Jeanette Sears Talks about Veterans Dealing with Post-traumatic Stress

Welcome to the latest edition of GUMworks. Each column will feature an interview with an up-and-coming professional working in a different part of the film and television world. We’ll discuss who they are, what they do, and the role studios like GUM play in their lives.

This time, we talk to Jeanette Sears. Jeanette is a cinematographer and sometimes director who has brought her world-class eye to many different kinds of projects, from horror films to music videos to documentaries. 

As if that wasn’t enough, she also works as the program director for I WAS THERE Film Workshops, an organization that provides free filmmaking workshops to veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress. It’s run by none other than Ben Patton, grandson of the famed World War II general. We caught up with Jeanette via phone from the I WAS THERE office. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

GUM: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Jeanette Sears: I’m originally from Lebanon, Ohio. I moved to New York to go to grad school for film, and I’ve been here for about four years. I do a lot of cinematography, documentary-based work, and I work for the I WAS THERE Film Workshops as the program director.

GUM: We should start there. Why don’t you say a little bit about what I WAS THERE is?

JS: The I WAS THERE Film Workshops are collaborative filmmaking workshops for military service members who are dealing with post-traumatic stress and other service-related stresses. They’re multi-day workshops where we go to different military bases and have a group that makes short films over the course of four days together. 

GUM: You started out there just as an instructor, right?

JS: I did. I was actually hooked up with the workshops through a fellow classmate from City College, who is an instructor for the program. He knew I had an interest in veterans. I did ROTC in high school and got to work with a lot of veterans there, and I’ve always had an interest in working with service members. I did a couple workshops, started working in the office to help plan them, and it evolved from there. 

GUM: What does your current position as program director mean for you on a day-to-day level?

JS: Being the program director is my day job, which is usually thought of as a bad thing. But I really love being able to do it. I plan the different workshops we have about once a month. So it’s everything from contacting the base to helping with recruiting – just making sure that all the pieces are together to make a successful workshop.

GUM: Is there a particular favorite film of the ones you’ve worked on directly at the workshops you’ve taught?

JS: That’s a hard question! I’ve had so many that I’ve enjoyed. It’s really interesting each workshop to get to work with two or three people, get to know them, and make a film telling their story. I’m trying to think, what’s my favorite?

GUM: You can say a favorite. 

JS: One of my favorites is from a workshop here in New York City in July. We had a workshop with ten Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and five Americans. I got to work with two Israelis and two American soldiers. We made a really beautiful film, and it was probably the most collaborative process that I’ve had. Each member of the team really had a piece of themselves in the film. 

It’s called PTSounDs. It’s about this guy who’s wandering through Times Square. He’s overwhelmed by all the sounds and trying to get to his place where he can be calm, away from all of the distractions. It was based around music, and it’s a really beautiful film. That’s probably one of my favorites.

GUM: What have you learned as a filmmaker, working with complete novices to filmmaking in the I WAS THERE workshops?

JS: I have always been an advocate of learning something as you’re teaching. We have very minimal equipment. It’s really stripped down to having them be able to tell their stories, and not worry so much about the technical aspects, which is very difficult for me. 

I think it’s really made me an even better cinematographer and filmmaker. You’re going out and filming in three and a half hours to do a three to five minute short film, so you have to be really efficient. 

When you’re making a film with a budget, there’s often the temptation to get bogged down by all of the technical aspects, and overwhelmed by it. With the workshops, it’s a really great opportunity to remember why you’re putting the camera where you put it. When you’re teaching the workshop participants to do it, you have to realize that yourself. 

GUM: You’ve worked on a lot of documentaries. Where did that interest in documentary come from?

JS: I’ve sort of fallen into documentary work, and come to love it. I honestly don’t watch a lot of documentaries – I should watch more. But I love shooting them. There are two major projects I’ve had that have been really great. I did a lot of wedding videography, which has a very documentary-esque style as well.

GUM: What were the documentaries?

JS: I did one that is getting to ready premiere – a short version of it – t will eventually be a feature. It’s called Out In Alabama. We shot that in Birmingham, Alabama over the last year and a half, following the same group of people who identify as LGBTQ members. It focuses on them being out in the South. It’s defying the stereotype of not being able to be out in that region, and it’s a profile of this really amazing group of people. 

The second one is called All We’ve Got. It was one of my most favorite experiences making a film. We did a road trip across the country, travelling to different women’s spaces and examining where women meet and how that’s evolved, how spaces are disappearing, and how it’s changing. So that one was really great as well.

GUM: You just mentioned that you’ve done a lot of wedding work. In what ways is shooting a wedding more similar to shooting a documentary, or even a narrative film, than people might think?

JS: Shooting a wedding is so intense. You have a client who is looking to capture every moment of what they see as the most important day of their life. So there’s a lot of pressure to be able to both capture every moment, but also to tell the story of the day. 

You only have that one day, so in some ways it’s even more complicated than most documentaries. Documentaries can stay with a character for multiple days, multiple months, multiple years. But a wedding is just that one day. So it’s a good way to think on the fly, and still be able to tell a story with these people that you’ve just met.

