By Lisa Stahl
NYWIFT member Roberta Friedman’s three-pronged moviemaking career has been on an upward trajectory for decades. But while she claims it was just luck, she doesn’t give herself enough credit. In the 1970s, not many women were behind the scenes in the industry. Aside from serendipity, it took a bit of grit…
In her early filmmaking ventures in the 1970s, Roberta teamed up with artist-professor Grahame Weinbren. In Buffalo, then LA and NYC, they created experimental films that featured new music music and performers.
Decades later, their early works like Bertha’s Children, Future Perfect (1978), Murray and Max Talk About Money, The Making of Americans, Vicarious Thrills and others, caught the attention of Academy of Motion Picture Art & Sciences archivist and critic Mark Toscano. In his December 2018 blog for Preservation Insanity, Toscany praised films like Future Perfect and Bertha’s Children, calling out the influences of John Cage’s experiments with chance and indeterminacy and Gertrude Stein’s with form and structure.
Toscano writes the films exhibit “deep intelligence, creativity, and wit within the context of unusual formal and conceptual structures and approaches…(and) an exciting hybrid of English materialism, East Coast structuralism” (with) “a certain west coast interest in the seductiveness of the image…. an exciting mix of the personal and the formal.”
The 1970s were a time of social change and artistic innovation. Roberta admired the work of avant-garde filmmakers like Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits and Pat O’Neill. She was also influenced by the work of Milos Forman (Taking Off, Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
The creative Friedman/Weinbren partnership has continued to the present. They soon moved beyond experiments in form and multimedia to create video installations like The Erl King, a film acquired by the Guggenheim, and others shown at major museums (Whitney and MoMA).
The allure of Hollywood, and potential for making money, can be seductive, as it was for Roberta, who perfected post-production skills in LA (and found a way to finance her art films).
“Starting out as a camera person, I realized it was hard to get into the union so I took another route,” says Roberta. Her first break came after being recommended to work on Days of Heaven. Doors opened. Then came Star Wars, “a dream job” as a special effects artist where she worked with matte, swords, and sparks, and Empire Strikes Back, coordinating special effects. Working on Hair in NYC, she “got into the union…. and kept working.”
Roberta actually got into two unions. “I was good at post-production (and) became a post-production supervisor,” she said. “Things just fell into place… I kept getting bigger and better projects.”
One of the visual effects that Roberta was responsible for on A New Hope was the holographic appearance of Princess Leia in this iconic scene.
A Timely Documentary
In 2018, Roberta produced an important PBS documentary, Power To Heal: Medicare And The Civil Rights Revolution. Inspired by David Barton Smith’s book, the film chronicles glaring systemic inequities in access to US healthcare for African Americans which is clearly still topical. Narrated by Danny Glover, well-known actor and social activist, the film was put together by a team of award-winning producers, directors, editors, writers, as well as public health scholars.
The interview-based documentary traces the grassroots activist movement that lead to the passage of Medicare and deep needed changes in healthcare. Before Medicare was passed, less than half the nation’s hospitals served black and white patients equally. In the South, one third of hospitals would not admit African-Americans even for emergencies. Many African-American doctors were not allowed to treat white patients.
Roberta and her partner director Dan Loewenthal were called in “to resurrect… and complete” the faltering project when a less experienced producer had difficulty getting things off the ground. “I’m so proud of [producing] this documentary. The history of that was so important and is not generally known.”
Although she ultimately earned an MFA from California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts), she didn’t initially have formal film training. “When I got into the industry, you didn’t need to have gone to film school,” she said. “In fact they looked down on you if you did.”
Her own rise in academia was not as easy. But, says Roberta, “When you’re hired by men, if you say you worked on Star Wars, it goes a long way.” After being an adjunct, she was eventually promoted to full time staff and is associate professor at Montclair State University. “Even that involved a lot of luck. When it came to getting a full time job, it was a committee of men…. they wanted to hire a guy.” Thanks to a mentor and advocate who swayed the committee, Roberta got the spot and now co-runs the university’s film program.
Roberta’s scholarly work includes previously co-chairing NYWIFT’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund, helping to preserve the work of women filmmakers. She is also vice president of Millennium Film Workshop.
Roberta’s words of wisdom:
How are you keeping up with changing technology?
“With great difficulty. I’m a member of IFP and read Filmmaker Magazine. Talking to colleagues helps. Ultimately, though, the movie biz is about telling a story. Whatever the technology is, that doesn’t change the delivery.”
The key to your success in the industry?
“Being in the right place at the right time. Showing up on time. Doing a good job. Being liked.”
Advice for those starting out?
“Keep a positive attitude. In the film biz, things are totally unpredictable.”
Women in the industry?
“It’s still easier for men. Women are paid less… that’s well-documented. Those at the top are men. But streaming has opened possibilities, making it easier for women to get opportunities.”
Despite her teaching commitments, Roberta continues to initiate new projects, working all ends from raising money to overseeing film production and post-production. While she works with different partners, she typically collaborates with Weinbren on art films and Dan Loewenthal on commercial films. Dan, who worked on numerous feature films for major studios, has extensive film editing experience.
In her latest project, a feature film, We Kill the Flame, she teams up with director Amost Poe and executive producer Jim Jarmusch, along with a legendary French cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Farida Kheifa.
They planned to shoot in Paris this fall. While the production schedule may be pushed out due to the pandemic, if past performance is any predictor, it won’t be for long. She says she still has a lot more to do.