To read a Q&A from August 2010 with filmmaker Aron Gaudet, visit the Film Update page.
POV: Why do so many troops come through Bangor, Maine?
Aron Gaudet: Bangor, Maine is the main exit and entry point for the majority of soldiers going to Iraq and Afghanistan and returning home. The flights may start at bases all over the country, such as Fort Hood in Texas or Camp Pendleton in California, but these flights all land in Bangor to refuel. So all the troops come into the terminal for a couple of hours, and then they head over. If they’re coming back, Bangor is the first piece of U.S. soil on which they set foot before they head to their homes.
POV: And how did you come upon the subject of troop greeters?
Gaudet: Joan, one of the troop greeters profiled in the film, is my mom. When I was in Michigan and she was in Maine I would call home and check on her often. After she retired, she really didn’t have a lot of hobbies and a lot of things that were keeping her active. One day I called home and she wasn’t there, and then suddenly I couldn’t get her on the phone, and I was uncertain about what was going on. When I finally talked to her, she said, “Call my cell phone.” I didn’t understand why she even had a cell phone, and she told me that she was greeting troops at the airport and going out at all hours of the day and night to do it. So when I went home for Christmas that year, I wanted to see exactly what had energized her at 71 years of age. I went to greet a flight with her, and I was immediately hooked. The amount of emotion at these troop greetings was immense, and it felt like there was a story there.
POV: How in the world did you get your mom to agree to be the subject of your film? Was it difficult to film her?
Gaudet: It was difficult at first! At the beginning of the process, everyone told us that a great documentary needs great subjects and access to those subjects. People assume that access to my mom was easy, but she was actually the hardest one to access. Bill and Jerry, the other subjects, opened their lives to us and let us walk right in. But that wasn’t the case with my mom at first.
I remember that when I was growing up my mom didn’t even like to have her photo taken. So during shooting we would do little tricks with her to try to get her comfortable with having a camera around. For example, I’d set the camera up in her living room, start rolling and then say, “Oh, I forgot something.” I’d leave the room, but leave the camera rolling. It was definitely difficult with her at first, though, because she wasn’t very keen on the idea of being filmed. Over time, she warmed up to it. And Gita [Pullapilly, the producer of the film] was my secret weapon. She would sweet-talk my mom into letting us do stuff, such as letting us put a microphone on her, and then I would take over from there. Now, I think my mom has grown to be okay with it. She’s a little celebrity now!
POV: How did you approach interviewing your mom and the other subjects?
Gaudet: Gita [Pullapilly] did all the interviews. When people talk about our film, they often mention how intimate and honest it is. And I really credit that to Gita’s interviewing skills, because she got our subjects to open up on camera. Sometimes an interview became an intimate conversation between Gita and my mom or Bill or Jerry. Dan and I would try to be invisible behind the cameras and try not to distract them in any way, because Gita was connecting with each of them. It was a magical thing: We would walk out of these emotional interviews, and all three of us — Gita, co-director of photography Dan Ferrigan and I — would be wiping away tears. I don’t think the movie would be nearly as honest and real if somebody else had done the interviews.
POV: Gita, you and Aron are now engaged to be married! What was it like interviewing your future mother-in-law on film? [Director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly just got hitched! Find out more about how they met and their working relationship on The Way We Get By in POV’s Production Journal.]
Gita Pullapilly: I think that in a lot of ways I knew that Aron was always going to be in my life, and when he introduced me to his family, they quickly became my family as well. The scene where Amy is getting ready to deploy and Joan is sitting in the chair depicts a moment that was difficult for Joan. We decided to talk to Joan in that situation for the film, though it was very hard for Aron and it was very hard for me. It was probably one of the only times when both of us were truly conflicted. We disagreed a little bit on the strategy for doing that interview, because Aron’s very protective of his mom. Part of me also wanted to be protective of her, but I also felt as if I had to ask her a couple of questions, given my role as an interviewer. So that interview with Joan killed both Aron and me, because we never wanted to see her cry. But it was also important, because so many families in America are going through the exact same thing — having to send off a loved one. I didn’t understand how painful it was until I saw Aron’s mom trying to say goodbye to Amy. And then I understood a little bit more what this war actually means.
POV: Do you think the fact that Aron’s mother was one of the troop greeters sort of gave you a seal of approval with Bill and Jerry? Was there a sense of trust that was immediately established between you and the other subjects?
Pullapilly: I think so. The first couple of times we went up to Maine, they’d say, “The kids are here.” I think they saw us as young kids who had no clue what we were doing. The film took four years to make. We kept going to Maine during that time, and they kept asking, “What’s taking so long?” There were other reporters who covered the story of the troop greeters, and they’d say, “There was another reporter here who came and left in the same day.” We’d try to explain that we were making a documentary, not a news piece, but I think it played in our favor that they all saw us as kids, because there wasn’t any pressure the way there might have been with a “professional” crew coming in with all its equipment.
POV: Gita, there’s such intimacy in this film and the subjects really let the camera into their lives. How did you achieve that intimacy with the subjects?
