#RealWorldArt: Heather Freudenthal

22 Apr

Whenever I read about artists who are successful at making their own work, I always wonder ‘how the hell did they do this and live a real life while doing so?’ As a working artist, I find achieving a life/art balance to be incredibly difficult. I am always on the lookout for advice about how to do it. When my former theater professors at the University of New Hampshire asked me to speak to a group of artists about life post-school, I went to social media to get new perspectives. Over 40 people commented, and my friend (and blogger/filmmaker extraordinaire) Michael DiBiasio asked me to guest blog. The response was so good that I’ve decided to conduct interviews with working artists on a semi-regular basis.

My first subject is documentary filmmaker Heather Freudenthal, who also works at Sundance TV. I’ll let Heather take it from here.


Documentary filmmaker/film programmer/Sundance TV employee/good friend Heather Freudenthal.

Liam: When did you decide to be an artist and what were your expectations?

Heather: I don’t think there was a day or a moment when a light bulb went off and I suddenly  “decided to be an artist.” Since I was little, I’ve always been interested and involved in artistic crafts. My parents sent me to private schools where creative arts were a big part of my everyday curriculum. So by the time I was a teenager, I had already gotten my hands in drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing, acting and so on.

It was actually a total coincidence that I got involved in filmmaking. In college I was planning to major in Psychology but suddenly halted when I found out Statistics was a required course. I had to pick a new major quickly so I chose Communications. This is how I first started taking classes like “Intro to Video Production” and “Intro to Film Analysis”. I fell in love, ran away with it and never looked back.

As far as my expectations go, I never had my sites set on being rich and famous from making films. I’m a very practical person, and so I know I’ll most likely have to work a 9-5 to pay the bills, leaving filmmaking to come in second as a “passion” rather than my “job”. My expectations and goals are to be a filmmaker recognizable enough that my name is known beyond just my immediate friends and family, and that my opinions about films, filmmaking, and programming are valued by others in the field. I’ve been fortunate enough to have achieved some of these goals already, but I have only scratched the surface.

Liam: What attracts you to the documentary form?

Heather: All generalization and overstating aside, I think it’s relatively easy to make a narrative film (assuming you have the time and the money). Your outline, or your script guides you, and it’s a matter of filling in the blanks. I’m not suggesting that making a narrative film is easy by any means. This is a very general analogy.

With the documentary form, however, there is no such script to begin with. You may have an idea of the story you want to tell, but you have to build a script from scratch and watch as it changes constantly before, during and after shooting. Plus, there is so much to consider, aside from just telling a compelling story– Telling a story based on real people, things, places and/or events, comes with a lot of responsibility, and finding a way to be ethical, as well as creative and engaging is a juggling act very few can pull off.

A few other reasons why I love docs– I love how there are so many genres and sub-genres of non-fiction story telling, and how, especially in more recent years, filmmakers have really been pushing the boundaries of how to show “reality”. And finally, I appreciate how documentaries serve as a learning tool, in addition to entertainment.

How have your expectations changed the longer you’ve been making art, and how has the art you’ve made changed?

My expectations have changed a lot over the years, although I wouldn’t say I started off thinking A and now I think B. My expectations flip flop every year or so between being more practical and being more whimsical. I recognize both the importance of putting my life responsibilities first, and the importance of having an artistic passion come first. I realize that a healthy balance of both is essential for a happy life.So every year or so I lean more toward one or another. Two years ago, it was “Screw society! I would rather be a starving artist than sit at a desk all day!” Whereas this year, I am thinking more practically, and finding other, less time-consuming outlets for film. At this point in my life, looking forward, I expect that filmmaking will always be in my life in some way, shape or form, but I don’t expect it to ever be solely responsible for putting food on the table.

My art itself has changed a lot. The content was dictated by whoever I worked for. I made a lot of corporate videos, wedding videos, executive interviews, and so on. Now, I do those things once in a while for side money, but the longer, personal projects I focus on for myself are documentaries about everyday people, their psyches, and human experiences. Those things fascinate me.

What does the work you do at Sundance mean to you as an artist and documentary filmmaker?

I currently work in the promo planning and scheduling department at Sundance TV, so I am not dealing directly with films or film festivals. However, being in a creative office environment, I am surrounded by a lot of people who, like me, are filmmakers “in real life” or who have artistic talents outside their day jobs. At work we have meetings where we are asked to brainstorm or bring our creative ideas to help improve our programming for air. During those meetings is when I can tap into my creativity, what I know about film, documentaries, film programming, and so on.
Although it’s funny, whenever my boss introduces me to someone new in the office, she always says, “This is Heather. She is a documentarian in real life, but she works in our promo planning department”.

How do you balance making art and dealing with your everyday life, job, and responsibilities?

Again, I’m a very practical person, so it would be very unlikely to find myself slacking on the day job because my filmmaking was taking up too much of my time. If the balance was slipping, it would be in the other direction. Right now for example, I am working on several films and yet, when people ask me about the progress, I have barely anything to report because I spend most of my time focusing on work- my day job. Although I can miss spending more time working on my films, the practical side of me says to suck it up and deal with it. However, if I find that this imbalance is causing a major void for me, one I can’t just “suck up,” then I will block out some time (even if it is just half an hour every Saturday) to work on a film, or do something creative. It is about recognizing your priorities and carving out time to have that healthy balance.

What’s next for you?

With regard to my film programming, I’ve been working with BRIC for some time now to bring some of the films I’ve curated in my own film series to their network. The plan is to have a regularly curated film bloc where I will be interviewing filmmakers and showing their films, only on TV instead of in a cafe, theater or bar. As for the filmmaking, I’m working on a feature-length and a short documentary at the moment. I have no deadlines for either  film so the plan is to continue to work on both in my spare time until I am satisfied enough to share them with others. Of course after that, I plan to do the traditional festival submissions and screenings. Stay tuned!


Thanks Heather!
Check out Heather’s site, where you can read about her work and her Sunday Film Series.
Next week I’ll be posting a more personal piece. I had intended to send it out this week, but it’s an important one, and I want to get it right. Hope you’re looking forward to it!