MEDIUM ONLINE QUESTIONS:
By Phyllis Stuart for WILD DAZE
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your "backstory" that brought you to this career? Thank you for being curious and supportive of our shared goal! I began working as a storyteller in New York as a young, very green theater actress. At college, Tisch School of the Arts (at NYU), a guest teacher Lucille Lortell the Queen of Off-Broadway gave us advice that still motivates me today. She told us: ‘To make it you must have the three T’s: ‘Talent’, “Tenacity’ and above all ‘Taste”. Anybody who puts themselves through college, while living in a VERY expensive city like New York, understands that to survive you muster tenacity every single day traveling that sketchy 1980s subway system. And all artists consistently nurture and cultivate their ‘Talent’ and ‘Taste’. But what she didn’t admit was that at that time to work on Broadway actors went up against the world’s best triple threat artists who sang, acted and danced. Since I arrived to the dancing and singing party very late in life…I didn’t start until I was 20… and since my competition had been dancing and singing for about 15 years, after several Broadway cattle calls, I realized musical theater could never be my route. So, I moved to Los Angeles to work in film and television…and pined for the boards back East.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career? Back in the late nineties I started (but did not complete) a film about consciousness, which I entitled The Paranormal Portal: Where Science & Spirit Meet. When I was in the early film production stage my father passed suddenly from cancer. I was there for his very difficult transition and was utterly heartbroken, But making this consciousness film rescued me. I was lucky to have a film project to keep me busy, to interview so many brave scientists who study the nature of consciousness, and who openly study and quantify death, near-death experiences, medical miracles, telepathy and remote viewing. I met astrophysicists, physicists, psychologists and others, who wanted to lend credibility to spiritual matters and who risked their careers to write books about their own direct contact with spiritual experiences.
Though I was unspeakably sad to have seen my father die, these scientists taught me to better understand, fear, grief and mortality. Most importantly, I learned to trust life. The tone of my life changed from despair and grief to magical realism. I began living as if my life was a magical mystery tour. I don’t always remember to frame experiences in this way, but when I do I encounter wonder and miracles. And I’m happier. Like Carlo Castenda said "All paths are the same, leading nowhere. Therefore, pick a path with heart!" So, now rather than worrying about my career, my income or my status, I quiet my mind, listen to hunches and trust my gut. That doesn’t mean I don’t research and painstakingly plan my interviews before I meet with people. But now I’m more relaxed and welcome the offerings that surprise me along the way. Remember that Lawrence Kasdan film, “Grand Canyon” when Mary McDonnell’s character jogs alone past a scary, hairy, delirious homeless man who tells her to “Keep the baby”.
My life is like that and I feel so luck when I pay attention and find guidance meant just for me. So, when I filmed in Tanzania the government was on high alert, things were very hot, they were arresting journalists and it was dangerous to film with a crew. Wild Daze took me six years to create, and this shoot was in 2015 when Tanzanian officials were arresting journalists who were exposing corrupt officials, who had secretly sanctioned an epic elephant genocide in its Selous Game Reserve.
