Dara Bratt, the writer-director of the provocative new documentary short I Think I’ll Make It, first caught my attention in 2007 at the Tribeca Film Festival. That’s when she premiered her narrative debut short In Vivid Detail, a clever office romance that I thought was a comedy and she didn’t agree. I was impressed that this neophyte, who is from Canada but got her MFA at NYU/Tisch and settled in Brooklyn, was able to nab Piper Perabo, who’d shot to stardom in Coyote Ugly, and The Sopranos’ John Ventimiglia to be her leads in her thesis film.
I was among many who appreciated that her short had a twist—Ventimiglia’s character had a rare disorder, prosopagnosia, and couldn’t distinguish faces. In Vivid Detail received the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award for its incorporation of science. Bratt would continue to make films rooted in science, including a documentary short, Flutter, about a sweet, obsessive-compulsive butterfly collector; and a feature-length documentary, The Singing Abortionist, about Canada’s equally reviled and beloved Holocaust survivor, Pro-Choice crusader, and womanizer Henry Morgentaler.
Many young filmmakers make shorts only as springboards to feature films, so I was heartened that while Bratt made a feature, she also continued to happily make shorts and, another plus, make documentaries as well as narratives.
Independent filmmakers typically struggle to get funding for their projects, so I was pleased for Bratt when I read several years ago that she had joined the roster of directors at Rocket Film. However, I also was disappointed because I was sure this immensely creative writer-director would be making only client-based commercials from then on. I lost track of her until recently, when I read that she had moved to Big Block, and I discovered that in addition to her (very impressive, I admit) commercials for a whole array of high-end products, she had been making shorts all along, including one about her dog that has been a big hit on Topic TV. Her brand new short, I Think I’ll Make It, will play at the Santa Fe Film Festival and numerous other festivals. It is yet another example of Bratt choosing an unusual subject that, she believes, has a scientific/psychological bent.
On August 11, 1983, five-year-old Kat Hurley was the lone eyewitness when her father killed her mother, and it was her testimony that helped send him to prison. Thirty-five years later, she is still dealing with what happened.
I recently had the following conversation with Dara Bratt about I Think I’ll Make It and its enthralling subject, along with other film projects, past and present.
Danny Peary: How did you decide to make a film about a woman who witnessed her father kill her mother when she was five years old?
Dara Bratt: Kat Hurley is a fitness instructor and life coach here in New York, and I met her in her gym class. She’s someone you take note of. She is a terrific teacher with a vibrant, boisterous personality and a lot of presence and charisma. Her gym classes are amazing. She mentioned she had written a memoir titled I Think I’ll Make It: A True Story of Lost and Found, and I read it twice in one day—once as a reader and once as a filmmaker. I knew immediately I wanted to take her story and put it on-camera.
DP: What was your initial discussion with her about how you wanted to adapt her memoir?
DB: I gave her all my films to see and told her that my film would be character-focused. I told her that I’m really into the deconstruction of a person and getting behind the curtain. I wanted to tell her story about witnessing this horrendous crime and how she’d traveled around the world trying to find herself—it was Eat Pray Love but in a different way. It would be a film about a woman trying to find her way.
I said that in a cinéma vérité way, I’d follow her around and explore her story, using interviews of her and her voiceover reading passages from her book. And she said, “Let’s do it!” She was very trusting. Her only reservation was that she didn’t want to write about the documentary on her blog unless it was really happening. I told her, “Some take longer than others, but I always finish my films.”
DP: When you met her, did she have a lot of confidence?
DB: Yes. She was confident, incredibly energetic and very positive, but I think that when someone always focuses on the positive, there’s something behind that. A person can’t be that positive all the time. I was curious what her backstory was and a lot of it had to do with her not wanting to be labeled a victim again. It started to make sense to me.
DP: Did you think she was similar to the lead characters in both your documentaries and narratives?
DB: Yes! I have always been attracted to characters who are on the fringe of society, on the outside looking in.
DP: Your leads are for the most part alone and lonely—such as the butterfly collector in Flutter, the depressed recluse in the narrative short Everyone Thinks They’re Special. Nobody Cares.—and they all need companionship.
DB: That’s true. Even the Pro-Choice crusader Henry Morgentaler needed a lot of female companionship. Maybe it’s that happy people aren’t that interesting.
