Field Notes: Merete Mueller, Filmmaker, Producer and Writer
“I think that it's important for women to know that we can let it all hang out, however that looks, and that there's something really beautiful and confident and powerful about that.”
Dangerous Curves is a short film about being fearless, unapologetic and passionate about what you do. The main character, Roslyn (Roz) Mays, is the epitome of this description -- and Merete Mueller, the filmmaker, director and writer behind the feature, is cut from the same cloth. Starting out with a background in writing and entering the documentary world in 2013 with her film Tiny: A Story About Living Small, Mueller’s life and career is deeply rooted in storytelling.
Although Mueller’s knowledge of filmmaking was largely self-taught, the transition from spinning narratives in the written word to telling stories through picture seemed like a natural progression. With two amazing documentaries under her belt and more to come, Mueller is an impressive example of taking the reigns and paving your own way as a woman in the film industry. Fascinated by both her story and the stories she tells, we caught up with Mueller to talk about Dangerous Curves, life as an independent filmmaker and how she got to where she is now.
What is your story and how did you get into filmmaking?
Merete Mueller: My background is actually in writing. I studied writing in school and I had worked as an editor and a writer and researcher in all different capacities. I was always kind of interested in film, from a distance, but I never thought that I would make them. The film, Tiny, that I made a few years ago -- that I co-directed with my partner at the time -- was my entry into filmmaking. He had gone to film school and he had a background in film.
It's funny, because when he had the idea to build the tiny house, I said to him, "Oh, you should make a film about that." This is something that someone else should do. I would never make a film. And he decided to go ahead with it. But then as the project progressed, I think we both realized that the idea and the story was mine. So, we ended up collaborating on that. And that was the first time that I understood I could make a film and that I really learned how.
In Dangerous Curves, did you do all of the editing and everything by yourself, or did you look for collaborators?
Yeah. I still look for collaborators. I find it's always really helpful to be able to bounce ideas off of people and just to get outside perspective. On Dangerous Curves, I shot some of it myself, and then I collaborated with a DP, Jake, who had also -- I went to high school with Roz -- gone to high school with us. And then, I also collaborated with an editor -- I edited some and he edited some. Also, because I was so deep in the story, it was just helpful to have another perspective.
Do you feel like your background as a writer has informed the way that you make films?
The way I make films is definitely very story-driven, and it's very character driven. I'm really interested in people and finding out why they do what they do, and how they grow over time. But, I mean, other filmmakers make incredible work and they come at it from really different angles. Some people are just much more visually-driven. I think every filmmaker has their own approach. But for me, coming from a writing perspective, I'm definitely really story-driven.
Are you able to do writing/filmmaking as your day job? And if so, how?
Yes, I am a full-time filmmaker. It is a combination of personal passion projects and then also paid work. So I also will get hired as a producer/director by Vice a lot. They'll assign me stories that are either for a TV episode or for a web episode. I've also been hired to do commercial projects that are usually more documentary-style commercials -- so it might be a 10-minute profile of three patients for a medical company, that kind of thing. I would not be able to support myself through making independent films only at this point.
How did you get connected with those commercial branding projects?
A lot of it came out of when Tiny came out. The film premiered at South by Southwest, and then we spent a good year just on the film festival circuit, which is where I met most of the people that I know in the filmmaking industry. People from all over the country. People who have become really close friends, but also just business collaborators and things like that. I think film festivals really are the backbone of the documentary community, and it's where a lot of people get to meet each other and get to learn from each other.
That, for me, was also the entry point into meeting other filmmakers and figuring out how they were making a living. And then, next thing you know, it's friends of friends and people kind of help each other out. And that led to a lot of work for me.
Do you find that there are any challenges that come along with being a female director in the industry?
Yeah. Documentary filmmaking especially is so interesting, because it's humans -- we're all walking around in whatever body we're in, and that impacts how people relate to us and the relationships we form. That's kind of the part of the mystery of human communication. Documentary is interesting because my work is so related to the relationships that I make with subjects or with the people I'm collaborating with. So, it's something that I'm really curious about and constantly navigating. I find that being a woman, in a lot of ways, is an advantage. I think it's different in every situation and with every subject, but I do think that sometimes people might feel more comfortable or might open up in a different way to me than they might to someone else. But I guess I'm just me, so it's hard to really know.
I think that there are challenges for women in the film industry, just because there have been so few women in leadership positions. I've been in a lot of situations -- working with commercial crews or TV crews -- where I think, because mostly male crews so rarely see a female in a directing position, that there's this automatic assumption that maybe I don't know what I'm doing. It's something I talk about with my friends a lot. We're just like, “you just have to keep going.” I do think it's helpful to acknowledge it for each other, so we know that it's not like we're doing something wrong. It's just part of what we're breaking through.
