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L Frances Henderson: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

Interview with Guernslye Honorés

Take frequent focus breaks — like a painter stepping back from their canvas to see the whole picture. It’s so easy to get lost in the tangle of the edit. Walking away for a 5–10 minute break every hour or hour and a half can significantly help to maintain a healthy perspective on the story and your own creative longevity.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing L. Frances Henderson.

L. Frances Henderson was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” after finishing her documentary LESSONS FOR THE LIVING — about sitting bedside with the dying. She edited the ITVS supported documentary film FOR AHKEEM which had its world premiere at the 2017 Berlinale and U.S. premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. Her recent film, THIS MUCH WE KNOW (formerly titled ABOUT A MOUNTAIN), has been awarded a Cinereach and Jerome grant and was presented at IFP Film Market, Sheffield Meet Market, and the Champs-Elysee Film Festival US In Progress Market. The film premiered at Camden International Film Festival and went on to screen at DocNYC, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and RiverRun Film Festival and is being distributed by Oscilloscope. In 2021, she completed editing the documentary feature LIGHT DARKNESS LIGHT, directed by Landon Van Soest and produced by The Documentary Group. She also edited the short film SHUT UP AND PAINT, directed by Titus Kaphar and Alex Mallis and produced by DCTV, which was shortlisted for the 2023 Oscars®. Currently, she is editing a feature called CHEWED GUM, directed by Alana Maiello, about the high rates of sexual assault in Utah and rape myths that run rampant within the Mormon Church — the predominant religion of the state. She has been a member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective for more than ten years.

Henderson’s directorial debut film THIS MUCH WE KNOW will be in theaters beginning on November 10, 2023.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

My parents and most of their friends were writers and so I was raised on the art of good storytelling. Among them, my mom was one of the best storytellers. There was a certain familiar formula to her stories — she would start off creating a vivid setting and tone, earning the ears of her listeners, and then would delicately introduce the unsuspecting main character and at the perfect moment reveal the event that would forever change that person’s life. I felt transported every time.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Twenty years ago when I was a freshman in college, I accidentally walked into a documentary film class thinking it was a photography class. At that time, documentary film wasn’t as popular as it is today and I thought I wouldn’t like the class very much. Then the professor screened Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman and I felt just as moved and transported as I had growing up listening to my mom tell stories around the dinner table. I spent the next three years studying documentary and making my own documentary films. I felt at home.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I went through a period of working as a commercial documentary director. It’s a bit of an oxymoron since the truth part of the storytelling in commercial work is often explicitly manipulated to fit the brand’s vision. This was proven to me when I found myself directing a short documentary to help sell an app for a GMO company — not my proudest moment but I was a naive 20-something. There I was in the middle of a corn field in Iowa and I was being asked to depict the farmer and his family almost like they were straight out of that Norman Rockwell painting — the one of the family happily gathered at the table for thanksgiving. I asked the humble christian farmer to gaze out at his crops and tell me what he saw. I expected him to share something deep, heartfelt, and earnest. But instead he took a deep breath in, tightened his lips, squinted his eyes like a sharp shooter about to pull the trigger and replied “money…pure money.” It was right there that I decided that my documentary career might have to take a sharp detour or get sucked bone dry by corporate mouths.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

One of the most interesting people I interacted with for my film This Much We Know was the former Las Vegas Coroner Ron Flud. It felt like he came straight out of central casting — sharply dressed in a leisurely ranch outfit and perfectly trim beard with stories from the past about being an undercover narcotics cop, solving a homicide by talking with a psychic, searching for Tupac’s murderer…the stories were endlessly fascinating. Someone could do a whole show on him. If you’re game — go for it. He’s quite a person.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

First — my parents for always validating me and my goals to be working in the storytelling arts. But I owe a lot of my present day success to my partner and cinematographer Ed David. There is so much about making films that is intimidating as a curious young filmmaker. I remember that he lent me a camera when we were first dating and suggested I document him playing basketball with his friend in the park. Gradually I found my rhythm with it. His whole philosophy was to just get out there and do it. The intimidation is so great — how to work a camera and all the equipment, how to advocate for your vision as a director — but much of that is unnecessary intimidation. He helped to remind me of that often, and boosted my confidence by reminding me that I know what makes a good story and that I just need to honor that intuition more.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In highschool when the bell rang at the end of history class, my teacher would shout out our homework assignment and then say “And remember, your life can change in a second.” That has always stuck with me and has made me aware of the fact that life is naturally inconsistent which can make it dangerous, exciting and revisable. It kept me conscious of the fact that I wasn’t just a 16 year old forever and that I’d have many experiences in my life and stories to tell. And compelling stories are often built around those moments when life changes in a second.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I support and want to make more stories with strong, multi-dimensional and imperfect female protagonists. The female experience and vantage point is crucial to expanding our world’s collective consciousness. Without women’s voices we all fail to thrive.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m just about to release my debut film This Much We Know which has been twelve years in the making. The film has evolved along with me and the style I’ve developed in this film is very unique and combines documentary, narrative and archival footage. It’s a deeply personal film about suicide in Las Vegas and the collective suicide of a society facing nuclear poison — the residual waste from American excess. Over those many years I had no idea if anyone would ever want to screen it but I feel so honored that Oscilloscope Labs loves the film and has taken it under their wing.

