#52. A Conversation with Amanda Micheli

Jason Anders: So let's talk about your 2004 documentary film Double Dare, which follows the lives of two stunt-women exposing their struggles and successes in the Hollywood circuit; the film features Jeannie Epper of Wonder Woman fame, and Zoe Bell from Xena: Warrior Princess, Kill Bill, and Death Proof. First off, what initially attracted you to the idea of this subject, which would result in six years of shooting before the film was complete.

Amanda Micheli: A producer in Los Angeles named Karen Johnson came to me with the original idea for a film about stunt-women way back in 1996. She had seen my student film, Just for the Ride, which was about women's rodeo, and she thought I'd be a good match for the material. She was right; there's a lot of crossover between the rodeo world and the world of stunt-women (the earliest women who doubled on Westerns were all rodeo girls), and I've always been interested in representations of women in Hollywood -- so I took the project on. We were younger and somewhat naive then, so we figured it wouldn't be hard to raise money for a film like this. Well, let's just put it this way: it was a labor of love, we did it on credit cards and the generous help of some very talented people who worked for us at a fraction of their rate. The film took a long time to develop partly because of financial challenges, access issues on movie sets, and also the natural process of waiting for a character-driven story to play out.

JA: Your film perfectly captures the spirit of what these women do for a living, and even documents the very first meeting of Quentin Tarantino and Zoe Bell; what was it like to be in auditions and on the set of the film Kill Bill, and what were your interactions with Quentin Tarantino like during this shoot, as he also provided an extensive interview for your project?

AM: Quentin was our hero on this project, he really was. As I mentioned above, it was very hard to get access to movie sets -- and understandably so; feature film directors are already stressed-out enough without a documentary crew they don't know hanging around behind-the-scenes all day. When Zoë landed the audition for Kill Bill, I didn't ask for permission to shoot, I just went along with Jeannie as part of Zoë's "entourage," carrying a small camera. It wasn't until later that I admitted to Quentin that I was filming a documentary. I flew to China with Zoë, and basically waited around for a meeting with him to talk to him about getting on set. His assistant at the time was super-helpful, and God knows, she didn't have to be. I finally met him, and I told him I filmed the audition, and he laughed: "I love it! Always better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission!" (But don't hold him to that). He agreed to let me film selected scenes and also granted me a phenomenal interview with him about Zoë, and female action in general. The outtakes of that interview are on the Double Dare DVD.

There was sensitivity on Quentin's set because Master Yuen Wu-Ping, the famed martial arts fight choreographer, was very camera shy. So Quentin supported me coming on set despite some serious challenges -- and it saved our movie. I honestly don't know if Double Dare would have worked as a film if we hadn't gotten on the set of Kill Bill.

JA: You also were able to have an intimate conversation with Steven Spielberg about the history of stunt-women and on Jeannie Epper- how did you arrive at including this conversation with the filmmaker, and were there any conversations or insights he was able to provide that didn't make it onto the Double Dare DVD?

AM: That was one of the hardest interviews to get -- it took three years. Steven finally agreed because he had so much respect and admiration for Jeannie and her entire family. We only got fifteen minutes with him, and he was incredible. Like Quentin, he was also a great supporter of our project and helped us license footage from his films, which was a huge help.

JA: Have you kept up with Zoe and Jeannie since the release of your documentary, and what are your thoughts on the Grindhouse film Death Proof, in which Zoe would star as herself under the direction of Quentin Tarantino?

AM: I talk to both Zoë and Jeannie regularly -- we have built very close relationships. I was thrilled for Zoë that she was featured as an actress in Death Proof; she has very gracefully transitioned to acting...and still keeps herself grounded as a stunt-woman as well.

JA: What are your top three favorite documentary films of all time?

AM: There's so many, but as of today, I'd say: Seventeen, Pumping Iron, and American Movie.

JA: What do you feel are the most important aspects of documentary filmmaking, and what initiated your interest in the first place?

AM: I came to documentary filmmaking through still photography. I was the photo editor of my high school newspaper, and I really loved being able to hang out with all kinds of people -- from the football team to the teacher's lounge -- without having to "fit in." I always loved movies, but was somewhat frustrated by the narrow roles Hollywood films tend to offer for female characters. With documentary, I found a medium where you could tell human stories you wouldn't otherwise hear in mainstream media.

JA: What ideas do you have at the moment for future potential projects? Are there any subjects you would love to see made into a film?

AM: I always say, development is like a pregnancy: I don't talk about projects until they are really in full swing. Right now, I have several projects I'm developing, but nothing that is ready for prime time yet. I'm also trying to pay the bills, which can be...um...time consuming, to say the least.

JA: Let's talk about your newest film, La Corona, (co-directed with Isabel Vega) which follows four inmates competing for the crown in the annual beauty pageant of the Bogota Women's Prison- what was it like to have a film nominated for an Academy Award in 2008, and also tell me about your time spent around these women while shooting your film.

AM: As you can imagine, there was a ton of beurocracy and we had to constantly beg our way back into favor with the prison warden, who was none too thrilled to have a film crew running around her jail, but she slowly came around. Isabel did an amazing job keeping us in good favor with everyone from the head of the prison system all the way down to the grumpy guard on the night shift. Pretty much every day, we had to bring a typed list of what we wanted to film to the director's office and get her to sign it. Some days, we would wait outside her office all day, knowing that we were missing a great scene inside--and other days, even if she signed the paper, if a guard inside questioned it, we got the boot. Typically, we were only allowed to shoot a few hours at a time, so we just had to be really patient. We were a three-woman crew--we didn't really have any assistants unless it was a big pageant day, so once we got inside the secure area, we had to make sure we had everything we needed--you couldn't just run out and grab a new tape or battery, and there was no cellphones or walkie-talkies allowed. So it was more challenging than the average production to be sure, and we just had to be patient and adjust our expectations accordingly.

As for the oscars -- The Oscars were amazing, totally surreal. HBO was incredibly supportive and we were lucky that our friends, family and crew were able to join us on that ride. After begging people to work for next to nothing on a film as a labor of love, it's a truly happy ending to be able to invite them to an Oscar party. Pretty cool.

JA: Being a graduate of Harvard, how much importance do you place on having a college education for someone like yourself working professionally in the film industry?

AM: I think the most important thing is to be open to the world, have a passionate curiosity for people, and the ability to be both vulnerable and tough as nails at the same time. My favorite quote on this topic is from Werner Herzog:

"For some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have walked alone on foot, let's say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about five thousand kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking and what it truly involves than you ever would sitting in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion."

JA: If you had to sum up the style of your work with just one word, what would it be?

AM: One word?  Can't do it.  I'll just keep trying to making films and leave the "summing-up" to others.