Sarah Schenck is a writer, director, and producer who is deeply passionate about using filmmaking to advance public health goals for diverse audiences. She makes shorts for nonprofit organizations including the Park Slope Food Coop, Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International, NYC public schools, and the Supportive Housing Network, where she served as Chief Digital Officer. While working as the NYC Comptroller’s Senior Policy Advisor for Education, where she received a Commendation for Excellence in Public Service, she taught herself filmmaking. She produced “Virgin,” starring Elisabeth Moss and Robin Wright for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature Film Under $500,000. Her feature comedy “Slippery Slope” won prizes at film festivals worldwide.
“The Invisible Extinction” hits theaters and VOD January 6. The film is co-directed by Steven Lawrence
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
SS: There is a newly-discovered organ in our bodies – the microbiome – composed of tiny creatures (microbes) that have evolved with us for millennia. When they are in balance, we are healthy.
Our film is a whirlwind adventure looking at the work of researchers around the world, and brave patients, working on the cutting edge of this field, seeking cures to debilitating diseases.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SS: One of my kids almost died. She used to eat everything, then suddenly, after a pecan cookie, she went into anaphylaxis, [which is when] airways shut down, and body temperatures drop. It can be deadly. I needed to figure out why that happened.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
SS: We are all superorganisms — our human cells and also our resident microbes — living in harmony. When we take care of them, they take care of us. Our film offers simple insights into how you can cultivate your “good bugs” while also showcasing the work of innovative researchers seeking cures to debilitating diseases by harnessing the power of our microbes.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SS: Being a mother and daughter and wage earner while making a film is very hard and I often thought of women who came before me who faced even greater challenges and somehow endured. So I made it my task to keep the film moving forward, not set it aside while waiting for another, easier day. One of the ways I did this was to seek out a seasoned collaborator, initially as a producer, who later became my co-director, Steven Lawrence. He had a distinguished career in documentary filmmaking, was Michael Apted’s long-time producer, and also had a deep personal connection to the subject matter.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SS: It took years to get things off the ground as an independent film. I was only able to do so because a former intern who became a dear friend, Margaret Sclafani, joined me and shot footage of the two scientists who became the film’s main characters — in exchange for homemade cookies and ham and cheese sandwiches. I had no funding. Tip: if you have crew working for free, you need to feed them well. And be willing to return the favor on their films!
Neil Rasmussen, Founder of the MIT Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics, and a generous and visionary philanthropist, was our first significant funder. The only reason we connected with him was because my dear friend Paul Greenberg knew I was scrounging around for money for a movie about the microbiome and he met Neil while in Boston on a business trip and then introduced us.
Our budget came from a cadre of amazing people who have become friends as well as funders. Two more key executive producers, Gerry Ohrstrom and Thomas Campbell Jackson, came on board after I met Thomas at a party Gerry hosted for the fabulous Secret Science Club founded by Dorian Devins and Margaret Mittelbach. My husband John got the invitation to this party and asked for me to be his plus one, so he also gets some of the credit!
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
SS: Dave Monahan, a super talented filmmaker, then at Columbia’s grad film program, asked me if I could build a jail set for a film he was making. He somehow connected me with another friend who had access to circular saws, jigsaws, hacksaws — which I learned how to use without losing a limb! Even more fun was watching Dave work with the actors and camera. It was deeply exciting to see a world take shape, purely from one’s imagination, and to create the work with all these talented actors, makeup artists, composers, and shooters.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
SS: A line from Ariel Javitch re: directing her first stunning feature film “Look, Stranger” about the war in Yugoslavia: “I think I have the humanity, but I’m not sure I have the brutality necessary to direct another film.” I think Arielle was paraphrasing someone else.
This phrase got me thinking about how you actually get a film made, and the fine line between persuasion and manipulation or coercion — what it means to create a collective vision for crew and cast while also honoring and acknowledging everyone’s individual dignity and humanity.
Also: “Don’t do this.” That came from another successful filmmaker, who shall remain nameless.
Don’t do this unless you have to. It’s a very challenging road. Especially if you have kids or want to. The way some people say “marriage is a terrible antiquated institution — the only reason to tie the knot is if you feel you absolutely must,” it’s the same thing with filmmaking. Only do it if you can’t not.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
SS: Keep your friends and collaborators close. Life can become very rocky and you need loving kindness. We all need loving kindness. There is no real intimacy if you aren’t sharing the bad stuff with people as well as the good stuff — even though the temptation to present a shiny, happy face to the world can be intense.
Be ready to stand up and show up for your women friends who are also directors. It matters a lot. There are many times in life when disaster strikes and just knowing someone else is aware of what you are going through can give you the strength to keep going.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SS: For sheer beauty, the poignancy of our mortality, leavened by humor and a brilliant eye for the unexpected, Naomi Kawase’s “The Mourning Forest.” I got to see this on MoMA’s giant screen with gorgeous projection. It is an astonishing achievement!
The elegiac beauty and fierceness of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust.” I just watched this for the first time a few years ago with my then-tweens and a teenage German cousin and it spoke to us across cultures and generations.
I love the brilliant and rousing opening sequence of Jane Campion’s “Holy Smoke,” one of her less successful films in an amazing oeuvre, but this intro — to me — is an entire film unto itself.
Speaking of India’s color and complexity, Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” for moments of sheer joy.
The wacky and revolutionary Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies.”
I also have huge affection for Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her.”
W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
SS: I took umbrage when my dad asked me 20 years ago, as a budding filmmaker, if my work was making the world a better place. “That’s not art’s job!” I retorted then. I’m kind of a jerk. I ask for forgiveness! But I feel differently now, at least for my own work. Life is short. The days are precious. I am very lucky and yet have lots of challenges.
My favorite way of facing a challenge is to notice whether a lot of other people have this same problem dogging them — and then I consider whether a film can make things better, bring us together, share our sorrow and amplify our understanding. Film is a powerful medium. And while I believe in art for art’s sake, my favorite films continue to resonate for me because they have deep things to say about how to be a better human. Every single one of the films I mentioned above could be described in this way.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?
SS: When we’re crewing up and casting, check our biases and make sure we’re representative of our increasingly diverse world both in front of and behind the camera. There are plenty of amazing organizations that can assist us in casting a wider net, like NALIP, the National Latino Independent Producers Association.
“The Invisible Extinction” showcases the work of leading women researchers, one of whom is Latina, two of whom are Asian or Asian-American. It was very important to me to center the film around women though it was a constant battle to retain this vision. I have a long list of women researchers from diverse backgrounds whom I hope to interview and shoot for supplemental content on our website, or perhaps other standalone films.