Sascha Just of Freytag Productions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Show them what you got or as my very wise filmmaker friend Doug Block recently said “your film is your baby, and you need to advocate for your baby.” My sense is that I share this discomfort at promoting my own accomplishments with many women, but I decided to put those feelings aside and advocate for my baby ☺.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sascha Just of Freytag Productions.

Sascha Just is a US-based filmmaker, born and raised in Berlin. She emigrated to the US to make films about jazz and jazz-related topics. She has produced and directed the feature-length documentary Ellis about New Orleans pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis Jr. Ellis will premiere at DOC NYC November 2022.

Prior to Ellis, Sascha produced and directed Heirs, a feature-length documentary about three New Orleans artists, the short documentary Big Chief about New Orleans Black Indian Chief Darryl Montanta’s path to Mardi Gras, and the short documentary Ambassadors — The Native Jazz Quartet at Work , that follows a jazz group as they compete for the title Jazz Ambassadors to the US.

Sascha’s films screened among others at the American Documentary Film Festival & Fund, Katra Film Series, The Segal Film Festival on Theatre and Performance, and the International Institute “Interweaving Performance Cultures”. Ambassadors is part of the permanent collection of the Rancho Mirage Public Library and was finalist for best short documentary at the Queens World Film Festival, 2014.

For her work on the Freytag Collection, an archive of New Orleans performers and performance traditions, the United States Government granted her the rare national interest-based permanent resident status.

Sascha studied acting and directing with Salem Ludwig of the Actor’s Studio, holds a BA in Film, a MA and a PhD in Theater Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY). Her dissertation explores the media representation of New Orleans performance cultures.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in Berlin, Germany, in a family that loves art. Films, books, and music were everywhere in our house. I’m the first and only artist in this art-loving family, even though my father would have done very well as a stage performer, if he had chosen that path. One of my favorite memories is sneaking together with my sister out of our room at night when we were supposed be asleep and through a crack in the living room door secretly watch the movie my parents were watching. Those early movie watching experiences made me want to become a filmmaker. I finished high school in Berlin and soon after graduation I moved to New York. After some time of exploration I went to film school in New York, studied directing and acting with Salem Ludwig of the Actor’s Studio, and made several music-driven shorts, for example a love story set to music by Max Roach. Only when I pursued a doctorate in theater and performance studies did I realize that documentaries are my preferred genre. (At least for now. With a couple of screenplays in the works, I haven’t closed the door on fiction.) We humans have always performed since the dawn of time, and I loved exploring our past through that lens — literally, because I filmed all my original research. Now, parallel to working on my own films, I teach at Baruch College, CUNY.

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

Growing up in Berlin I listened to jazz and dreamt of coming to the US to make films about or inspired by this beautiful music. How did I get to that? Thanks to my mother. When I was around 9 years old my mother played Miles Davis for me. At first, I was a bit confused by the music. I stepped away from it but after some time Miles pulled me back. His decisive, seductive tone, the melodies, the different instruments interacting with each other. The whole world was in his music, and it felt as if I my ears had opened and I could hear for the first time–an amazing, and I would say, addictive experience. Miles brought me to Charlie Parker, Bird brought me to John and Alice Coltrane, then to Monk and Mingus and so on and so on. Later, I watched films about these musicians, all of them somehow centered on New York, an old New York that didn’t exist anymore but that was vivid in my imagination.

When I was 19, I took fate into my own hands and moved to New York. What I found in New York was of course much more than what I ever could have imagined. Exploring New Orleans, where jazz first evolved, was only the logical next step. My first visit, shortly after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the lives and homes of so many was a deeply moving encounter with a city and its people who refuse to give up. This stay formed my resolve to use filmmaking and related projects as platforms to display the beauty and communal healing power of New Orleans music and performance traditions. I began with the documentary Big Chief about Black Indian Chief Darryl Montana’s path to Mardi Gras, followed by my dissertation on how New Orleans performance cultures are represented in the media, and a filmed oral history archive of New Orleans performers, the Freytag Collection, named after my late grandmother. Among the thirty performers I have interviewed to date was Ellis Marsalis Jr. This interview laid the foundation for my documentary ELLIS, and this is how it all came full circle for me.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Filmmaking is such a wild ride that it is difficult to pick one story. Let me stay with “ride”… A few years ago, I was filming in New Orleans. At the time I suffered from fear of flying but for one particular scene, instead of using a drone, I wanted to capture the real feeling of flying in a helicopter above the city. I found a helicopter pilot who was experienced in film shoots, and my tiny team (we are rarely more than three people at a time, so the name fits) and I drove over to a small airport outside of the city. I was glad that the pilot, a very charming and enthusiastic man, offered to give us a short test ride, just to get a feeling for the experience. Cinematographer Matt Kohn and I sat in the back, the pilot started the engine, and up we flew. I felt strangely weightless, giddy, and very afraid. At about 100 feet completely out of a sudden, the pilot stopped and in one swoop tilted the helicopter flat on its side. Matt and I screamed out loud. Death seemed certain. The pilot turned to us and said “I just want to show you what angles are possible.” He tilted the helicopter back, I started breathing again, we went back down, and agreed that flying sideways was not necessary. Absolutely not necessary. Up we flew again, this time very high up. And for the first few minutes it felt as if I was falling, falling, falling. But then I pointed my camera outside our little flying capsule. With beautiful New Orleans below and blue infinity above my fear vanished, and this ride became one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

As an artist-educator it is no surprise that of the many fascinating people I have met, an artist-educator stand out.

