Emmy and Peabody-winning producer/director Beth Aala has gone from a Pool Party (her first film as director) filled with amazing music, the story of how a swimming pool became the center of a music scene in Brooklyn, to co-directing (with actor Mike Myers) Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, a portrayal of a legendary talent agent, to tracking an unlikely movement of conservationists helping to restore America’s working landscapes in Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman. Now she portrays a more intimate kind of movement, in one of the unlikely epicenters of surrogacy movement, the idyllic city of Boise, Idaho. Her film Made in Boise offers a rare glimpse into this mysterious world by intimately following the lives of four surrogates, as they build relationships with the intended parents, prepare for the rigors of pregnancy, and navigate the mixed feelings of their own families, who struggle to understand their choice to risk the physical and emotional complications of carrying babies for someone else.
“I urge you to watch this fascinating documentary about a subject that is well worth a longer conversation,” says Theresa Widmann, of the “i want what SHE has” podcast.
Beth took a time out in her home base of Brooklyn (as well as from on the road) to talk to us about what led her to make a film about surrogacy, how she got to know the women in the film, and what misconceptions she encountered along the way.
Why did you make Made in Boise?
My best friend from college had fertility issues, and after many painful failed attempts at IVF and two miscarriages, she asked me if I would carry her child. I really didn’t know anything about surrogacy at the time, but seeing all that she had gone through, I said yes. Thankfully she eventually ended up getting pregnant on her own, but the experience gave me a personal framing on surrogacy. Months later, when I coincidentally came across the community in Boise, I started to think about why one would carry for someone else and I felt compelled to explore that.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
One of the biggest challenges in making the documentary was filming the births. Boise is not an easy place to get to, and no matter how prepared anyone is, childbirth comes with its surprises. Given this, I actually missed Cindy’s birth by one day; she started laboring the night before my flight and by the time I landed the next day, the baby had already arrived. This, in turn, presented challenges in the edit room. Luckily, Cindy’s friend Hilary made her own recordings and we used that audio in the film. Local photographer Crystal Kulack had some beautiful photos of Cindy laboring and giving birth to baby Lorca that we were also able to use. It actually was a perfect combo for the film.
Another challenge in making this film was the fundraising. It was a constant uphill battle. Talk about a divisive topic! While surrogacy is increasingly on people’s consciousness, it’s still a pretty foreign concept to most and many have their own biases about it. So when my producer, Beth Levison and I were trying to fundraise, some people’s preconceptions or their gender politics definitely came into play. Ultimately, we are so incredibly grateful to our funders (ITVS, IDA, Chicken & Egg Pictures, the New York State Council on the Arts, and select individuals) for supporting us in making this film.
What were some misconceptions you experienced while making Made in Boise, and what were your own misconceptions or unknowns about it going in that may have changed during filming?
I didn’t know anything about surrogacy when I began making the film so it was a real education for me. I never expected the process to be so emotional; that the intended parents are coping with loss just as strongly as they are trying to bring life into the world.
I also didn’t expect that the surrogates and intended parents would build such strong relationships with one another. The surrogate connected with the parents, not the baby.
Lastly, I never knew a city in Idaho could be so progressive and forward-thinking. I’m not sure I expected such openness and acceptance from a “red state.” Admittedly, that was my bias! It was so awesome to see folks from all over the world going to Boise to start their families.
How did you gain the trust of the women and their families, to get such intimate access?
I spoke to all of the subjects about boundaries and what might be off-limits during filming. Perhaps because of that, everyone was completely open and trusting, which was amazing. But I think just having that conversation and letting them know they had the space to tell me “I don’t want this in the film.” earned their trust.
As far as the local hospital was concerned, my childhood best friend, Missy was a labor and delivery nurse at St. Luke’s. She introduced me to the hospital leads and really paved the way for access. You can imagine how difficult, if not impossible it is to be able to film at a hospital. I ended up being very lucky because some of my favorite scenes were the births of the babies, and I have to thank St. Luke’s for trusting me and allowing me to film these important moments.
Finally, it might have helped that the hospital saw that my style of shooting was pretty low key and we never interfered with the work of their staff. The same went for Nicole’s office and at home with the families; sometimes when it was just me and the camera the families forgot that I was even there.
It was probably hard not get attached to them, too. Do you or will you keep in touch with any of the main characters of the film?
I spent years with these families and watched their kids grow up right before my eyes! So I have grown close to Nicole, Chelsea, Cindy and Sammie in a way that I will always feel connected to them. I plan on going back to Boise for vacation and hope to spend time with all of them and their families.
Why is this happening in Boise?
It was a little bit of a perfect storm on many fronts. One, St. Luke’s [hospital] had just implemented the largest and most comprehensive surrogacy program of its kind in the U.S., so that was a draw. And you can’t help but acknowledge that the cost in Boise is more affordable than places like California. Then, during filming, the go-to countries for paid surrogacy such as India and Nepal (because of their affordability) were getting shut down. So Boise has a lot of things going for it. Parents who come to Boise to start their families have often said that they like the idea that their child is growing in a place so wholesome and wonderful. And Boise is an amazingly lovely place, particularly to film. I even vacationed there last summer with my family because I love it so much.
What in your previous experience as a documentary producer and filmmaker prepared you for producing Made in Boise? Or what was different and unique about making this film compared to the other projects?
I co-directed a film called Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman that had many stories happening all in one film. That documentary was a challenge because of all of the characters involved, and the seasons that played a big part of their lives. Boise similarly had lots of characters and a pregnancy timeline that we had to weave in a cohesive manner. [Editor] Jen Fineran did an amazing job integrating all of the subjects despite being constricted to the growing bellies and timing of key story points. Since Jen was one of the editors on Rancher, she was up to the challenge!
This is a challenging question, straight up, but important, I’m sure you’d agree: What would you say to critics of surrogacy who suggest it’s a system that exploits or commodifies the bodies of women of color?
When there’s a large disparity between classes of people, there is an opportunity to exploit those who are less fortunate or have less power. And that can be dangerous. Perhaps that’s why the surrogacy industries in developing countries were shut down in recent years.
That said, what struck me about Boise is that this wasn’t the case for these women choosing to carry for strangers. From my filming experience there, those who chose to become surrogates had a personal reason for carrying a child for someone else.
Some people say that this choice commodifies a woman’s body. I wonder if this can also be viewed as an example of a woman’s agency over her body in order to help someone else. Surrogacy is certainly a topic that is incredibly complex and that raises many important issues. It’s important to talk about all of them.
There’s humor in the film, just naturally coming from the characters in the documentary. Did you find humor was a key icebreaker for you in working with all the subjects in what could otherwise be a stressful period in their lives?
I love finding humor in everyday life. The humor in the film came straight from the subjects and was part of their innate character. We were lucky to be able to capture these lighter moments, but the key was to find the right place for them in the film. Based on Jen Fineran’s previous work, I knew that she would be able to sneak them in so that you could laugh and cry within seconds of each other. One of Jen’s many strengths is to bring in humor when you don’t expect it.
Was there a scene you especially wish could’ve made the final cut of the film but had to omit for time?
I love scenes that show character, even if they might not necessarily move the story forward. One particular scene that I absolutely loved that got cut was of Nicole and her then 7-year-old daughter, Addie. Nicole was teaching her about Rosa Parks and other notable female activists as they were headed to DC for the first Women’s March in 2017. To frame their trip, Nicole was educating Addie about civil rights and the need for women to stand up for one another. It was a scene that showed how Nicole’s inclusiveness starts at home and translates into how she runs her business. These kind of verité scenes are so hard to get, so it was really painful for me not to include it.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
Nicole, Shannon and Tom’s birth scene is one that I’ll never forget. I’ve never been witness to a live birth other than those of my own two kids, so to watch a baby being born from an outsider’s perspective was incredibly moving. I was weeping so much, I was sure that my camera was shaking and that I was screwing up the scene! And yes, there were that many people in the room (and more!), which I found so fascinating!! I also love the scene where David and Todd are waiting to go into the emergency room. David is meditating and Todd is an unknowing and endearing chatterbox. The shooting by Jenni Morello has such restraint and patience holding on that two-shot for its entirety. It’s brilliant and makes me laugh every time.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Only three?? That’s too hard! Some of my favorite documentaries include Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Stop Making Sense, Searching for Sugarman and Amy. My favorite narrative (and musical) films include Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, E.T., Lost in Translation, Reservoir Dogs, West Side Story and Stand By Me. And I love any John Hughes film. I grew up watching all of them. I could probably recite Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club verbatim.
More from Beth Aala on Made in Boise from Boise Public Radio.
Beth on “The New American Family,” in Talkhouse.