Sadly, we later learned, (thanks to Dr. Sam Wasser and his genius DNA work), that 45 tons of elephant tusks wound up in the international ivory black market, mostly in China, from this park in Tanzania. So, because Africans consider documentary filmmakers as journalists, I was on my own, I had to shoot alone for the first time in my career. I knew I must learn how to operate the gear, and get a great little camera and sound recording gear. Before this Africa journey I had only ever employed camera and lighting experts, so I had a lot to learn. So I wrote to Apple and told them why I needed to be an unsuspecting filmmaker and shoot parts of my documentary in Africa on an iPhone. They liked the notion that a documentary film could be captured on an iPhone and kindly donated little camera gear. I rented excellent sound gear, secured this amazing iPhone Schneider Optics lens kit and flew back to Africa. I had the idea to contact Apple for a donation because Sean Baker had just shot a Sundance indie Tangerine on his iPhone and he had explained the filming process and its inherent pitfalls. While it all worked out in the end, that workflow was time-consuming and tedious. (You remain in the Apple world, though you need the FiLMiC Pro app to transfer your iPhone-captured material to iTunes and then you transfer it back to your external hard drive. I was an early adapter and maybe they’ve worked out the kinks, but if you’re sleep-deprived, shooting on your own in Africa, some media can be lost….forever.) But I had to secretly shoot in some areas where poaching and corruption was high…and where I couldn’t afford to attract attention with a film crew. That’s why in Wild Daze you will find video quality differences, we shot with many cameras in 10 countries and you will see 720p b-roll footage with iPhone video with Sony DSLR 1080 video and 4K red camera footage.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? When I shot my first tiny little documentary I Think I Cannes I met heroes, icons of the film industry, including Palme D’or directors. I was very young and so asked naïve questions typical of the very green. But these talented guys tolerated “the novelty”, they were kind to indulge this spirited and female director. Everybody always asks me how I find the money to make a film. I think of Wim Wenders who advised that if you want to make a documentary, you get any job you can, grab a camera and make a film. (This was the late 1990s when you could buy an affordable prosumer digital camera and cinematic storytelling became more egalitarian and accessible). Mr. Wenders told me: “Get any job, be a strip club bouncer if you have to, but make your film.” I look forward to visiting a strip club some day, but I’ve been working since I was 13 years old and so actually enjoy working. D
o you have any stories? Meeting Dr. Jane Goodall was intimidating as I was very late to her conservation world. I knew she loved children and was proud of her Roots & Shoots Program, so my friend Kari loaned me her Claire, her 12 year-old daughter, who adored Dr. Goodall. Because my cameraman in New York looked like a stock character from Wayne’s World I knew I needed the sweetness of Claire to ease the tension of our weird indie crew experience. I am so grateful to Dr. Goodall whose participation in Wild Daze helped others agree to join our reindeer games.
But I was most nervous filming a professional trophy hunter. Though I didn’t need to be. He was a Zambian living in Denver, married to an American and was very approachable. His name is Pete Swanepoel and I filmed him five different times…it took time for Pete to open up and you can see in the film we went from filming him with a crew (on a 4K Red camera), to just me again, alone with my unassuming iPhone gear… But you can’t take your eyes off Pete in Wild Daze. He’s a complex, likable, generous and interesting African man, who grew up in Zambia and who now brings rich Americans to hunt for fun and kill endangered African wildlife. I filmed this trophy hunter after the infamous killing of Cecil the lion, because Americans were so outraged. Remember seeing Jimmy Kimmel crying on nighttime television? I really thought the tide would turn and Americans would permanently shut down trophy hunting. This was a lightning moment, it was as if Americans had just discovered to this new thing called African trophy hunting. So, in our film Pete finally and quite sheepishly admits that trophy hunting is not real conservation, a truth that contradicts America’s trophy hunting fraternity, the Safari Club International, which wants you to shoot as many animals as you can and get a Super Bowl style ring…
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? I was headed up to San Francisco to film Lady Cocoa in March, 2020 when the cruise ship brought this pandemic to our shores. I’m interested in helping the small-scale female farmers in DR Congo grow sustainable cacao, a crop which grows under the rainforest canopy and only near the equator. Cacao is a crop which offers the wildlife a chance to retain its rainforest home. Also, The DR Congo is the only place in the world where the incredible bonobos live. So, by helping the people who live with the wildlife, you also help the endangered wildlife survive. It’s a fun, sweet, chocolate project that I hope to turn into a multi-part series. But I aim to secure a network, in advance of the shoot, and not raise independent funds as I go, like I did for the past six years creating Wild Daze.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why? We are standing on the shoulders of countless courageous women who made this modern life easier for half the world. But one need just look around in other countries to find countless women who have no voice, no choice, no power, and little freedom. We have a long way to travel on planet blue. I don’t know if humans can evolve fast enough to outpace the destruction we have caused, though. I welcome the tipping point, a time when a large enough number of humans beings join hands to create an equitable and peaceful planet. Yes…I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now? So, I have spent seven years examining the ecocide and its drivers. Readers may accuse me of hubris when I operate as if my actions, (such as making media, creating live events, putting out PSAs, galvanizing others on social media and disseminating data), can actually turn the tide against extinction. But allow Margaret Mead to be your clarion call: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I determined that people in wildlife conservation are motivated by saving a favorite species. So, I put a dozen social impact campaigns together on the Wild Daze website to help interested parties engage and support those who are doing the work on the ground.
