21 Below’ is Samantha’s directorial debut. Her television credits include Comedy Central’s ‘Stella’ opposite Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain. On ‘Law and Order: Criminal Intent’, Samantha portrayed Detective G. Lynn Bishop opposite Vincent D’Onoforio. She has had recurring roles on ‘Third Watch’, ‘Six Degrees’, ‘Z Rock’ and has appeared on ‘Sex and The City’.
1. Samantha, since you have plenty of experience in front of the camera (both TV and film) what was the biggest thing to wrap your head around in order to direct?
To be completely honest, I never dreamed of making a documentary film and was naive enough to not think about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. This film happened in a very organic way; and was collaborative in the truest sense of the word. Because of the efforts of Jenny Maguire ,Sophia Raab Downs and myself, we were able to capture the story of Sophia and her family.
I felt a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility to make sure this family was portrayed as truthfully and as fairly as possible. It is a completely different and greater pressure than I have ever experienced as an actor. I was very fortunate to be working with two amazing women and a tremendous group of people who put their heart and souls into the film.
2. How did you and Zeke Farrow meet up and come to work together on a film?
Zeke and I have been friends and teamed up on various projects for years. He is more like family than just a friend at this point.
Working together on this project was a very “New York” story, though. I was in-between sublets, living on his couch, and watching “21 BELOW” raw footage every night. Soon he was joining me and we would stay up for hours talking about the story and the potential film that could be made.
I wanted the film to play like a fiction narrative. The hope was it would allow the audience to more readily put themselves in the family’s shoes. I found that I could learn more watching how family members interacted with each other than in a 2-hour interview.
Zeke is a tremendous writer who comes from a fiction background. I was very lucky that he came onboard. He helped shape the story and was my constant sounding board during the editing process.
We are currently working on another documentary together as well as a pilot script we wrote together. He has also written a screenplay I would love to direct someday.
3. Why this story for your directorial debut? What about it made you say, “I have to tell this story to the world!”?
I did not go hunting for a story. The story found us. here’s what happened:
In the spring of 2004, my mother invited a few friends and I to come to D.C., for The March for Women’s Lives. One of the women I invited was future partner and producer Jenny Maguire.
I had a feeling in my gut that I should bring a camera with me. The women we heard speak that day are what started us on a journey that would eventually lead to Buffalo, NY. We heard Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, and Sarah Weddington. They asked us to enjoy the March—but reminded us is not just about one day but what you do afterward. I read an article about the 30 biggest activists under 30 and decided that we should document their level of activism during the 2004 Presidential campaign.
One of my friends recommended I bring a young woman who lived Upstate on board. She was in production and involved with Women’s Reproductive rights. That is how we met Sophia.
As Jenny, Sophia, and I spent the summer following young women in an effort to put a personal face on the political issues we were investigating, Sophia talked about her problems with her sister. She was in my apartment when she learned her niece Maya had Tay-Sachs disease. By the end of the summer it became clear that the real story lay in Sophia’s family walls.
The story became much more complex than any of us could have realized. We thought we were going to make a film about young women and their reproductive rights; instead it turned out to be a portrait of an American middle-class family in crisis. Our film is still about choice but like most things in life we found it was not so cut and dry.
The relationships we have inside our family walls affect who we are when we walk out the door. Hopefully this film will make people think and reflect on how they communicate, love, and accept one another.
4. What were the most painful and the most rewarding parts of making 21 Below?
We were extremely naive about what it meant for our producer and friend to become our subject. As a filmmaker, I felt obligated to tell the story fairly and honestly. I love Sophia and her family. Exposing every side of them—the beautiful and ugly—proved very difficult.
Sophia’s family did not ask for cameras in their homes, they did it because she asked—and it proved to be an extremely painful process. Trying to wear the hat of filmmaker and friend was not easy to negotiate.
Luckily, Sophia was so brave and trusting: I was given the freedom to tell the story and was never asked to cut anything from the film that could be perceived as “unfavorable”. She has said that the film is painful to watch; but it is fair. That is the best compliment anyone could say about the film, in my opinion.
Anything I would have to say about witnessing Maya’s (Sharon’s sister’s 14 month-old daughter who was given a terminal diagnosis of Tay-Sachs) would be trite. She was a beautiful soul and we were lucky to be part of her life.
The audience’s reaction has been the biggest reward. We have had many heated Q & A discussions. Many people have shared their opinions and personal family stories. We were in Helsinki a month ago and a Finnish woman came up to me in tears after the credits. She had been unable to express herself or cry after a very tragic event in her life. The film allowed her to open up a part of herself that she had cut off. It was a memorable and profound moment.
Another tremendous gift has been our partnership with the National Tay Sachs and Allied Diseases to raise Tay Sachs awareness. Through NTSAD we have been introduced to families who have dealt with this disease firsthand. One man who suffers from Late-Onset Tay Sachs has become a huge supporter of the film and an inspiration to all of us.
The education we have received while making this film has been prodigious.