The Making Of

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Herb and Dorothy Vogel travel the festival circuit with filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, sharing their passion for art and the story of their extraordinary lives. At museums and theaters across the country they are feted by crowds of artists, collectors and admirers.

Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki reflects on the inspiration she drew from the Vogels: surviving the setbacks of the filmmaking process and reaping the rewards of sticking with a project over the long haul.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

HERB & DOROTHY is a story of two ordinary people who truly love art and have dedicated their entire lives to art and, as a result, accomplished something extraordinary. They aren’t wealthy and they don’t have a PhD in art history or a family name like Rockefeller. Their shared passion and commitment changed our perception of what it means to be patrons of art. I hope this film offers a new way to approach art, helping the audience, with simple guidance, to demystify the world of contemporary art, making it simply enjoyable. In today’s economy, where every one of us lives with uncertainty, I hope HERB & DOROTHY’s message goes beyond the world of art and art collecting, asking us an important question: what is it that makes life fulfilling and rewarding?

What led you to make this film?

I never thought I would be a filmmaker until I met Herb and Dorothy. When I first heard about them, I was working as a field producer for NHK, Japan’s public television station, on an educational program featuring the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. We were shooting their exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and all the works came from the Vogel collection. I was so struck by their story. At the end of the shoot, I went to the museum bookstore and bought a catalog of their collection, hoping one day I would do something with their story.

Two and a half years later, I happened to meet Herb and Dorothy in person at an art event. Their presence was unassuming yet powerful. They were both small—less than five feet tall—in plain clothes, and they stood out among the dressed-up, affected art crowd. But they seemed to be the ultimate insiders of the art world, surrounded by many and greeted by everybody. I knew right away they would be great documentary subjects. One week later, they invited me to their apartment, and that's when it all started.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

It's more like a mantra than a cliché for independent doc filmmakers, but fundraising was excruciatingly difficult and painful. Finding a good editor was also a huge challenge, because many experienced editors are careful not to take a risk by working with first-time filmmakers. I am so grateful for Bernadine Colish, who took the risk to work on this project. The overall challenge was to maintain mental strength and high morale. One after another, problems kept popping up. Early on, every time it happened, I was so consumed and discouraged. Many times, I just wanted to give up. Finally, I learned that there’s always a solution where there’s a problem. I just had to face it and deal with it immediately. But it took me a while to get to that point.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

It took me four years to finish this film, mostly because I had to wait for the funding. We ended up spending a lot of time without a camera, just chatting or watching TV at their apartment or going out to dinner. Naturally, we got to know each other and build trust. Four years was a long time, but it was a necessary and organic length of time to make this film. The film wouldn’t have had the same intimate feel otherwise.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

The scenes of Herb visiting the post office where he used to work, Herb and Dorothy visiting the artist Richard Tuttle’s studio, Herb and Dorothy visiting a pet store, talking about the relationship between love for art and love for nature. Fortunately these scenes have survived in the feature version.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

I like the scene at the National Gallery’s viewing room where Herb approaches John Chamberlain’s sculpture, the first work they purchased together right after their wedding. Herb doesn’t like to talk too much about art, but his eyes are always doing the talking. It’s clear he is seeing something in the artwork from the intensity of his eyes. This scene depicts how he interacts with art: not through his words, but through his gaze.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

When I hear the audience laugh and giggle, and see big smiles on their faces walking away from the theater, I know I did a little service to humanity. Often I am impressed by the comments from the audience, who pay such close attention to details and who understand my vision or tell me their own—usually things I never thought of. These moments are just so rewarding, and it’s worth every challenge we have to go through to make a film.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Herb and Dorothy’s message is inherently about public access to art, and is not limited to the elitist few. The Vogels chose the National Gallery of Art as the home for their collection, one of the few museums in the country that does not charge an admission fee. Because of their career as government employees, it was Herb and Dorothy’s wish to give back to the people of the United States. I believe public television, with its wide viewership and accessibility, is the most ideal outlet to broadcast their story and have it seen by as many viewers as possible.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

During the last two years of the production, my only goals were to finish the film, and survive (financially and emotionally). I didn’t get anything else done.

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