Pullapilly: There definitely was a lot of trust built through the whole process, and sometimes other filmmakers ask us, “Why did they open up to you that way?” We honestly don’t know. They just instantly connected with us and trusted us, and we instantly trusted them. For a film like this, you have to have a good relationship with your subjects. You have to know that if the worst day of their lives happens, you’re still going to be able to be there to support them as a friend. But you’ll also be there to support them as a filmmaker, and you’ll be able to tell their stories during those difficult times.
POV: Tell us more about Bill and Jerry.
Gaudet: Bill Knight is a World War II veteran and he’s one of the original troop greeters who greeted troops during the Gulf War. We met Bill the first night we went to the airport. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier that day, and he was still there at 2 a.m., greeting the troops. We sat down and we interviewed him, and Gita says it was one of the best interviews she’d ever had. Then we went home with Bill, and we saw what he was going through at home and realized that he’s dealing with a lot of issues. We instantly knew that Bill’s story could be the heart of this film.
Jerry Mundy is a former Marine who is 73. We were instantly attracted to Jerry because at the airport, he’s always joking around with the troops and he had all of them laughing. Both Bill and Jerry opened their lives to us, and we went in, which led us into deeper and bigger stories in the film.
POV: What are those deeper and bigger stories? What is it about this subject and these people that resonated for you?
Gaudet: The troop greeting was the first thing that grabbed our attention, and we thought it was interesting, and it could be the subject of a short documentary. But it was going home with each of the subjects that made us realize this could be a film. You realize that they’re going through so many struggles in their lives, yet they get to the airport everyday to be there for the troops. These flights come in at three or four in the morning, and greeters are so committed to what they’re doing. It was inspiring. I don’t think I could do what they’re doing.
POV: What does troop greeting mean to these people?
Gaudet: I think you retire from your job and maybe you kind of lose your identity. You get to this point where you’ve been marginalized and pushed aside, because people think you don’t have anything to offer anymore. And these people have found something that has put so much purpose back into their lives. There have been 900,000 troops that have come through Bangor and been greeted by them and been affected and touched by them. And those troops all have families, brothers and sisters, girlfriends and boyfriends. So when you think about it, the troop greeters have affected millions of lives just by being there, shaking hands, giving hugs, offering cell phones. To me, that’s pretty amazing. And Joan, Bill and Jerry get so much out of providing a service that gives meaning to all those people all over the country.
POV: At the same time, do Joan, Bill and Jerry have the sense that this experience of greeting troops may be a fleeting one?
Gaudet: Yes. It’s a double-edged sword. If you ask any of them, they say that they would love for all the troops come home. But then they say, “But I don’t know what I would do after that.” Greeting troops has given their lives so much purpose, and they say that they could find some place else to volunteer, but I don’t think it’s going to give them the same adrenaline rush that they get every time a group of troops come into the airport. So it’s an interesting dilemma.
POV: You’ve shown the film all over the country. Tell us about audience reaction after the screenings. Have you met with Iraq or Afghanistan veterans?
Gaudet: At almost every film festival there have been not only veterans, but people who come up and say, “I remember giving your mom a hug” or “I remember meeting Bill and shaking his hand.” It’s really amazing. During every Q-and-A, we’ll ask all the veterans to stand and thank them for their service, and you can see what it really means to them. I think it’s similar to the feeling of walking down that ramp and seeing complete strangers who are just there to say thank you.
POV: At some of the festival screenings, Joan, Bill and Jerry have attended and answered questions after the film. How have audiences reacted to them?
Gaudet: To audiences, Joan, Bill and Jerry are celebrities. They themselves are blown away by the experience, because they get standing ovations and people ask for their autographs. They have no idea what to think!
We brought Jerry to the Cleveland International Film Festival, and the audience was so excited to see him. After the last screening, which was in front of a packed audience that gave a huge standing ovation, Jerry said that other than the births of his children, coming to the festival was the greatest experience of his life. Then some of the people from the audience asked us, “When does Jerry fly back to Bangor, Maine?” I told them that we were flying back at 6 a.m. the next morning, and when we got to the airport in the morning there were people from the audience there waiting to greet him and send him off to Maine! They were so touched by the movie and by meeting Jerry that they got up at 5 a.m. to be at the airport before us! So we walked in and there were Jerry greeters! It blew his mind, and it kind of blew our minds as well. We couldn’t believe it!
POV: What does the film mean for the two of you? What was the greatest satisfaction you gleaned from making it?
Pullapilly: I’m really proud of this film, and Aron and I have grown so much as a couple because of it. It was a challenge to make this film, and we just kept believing in ourselves and in each other through the process. I’m so proud of how we did it together. This film will always be a part of our lives, and this film is now a part of our larger extended family, of Bill’s family, Joan’s family, Jerry’s family. It’s something we’ll always share, and we’ll remember that we did this together, as a team. For me, it’s not just a film that Aron and I did together as individuals. It’s part of all of our lives now. It’s even part of the state of Maine now. To have people and the state come out to recognize and support our film has been an unbelievable experience.