Actor-director Salem Ludwig. He started out with the Group Theater here in New York, acted in countless productions, among them Elia Kazan films, was blacklisted, and later in life served on the Board of Directors of the Actor’s Studio. I was fortunate to study directing and method acting with him, and to assist him on several productions. His take on the world, on films and plays, was always original and shaped by a deep and unflinching understanding of human nature. Every scene he staged and actually every meeting with him was eye opening but perhaps this moment encapsulates some of what made him unique: Salem was working on a scene with two actors. The scene was going terribly. The actors couldn’t find a way to connect with each other and with the main conflict in the scene. Salem gave them notes, prodded them with questions to engage more deeply — no success. The actors and everybody were getting frustrated, and time was running out. So, I asked Salem why he did not share with the actors the solution — which seemed so obvious — to making the scene work. He replied that they had to find the answer themselves, otherwise it would not be truthful. Of course, this is one of the essential tenets of method acting but it impressed me immensely the way he stuck to it even when the work got hard and tedious. And he was right. Eventually, the fog lifted, the actors found a way to relate to each other, and the scene came alive.

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?

It takes a village to raise an independent filmmaker, and I could easily fill a book with the names of people who have helped me over the years. First of my family and then many friends, colleagues, and mentors who have been supportive of me all along. Among those, I want to mention Penelope Bensonhurst who became a role model to me. She had studied Raku pottery with Raku masters in Japan and opened a gallery in New York specializing in Raku. Right after college, I worked for her as an assistant. This was an all-round position from selling art to painting the gallery to serving food at special events, to filming lectures and presentations. I loved every moment. Because Penelope and I were pretty much the only staff at the gallery I had the great opportunity to see her work up close, curate art, negotiate with vendors, and cope with crises. With her great sense of humor she made it look easy but positioning herself in the very male-dominated art world was a tough battle. Still, she took the time to teach me about the art business and about pursuing one’s goals, even if the odds are against you. Penelope is the first artist-turned-businesswoman I got to know well, and plenty of what I learned from her I was able to translate into the art and business of filmmaking.

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

Keep on keeping on.

Making a film is a very long obstacle race. The moment you jump over a hurdle, there comes the next, and you’re bound to get tired, bruise your knees, and fall flat on your face a few times. But slow or fast, if you keep going, once you’re at the finish line you will look back and feel sad that it’s over because nothing compares to the moments when you see the film emerge. At least, that’s how I feel.

I am 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?

Discussions about diversity tend to focus on casting choices, and the joy of Black children watching the new Black mermaid should be reason enough for diverse casting. Since film and especially television shape the way we relate to society, it is my hope that if diversity on screen has become normal, if diversity is what we expect to see on screen, then we may also consider it normal in our lives.

Equally important is the conversation about who gets a chance to make a film and what stories are being told. I believe that diversity among producers, writers, directors etc. tends to lead to stories and topics that have previously been ignored, thereby broadening our horizons, and giving us rich experiences and a more truthful view of our world. I also believe that if there is more diversity among the people behind the cameras, diverse casting will become the norm.

Recently, there has been a broadening of topics, and more people of color — women of color — have enjoyed success. It is on us to make sure that this is not only a short phase but a real societal shift.

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

I am developing another music-driven documentary. I’m mildly superstitious … so I can’t say more about it at this point.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

I’m most proud when protagonists feel well-represented in my films and their voices heard. In fact, I see my films as platforms for the protagonists to share what matters to them. This may be most obvious in the interviews but it also manifests itself in other scenes.

Since music means so much to me, I very much enjoy making music an integral part of my films, a character of its own. I always aim to create a flow, a musical feel, and I’m very proud when that works out.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I had heard these 5 things when I first started but I’m still working on manifesting them in my life:

1. Surround yourself with people in who you believe and who believe in you. Not easy advice because for better or worse people and relationships constantly evolve.

2. Everybody suffers from imposter syndrome at least sometimes. Self doubt is normal and can even be a great motivator. Realizing this has helped me relax…

3. The learning curve is steep. Even the most experienced filmmaker faces new ideas and changes in technology all the time. I guess embracing this as part of the fun is all we can do.

4. What’s done is done. Everybody makes mistakes, and sometimes things simply don’t fall into place. It’s best to try to learn from it and move on. Very difficult to do but absolutely liberating.

5. Show them what you got or as my very wise filmmaker friend Doug Block recently said “your film is your baby, and you need to advocate for your baby.” My sense is that I share this discomfort at promoting my own accomplishments with many women, but I decided to put those feelings aside and advocate for my baby ☺.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

My independent spirit tells me to privilege my own artistic vision and hope that viewers and critics appreciate it. As Sergey Eisenstein said “the first thing is to have the vision; the hardest thing is to hold on to it.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Among the many causes near and dear to my heart I want use this interview to amplify the movement to protect the wetlands. Wetlands mitigate the impact of hurricanes and flooding. And look at who tends to get hit the hardest by hurricanes and flooding: the people who have endured marginalization for centuries, as for example the destruction related to Hurricane Katrina made glaringly clear.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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 see this. 🙂

I would love to meet Martin Scorcese and talk with him about his documentary THE 50 YEAR ARGUMENT, one of the greatest films ever made. And of course, there are all his other amazing films … so much to talk about.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow me on instagram! I never used to be very active on social media but that has changed now that I’m sharing ELLIS with the world:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Sascha Just of Freytag Productions: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.