I had the extraordinary pleasure of talking with Jenifer Westphal, a filmmaker and founder of the company, Wavelength Productions, who’s company mantra is “We Tell Great F***king stories.” I am going to dive right into our discussion about being a documentary filmmaker, mother, and a champion for amazing stories and first-time filmmakers.
Why don’t you start us off by sharing some background information about how you got here that isn’t in your standard bio?
A lot of different paths, but one thing that really strikes me is that since the early years I have always been the person who lived outside the box. I left college to join the “Mondale for President” campaign in 1983 and that is what brought me East to Philly. In my years as a mother, I homeschooled our kids, but I homeschooled them in a very out of the box way called Self Directed Learned. We also ran a very alternative program for one of our sons who was diagnosed with autism when he was 5. And he now lives in NYC and graduated from college and all that good stuff. It is not unusual for me to have gone from that out of the box space to decide at 52 to found my own film company.
Why a film company?
One thing, all through those years, that I have always loved is a good story; and a good story told well. That is what is so fun about what I am doing now because I get the opportunity to help other filmmakers tell their stories in an exceptional manner.
When you started your company at 52 did you have any filmmaking education or background?
No, not at all. My kids will tell you that I have always had a very specific genre of film that I like. I love rom-coms and GOOD indie films. My guideline is that if it can’t be shown on the weather channel then I don’t want to watch it.
Another part of the story for the first question is that my son went to film school in Philly and through talking to him I became more interested in the filmmaking process. Finally, my husband and I had always talked about making a film about our homeschooling experience which has since turned into a film about our son’s autism. We actually have two films we are currently working on: one based on our homeschooling experience and another one about our experience with our son.
So how did you get interested in documentary film?
The idea of making a film about my son led me into thinking that storytelling for documentary film could be fun. I decided to give myself a year and see what happened. The first film I jumped into I found the project on Kickstarter. It was about a filmmaker from Senegal in the 1950s. The film went to Sundance, so I went and met the filmmaker and the producers, and I was hooked. Soon after in 2016, I got invited to a Sundance program called Catalyst, and a few months after I found myself an executive producer on Won’t You Be My Neighbor.
So, you really didn’t have to do the beg, borrow and steal that usually comes along with indie filmmaking?
You know I am really fortunate. My husband built his own company that has been very successful, so I have been able to use my own money to fund the company and all these films. I think it is really incredible to be able to pass this on to first time filmmakers and help out others who may not have the same resources I am so fortunate to have.
Well I think it is really wonderful that you are able and willing to put your own money behind your films. That shows you truly care in what you are doing.
Yes, the most fun I have is when I am able to support other’s passions and get their stories told. I also think it is important to have some independent financing because studios aren’t willing to put funds into some of these stories. My company, Wavelength Productions, really leans into that arena. We love supporting first time filmmakers and telling the stories that are usually left behind.
How do you find these stories you want to tell?
Before Won’t You Be My Neighbor exploded, my producer and I spent a lot of time building relationships, and after it landed and did so well, we had people starting to pitch their own projects to us.
Switching gears a bit, do you have any advice for women who are or want to be mothers?
Yes, don’t apologize for wanting a career and also wanting to raise kids. I think today’s society is so much healthier in supporting women who are doing both, but it is really going to take all of us: women whose kids are grown, women who don’t have kids, etc… to support each other. We can’t have mommy vs mommy anymore, because that is designed to keep us as adversaries. I am a big advocate of supporting women in whatever choices they want to make.
Final two questions: biggest struggle that you have experienced thus far?
For me, it was the huge learning curve that came with working on documentary film. When my film about my son’s autism comes out, we will have been working on it for over five years. We have had to navigate our own disappointment, his disappointment, changing editors and directors, along with the scope of the project. We have had to change so much along the way, but I am a firm believer that when you are doing beautiful things, you attract beautiful people and in the end, you will have exactly what you are supposed to have.
Any final bits of advice you have?
I really try to operate from a space of no regrets. We all make mistakes and say things we shouldn’t have said, but at the end of the day I don’t apologize for anything I don’t have to. Also, I know so many women in this industry who just go do it. Every day, don’t apologize or make excuses, just go do it.
Founded in 2015 by Jenifer Westphal, Wavelength is a full-service financing, production, and development company dedicated to supporting films that are unflinching, courageous, and radical in their approach. With an 90% female staff, it is committed to its diverse group of creators and films. Wavelength Productions inspires hope while shining a bright light on the underdogs and their genuine stories that celebrate the human condition. Wavelength had 4 titles at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – THE INFILTRATORS, WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?, SELAH AND THE SPADES, and KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE. Other notable Wavelength titles include the top grossing biodoc of all time WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, Sundance 2018 darling NIGHT COMES ON, and SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD.