Lance Kramer, Partner and Executive Producer at Meridian Hill Pictures, is a busy guy these days. Between winning a Webby, promoting his award-winning documentary, City of Trees, and being tweeted about by Raffi, we were impressed he had the time to talk with us at GatherDC…
So you just won a Webby!
We were really excited to get this news last week. We won the Webby Award for The Messy Truth. Our production company, Meridian Hill Pictures, co-produced the series last fall with Van Jones, his wife Jana Carter and their production company Magic Labs Media. We had built a relationship with Van and Jana as co-producers on our feature-length documentary film, City of Trees. During the 2016 election season, we felt like Van was one of the few people on TV who was cutting through the noise and toxicity with a kind of much-needed emotional nuance and empathy. We all talked about the idea of having Van go into a community divided by the election and try to model how to have meaningful, respectful dialogue and disagreement. Though we had no budget for the project, we were able to mobilize an all-volunteer crew (many of whom the people who worked on City of Trees). And we were fortunate that several families in Gettysburg, PA let us into their homes and businesses to have the hard conversations that we ultimately documented in The Messy Truth. We initially distributed the three original webisodes solely on Facebook. They were viewed collectively more than 4 million times the weekend before the Election. Thousands of people were talking about the series, – online, in-person and in the media. The impact was profound. When Raffi started tweeting about the series, I knew we were onto something.
How did you first get into film? What about documentaries is particularly compelling to you?
Since we were little kids, my brother Brandon and I have always loved watching and making movies together. We played with our parent’s camcorder all the time and made spoofs of our favorite films with our friends in the neighborhood. In hindsight, I think from an early age, becoming comfortable filming with regular people, with no money, and without permission, was actually kind of good training for becoming a documentary filmmaker. I majored in history and minored in film, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. In high school and college, I had developed an interest in journalism and nonfiction storytelling. I decided to move out west to Oregon after graduation to try my hand as a print journalist.
It wasn’t until I moved back to DC in 2008 that I got interested in documentary film-making. My parents were incredibly supportive in encouraging both my brother and I to cultivate this interest and develop it into a career. It seems fairly obvious now, but it was a revelation to me that this art form could be a kind of storytelling that combines the strengths of film and journalism to work toward social justice. I love how documentaries can be a space to search for the truth through the messiness and subjectivity of real people’s lived experiences. This will never get old to me.
You run your company alongside your brother. What is that like? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with family?
The best part of working with my brother is having the chance to collaborate and create with someone who I love dearly. He knows me better than anyone else in the world. We understand each other in profound ways, and we share the same values. This means that we can quickly reach places of great depth and complexity in our collaboration that might otherwise be very difficult. One of the hardest things about working together as family is the way every decision and interaction can take on an emotional quality. We have to work very hard to be clear with each other, otherwise passive aggression can easily become our worst enemy. From the very beginning, we decided that as much as we care about our work, we would never let filmmaking or anything related to work get between our relationship as brothers. We literally wrote this into an operating agreement we signed when we started the company in 2010. I would rather walk away from the company than walk away from my brother.
Many people don’t think of DC as a big town for filmmaking. Why did you choose to set up shop here, and what have you learned about the local filmmaking community?
My brother and I were born in DC and grew up in Bethesda, MD. Our family has been here since the 1920s. My great-grandfather Isadore started one of the first shops in the Union Market called Kramer & Sons (we’ve actually been working on a film about the family’s history in the market). Our roots are pretty strong here; most of my extended family is in the DMV, and it just seemed like everyone stayed here.
I have always been pretty stubborn. As a kid, I thought that in order to be my own person, I had to get out of this area and do something different. Even though my dad was an artist himself, I thought DC was not a place to be creative. After living in Portland, I decided to move back here to be closer to family. I found that I had really taken the city for granted. I was immediately impressed by the film community that I had entirely overlooked when I was younger. I particularly appreciated how so much of the film created here was nonfiction and had deep social justice roots. I got to know people like Erica Ginsberg and Sam Hampton at Docs In Progress, Melissa Houghton at WIFV, Jon Gann at DC Shorts, Herby Niles at the DC Film Office. I grew to care deeply about this city and wanted to reconnect with my roots here. I feel like something important is happening here, and I want to be a part of building the community.
What are some of your favorite documentaries?
I love the filmmaker Robert Drew, who was one of the early pioneers of cinema verité. He is probably best known for his films about John F. Kennedy — Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. When I first saw these films, they really blew my mind. I was in awe of the way they took the elusive magnitude of the presidency and brought them down to such a gritty human level, especially at a time when television was still a relatively new phenomenon. These kinds of films taught people about the mechanics of how our democracy works and helped to create empathy and understanding during crucial moments of the Civil Rights movement. I am also a big admirer of the films by Kartemquin (KTQ) in Chicago. Over the course of more than 50 years, they have made dozens of exceptional films like Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and Life Itself. About five years ago, we met Gordon Quinn, the co-founder of Kartemquin, and Justine Nagan, the former executive director, at an event at the Hill Center in DC. We stayed in touch with them and eventually they effectively mentored us through the process of making our first film, City of Trees. I don’t know where we would be without their guidance and support.
Your latest film, City of Trees, has garnered acclaim, been selected for film festivals around the country and picked up by PBS. Tell us a little bit about the film and what inspired you to make it.
City of Trees follows the directors and trainees of a green job training program — the DC Green Corps — during the last six months of a major stimulus grant. We first met Steve Coleman and Washington Parks & People just weeks after we started Meridian Hill Pictures. We had moved into the Josephine Butler Parks Center right as Parks & People had received a major stimulus grant to start the Green Corps. We quickly got absorbed in the ambitions and idealism of people like Steve and Charles. We could also feel the intense stakes mounting and the tensions of the real world standing to threaten their dreams. We grew to care deeply about the people we were getting to know. We wanted to make a film that dove into the complexities, nuances and paradoxes they faced as they attempted to make changes in their lives and communities under an incredibly tense and stressful set of circumstances. Rather than shy away from these challenges, we tried to let the film ethically navigate the difficulties real people were facing in their lives. City of Trees was our first feature-length film. It took about five years to make. Everything about making the film was new and difficult for us. But I am very grateful that the film has been well-received and screened for so many people in all kinds of meaningful contexts.
How can I watch City of Trees?
Last year we focused almost exclusively on film festivals and the PBS broadcast. This past fall and winter we put a lot of effort into screening the film at universities and conferences. Recently we’ve been more focused on community-based, grassroots screenings and distributing the film via a new community screening kit we developed. Nonprofit organizations and public agencies can purchase the kit — which includes the DVD, discussion guide, and outreach materials — and host their own screening and dialogue in their community. Starting next month, the film will finally be launched on VOD streaming services, including a few platforms that you have definitely heard of 🙂 Editor’s Note – Moishe House DC will be hosting a Screening and Panel Discussion for the film next Thursday, May 11th at 7pm.
What’s next for Meridian Hill Pictures?
Over the course of the last seven years, we have experimented with many different versions of Meridian Hill Pictures to function as a sustainable production company: we’ve produced independent films, run a youth documentary film program, video trainings for educators, a monthly pop-up film screening series, produced client films, even experimented with building our own app. We continue to return to one thing: the desire to make films. I have such a deep respect for the craft of documentary filmmaking and feel like we have so much to learn. I am also constantly confronting the reality of the substantial time, talent and financial resources required to make a film. I’m proud of many things we have accomplished with Meridian Hill Pictures, but it is still not sustainable. Through conversations I’ve been having with other filmmakers, I am regularly hearing how much other people are also struggling with sustainability. Especially in this moment, when we are living through where fake news and polarized media are so prolific, I have a firm belief that independent documentary filmmaking plays a vital role in the democracy. Right now I’m very committed to playing a part in making the field more sustainable so important films can be made and distributed more easily and the field of filmmaking can be open to more diverse voices.
How do you connect with the DC Jewish community?
For me, most of my connections to the Jewish community are still through my family. Many of my cousins, aunts and uncles live in the area and we have close relationships that I really treasure. We still get together for many of the major Jewish holidays. I’m grateful for all the ways my childhood in Bethesda — especially the Jewish influences — have shaped who I am today. To be honest, I have not connected with the DC Jewish community as a single adult in my 30s as much as I would like to. This has been harder for for me than I would have thought, but it’s something I am actively working on. Food also plays a big role along with family. I go to Parkway Deli at least once a month with my grandma. Two words: pickle bar.
What is one thing you can’t make it through the day without?
My dog. Last year, I adopted a little Aussie-mix pooch named Sadie. She’s quickly become my sidekick and pretty much accompanies me wherever I go. I take her to the studio every day. She’s the official studio dog.
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