A dozen years ago, the award-winning filmmaker Gita Pullapilly was a broadcast journalist working for a television station in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As the faith and diversity reporter, she was the one designated to approach the family of a victim for an exclusive whenever a tragedy took place. At the station, they called her the “death reporter.”
The sobriquet was a clumsy fit for someone so full of life. Pullapilly (FIN ’99), is as naturally easy and open as a blue sky. Throughout her life, people have confided their stories to her, even when she was a child underfoot. She doesn’t set out to be disarming. But people sense that she’s a generous and honest listener and find themselves telling her about what matters to them without even realizing it.
All the same, it pained her to intrude into someone’s sorrow, tell their story on the air, and then disappear from their lives. So on weekends, she would go back, take cookies or cupcakes to the family and sit with them through their bewilderment. “I never knew how to let their tragedies go,” she says.
There was another dimension to Pullapilly’s frustration as well. In local news, there isn’t room for the patient, detailed, visual storytelling she had fallen in love with as a graduate student at Northwestern’s program in broadcast journalism. She felt stuck where she was. She was still in her 20s, young enough to make a career change. She could walk away from the job. But she was afraid she would be letting her parents down — again.
The youngest of three, she grew up in South Bend, Indiana, in one of the area’s few Indian families. Her father, Cyriac, was a history professor at Saint Mary’s. Her mother, Elizabeth, taught high school math. Pullapilly started Notre Dame feeling nudged, like many Indian kids, she says, in the direction of medical school. When she realized she didn’t want to become a doctor, she then looked at how much her sister Kavita (FIN ’94) enjoyed working as a financial manager at General Mills.
But while Pullapilly liked the business program, she never felt a passion for it — a fact that hit home when she started her first job, again following in her sister’s footsteps. “I don’t want to worry about cereal,” she fretted to herself in her cubicle at General Mills.
For three months, she gave it a shot. The business never grew on her, but it did help her to get a bead on where she might fit in. She wanted do something she was passionate about, she reflected, and something that would impact other people.
That was when she thought about how much she liked telling stories. She enrolled in Northwestern’s graduate program in broadcast journalism where she found her passion — visual storytelling.
While Pullapilly is clearly the kind of person who would put intelligence, care and fire into whatever profession she chose, it’s not clear that she would have found her way to filmmaking if a photographer at the Grand Rapids station hadn’t fixed her up with a promo editor, Aron Gaudet, from a rival station.
On their first date, they were only getting to know each other when Gaudet cut right to the chase and asked Pullapilly the $64,000 Question: What do you want to do with your life?
Pullapilly was unnerved and, at the same time, intrigued by this question. Why wasn’t her current job fulfilling, and what line of work would be? While she was mulling this over, Gaudet made a suggestion. Why don’t we make films together? With all this new technology, he told Pullapilly, as long as we tell a good story, we’ll find an audience for what we want to create.
And that’s exactly what came to pass, although not overnight, of course. But this is where everything changes for Pullapilly. Within two days of meeting Gaudet, she was moving forward on the plan. Her father, a small business owner as well as a history professor, advised that she and Gaudet treat the venture as a business. So they formed a film production company, Dungby Productions. She was not just trying on the idea of making an independent film, she had become a complete convert to the mission.
The year was 2004. Pullapilly had found her life’s work — one that combined her passion for storytelling with her background in business and finance, one that matched her bulldog-like tenacity with the confidence she had gained in television news, one where her sensitivity provided depth, not guilt.
She had also found her match in Gaudet, whom she would marry in a storybook coastal Maine wedding in 2009. If Pullapilly brought her business sense and interviewing skills to the table, Gaudet knew how to think about writing, editing and filmmaking. This is what he had wanted to do his whole life.
Eventually, the pair found a story they could sink their teeth into, one they wouldn’t tire of in the five years it would take to make a documentary. They didn’t have to look any further than Gaudet’s childhood backyard in Maine. The Way We Get By (2009) follows several senior citizens as they see service men and women off or welcome them home at tiny Bangor International Airport.