DP: Kat has that essential leading-lady characteristic: vulnerable yet strong.
DB: That’s why I included footage of her teaching boxing, showing someone how to be strong and empowered. Anyone who experienced what she did as a child can stay the victim or try their hardest to be the opposite; and be a hero who will prevent others from being victims. Kat can be inspiring.
DP: When was it that you started stripping off layers to her, going from the veneer to the bone?
DB: I started filming her in her apartment right after she married her now ex, Elisa. That was in 2016. It was a two-year process.
DP: How did you two decide when you should film her?
DB: She was super about being available. That helped me save money because if I had another shoot and it finished in half a day, I would take the crew I hired for a full day to film Kat. There were times I filmed her by myself, but in general I had a two- or three-person crew. We had the camera, lights, a boom. My friend Kim Spurlock shot a lot for me, and my friend Abbie Carson dedicated an enormous amount of time to the editing.
DP: And Kat was always up for it?
DP: One of Kat’s strengths is that she’s a great actress. She has an on-camera presence and was really good at hitting her lines with me. That’s probably because she did so many interviews as a child. And now she does a lot of life-coaching speeches and has a podcast. That was great because if my microphone wasn’t working she’d be able to repeat what she said without a problem. But I had to be careful because sometimes she was too rehearsed with what she expected me to want to hear from her. She was too prepared. I didn’t want the performer, I wanted the off-the-cuff Kat.
DP: Did she have pictures of her life?
DB: She is someone who archives everything. She takes pictures constantly. There are selfies, podcasts, videos, photo albums—she had a lot to share.
DP: Is her podcast about her story?
DB: It’s called The Mighty Failure. It’s life-coaching with different guests every week, putting them back on track. She has a Masters degree, and is very smart. She’s qualified.
DP: When you started filming and she was upbeat about her life and saying that she no longer felt like a victim, did you think it would be an easy film to make?
DB: I knew I needed a direction to go and an ending. I didn’t have the impression that the marriage was giving her the happiness she wanted, so I had the feeling that I just had to wait and see where her journey would go. Patience, especially when making a documentary, is a big thing. As we made the film, it became more complex than I expected. It fell into being a treatise on grief and guilt.
DP: You said that you wanted to take a cinéma vérité approach to filming her, but you include a reenactment of what happened when she was five. Basically, her mother tells her to sit in the car while she speaks to her father in his office, but she gets out and peeks in the window and sees that her mother is lying on the floor—she sees only her feet—with him on top of her. She gets back in the car, and her father comes out, says her mother is on the phone, and drives to pick up her brother at school. That was two days before it was reported that her mother was missing. Is that how Kat remembers it happening?
DB: Yes. The voiceover is from her memoir. I’m not a fan of reenactments in documentaries, but I wanted it to come across as a reflection. That’s why it’s fuzzy, like ’80s-style TV. It goes with the important scene in which she talks about her guilt for maybe not doing anything because she was too young or, worse, a girl.
DP: Why does she feel guilty about what happened when she was only five years old? Because her brothers said she should have tried to save their mother?
DB: The guilt comes from how she envisions she could have changed the situation and done things differently even at the age of five.
DP: Her older brothers guilt-tripped her, but do you really think she feels guilt about what happened?
DB: I think so. There’s always the feeling that she could have been a hero. We all rethink certain scenarios and play out other endings.
DP: Is it possible that her guilt has less to do with not saving her mother than testifying against her father at his trial?
DB: No, I think testifying took a lot of strength, but she had a great deal of family support. Also, she was given a voice so she could have the opportunity to do something positive to lessen the damage.
DP: I wonder if there was a point in her life when she realized she wasn’t over what happened decades before. She repeatedly says to you that she isn’t a victim anymore and won’t let what happened continue to affect her, yet in one scene, she shows that her body has revolted and there is a terrible rash over her whole body—and she senses it’s because of her suppressed trauma over the murder.
DB: Exactly. She’s someone who always says people should focus on the positive, focus on the positive, focus on the positive…But can anyone get over something like that? I feel there were periods in her life that she went back to feeling like a victim, for different reasons. She knows it. Because of what she’s been through, her alarm system for being a victim and what can be scary is on higher alert than for someone who hasn’t gone through something similar. I think one of the most effective moments in the film is when she is in a dark place and is thinking negatively about where her life is going and says, “People love you more when you’re gone.” That gave me a few chills.
