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Making a Living with your Art: Ruth Leitman of Ruthless Films

April 20, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Jay Nolan

Ruth Leitman

For those of you out there doubting whether you can ‘make it’ in film, here is how Chicago based filmmaker Ruth Leitman looked at it: “I love film and I always will!  Always.  I love everything about it… I wanted to be able to use my art in how I made a living plain and simple.  So I did.”

That might sound overly simplified compared to the reality of the daily grind of filmmaking (or the sporadic grind as money and part-time jobs allow). But read between the lines; it is not a desire to be famous or get picked up by a major distributor that allows this mindset. It is knowing what you want to do and focusing all your time and energy towards that.

This kind of drive allows Leitman to tackle intense and personal subjects. For instance, her documentary Welcome to Anatevka is “about a group of developmentally disabled adults staging, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’…  It was like witnessing them trying to push Mt Everest over Mt Fuji.”

Leitman’s latest doc that takes on the U.S. immigration system

Or her latest doc Tony & Janina’s American Wedding, about a family torn apart by deportation. “I met them within minutes of when they found out that Janina needed to leave the US within 48 hours, after living here for the last 18 years.  So here I was basically to film this awful tragedy.”

“I felt like I had a responsibility as a mother, a wife, a filmmaker and American to explore their story and their commitment & Patriotism towards a country that had torn their family apart,” said Leitman. “We had no funding in place, so we tried to raise funds along the way, but if I waited for the entire budget- we would not have achieved the immediacy and access that the story warranted.  3 1/2 years later that became the film Tony & Janina’s American Wedding.

Not waiting for a budget is Leitman’s MO, and it works; “I make 3 budgets.  The ‘wishful one,’ the ‘less than ideal one’ and then the ‘drop dead’ one. The ‘drop dead one’ is usually what I have to make the film with- especially in this economy.  My god! Yes, the budgets are lower.  I wish they weren’t… There are so many talented people that I really want to work with here in Chicago on my films… But I have never wanted to wait for all of the funds in order to make a film; I often fear that if I wait that long, the film won’t get made.”

Leitman can afford to move ahead on a project without a budget, because she is willing to take on any role in the filmmaking process. She is listed as writer, cinematographer, director, editor, and producer on most of her work. It might be exhausting to try to fill all these roles, but it gets films made.  “I guess the toughest thing I have learned has been in the distribution end of things from my last film, Lipstick & Dynamite. We had a great premiere at TriBeCa Film Festival, brought the wrestlers, sold the film to film to a distributor that had amazing publicity, and then the film was very mis-marketed by the distributor… The days of making a film and simply putting it in someone else’s hands to run with— are over.”

Good clean fun; "Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar; The First Ladies of Wrestling"

She has enjoyed collaboration with cinematographer Mark Petersen, her husband Steve Dixon has been producer, and editing with Leslie Simmer. Right now, in fact, she is working on her first fiction project: “I am looking for great indie scripts with strong women characters set in and around Chicago/ Midwest too… hit me up!” While it can seem important to own your project, Leitman shows that collaboration is the name of the game, especially in the DIY film world.

Forget your dream budget. Sure, it could happen some day – but what do you really enjoy? Why do you get up in the morning? To make movies! Stop waiting, and get out there with your camera. Find something you love, and film it: “I love to talk to people… and people like to talk about themselves once you get them going, especially those who perhaps have never been on camera on even been asked very much about their lives at all…

“But the most important thing is this.  You have to treat your subjects with the utmost respect, because they have given of themselves in a way that is precious and you have to respect that and honor it.  If you don’t, you shouldn’t have the right to tell other people’s stories.  Actors go home and go back to who they were before they worked with you, but the subjects of your doc films never get away from their struggles and you must be really sensitive to that.”

The original Jersey Shore: "Wildwood, NJ." Winner of the Audience Award Atlanta Film Festival.

It can be scary; without money, crew, or studio support, you might feel like you are wasting your time. How far can films made that way go? If you are afraid, then you need to re-evaluate why you are making a film.  “… I am undaunted.  I have been this way my whole filmmaking career.  You have to be.  A door closes and you go through the wall.  That is what it means to make a film.  I could have chosen an easier path for sure. Making a film is laborious, but seeing it on the screen with an audience for the first time is glorious.  It’s always so special and rewarding to see that and acknowledge the people who helped to realize the vision of what is up there on the screen, especially in the age of DIY.”

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