Bangor is the port of exit and entry for troops bound for Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever word comes of a military transport, the volunteer band of troop greeters, including Gaudet’s now-late mother, Joan, head to the airport, no matter if it’s 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. The film is tender without being sentimental. Viewers get a sense of the characters, their personal struggles and the quiet resolve with which they go about the business of letting the troops know their service has not gone unappreciated.
We see Joan Gaudet cross her small living room with halting steps, holding onto her walker for dear life. She has raised eight children and experienced life as a single parent when her husband was on active duty during the Korean War. But before she became a troop greeter — which she describes, in her marvelous Maine accent, as “addicting” — she was afraid to be out alone after dark or step out onto her driveway if it was icy.
We get to know Jerry Mundy, a former Marine and retired ironworker, and his elderly dog, Flanagan.
We meet Bill Knight, a World War II veteran, on the very day he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Knight’s face is etched in lines and his profile is all jutting jaw and fierce determination. Yet he has fallen apart after the death of his wife five years earlier. He’s become a hoarder.
Twenty-some vacuum cleaners, picked up at various auctions, line his barn. Thirty cats and a small, nervous dog have taken over his house. At some point, Knight stopped throwing the cat food tins away. They remain wherever he has set them down for the cats to eat from, the overwhelmed floor a metaphor for Knight himself.
Gaudet likes to tell how Pullapilly, stepping foot into Knight’s house for the first time, remarked graciously, “What a lovely home you have, Bill.” Rather than cringing, she felt solicitous of Knight. That caring gets passed along to the audience through the filmmakers’ choices of dialogue and image.
“Bill had a very difficult storyline. As an interviewer, I had to learn to stop and let him get to that moment where he felt like opening up,” Pullapilly says. “In the third act of The Way We Get By, there’s a moment where all I wanted to do was give Bill a hug. I realized, no, I need him to talk, to explain why he’s so emotional. It’s one of the scenes a lot of people say made them cry.” As a television reporter, she says, she would have gone ahead and told the audience what Bill was feeling because of the pressure to move it along. “Aron is so good at understanding character and the larger story, but I’m very much an emotional storyteller,” she says. In the larger landscape of filmmaking, she’s able to let that sensibility have its space.
One of the insights that arises in the film is that Knight is afraid of dying alone, despite his outward stoicism. Pullapilly and Gaudet were at his bedside when he did pass away a few years ago, keeping their promise that they would always be there for him.
The Way We Get By premiered at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature. It aired on PBS later in 2009, and again in 2010. “It was one of the most popular independent documentaries in 2009 on national PBS,” says Pullapilly. “It ended up getting us nominated for an Emmy, and that broke us out as filmmakers. We like to say that making The Way We Get By was like our years of film school.”
If so, then they were very good students. With their next film, Pullapilly and Gaudet moved to narrative filmmaking, although their exploration of social issues continued to be an underlying component. Their coming-of-age drama, Beneath the Harvest Sky, premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and earned them a spot on Variety’s 2014 “Ten Directors to Watch” list. They were awarded prestigious Guggenheim Fellowships in 2015 to support their work. Now living in Los Angeles, they’re about to begin shooting their latest movie, Crook County, a fictional accounting of the 1980s undercover investigation of the judiciary in Illinois’ Cook County. The movie has recently secured financing, allowing them to move into the casting phase of development.
“I think you fall into your destiny in a lot of things,” reflects Pullapilly. “Who knew that from finance to television news I would end up meeting Aron and together we’d make movies. That is such a path I never would have thought I would follow. You can’t plan that. I had a friend in college that always knew she wanted to be a doctor. I always think, ‘You were so lucky. You knew exactly what you wanted to do.’ For me, it wasn’t instant, but once I found it, that’s when I knew I will never regret dedicating my life to this.”