Tallgrass Film Festival Filmmaker Interview: Sarah Moshman on UNBOUND

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Sarah Moshman, daughter of documentary filmmaker Harvey Moshman, grew up on set, so to speak, and has since early childhood wanted filmmaking to be her fulltime profession. She’s worked primarily in television, producing and directing segments for prominent news shows and popular series. In 2013, she won an Emmy. In 2015, she won a Gracie. This year she’s won AWFJ’s EDA Award @ Tallgrass Film Festival for Best Female-Directed Short for Unbound.

Unbound is a character-driven drama inspired by a true story. Unbound is set in the 1980’s and follows the NASA Mission Specialist who paved the way as the first mother in space. Weeks before giving birth to her first child, Dr. Anna Fisher is chosen for a mission to space. Although the decision to go is easy, Anna is faced with the difficult intersection of motherhood and ambition on the way to her dream. AWFJ spoke with Sarah Moshman about her film, her creative process and her plans for the future.

Jennifer Merin: Please describe what Unbound is about — both in story and theme.

Sarah Moshman: Unbound is a short fiction film based on a true story about the first mother to go into space. In 1983, Dr. Anna Fisher at 8 months pregnant was chosen for a mission to space. After training for 14 months, Dr. Fisher did in fact go into space becoming the first mother to do so, with scrutiny along the way. Unbound follows Dr. Fisher’s journey from the moment she’s asked to go on the mission to the moment she steps on the shuttle, and the inner and outer conflict she experiences as a working mother achieving her greatest dream. The theme is truly about the intersection of motherhood and ambition.

JM: How is Unbound stylistically distinctive?

SM: Unbound was shot on the Arri Alexa Mini with Anamorphic Cooke lenses, which makes the scope quite grand. Along with my incredibly talented Cinematographer Favienne Howsepian and her wonderful camera department, we wanted this short to feel like a feature film about space, which calls for wide frames and epic visuals. In addition, we used actual NASA archival imagery of Dr. Anna Fisher in 1984 mixed in with the narrative and we shot some of the b roll on Super8 to blend with the archival footage. I think all of those elements make it stylistically distinctive and we’ve been grateful to hear the short feels like it could be a feature.

JM: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of Unbound and to the main characters in it?

SM: In May 2021 I went on a walk with my good friend Christina K. Moore and expressed my desire to make a short fiction film (after working in documentaries and directing 3 feature docs + shorts), so I wanted to find a true story and I wanted to explore themes of motherhood. Christina was inspired and had known of Dr. Anna Fisher’s story and we quickly agreed that would be the perfect moment in time to explore together. Christina wrote a beautiful script and we were off to the races! I have had the pleasure of talking with and meeting Dr. Fisher herself throughout the process of making this film and she is just as inspiring as I imagined. It has been such an honor to shine a light on such an important moment in history that was in many ways overlooked. And mothers today struggle in the workforce in so many similar ways than in the 1980’s so the story is incredibly relevant too.

JM: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

SM: I think each project you work on provides so many new lessons, that’s why filmmaking is such an electrifying process to me. Unbound was such a joy to make because I had been focused on documentary filmmaking for the past decade and so much of that form of storytelling is in the moment, adapting, and showing up ready for anything. So in making Unbound, it was such a luxury to work with so many talented collaborators to bring this vision to life. I loved every aspect of creating this work piece by piece – from the production design to the wardrobe (finding the space suit she wore!) to working with our incredible actors and our film crew, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Making Unbound has certainly taught me how to be an even better leader and collaborator to my fellow artists, and how to more accurately plan and budget for a short film set in the 1980’s about space!

JM: What were your biggest challenges in making Unbound?

