By Jenniffer Weigel
Raising social awareness through storytelling is what excites filmmaker Gita Pullapilly. But it’s her ability to be a good listener that makes it all possible, she says.
“I remember when I was about 5 years old, my father would have people over for Indian food, and I would roam around the party and, for some reason, people felt safe enough to just talk to me about their most intimate secrets,” says Pullapilly, 37.
She was raised in South Bend, Ind., by teachers, her father Cyriac was a history professor at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and her mother, Elizabeth, taught math at Clay High School. “This still happens to me wherever I go. My family calls it a gift.”
Raised as “one of the only Indian families” in her South Bend community, Pullapilly was also exposed to international travel at a young age, enlarging the breadth and types of stories she listened to.
“My dad did this program where he took students around the world, and I would always go along and write these stories down about these different people I would meet,” she recalls. “There was so much emotion in these peoples’ stories and I thought,
‘I want to be a storyteller.'”
Still, it was a degree in finance that she pursued from the University of Notre Dame in 1999. She was recruited by General Mills after graduation.
It wasn’t a good fit from the first day, Pullapilly said. “I knew I had to quit. For the three months that I sat in my cubicle, I thought, ‘Maybe I should focus on what I actually love and not what I can do to just make money.'”
Pullapilly earned a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2001, and started a career in broadcasting. That got her closer to her goal, but the abbreviated format and style of broadcast journalism was far removed from the kinds of stories she wanted to tell.
“I was working for an ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., and I met my husband Aron (Gaudet), who was working for the Fox station as a cameraman,” she recalled. “And he said to me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ and I said, ‘I want to tell stories, but I feel like I can’t tell the stories I want to tell in TV news.’ He said, ‘Let’s go make a film!'”
Their first project, “The Way We Get By,” was released in 2009. A documentary about three senior citizens who find a purpose by greeting U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it won several film festival awards and was nominated for an Emmy. That led to their 2013 full-length feature film, “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” a coming-of-age thriller about two young men desperate to escape their small town. She and Gaudet co-wrote, produced and directed it. It was acquired by Tribeca Film for distribution in 2014, and landed both Gaudet and Pullapilly on Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” list. They were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in April.
Gaudet says his wife’s unique interview skills add critical emotional elements to their projects. “People don’t open up to me in the same way they open up to Gita,” says Gaudet, 41. “She might just ask one question and they suddenly spill their guts. There’s something about her … she is very inviting and nonjudgmental so people tell her things that maybe they wouldn’t want to tell anyone else. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In addition to filmmaking, Pullapilly continues her outreach and commitment through The Center for International Training, Education and Development, a nonprofit she founded that focuses on training aid organizations in developing countries to more effectively raise awareness of their missions and needs through the media.
Pullapilly and her husband split their time between Los Angeles and Chicago. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation at Facets Cinematheque, in Chicago.
Q: Did you ever doubt your choice to become a filmmaker?
A: Yes. So many times I wanted to quit. Everybody in Hollywood that would distribute documentaries said, “Stop making this movie (‘The Way We Get By’). It’s about veterans and senior citizens. There’s no market for this movie.” When it came out, it was the most popular independent documentary on PBS in 2009. It re-ran on Veteran’s Day 2010. We were honored by the White House, we were nominated for a national Emmy. It’s not about what a sexy supermodel is doing, it’s about the human touch of what a handshake and hug can mean to people and how it affects their lives.
Q: Did you like working in TV news?
A: I loved the idea of using television to tell a good story, but I hated my assignments. When I was working in Grand Rapids, Mich., I was nicknamed the “death reporter” because I was sent to cover every terrible tragedy that happened. I was really good at it. But I was telling stories for the wrong reasons, which was to lead off the newscast. I realized I wanted to tell stories on social issues specifically … fighting for a cause was a path I wanted to take. But I was terrified to tell my parents that I didn’t want to work in TV news anymore, since I’d already left that job at General Mills. So I stuck it out as long as I could.
Q: How do you get genuine performances from your actors without an acting background?
A: When you’ve interviewed so many people, your radar goes off. You know when something is not real. All of that training in television news trained me to be a director.
Q: Has your degree in finance helped you make movies?
A: It’s been a great foundation. In movie producing, any creative decisions are all based on dollars, and you have to come up with a really creative business plan to pull it off. If you don’t have a smart business plan to begin with, it’s such a high risk. You have to make sure the numbers add up.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about your nonprofit, CITED (Center for International Training Education and Development)?
A: The fact that we’re able to help raise awareness through telling stories in developing countries. … I remember as a kid (accompanying her father abroad), I would see these nonprofits in developing countries try to educate and communicate to others about their cause. (But) they weren’t getting people to care. You have to add human emotion and make it personal if people are going to care. I knew that I could help these people by personalizing their story. There’s a scientific basis for this, too, a team from Harvard Public Health worked with us on it. Their research found that if you get the right message with the right person it can change public policy and public perception.
Q: You’re part of a conference in Africa this summer.
A: We’re doing training with the American Cancer Society with the SCCA conference (Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancer Conference in Africa, an international event to be held in mid-July. It is attended by African first ladies as well as many governmental and public officials and other concerned parties.) All these different first ladies come for this training along with their technical and press teams, and we educate them about breast cancer and prostate cancer and talking about prioritizing it in African countries. This is so they can understand that it’s not just a death sentence. … If you start talking about cancer in a positive light, showing how people survive and thrive, then more resources can be directed toward getting help. So if we share these stories, then maybe this discussion can lead to policy change and really get the attention of the media, so that they can actually make it a priority themselves in developing countries.
Q: What movies are your inspirations?
A: “12 Angry Men” and “The Outsiders,” “Serpico,” “Donny Brasco,” “Coming Home,” “Ordinary People.”
Q: Knowing everything you know now, what would you tell your 20-something self?
A: Everybody gets scared or panicked in their life because they think they can’t get to where they want to, or reach their goals or dreams. I would tell myself, just don’t worry. It will work out if you dedicate yourself to it. (But) it’s a ton of work.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who has a dream and feels like they’re struggling?
A: The only (barriers) we give ourselves are the ones when we say, “This is the box and I’m going to put myself in it.” I always felt like I couldn’t make a movie in Hollywood until I realized, “Why not?” But I do think the biggest mistake people make is they don’t prepare. They just jump in and don’t do their research. You have to jump in with a strong game plan.
Q: How much do you trust your intuition?
A: Probably about 75 percent or more. I heavily rely on that. My intuition is everything. My parents and I spent time with Mother Teresa in India, and she always said to trust your intuition. She said, “It’s all in your heart. You’ll know all the answers to life because it’s all in your heart. But you have to be open to receiving it.”