DP: At one point Kat says, “Everybody I have ever loved has hurt me.” I think that’s key to your film.
DB: That’s what happens when you go to a dark place and you suddenly feel betrayed and that your support system isn’t there. When you start to rely on other people at a moment of weakness, you can feel alone. Kat had that moment when her marriage wasn’t working, and I think that made her look back at her past and begin to wonder if everyone had let her down. And that spiraled her into a dark place. Ultimately, she needs to motivate herself.
DP: When she had difficult times, did you ever want to be her therapist?
DB: I think making a documentary about somebody is a bit like therapy. Because you have to gain the trust of your subject so that you are let in. You must balance being a friend and being a filmmaker. I want to be respectful of my subjects and never make a film that I wouldn’t show them, but at the same time I want to include intimate, personal, and revealing things that they might find uncomfortable. When I interviewed Kat, I always tried to ask questions without implying what I wanted her answer to be. I wanted her to come to her own conclusions. I think that’s a good filmmaker-therapist approach.
DP: Did she think the therapy she was forced to have as a kid was damaging?
DB: I wouldn’t say it was damaging, but she was anti-therapy. She thought that the word “therapy” had a negative connotation. She had a therapist who told her she was a victim, and that was something she wasn’t ready to accept.
DP: Which is what the grandmother who raised Kat also told her. Was there a time when she said, “I am a victim, but I can get over it,” as opposed to saying, “I’m not a victim.”
DB: That’s interesting. I never asked her that.
DP: Kat talks about her ex-wife, Elisa, in the film, during the marriage and after, but we never see her. Did you meet her?
DB: Yes, and she was nice to me. I thought I might include her in the film, but when I decided that the film would be a short and not a feature, I wanted just one voice, Kat’s. I wanted to experience Kat’s world through her alone. It would be a reflective piece. When you’re doing a short of just one subject, there’s just a certain amount of length you can give that person. Under 20 minutes is the right amount of time to hear one voice. This film is 17 minutes.
DP: Did you notice that Kat uses the word “evidence” a lot. And that’s not when she’s talking about the trial, but her marriage.
DB: I guess when a trial was part of your growing up, that’s how you start to process other situations.
DP: Has Kat ever attempted to talk to her father?
DB: She has done it many times. He got out of prison after three years on a plea deal. Now she hangs out with him and is close to him.
DP: That’s surprising considering what he did. Do you think she wanted him to fill the gap after her wife left?
DB: That actually happened when she and Elisa were together.
DP: Well, do you think that one of the reasons Kat’s wife left is because Kat’s father was now back in her life?
DB: No, because he babysat their cats during their wedding. What’s strange is that when they got back, there was only one cat. He said the other one ran away. Kat has always said the same thing, but it’s hard not to ask her, “How can you be sure?”
DP: How does she justify becoming close to her father?
DB: She was trying to find forgiveness because family is family. I wanted to work this into the film, but there was no real place for it: When she first came out as a lesbian, he was one of the first people she told. She came out to her dad when he was in prison. She said, “What’s he going to do, judge me?” That was kind of great. He was her sounding board for a lot of things because he wasn’t going to give her pushback.
DB: Do you think they ever speak about the murder?
DP: I don’t know. I do know she’s nervous to share this film with him. I’m not sure if her brothers speak to him, but they’re not as forgiving as Kat. She says in the film, “If you relive the crime over and over and over, you have to forgive him a million times. But if you think the crime happened only once, then you have to forgive him only once.” That made it easier for her.
DP: Do you think she ever told him she forgives him?
DB: I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s something they talk about now. He’s older and has some health issues.
DP: Did he ever explain to anybody why he did it?
DB: Maybe, but I believe money, or alimony, might have been part of it. They had split up and he had a girlfriend, who was the one who gave up where the body was. He claimed it was an accident and has never said differently.
DP: You’re known for connecting art and science. Does I Think I’ll Make It fit that description?
DB: I think all my films touch into my interest in psychology, neurology, what makes a person tick. A person who you don’t necessarily see every day. Some scientific themes I touch on might be traditional, like mechanical resonance or prosopagnosia, which is face blindness, or PTSD, which is important to my next narrative feature, Church Lake. Or they might be character-related, such as the psychological underpinnings of personality—why do people do what they do?
