“’What are you going to do – move to LA and produce movies?’ I said ‘yeah’, and he looked at me like I was crazy.”
It’s not every day I get to connect with a successful producer. Maybe it’s because Vancouver seems a world away from Hollywood; or perhaps it’s due to the fact I haven’t stepped foot into a movie theatre since Pierce Brosnan was James Bond.
I didn’t tell Sarah Gibson about the latter when she spoke to me from Los Angeles about her career path, her passion for social justice, and her insights on breaking into the industry.
Sarah, a Simon Fraser University alumnus, didn’t always dream of being a film producer, but today she’s made a name for herself, bringing to life numerous documentaries, including three Sundance features. Fed Up, co-produced with Katie Couric was the highest grossing documentary feature film of 2014, and I.O.U.S.A was shortlisted for an Academy Award.
I’m interviewing Sarah on the phone during a November monsoon.
From my car.
The joys of tracking down wifi.
As the rain engulfs my Honda, I can almost hear the warm breeze through the palm trees on the other end.
Sarah and I have a few things in common: We attended the same University; we’ve got some Italian blood, and as it turns out, Sarah and I each had opportunities to begin our careers in advertising. We both turned them down for the same reason – lack of value-alignment. Or, as Sarah puts it “I just couldn’t imagine myself working to sell something like Cheez-Its”. My thoughts, exactly.
I’m speaking with Sarah because she produces films; it’s a career that many young people aspire to have. However, it only takes a few minutes before I happen upon something far more interesting – the spark that has driven Sarah to turn what many people dream about into her reality.
A passion for social justice
Whenever I speak with someone, I’m actively looking for what makes them tick. I know I’ve found it the moment when the conversation hits an upwards inflection point. The pace increases. The tone changes. Even over the phone, it’s easy to notice. For Sarah, this moment was when she started talking about her passion for social justice.
As we talk, she describes how she believes that documentaries are one of the best ways to develop compassion, “It’s up to us as filmmakers to really work on protecting our nation, to guide their moral compass in the right direction.”
Beginning her career as a journalist, she found that getting to the heart of a story often meant overstepping people’s’ personal privacy in a way she didn’t feel was right. She soon found that documentaries were the “perfect place to reveal truth while remaining ethical.”
These convictions run deep. Sarah comes from a family of fierce social-justice activists. Giacomo Capellini, Sarah’s great uncle, was
a school teacher from northern Italy who fought Mussolini’s fascists and was executed for his resistance in 1945. Before that, Mary Kenny, Sarah’s grandmother fought for women’s right to vote in Ireland in the 1930s.
After breaking into the mainstream with some of her films, Sarah still chooses to produce the films she feels the world needs to see. “I would rather make less money feeding my soul and feeding the world’s soul. Doing something that creates positive social change is the biggest thing for me. It’s all I want to do. Nothing feels better than that.”
Advice for students
Careers paths are rarely clear-cut. Sarah is no exception. What makes her exceptional, however, is her ‘take-the-bull-by-the-horns’ attitude and ability to take initiative.
Although she found value in her post-secondary education, her self-directed endeavours proved to be more beneficial. “I did things outside of school, like publishing my own magazine, building myself a website, and creating a film. That’s where I learned the most.”
Making films certainly isn’t cheap, but she says the the best advice is to “go out and do the things you dream of doing; don’t wait for life to hand it to you or for someone to give you the money. Figure out how to do it. Make it happen.”
As for her getting into the film industry, “I got in by sheer hard work and grit. There was nobody opening doors for me.”
This always raises an interesting point: How do you know when it’s time to give up and move on to something new?
“I just knew this is where I belonged and I wouldn’t let anyone tell me otherwise. Grit was a big part of it.”
And for anyone who’s hoping to make it big quickly…
“Patience is an extremely important virtue. Don’t expect things to happen overnight.”
Sarah latest film Boys Not Pictured will be released this Spring and is a first person narrative “journey of discovery into that grey area all of us go through, between childhood and adulthood: High School.” It’s a feature documentary exploring the acts of a serial sexual predator at a private high school in Charleston, South Carolina. The film was produced alongside Frank Marshall (Jurassic World) & Matt Tolmach (Spiderman).