SM: Our biggest challenges turned into our greatest blessings, as they usually do in independent filmmaking. Fundraising is always a challenge no matter your budget level, but that process of crowdfunding brought some really wonderful people and energy into the film that I’m so grateful for. Then finding our locations was a challenge since it has to be time period accurate and look like the Kennedy Space Center. We ended up shooting a little outside of LA in Oxnard and Camarillo at two different airport hangars, which meant we didn’t want our crew to have to drive in and out each day, so we had to pay for everyone to sleep in hotels locally. We also wanted to keep our days shorter and provide space for the new moms on set to pump privately if they needed to. In addition, like so many film sets covid protocols and testing is an inherent added challenge but thankfully we got this shoot in before omicron really spread in Jan of 2022. I think every film is a small miracle to pull off, and this one was no exception. But all in all, all of the challenges made the film what it is and I’m so proud of it.

JM: Can you single out a fundamental character trait that drives you personally and professionally? What is it and why does it move you?

SM: I have a clarity of vision when a project or idea comes into my orbit and I’m passionate about it, I will make it happen one way or another. I don’t wait around for permission or approval, I get started and I figure out the path along the way. The evolution of the project and the people that find their way into the process is truly where the magic is. I’m grateful for that tenacity and focus I have as a character trait, even if I don’t fully know what I’m getting myself into! That worked well in 2015 when I heard the story of the Coxless Crew – 4 women who were setting out to row across the Pacific Ocean. Even though I had NO CLUE how I would pull off a documentary about their journey and if they would even make it, and if anyone would want to watch a film about rowing for 90 mins, I knew it was a story worth telling. And that became LOSING SIGHT OF SHORE, and I got it distributed on Netflix worldwide in 190 countries in 2017! When I’m inspired, I find a way, and Unbound was no different. I have dreamed of being a filmmaker since I was a teenager and I’m so grateful that dream has only gotten clearer and more intense with age, especially as I’ve seen the impact that film can have around the world.

JM: What are your plans for the future?

SM: I would love to continue making more films – narrative and documentary. I wrote a short film I hope to direct next year in 2023, and then find a feature film to direct as well. I work in television as a story producer, and I find myself doing more speaking engagements and teaching and consulting, but all of the things I do tag back to my love of storytelling and sharing the power of cinema with audiences worldwide. I’m a mom of 2 young kids so that takes up a lot of my time, focus and heart these days, but I plan to keep working and growing in this crazy magical business for the foreseeable future! I’m always open to a new idea, new project, and new collaborators. Here’s hoping the fundraising process gets even a little easier over time!

JM: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

SM: First and foremost would be my Dad, Harvey Moshman. He is a documentary filmmaker and TV producer so I have learned so much of the foundation of who I am in terms of work ethic from him. He always inspires me with the time and commitment he gives to his work. Then I am influenced and inspired by so many women filmmakers, so many moms in film that are out there directing films and directing television and making their mark on the world. I feel like growing up I didn’t have nearly as much access to women in film paving a path as I do today. I love the work of Ava DuVernay, Sian Heder, Maggie Kiley, Alexis Ostrander, Ashley Eakin, and so many more.

JM: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

SM: I would say just get out there and keep making stuff. If we wait around for the phone to ring with the perfect opportunity, it will likely never come. We have to get out there and tell the stories that matter to us, find our audience and find our voices as artists in the process. We have to be so good they can’t look away. We have to embrace our unique point of view and believe we add so much value in front of and behind the camera. My advice is simply that we matter, our stories and our perspectives matter and we have to keep going.

ABOUT SARAH MOSHMAN: Sarah Moshman is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and TEDx speaker whose work has been featured on Netflix, PBS, Upworthy, Marie Claire, CNN, and Good Morning America. Sarah has directed and produced 3 feature-length documentaries: The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things (2014), Losing Sight of Shore (2017) and NEVERTHELESS (2020) and her latest film is a narrative short about the 1st mother in space entitled Unbound starring Lauren Lapkus. Sarah is dedicated to telling stories that uplift, inform and inspire as well as showcase strong female role models on screen. Prior to focusing on documentaries Sarah worked as a field producer on the hit ABC show Dancing with the Stars for 10 seasons as well as shows on NBC, MTV, Lifetime, Bravo and the Food Network. She also directs branded content for EllenTube, Tastemade, Mattel, AT&T and more. Sarah is an inspiring public speaker, author, and an adjunct professor in documentary film, passionate about empowering the next generation of storytellers.

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