I also think it's really important to talk about the gender gap in the industry and the importance of having more women, especially women of color who are even more under-represented, behind the camera and writing scripts. I would say that a lot of my work today has depended on the network and support of other female filmmakers here in NYC. There's a really supportive, collaborative community of women here. I don't know if I'd be making films today without them (plus a few very supportive male individuals!).
How do you make that connection with your subjects to where they feel comfortable enough, not only sharing their story with you, but with the camera and possibly thousands, millions of people who are going to see that?
I feel like it's such a huge responsibility as well. Also, from the experience of Tiny, being one of the people who were on screen, but also I had complete control in a lot of ways, in terms of how I was on screen. And, so, I really do understand how vulnerable it is for someone to just share themselves and then not to have any control over how that footage might be shaped, or the story that it might be used to tell. So, I feel hugely responsible to people when they trust me enough to give me access to that.
And I think every filmmaker has their own way of approaching it. Some people I know who come from more journalistic backgrounds definitely really feel like it's important to just keep more distance from subjects and treat the relationships that way. But I feel like I always want every film to feel like a collaboration.
Especially with Dangerous Curves, because I have known Roz for so long. And also because the story was such a personal story, and it really was about exposure. I felt like it was really important that Roz felt like she was a collaborator. Even though she was never in the editing room for that film, I always made sure that she saw cuts before the world saw stuff. And I wanted to gauge her reaction because it was a vulnerable part of herself that she was showing. It's kind of a funny superpower in some ways, to forge that trust or create those relationships. And I feel like, for me, it's one of the things that... I want to earn that trust, and I want to be able to look back and be proud of how I used those relationships and how I used that trust... I never want to feel like someone regretted giving me access to a story.
Yeah, that's so important.
But it's tricky, because often times it's the thing that people don't want to share about themselves is often the most interesting thing about them. And it's been the thing that audiences would respond to the most. So, it is a very fine line of wanting to tease stuff out of people that you know is really going to have an impact on audiences, even though that might be the thing that that person feels most protective about.
I think it always has to be in the interest of knowing that in the end it should hopefully be a positive experience, both for the audience and for the person who's on screen, to let themselves be vulnerable and then that be seen.
With Dangerous Curves, I feel like you developed this very strong message about how to deal with criticism and being secure in whatever it is you're doing. Where did that thread start to take shape when you were making the film?
Because I didn't know Roz super well in high school, when we reconnected, my memories of her were always as this one-dimensional powerhouse of confidence. I was a very shy teenager, and so a lot of questions I had for her were sort of like, "How are you this way?" Or, "Are you really this way?" Or "What does it feel like to be like that?" Through the process or really reconnecting and getting to know her better, what struck me was how...she's not the kind of person who second guesses or filters herself. But she also does have a lot of vulnerability, and a lot of insecurity. When the media started writing about her, I would notice how everyone -- like myself -- was wanting to focus on this one-dimensional Superwoman. But I thought it was really interesting that that's not how people are. It's always a conversation. There's always moments of vulnerability. And what makes Roz so strong isn't that she never second guesses herself -- it's just that she's not willing to tone herself down or to hold herself back because she's afraid of the response she might get.
Is that the takeaway that you wanted people to get from watching the film?
Yeah, I think so. And I think also -- seeing the media that was being done on Roz and really getting to know her better, and really caring about her as a friend -- I think in some ways I wanted to let her have the experience of not always being this super confident powerhouse. And saying, “You can actually be insecure and vulnerable, and that's just as helpful to people to see that. You don't always have to pretend that you're a super confident woman all the time.” I really wanted to help tease that out of her in our interviews.
I think the fact that we shot this over such a long period of time, and we did a lot of interviews of me just going over her house late at night and us just talking...she did get more vulnerable than she was getting with most media at that time. And since the film has come out, I've actually seen her be a lot more vulnerable in interviews and stuff. I haven't actually had a chance to ask her about how that process has been for her, but my hope for all of us involved in the film and everyone who sees it is just the reminder that it's great to be confident, but confidence is not a static thing -- it's more of this fluid conversation.
I think for women, especially, we feel this pressure to be perfect before we put ourselves out there. I mean, I can only speak from my experience being a woman -- I don't know exactly how men experience this, but I do think that women are used to being analyzed and judged in a particular way. So, I think it's important for women to know that we can let it all hang out, however that looks, and that there's something really beautiful and confident and powerful about that.