Rising Star Rebecca Stern: “Why it pays to always be empathetic”

Always be empathetic. It’s really unlikely someone who made a mistake did it to ruin your day or your project. Likely they are having a hard day, weren’t paying enough attention, or didn’t understand the instruction. It’s always best to respond with kindest in hard situations than anger. As a part of my series about pop […]

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Always be empathetic. It’s really unlikely someone who made a mistake did it to ruin your day or your project. Likely they are having a hard day, weren’t paying enough attention, or didn’t understand the instruction. It’s always best to respond with kindest in hard situations than anger.

As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Stern. Rebecca is a director and producer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the producer of TRE MAISON DASAN, a documentary exploring the lives of children affected by parental incarceration (Independent Lens 2019). She is the Co-Producer of NETIZENS, a documentary delving into the effects of online sexual harassment (Tribeca 2018). She was the associate producer of “the bomb,” an innovative installation and film which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and the 2017 Berlinale Film Festival. She started out in documentary as the production coordinator of Academy Award nominated and Emmy-winning documentary CARTEL LAND. She previously was a staff member of Picture Motion, the leading film impact firm, managing film marketing campaigns for acclaimed documentaries including FOOD CHAINS (2016 BritDoc Impact Award) and THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING. WELL GROOMED is her first feature film.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Rebecca! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Sacramento, and had what I think was a pretty normal suburban childhood — lots of biking and swimming and school. The only really odd thing was how many pets we had. We lived right on the leeve, and my sister, Dad and I used to find litters of kittens in the bushes in the summer, get them inside, and then we’d instantly fall in love and couldn’t give them away. We also had a big, very fat Lab mix and a few other furry pets wandering around at any point in time.

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

I never really thought that I would be a documentary filmmaker. I moved to New York City after college thinking that I would live in the city for a summer. But, I got a job working with a documentary filmmaking on his film that was just about to premiere in theaters. I ended up working with him for about a year and a half. I was fascinated, and after that I looked for more jobs in the industry and eventually became an independent producer. I’ve always been an avid reader and I get addicted to stories and series, so finding a way to tell stories my own way made me very happy.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Ha — I think probably getting WELL GROOMED onto HBO! The entire process of producing WELL GROOMED independently was intensely challenging, and very rewarding — not just because of the distribution but also because I’ve met so many interesting people making this movie. Production brought us to the middle of Arkansas, and driving through rural Ohio, and I got to pet dogs the whole way through.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh man. So many to choose from that at the time didn’t feel funny at all. With WELL GROOMED, one mistake we made was filming our first interview with two people but only one lav. If I remember correctly, we even ran out of media filming that interview and were left with only the lav picking up audio. Of course, once the camera was down, we got the best sound bites — and I needed to find a way to get the same content all over again during the next shoot! At the time, I was disappointed I hadn’t managed the day and the equipment better, but I learned how important media management is and also found out that getting those quotes again wasn’t all that hard!

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

I’m currently producing two feature documentary films and a short documentary. All are in various stages of production but they range in topics from urban development to a pet turtle.

We are 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?

There are too many good reasons diversity but on and off the screen is needed. Foremost is that it’s a lot harder to do something when you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing what you want to be doing. Plus entertainment helps shape our assumptions about ourselves and about others, which is hugely important for how we live our lives. I mean, if you only ever see women baking cakes in films, you might assume that’s the only thing they do! Then, it’s the right thing to do — I don’t see the logic in only allowing one section of society to tell stories. Our entertainment would get more boring that way, and that goes against being entertaining.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. If you need to know something, ask. So many times, in setting up shoots, I assume that I knew why something was set up in a certain way, or made assumptions about what people wanted and I turned out to be wrong.
  2. Be efficient. Everyone’s time is valuable to them. One of the kindest things you can do is make projects more efficient both through direct communication and through organization. Then we all get to go to our friends and families faster while still doing a good job.
  3. Get organized. Logging information in a way that other people can access is the key to production. Even as a director, if I let organization slip then my producers and I wouldn’t be on the same page and they might make decisions based on the wrong information.
  4. Always be empathetic. It’s really unlikely someone who made a mistake did it to ruin your day or your project. Likely they are having a hard day, weren’t paying enough attention, or didn’t understand the instruction. It’s always best to respond with kindest in hard situations than anger.
  5. Have fun. It’s movie making, not brain surgery. Our best work on Well Groomed was when we got into a flow and had a really good time.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Spa days!! Seriously — after finishing a project, it’s worth it to treat your body and to spend time thinking about everything you just did.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

You should be able to get through breakfast without touching plastic. Let’s do that.

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?

For Well Groomed, it’s definitely my producers Justin Levy and Matthew C. Mills. This project is so much better because they were both a part of it, both creatively and in terms of the beautiful polish on the work. They provided sound advice, different perspectives, and insightful questions along the way.

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

Moderation to the extreme.

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 just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Greta Gerwig for sure. She’s from Sacramento (like me!) and she makes movies (like me!) and I think I could learn so much from her.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Check out the film at @wellgroomedmovie

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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