You can find it on www.wilddazethemovie.com under IMPACT which list our Partners and Current Campaigns. By supporting any one of these partner conservationists will help save the wild. I also filmed another 50 conservations whose work is not included in Wild Daze. So, contact me, tell me if you love lions, giraffe, primates, forests, elephants and I will guide your hand. If a reader has a real passion to help save the wild, I will make an introduction to an African-based NGO whose elegant, effective, trim tab work is truly shifting the direction of the sailboat. Did you see that just now? I made a sailing reference…a remarkable moment given I get very seasick on a sailboat.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger? I knew nothing about elephants before I made this movie. I knew less about Africa. But on Facebook I started seeing these faceless, murdered elephants and freaked out. I had no idea what was happening to the elephants. As a self-employed artist I have had to be myopic to survive as a filmmaker. But once I saw images I could not stop. I could not in know these facts and do nothing. So about ten years ago, I created a pilot called JUNGLE RESCUE where we filmed in American backyards and basements to rescue Siberian Tigers, captive primates, lions…all the animals considered ‘exotics’, which have fewer rights in America than do our domestic pets.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause? So many people helped me ---truly hundreds of people many of whom are listed in my very pretty, but longish, film end credits. But making this film was emotionally exhausting. Like many highly sensitive souls who love animals, we tell ourselves we cannot bear to see them suffer. But I knew if I looked away, the bad guys would win, and everybody will lose. But then I met an American journalist who had moved to Africa to marry a Maasai Chief in Kenya. While we never met in person, her advice really helped my skin thicken. I was starting to feel like I had PTSD symptoms after witnessing so much cruelty, day in and day out during in the early research phase. And so after listening to me vent, she gently said: “Phyllis, just tell the story, don’t become the story”.
Though WILD DAZE doesn’t have much graphic visual images of wildlife, when things got tough I recall the words of Gretchen Wyler who said: "We must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” If felt if I made their suffering about ME and my response to their pain, I would be unable to function and I wanted to be useful.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort? Truly know you matter, every single person and all our daily decisions impact others. Our food waste, our mode of transportation, our carbon footprint. We can call our lawmakers OR we can become lawmakers. People in USA on both side of the political aisle have passed laws to protect African wildlife. So find them…and engage. Quiet your monkey mind, have an epiphany and realize YOU are the one…Nobody is coming on a white horse to solve this problem. The solution is up to YOU and YOU and YOU….no kidding.
What are your "5 things I wish someone told me when I first started" and why. Please share a story or example for each. Get great pet sitters because your animals at home will forgive you when you leave them in good hands and when you return. It’s not expensive to travel…find people to help connect you to places you wish to visit…Many places that charge tourists a fortune, and which have a conservation aspect to their tourism business) most of them have this component) also offer low cost, filmmaker, researcher accommodations, so if you want to advance a shared mission, you can stay in these swank locales in Africa, for $15 per night. You can stay in Nairobi for $25 a night at the YMCA…breakfast included!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them? Most people are waiting for their circumstances to line up before they engage. Like having a child, you never have enough______. So, you are not too old, too young, too this, too that…you matter. You can use your mighty spirit to positively impact this gorgeous planet. You are safe, go forth and love well.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-) I missed the chance to meet and film Howard Buffett in Eastern DR Congo. I love Howard because he loves Africa and approaches his support through food production, effective farming. We have so much to share with subsistence farmers…Americans are SO rich…We have freedom of speech and education…We are so blessed…and millions of Africans would welcome the benefit of your kindness, your education, your time. Everyone can be a ‘hero’; just don’t think you have to reach some impossible standard. You don’t have to be smart, you don’t have to be articulate, you don’t have to be bold. You just need to care, to love people. Because saving the wild will only work if we love and support those who live with the wild ones.
Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote"? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? See the life you want to create…see the future and then follow your imagination to manifest your vision. The route will be circuitous and roadblocks and struggles are welcome signposts to urge you to continue. We don’t have long to be on this amazing earth…give it all you have…and then give it more.
How can our readers follow you online?
I welcome fellow wild life lovers. I post every single day on our WILD DAZE facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WildDaZeMovie