldiers. That doesn't mean that the soldiers passing through Bangor didn't have a political point of view. "They were at all ends of the spectrum," says Gaudet. "Some said good things, others didn't know why the hell they were there." As of today, over 930,000 soldiers have gone through the airport.

 

Jerry Mundy (center), one of the greeters in The Way We Get By.
 

The entire production would eventually take more than five years. The pair shot 300 hours of standard definition video using the Panasonic AG DVX-100. Editing took five months. Later, landing a sponsorship from the Bangor Savings Bank, they were able to blow up the SD to HD and 35mm for festivals, and burn 15,000 DVDs. Their first festival success came at South by Southwest, where the film earned a Special Jury Prize. "It definitely put the movie on people's radar," says Gaudet. Since then, The Way We Get By has appeared at about 25 festivals. It's also had a theatrical release in about 63 cities, and an Academy Award qualifying run.

The Way We Get By enjoyed a Capitol Hill screening, courtesy of the US Senators from Maine, and a showing at Walter Reed Medical Center. The filmmakers and characters meet with Vice President Joe Biden as well. "The three of them were blown away by the vice president," says Pullapilly of the greeters in the film. "He was charming and warm with each of them." In the end, the subjects truly liked the film--always a touchy subject when a project includes a family member. And Joan Gaudet now loves getting recognized all over town.

Like other independent docs, little money was available for the production. The filmmakers were told that films about soldiers and older people did not have box office appeal. There was also the problem of war fatigue on the part of funders and audiences. "So funding came from our savings," says Pullapilly. "We had to be creative." Learning on the fly, she would eventually make direct deals with Amazon, Netflix  and a documentary theater booker. POV, ITVS, WBGH and CPB would step in, too. "There were no middle men," says Gaudet. "If you can get around the middle men, more of the revenue is yours." The couple is confident that that the film will become profitable.

Kilmurry hopes the film does well internationally. "It's a very American story, and there will be those who see shots of the soldiers and can't get beyond that. But these are universal themes. And the characters are so engaging." So far it has been well received in Canada, and has landed other small sales.

How to turn filmmaking into a sound financial venture is not the only thing the filmmakers learned. Pullapilly, who is Indian-American, says the film made her "realize what it means for me to be an American. I had never valued or appreciated that. It made me less interested in politics and more interested in human beings." They also learned a valuable lesson about aging: "Age takes its toll, good days and bad."

 

Gita Pullapilly, producer, and Aron Gaudet, director, of The Way We Get By.
 

As for their relationship, "It developed  and grew through making this film. We went through obstacles and challenges together. We learned how to love each other. We learned that life is what is important. And we use their wisdom to get by." Not bad advice for newlyweds or filmmakers.

Lauren Cardillo captured her own mother on video in the Emmy Award-winning The Mother Road. She is now working on a film about the Persian Gulf War.

 

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