Name of filmmaker: Signe Taylor
Film title: Circus Dreams
Genre: Documentary, 82 Mins., Color
Offering an extraordinary window into this country’s only traveling youth circus, Circus Dreams chronicles how diverse, passionate and unusually talented teenagers surmount tremendous obstacles for the unlikely purpose of bringing joy. As they fight to save their circus from closing forever, the young performers undergo life-transforming journeys.
Signe Taylor’s first video, Greetings From Iraq, documented the effects of Operation Desert Storm and the international embargo on Iraqi families. Greetings From Iraq received a Golden Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival, Juror's Choice at the Charlotte Film Festival and a CHRIS Award, among other honors. The video was broadcast by PBS stations and used for educational purposes by many grassroots organizations. As a media educator, Signe collaborated with diverse teenagers to create social issue videos that were well-received at educational film festivals. These half-hour documentaries are in distribution with Sunburst Communications and Landmark Media and are in use in classrooms nationwide. She also established the well-regarded Media Education Program at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts where she taught for nine years while continuing to do freelance work. Signe has produced shorts for the PBS show ZOOM, shot for C-Span’s Road To the White House and is a graduate of the Documentary Film and Video Masters Program at Stanford University. Signe drew upon her documentary, youth and teaching experience to craft Circus Dreams.
Born: Cambridge, MA in 1965
Graduated: Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School 1983
Graduated: Barnard College, Columbia University, cum laude 1987
Graduated: Documentary Film and Video Program, Stanford University MA 1994
Film Industry Questions:
Who are your role models in the film industry?
My first film internship was with Barbara Kopple, an Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker in New York. I very much enjoyed my work assisting her producer with researching and writing grants and loved that all of Barbara Kopple’s ideas were political and radical. I think what most inspired me about working with her, however, was that her editor has recently given birth to a baby. The editor was not only allowed but encouraged to bring her baby to work. It was a wonderful feeling to work in such a female-friendly environment. I remember that when the baby fussed, someone would wander over and rock her or play with her, so the editor could finish her edit and then take care of the baby. What a great introduction to documentary film!
Who or what has influenced you as a filmmaker?
I think of documentary film as a wonderful way to combine my passion for telling stories with my strong sense of social justice. For me, it’s a creative way to be political. As a young woman, I witnessed how Spike Lee changed the film industry for African-Americans and thought that was extremely cool. I also really appreciate Michael Moore and how he uses humor and story telling to sell his political ideas.
What are your top three favorite films?
My favorite films change all the time. Some longtime favorites include the Pink Panther movies (which do an amazing job standing the test of time) and several of Mira Nair’s films such as Missippi Masala and Salaam Bombay and films like Strictly Ballroom and School of Rock. I love lush color, off beat characters, and stories about individuals fighting to follow their own path. Juno is a more recent example of the above. In summary, I enjoy a lot of indie features!
The films that have been most influential for me include Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. I saw these films as a young woman and all three expanded my vision of how film can be used to tell stories. My favorite is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I love Almodovar’s vibrant use of color and believe that through his humorous use of melodrama he does an amazing job capturing human emotion – or at least he captures mine! I think that one of his later, sadder and possibly deeper films, The Flower of My Secret, captures the truth of despair in a heart-breakingly humorous way.
In Circus Dreams, I am attempting to capture a real life version of individuals finding and following their dreams.
It has been said that there are only a limited number of original plot ideas. In the midst of that, what nuances make your film stand out from others in its genre?
Since Circus Dreams is a documentary, the plot question might not fit as well as if it was a feature. I think what makes Circus Dreams stand out as a documentary is the authenticity of the characters. On MTV, Disney and in other tween and teen-oriented films and television programming, girls are usually cast as either dark manipulative sexual vixens or cloying sweet blond bimbettes. Moronic Jack Ass pranks are frequently shown as the crowning achievement of boyhood. Spend a day watching teen-oriented TV and you’ll see endless stereotypes, rampant consumerism, and a glorification of violence. I am very proud that Circus Dreams offers an inspiring, authentic, alternative vision of the struggles and triumphs of youth. I think the documentary’s positive and unexpected role models are one of its greatest assets.
What obstacles did you come across as you entered the film industry?
