Our Interview with Hard Earned Co-Director Katy Chevigny

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This week we had the opportunity to speak with MHP mentor and collaborator, renowned director Katy Chevigny (E-Team, Election Day) about her experience as a co-director on the highly anticipated documentary series Hard Earned.

Produced by Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Life Itself),  Hard Earned moves beyond politics, pundits, and statistics to tell the intimate stories of five low-wage families as they struggle to realize their American Dream.

In 2013, Katy turned to MHP to help with research, development and field production support for her DC-based storyline about a U.S. Iraq War veteran and his family, one of five stories featured in the series.

Hard Earned premieres this Sunday, May 3 at 10PM on Al Jazeera America.

How did you get involved with Hard Earned?

Kartemquin films — an amazing, unique documentary production company based out of Chicago — reached out to me and said they were going to do this series about the minimum wage and asked if I would I direct one of the episodes. Several years ago, Kartemquin made a series called The New Americans for PBS. They had a similar format, with different directors directing stories from around the country and around the world, intercutting those stories into an amazing multi-part series. I was familiar with the New Americans and very familiar with Kartemquin's work. I used to live in Chicago and I've looked up to Kartemquin for years as a model company. So I was delighted.

When you got involved with the project, what were your goals? What kind of character were you looking for?

We were given various different points of entry by Kartemquin. Kartemquin was looking for a range of people because, in fact, low wage workers cover a broad set of demographics. They are not monoliths in any way, shape or form; there are so many of them. They were looking for different ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, genders, family situations, employment situations, you name it. I chose to look for somebody who was in the military or had been in the military. There are a lot of active and former service members living in the DC area, for a number of reasons. And there’s a big problem with veterans being homeless and having trouble getting work when they come back. That’s a big issue in terms of what's going on with employment and wages in this country right now.

How did you find Jose and Elizabeth?

I reached out to Lance Kramer at Meridian Hill Pictures and asked him if he would help me do some research. His help was critical because as a DC area native, Lance had all kinds of personal and professional contacts I didn't have as somebody who recently moved to DC. Together, Lance and I went to some meetings in Montgomery County that focused on people and organizations helping veterans reintegrate into society and we tried to make connections there. Eventually, we found a guidance counselor at Montgomery College in Maryland. Her area of expertise was with the program called "Combat to College,” helping returning veterans get a college degree using the GI bill.

A lot of veterans are coming into community college systems. There are hundreds of veterans at Montgomery College, matriculated in some form. And it was through this guidance counselor at Montgomery College, Rose Sachs, that we found Jose.

Why did Jose’s story appeal to you?

What we're looking for in a character is somebody who's a real person--not a stereotype of something--whose life and situation will yield an interesting story. This is, essentially, a cinema verité project. Jose had just started a new job and had a relatively new girlfriend. He was a single dad from a prior marriage, currently living with his mother and trying to raise his kid on his own. And after having been practically homeless and on public assistance, things seemed to be turning around for him.

And I liked the way he talked about himself and the people in his life who helped him. He was immediately like, "thank god for my mother who let me move in with my son" and "thank god for my girlfriend for treating my son like her own." So I went back to Kartemquin and said we've got this really interesting story and it was the story of a family. It's not just the story of an individual, because it's Jose, his son, his mom, his girlfriend and then beyond.

Were you always set on following a single story? What if nothing happened?

Yes, that's definitely the risk of doing it like this. There is always a chance you're going to follow somebody and it's not going to work out cinematically or storywise. It's a leap of faith. You try to make an educated guess based on past experience of following stories.

It’s a high wire act to make a series like this. And some people don’t have the stomach for it. I credit Al Jazeera America for OK-ing this project because a lot of broadcasters or distributors, just as a matter of policy, don’t fund unfolding stories because it’s so risky. I think it’s because Kartemquin has such a great track record at making these kinds of stories that Al Jazeera had faith in them doing it.

How do you gain Jose’s trust and establish a rapport with his family that gives you the kind of intimate access to their lives required for this kind of filmmaking?

That's a tricky one. Both Lance and I really had to establish a rapport with Jose. Lance is actually closer in age to Jose than me and they both grew up in Montgomery County. So in certain ways, they had a fair amount in common.

I basically tried to be as transparent as possible with Jose and Elizabeth about what we were trying to do and make sure they felt comfortable with what was happening so that they weren't going to feel like I was exploiting them in any way or taking advantage of anything about their story, which is always a risk with something like this. So I had to spend a fair amount of time talking with them about the project and it wasn't just a one-time conversation. You have to talk about it again and again at different stages of the project.

Sometimes a character will say "yeah sure I want to be part of it" and then once they've revealed a certain part of themselves they start to reconsider whether they really want to be this open with a camera crew about their lives. And particularly with a subject like this, because the kinds of things we were asking them to open up about are the kinds of things that many Americans feel uncomfortable talking about, namely: money, how much do you make, how much does your partner make, how do you make ends meet, what are the struggles you have over those things. People have a lot of pride and occasionally shame or embarrassment about those kinds of issues.

Were Jose and Elizabeth able to see the finished product before it airs?

Yes. Kartemquin has a very strong ethical framework from which they operate vis-a-vis their subjects. Not all documentarians do this, but Kartemquin has a policy of sharing footage with the subjects prior to it being released. It's part of their trust relationship with the subject. They also want to make sure the subjects feel like they have been fairly represented.

Have you maintained any contact with Jose? Do you know how he's doing now?

Yes. I saw them in January right before I moved to Nashville and we’re still in contact now. It was a relationship that lasted for a year and a half — and I believe it will probably last into the future.

Hard Earned premieres Sunday, May 3 at 10PM on Al Jazeera America.

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