DP: When I watched Kat and the antisocial female in your short Everybody Thinks They’re Special, I thought how you personally and as a filmmaker don’t expect to ever fully understand your subjects but want to at least get under the surface and do some exploring.
DB: I think that’s pretty true. There’s always: If you’re not crazy, can you make a film about a crazy person? Or if you’re not a genius can you make a film about a genius? Can I really get into Kat’s head 100 percent? No.
DP: But you’re curious and try to put together all the puzzle pieces.
DB: Yes. That’s why I like open endings, where I just push the door open. For Kat, the story isn’t over. Perhaps she’s not at the moment using trial language she was exposed to as girl or feeling a heavy amount of loss, but the triggers are still there. She’s in a happy place now, but all these things could pop back up. I want to end the film on a positive note, but she will have an ongoing struggle.
DP: It’s revealing that the title of Kat Hurley’s memoir and your film isn’t I Know I’ll Make It.
DB: Kat told me she’s writing a new book and I suggested she call it I’m Going to Make It.
DP: Your previous short, which we can see on Topic TV, is also about a subject who needed love and companionship. Your dog. Tell me about the origins of Black Dog.
DB: My black dog Zeppelin is a rescue that joined my family five years ago. He was from Tennessee and was brought to New York, and was in an adoption truck in Union Square when I saw him. He was the only dog in the truck who was napping and seemed uninterested. As you can see in the film, Zeppelin is the friendliest, most loving dog, yet he was the last puppy left and would have been put down if we hadn’t adopted him. Why hadn’t he been chosen earlier? I started doing research and getting information from the foster organization that helped us adopt him, and I learned that black dogs have the hardest time being adopted. And that means they are the most likely to be euthanized. Not so much in New York, but in the South.
All the shelters in the South are overpopulated and underfunded, so if there are many black dogs there, people won’t be as interested in adopting one and the facility has to make room for incoming dogs. There is constant turnover. So many of those shelters have poor lighting and black dogs don’t photograph as well as other dogs, so people looking at photos online can’t see what they really look like. From all this, I got the idea of doing a personal film about something real called Black Dog Syndrome.
DP: What was your pitch to Topic TV so they would fund it?
DB: I said that I wanted to make a film about my own journey in which I explore Black Dog Syndrome through my relationship with my dog. I wanted to keep it local, in New York, and have it be about my experience adopting Zeppelin. So instead of visiting shelters in the South, we would speak to rescue groups here who deal directly with those shelters. We did a lot of interviews with the shelters in New York, and the ASPCA.
DP: You also talked to a dog-color expert. There can’t be too many of them!
DB: There’s one professor who made it into the film. She talks about how she shows subjects pictures of a black lab, a brown lab and a white lab. She found that the white lab receives the most positive response.
It’s not in the film, but she did another experiment in which she asked people about a scenario in which a lab has bitten a kid, but the kid might have provoked the lab. The people decided if the kid or the dog was more at fault, and their answers were skewed based on the color of the dog, with the black dog being picked as the dog most likely to be at fault. People fear black dogs, partly because of how they’ve been portrayed in books and movies. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles or Harry Potter, the old and the new. If you walk by a building that has a Beware of Dog sign, if there is an illustration, it is usually of a black dog. Black dogs have a scary image.
DP: The big question: Does the fact that many people fear and reject black dogs apply to racism?
DB: We didn’t delve into that theme, but we interviewed a couple of professors who specialize in animal behavior, zoology and race. One felt strongly that it does, and one felt strongly that it doesn’t. Both supplied research data to support their opinion.
DP: Do black people buy more black dogs?
DB: Actually no. They’re equally frightened by them. I think people’s fear of black dogs has to do, in many instances, with people not having been exposed to many black dogs.
DP: Since I saw your film, I have been noticing black dogs much more and thinking about the issue. Do you think it’s an important film simply because it enlightens people about Black Dog Syndrome?
DB: I’m very pleased that it did extremely well on Topic TV. People who watched it said they now look at black dogs and think about adopting them. They say, “I had wanted a white dog, but now I question why I wanted a white dog and not a black dog.” My goal when making Black Dog was to get people to look at black dogs differently and adopt more. Even if one more black dog gets adopted, I’ve done my job.