I worked as a PA in New York as a young woman was appalled by the sexism of the feature industry. On set after set, I was shunted into set design, wardrobe and catering (women’s work) and away from camera, special effects, carpentry and the other frequently better paid “men’s” work. I was usually the only female PA and was constantly told that everything was too heavy for me – when in fact I am quite strong and capable of carrying heavy loads. I was never allowed to drive production vehicles -- I assume this was because the all-male powers that be deemed that women are bad drivers. I was groped by several directors and frequently asked out for drinks after meeting their wife earlier in the day. My fellow PAs, all male as noted above, would listen to the date requests and then comment on how much easier it is for girls to get ahead. I really, really hope all of this has changed in the past 20 years!
That said, I was quite discouraged to find that while shooting for C-Span (covering the 2008 Presidential Candidates) I was often the only woman holding a video camera. There were many young women covering the candidates using still cameras – but we need more female video shooters!
Documentary filmmaking, on the other hand, is quite female friendly. It is however, unlike features and news coverage, very frequently poorly paid.
What motivates you to persevere?
What inspired you to create this film?
I wanted to make a film that my kids would want to watch and that I would want them to watch. In other words, I wanted to make a family friendly film that would inspire both the kids and the parents. I wanted to do this because I’ve found that most films and TV programming geared to teens and tweens contains values that are antithetical to mine.
What message do you hope your film conveys to an audience?
I hope viewers walk away from Circus Dreams being inspired to pursue their personal passion.
What are your aspirations for this film?
I would like Circus Dreams to reach as many teen and tween viewers as possible. As mentioned earlier, I think the mainstream media portrayal of teens and tweens is limiting and often negative. I also think teens and tweens, more than any other age group, turn to the media for cues on what’s hot and what’s not. Given this, it’s tragic that authentic portrayals of teens and tweens are so shockingly absent. I hope Circus Dreams can help fill that void by offering an inspiring, authentic, alternative vision of the struggles and triumphs of youth.
How difficult was it to stay under budget for this film? What is your favorite guerrilla filmmaking tactic?
Documentary films are extremely difficult to fund, especially those that are not on a social issue, so funding was a constant issue for Circus Dreams. Very fortunately, I was offered funding through an anonymous source. It’s a bit like being struck by lightening – I doubt this will happen to me again! The whole film was shot guerilla style (one person crew) so it’s hard to single out a favorite technique…
How did you choose which festivals to enter?
I am entering the documentary-oriented film festivals such as Hot Docs, Full Frame, and SilverDocs and am also applying to Children’s Film Festivals such as New York International Children’s Festival, Montreal International Children’s Film Festival, Prix Jeunesse International in Germany, Sprockets Toronto International Festival for Children among others. Finally, I am entering several festivals that are more feature-oriented such as SXSW, Los Angeles Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival. These may be more of a stretch for Circus Dreams but I have my fingers crossed!
What was the most challenging part of this film?
It was all challenging! One of the more unexpected challenges is that I learned to drive a 35 foot RV (that my family and I lived while traveling with the circus). In the beginning of the tour, it was difficult for me to drive fast enough to reach the 40 mph minimum limit on the highway. 35 feet is a big rig and driving that fast was, frankly, scary. One of my favorite moments is that towards the very end of tour, I managed to parallel park the RV into a double parking spot on a Boston city street. That was a moment I felt ridiculously proud!
What was the craziest or most unbelievable moment that occurred while making your film?
I came down with swine flu while shooting the film’s narrator at Ringling Circus. I was miles from home in Pennsylvania in cheap motel and didn’t know how I was going to be able to get home. I didn’t know if was swine flu at the time. On the first day, I just thought it was a cold, and then I thought it was a very, very bad cold, and then I finally realized I had some horrible version of the flu. I could barely stand but I felt compelled to keep filming since the narrator would be leaving the Ringling tour after this stop. Imagine filming zany bright circus clowns while feeling dizzy, naseous, and fighting a very high fever -- it was a memorable experience. Very fortunately, I didn’t infect any of the Ringling cast and I very much hope I didn’t infect anyone in the audience. When I’m in filming mode, sometimes good sense gets left behind in my overwhelming desire to capture the story.
What is one thing you wish you had on set?
I wish I had kept a daily journal. That would be have been an immense help in the editing process.
What type of junk food did you consume the most of on set?