I am also currently editing a film about women activists who are facing down the Mormon Church and trying to change the backward patriarchal treatment of sexual assault survivors. It’s an amazing story and the women featured in the film are incredibly brave and wise. They are true crusaders fighting for a better future.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

It’s a huge honor to be entrusted with telling someone’s story. I always try to embody someone’s emotional core and express that in the cinematography and editing. Once when filming for my film This Much We Know my main character said to a new crew member “Welcome to our movie.” It was a beautiful way for her to express that she trusted me to tell her story and that she felt had ownership over how it was told, too. That’s what documentary filmmaking should look and feel like — a true collaboration between director and participant.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

  1. Good things take time — My film This Much We Know took 12 years to make and even though I often felt like I was a failure for not making it in 5 years or less I’m so glad I allowed the film, and myself, to mature. I didn’t rush it and because of this I ended up making a film that is nuanced and meaningful and true to me.
  2. Film Collectives are a lifeline — I probably wouldn’t be making films right now if it weren’t for the support I’ve received over the years from The Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. Making films is not easy and we have all held one another up by sharing resources, time and words of encouragement through the years.
  3. Remain humble — Documentary film has become corporatized. Its a blessing and a curse. Ive made the mistake of confusing documentary participants as actors — not realizing that their threshold for being in front of a camera and exposing their personal life is a very vulnerable situation. I try to remain humble by reminding myself why am making the film in the first place and for whom.
  4. Edit in broad strokes for as long as you can until the story reveals itself — It’s kind of like what the yoga teacher sometimes tells you when you’re holding an uncomfortable position: ‘if you have discomfort, acknowledge it but don’t try to fix it…allow it to be where it wants to be until it settles.’ Same for story snags — don’t waste your time trying to fix the problems before you know what the story is. Allow it to be messy and uncomfortable for as long as it takes to let the discomfort subside. As you ease up, the story starts to reveal itself.
  5. Take frequent focus breaks — like a painter stepping back from their canvas to see the whole picture. It’s so easy to get lost in the tangle of the edit. Walking away for a 5–10 minute break every hour or hour and a half can significantly help to maintain a healthy perspective on the story and your own creative longevity.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

My partner Ed David! He is the harshest and most ruthless critic ever! And the worst part is — I agree with him often! Ed once looked at an early early cut of my film This Much We Know and was so passionately against some of my edit choices that I had to shut down the computer and walk away. But the next day, he pushed me to keep going with it. When it comes to filmmaking he’s tough but it has made me a stronger filmmaker.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to see more of an active collaboration between documentary directors and participants. I think filmmaking can be used as a tool for exploring and communicating unresolved personal issues and ideas which can lead to resolution and healing. And our world needs a lot of healing.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Steve Buscemi 🙂 He once sat down next to me at a film screening in Brooklyn of William Greaves’ film Symbiospsychotaxiplasm and he was so nice and approachable. He hands out halloween candy to the kids on the block every year. He was once a firefighter. He’s a humble guy. And a very talented actor.

How can our readers further follow you online?

On IG @lilyfranceshenderson or email me at [email protected] and I’ll talk to you directly!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

About the interviewer: Guernslye Honoré, affectionately known as “Gee-Gee”, is an amalgamation of creativity, vision, and endless enthusiasm. She has elegantly twined the worlds of writing, acting, and digital marketing into an inspiring tapestry of achievement. As the creative genius at the heart of Esma Marketing & Publishing, she leads her team to unprecedented heights with her comprehensive understanding of the industry and her innate flair for innovation. Her boundless passion and sense of purpose radiate from every endeavor she undertakes, turning ideas into reality and creating a realm of infinite possibilities. A true dynamo, Gee-Gee’s name has become synonymous with inspirational leadership and the art of creating success.

L Frances Henderson: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.