GUM: I was looking at your resume, and I saw, buried deep at the bottom, were two years you spent working on a Lifetime reality show, One Born Every Minute. What was that show, what was it like to work on, and most importantly, what on Earth was it like to film a C-section?

JS: [Laughs]. I got hooked up with that as an undergrad at Ohio State. There was a show coming to Columbus for the Lifetime Channel, and I applied for it. The first season I did it, I just did it as an internship. 

I remember it was close to Thanksgiving, there was nobody in the hospital. One of the producers came in and was like, “We have a C-section coming up.” He asked me, “Have you ever worked on this camera?” I forget which camera it was. And I said yes, which was a lie, because I wanted to be in on it. But most cameras are pretty self-explanatory. Once you know one, you can figure out another one really quickly. He said, alright, gear up. So we got all in scrubs. I was the B-camera for it and it was probably the most interesting thing I had filmed thus far. 

Then the next season, the very first day I was there, the same thing happened. So I got to film two of them. It’s something fun to talk about. 

It was a great learning experience, for something that I probably wouldn’t want to do on a regular basis, but I made some great connections and it’s fun to say that I filmed a C-section.

GUM: I saw a short documentary you did about Occupy Wall Street that you did for grad school. The thing I thought was interesting was, it’s not really about Occupy Wall Street. It’s about people documenting Occupy Wall Street. I was curious why you took that approach.

Jeanette Sears

JS: The assignment was an observational documentary. You weren’t allowed to sit down and do a formal interview with anyone – it had to be observing an event or a character unobtrusively. 

I was out looking for something, and at that point in time, Occupy was huge. So I went down to maybe see if I could follow someone around. I got down there, and it seemed like there were more cameras than actual protesters at some points. Everybody had their iPhone out, everybody had their iPad out, there were a million cameras everywhere. 

I was like, this is kind of ridiculous. And I decided to point the camera at the cameras, because people were down there really trying to make a statement, but it seemed like people were more focused on documenting it than the thing itself. So I just wanted to step out of being one of those cameras and observe the whole thing as it was going on. 

GUM: Another project you shot was a music video for The Shondes. Was that your first video?

JS: That was my first music video. It was great working with Nicole [Witte Solomon], who directed it. The band were really great to work with, and it’s a great song. It was just a really fun time.

GUM: Did shooting a music video, as opposed to a film make you think differently about visuals? 

JS: It was nice, actually, because we could do it multiple times and there were different pieces. It was great that Nicole had a distinct vision of what she wanted to do. 

I love shooting concerts like that. I don’t get to do it very often. We shot their actual concert, and then put another one together to get the crowd shots the next day. I really enjoyed shooting it, just being able to take different pieces and get the shots that she wanted for different parts of the song. It was different from shooting a narrative film, where everything has its own distinct piece. This was shooting the same song over and over and over again, but in different settings and things like that. I really liked it.

GUM: You’ve shot a whole variety of things from horror films to documentaries to music videos to weddings. Do you think there’s any kind of consistent thread or style that runs through all of the work you do?

JS: I really love being behind the camera. I don’t know if there’s a style that I have, or one that I can identify in an articulate way. But the cinematographer’s job is to make the film the director’s envisioning, in the style that the director wants. That’s the thing that I’ve tried to do with everything that I’ve shot, is to make it visually match with the writing and the direction.

GUM: Other than your job with I WAS THERE, what are you working on right now?

JS: I’m working on a couple short films. I just directed my first short film that is almost done. I’m meeting with a colorist tonight, which is really exciting. I tried to do things right for that. I had a cinematographer for it, I had people help me with the edit. That should be finished in just a couple weeks, so I’m really excited.

GUM: What’s the title?

JS: At the moment, it’s called Happenstance. I’m also working on another documentary with my roommate David Carl. He does a one-man comedy show. He does all of Hamlet, a one-man Hamlet, as Gary Busey. 

He’s very interested in actually meeting Gary Busey. So since the beginning of the year, we’ve been filming him in his quest to possibly meet Gary Busey. It should be a pretty interesting documentary.

GUM: Just the other day, you got a chance to see Small Talk, the horror movie you filmed, at the Big Apple Film Festival. What was it like to see your handiwork on a full-sized movie screen?

JS: That was wonderful. It was the first time I had seen it in a theater since right after grad school. When you see it there, it’s like, okay, I’ve seen this in class a million times, and get a little tired of it and used to it. But after a couple years, seeing it again was really great.

There are so many things that I’ve learned since then, so there’s a lot of stuff that I wish I could have done a little bit better. But I’m still happy with it. It’s really fun to see how much you’ve learned in a short period of time. So it was fun to see how far I’ve come, and things that I did right as well.

GUM: And finally, what kinds of things do you look for when shooting in a studio?

JS: I'd have to say when I (rarely) get to work in a studio, I'd most of all want knowledgeable and helpful people there from the studio. You can have any and every tool you could possibly need for a shoot, but if you don't know the studio, you need someone there to be helpful and enthusiastic about supporting and making the space accessible.

Interview by Shawn Setaro