We had the good fortune of connecting with Jill Demby Guest and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jill, what’s something about your industry that outsiders are probably unaware of?
That it actually takes a lot of hard work and skill to craft a meaningful story or any king, comedy or drama. I think the entertainment business is often seen as glamorous so I think to the outside world that part takes center stage whereas behind the scenes there’s a big collaboration going on to make it all happen.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
It’s funny but I think all artists are unique in their own way and it manifests in the way they tell their stories, be it painting, journalism, theater, music, filmmaking etc. As a filmmaker, I think my particular way is to follow feelings and to evoke character in that way, which is represented in where I choose to put the camera to create a certain emotion or feeling from what I choose to focus on. A mentor said to me, “Your story is an emotional rollercoaster to the truth.” I’ve always said that I do work that “makes your heart beat a little faster,” or gives you what I call the “chill factor” in your gut. And that comes from carefully planning of the confluence of music, pictures and words. I’m also keen on impressionistic images to help tell a story. In documentary there are often talking head interviews that need to be covered with images and I like to employ images that are more emotional rather than “see and say.” I also love working with archival footage which has been prevalent in much of my work. I also like to mix archival and new footage when possible to create an old feeling like most recently when we had to find a specific WWII aircraft and I had to mix old and new it worked beautifully. How I got where I am has been a jagged journey, not a straight path. I am a woman so there were limitations in the 70’s. I actually was told on a job interview that, “We don’t hire women because they get their periods and they’re moody.” However, that didn’t stop me. I persisted. I learned the art of being politely persistent when I went after a job I wanted. And it has paid off many times. Resilience is also very key and I have that in spades. You have to be able to take the ups and downs of this business because you can’t give up on your passion if you believe this is what you were born to do. If you believe you can tell this story in a way no one else can. You have to learn to trust your instincts along the way. It’s not always easy when there’s pressure against you not to do so, people who are questioning you along the way. But somewhere in your heart you have to listen to that small voice inside yourself that’s telling you that you know the best way to do this. Not that you don’t collaborate, or be open but you have to have a vision that will guide you along in the process. I’ve learned to be nice to everyone I talk to at any level because they too will become the gatekeepers at some point. Hire people who are smarter than you, who can make up for areas where you’re weaker. Play to people’s strengths. Learn to trust your team and hire the best people you can. Have fun and laugh a lot. It’s a long process and you want to be with people who you can enjoy and have a meal with. Be affable. People like to hire people they want to hang around with and will often hire someone with less experience in order to be with someone they can hang with. I want people to know that they won’t get “status quo” with me. They’ll get something that will make them laugh and cry and see a bit of themselves in. To me, the whole idea is to be able to create a universal experience that is global, that if they turn off the sound the emotion will be palpable in any language. Regarding overcoming challenges. You’re not going to get along with everyone. Some people will be on board with your brand, others not. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. And while it’s hard not to take things personally, it’s not personal, it’s just a difference of needs and requirements. So learning to let go is an ongoing process and will help you in many ways. People like to meditate, others do yoga. I do ballet and other exercises, I like to sing, I enjoy gregorian chant as well as all popular music. Stay open minded and keep learning. You are constantly evolving and you just never know where it may lead you. It’s never what you think and that’s where the magic comes in. Be open to it.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’d go to the Getty Museum because it’s an instant vacation. You can see great art and be in nature at the same time. Also, the Huntington Library and Gardens is my “go to” place. You can see ancient texts, paintings, gorgeous gardens and even have an English high tea in their tea room. A drive along Mulholland is majestic. A trip to Point Dume. Karaoke is fun. Korean BBQ in K-town, dim sum in San Gabriel or Monterey Park, sushi at Sugarfish or Nozawa, artisnal bread and pizza at Lodge, Bestia, Bavel, Destroyer,Il Pastaio, John and Vinny’s, Urth Cafe, Mexican food. Planetarium, Zoo, Los Feliz, Hollywood and the studios, Culver City, Venice, Santa Monica. Art museums downtown and LACMA, The Academy Museum (April 2020), the Grove.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have gratefully had many champions in my life and I think the first was my father. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and believed I could do anything and that “anything is possible.” As corny as it sounds, he always said, “The world is your oyster.” His favorite song to sing to me was “Young at Heart” and the lyrics, “fairytales can come true, they can happen to you if you’re young at heart.” My Dad was always young at heart and people tell me the same thing. My Dad was full of unique ideas and I must have inherited my fount of ideas from him. He had a creative soul. One of my neighbors, Mrs. Casselman was one of the first to recognize my talents and she nurtured them, teaching me to play the piano and paint.. And then there was Mrs. Olmstead, my best friend’s Mom who also recognized and supported my sensitive, creative nature. Joseph Anderson, the head of my film school was very encouraging and always praised my work, no matter how out of the box it was. When I started out in the film business, Albert and David Maysles and Muffie Meyer (Grey Gardens documentary) gave me my first opportunities to work in the business and trained me as an asst. camerawoman and an editor. I then worked for a public television producer, Richard Schickel, who was in a sense my mentor and he nurtured me along from an editor to a producer. There were friends and family, too, who were my angels and always urged me to keep going when times were rough. There are so many books, metaphysical and otherwise Florence Scovell Shinn, Tich Nacht Han, Krishnamurti and artists I look up to and a special quote from Martha Graham which sits on my desk. My ex-mother-in-law Jean Guest was also a huge champion and deserves a shout out. My most recent team for my documentary “And Now, Love’ are my extended family and tremendous supporters. They understood the importance of creativity and what it takes to launch a creative venture. Big shout out to Michael Glick, Steve Koch, Dr. Allen Weiner and Dr. Bernard Bail, the subject of my film, who inspires me every day.