The circus provided meals to the cast and crew and also very generously included my family, my DP and me in those meals. The food was tasty and healthy – no junk food allowed at a youth circus!
Which moment of your film reflects your “signature?”
I love the moments of humor in the face of difficulty -- such as how the circus members dealt with food poisoning.
List four adjectives that describe your film.
Authentic, inspiring, alternative and passionate.
Why did you choose film as an expression of artistic medium?
I started in theater and then moved into documentary filmmaking – the medium just speaks to me. There’s no greater feeling for me than when I feel like I’ve authentically captured a story.
Is there any other artistic medium that you work with in your spare time?
I’m a documentary filmmaker with two kids who works freelance jobs for money – in other words, I don’t have any spare time. Documentary filmmaking is my passion. That said, I have always been fascinated by welding. I sometimes fantasize about how much fun it would be to make sculptures out of found materials.
What is your favorite piece of art?
We have a large peacock sculpture welded together out of old, rusted, discarded tools. I love it.
Did you ever consider another career besides filmmaking?
I’ve been a filmmaker for over twenty years and hope to keep doing it for another twenty more. It’s what I love.
What sparked your interest in becoming a filmmaker? Was there a specific moment/experience that encouraged your interest in this artistic field?
Early in my senior year of college, I went to my college career counselor and said, I’ve majored in poli sci and I love theater. What do you suggest? She immediately answered, documentary filmmaking. She then got me my first internship with Barbara Kopple, helped me to find a paid internship at HBO when I graduated, and then found me another great documentary job when the HBO internship ended. I feel really lucky that she made such an apt guess – I don’t think I would have come to documentary filmmaking on my own. I have always loved films but I don’t think I could have envisioned a career in filmmaking without her help. No one in my family has a job in the arts so it didn’t seem within the realm of possibility to me until this career counselor showed me that it could be done.
In what ways have your friends and family supported you?
My husband has been incredibly supportive of my documentary filmmaking work. He is a former photographer and has often filmed with me and has also frequently taken over child care so I can get what I need to get done, done. My kids think every cut of Circus Dreams is great which is incredibly sweet and encouraging. Friends and family have also watched multiple versions of the film, helping me by giving me constructive feedback. I feel very lucky in having this support.
What advice can you give to aspiring filmmakers or artists?
Get ready for a rocky and fulfilling life!
If you had an unlimited budget and could shoot anywhere, what would your dream project be?
This past summer, I shot a new documentary in a jail in New Hampshire. It followed Dartmouth students working with female inmates to write and perform a play. My dream is to have the funding I need to tell this powerful story about judicial inequality.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I hope not as busy as I am now but I’m also grateful that projects keep coming through.
Gender Specific Questions:
Do you feel added pressure as a woman filmmaker?
As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t feel as much pressure on the female front since many documentary directors are women. That said, I feel very strongly that we need many more female feature directors and shooters. Until we have an equal number of women as men crafting feature films, half of our stories are going untold.
How does Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar triumph affect the future of woman filmmakers?
It was wonderful for me to see a woman winning an Oscar for Directing. Now, we just need a female DP to get at least nominated for an Oscar in Cinematography and another woman to get at least nominated for Special Effects. One female win was inspiring but we need many, many more for women to reach any kind of equity with men. Women are fifty percent of the population yet less than ten percent of the features released last year were directed by women. Even fewer were shot by women. I appreciate the Oscar nod but one is simply not enough.
Have you ever encountered a situation in the film industry where you have felt inferior to men?
I have never felt inferior to men in film or in life.
Do you let your sex or classification as a “woman” influence your filmmaking?
I think I am drawn to female stories because I can relate to them but I think that’s a good thing.
Why do you think there are more men than woman in the film industry?
The film industry, at least circa late 80s/early90s, was not female-friendly as I mentioned earlier when describing my experiences as a PA. I might have moved from documentaries to fiction and features if I had not been demeaned, groped and shunted into “women’s” work that I did not want to do. I suspect my fellow male PAs had a much more satisfying experience and may stayed with the field. The film industry is run by men and perhaps it’s comfortable for men to keep it that way. That was certainly my experience – although that was a long time ago and I hope it’s changed!
What advice can you give to aspiring women filmmakers?
Follow your dreams, follow your passion, and don’t begrudge the price. It’s worth it.