DP: I read that you’re working on a criminal justice documentary.
DB: Yes, I’m currently in production on a film in the vein of The Jinx and Making a Murderer. It’s my first time delving into that genre, and it’s very exciting for me. I’d tell you more, but for now we need to keep the story under wraps so that our interview subjects will agree to participate and then speak freely, honestly and without bias. It’s the first time I can’t promote a project right away!
DP: You mentioned Church Lake earlier. Is that a feature-length film you intend to make?
DB: Yes. It’s fiction based on a true story, which is that a Swiss Air flight going from New York to Geneva in 1998 crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia. I have friends and friends of friends who live in the small coastal town right by where it went down and were the first on the scene. They were volunteers who went out in the water to rescue survivors. Only there were none. And what was supposed to be a rescue mission became a retrieval mission.
I spoke in-depth with the actual forensic scientist who worked on this crash and he explained that because the plane nose-dived into the water, the bodies of the crew and passengers, being 90 percent water, were de-gloved, which means that the bones sank but the skin floated. So these volunteers came upon the horrifying sight of bodies floating in the water that had been deboned because of the impact of the crash. A lot of the volunteers were not equipped to handle what they saw and started to have PTSD. Some villagers thought they heard cries in the night and knocks on their windows and came to believe that the deaths had happened so fast that their souls didn’t know they were dead and were haunting the villagers.
The film is basically about what happens to a small town that comes undone in the face of tragedy—and whether its people are hallucinating because of PTSD or if there is something strange going on. I see Church Lake as Sweet Hereafter-esque but with a supernatural element.
DP: How did the forensic people and law enforcement cope with what they saw?
DB: They did their work, went home and cried, and went back to work the next day. That influenced my script.
DP: What drew you to that subject?
DB: Although I didn’t set the film in Nova Scotia because I want it to be universal, it was Nova Scotia and its landscape that inspired me. It’s a lonely space, and though the land is gorgeous, it is desolate. After meeting volunteers who were there at the time of the crash, I thought, wow, this is a very interesting community, and started to build a narrative around it. The theme of “Humpty-Dumpty” is very big in the script—if something breaks, can you put it back together? That includes the dead bodies and the living who have emotionally broken down.
DP: That is a major theme of I Think I’ll Make It.
DB: The backstory is pretty much about the small town that no one can reach because it’s winter. I became obsessed with plane crashes while researching this film and I’m fascinated by how people try to figure out who’s to blame. You have the legal people and the money people asking if it was human error or mechanical error, or a combination of the two.
DP: At what stage is this film?
DB: I cowrote the script with my husband, Kieran Dick, who worked on Black Dog and most of my projects. We were fully cast with Lily Rabe [Vice], Hamish Linklater [The New Adventures of Old Christine] and, playing a scientist, Carrie Preston [True Blood] attached, and were set to shoot in Nova Scotia. But we lost our funding. Recently I signed with Big Block and it is interested in helping me get it off the ground.
DP: You go back and forth between shorts and features, documentaries and narratives. Do you have a different mindset for each?
DB: I like to have a lot of things going on. I don’t like being bored, I like being creative. I never know what will happen first. And I can take a two-week break on a film and not get back to it for months. Documentaries are easier to keep going because they don’t require as many resources. I can just go out with my camera and shoot an interview and put it into the edit. It can be done on a small scale. That’s why I like shorts. They can keep me from getting rusty and I can explore smaller ideas. I think it’s important to do all of it. My narratives are inspired by real people and events, and my documentaries are done narratively, so they inform each other.
DP: I’m curious about your move to Big Block.
DB: Yes, I moved after spending a couple of years with another great company, Rocket Film. What I love about Big Block and Rocket is that they both support long-format. The companies that I work with in the commercial world support me in terms of making projects that are docu-style and apply my style of narrative. So they’re not far off from what I’m interested in making on my own. I do get some fulfillment and feel proud, and watch them over and over. I’ve done beauty commercials, like for L’Oréal and Maybelline. I’ve done travel promotion videos directed specifically for women. I’m currently directing a feel-good piece: the gala video for City Harvest. Big Block helps its directors, whether it’s Broadway or feature films. I’m in very good hands.
DP: How can we see some of your films?
DB: I Think I’ll Make It is just starting its journey on the film festival circuit so stay tuned for screenings.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).