Alumna Q&A: Associate producer Samantha Knowles ’12
When Samantha Knowles ’12 began her journey at Dartmouth eight years ago, she had her eye set on majoring in film and media. Not only did she achieve that goal, but she exceeded it, graduating with degrees in psychology and film and media studies. Knowles has transitioned into working in the film industry thanks to her short documentary “Why Do You Have Black Dolls?” (2012), which received the 2012 Reel Sisters Film Festival Spirit Award and the 2013 Women, Action & the Media (WAM!) Film Festival Audience Award. As an associate producer, she has worked on several films including “Meru” (2015) and “Incorruptible” (2015), a film about the 2011 Senegal crisis.
When did you develop an interest in film?
SK: I was a senior in high school, and I was always into the arts. I grew up dancing, and I thought I would get into theater. But I was still exploring other options, and I started to watch DVDs and DVD commentary on them. Once I discovered the director’s commentaries that you can watch as the movie is playing, I realized this is a different way to watch those movies. I liked hearing about the thought that directors put into making the film because before that I had never fully understood what a director does. I remember in one commentary, the director said, "I know no one’s watching this. Only the film nerds are watching this." And I thought, "Maybe I’m a film nerd." So when I applied to college, I indicated that I probably wanted to be a film major just to explore it. I came to Dartmouth, started taking classes right away and decided that’s what I wanted to do.
Did you have a favorite film class or professor that inspired you to keep pursuing film?
SK: I had a lot of great professors — Mark Williams, Amy Lawrence, Mary Desjardins. Jeff Ruoff taught my production class as well as a century wave class and an ethnographic film class. Everyone was supportive, but I think his classes were the ones that really inspired me to keep going and gave me the hands-on experience of actually making a film. I think by my sophomore summer, my interest was solidified.
Most — if not all — of your productions are documentaries. What do you find appealing about this style of film?
SK: Honestly, I got into documentaries because it felt so acceptable. It felt like something that you could go out and do. I think practically that’s true, and that’s definitely a reason to be interested in it, but it’s also the way in which the stories are real life. The IFC Center in New York has this documentary series called, “Stranger Than Fiction,” a weekly series of documentaries that kind of fall into that category. Lately, I’ve been thinking about that phrase as my interest in documentaries. I think it’s amazing that real life stories can be stranger than fiction or can be edifying in a particular way and filmmakers can work their magic and bring that to light. It’s an amazing process, and I think that’s what makes documentaries my strength.
What are some of the challenges of being a producer or director that most people do not know about?
SK: It requires such a vast range of skills, especially in documentaries. Outsiders may not know this, but with a narrative film, the roles are sequestered into different departments. Camera department will take ownership of the camera gear. Grip and electric department will take control of the lights and the gear needed to hang the lights. Everyone sort of has that as their jurisdiction, but in documentaries, everything is muddled. So I’m coordinating shoots and developing relationships with subjects and I’m booking flights, but I’m also packing the camera gear or shooting or helping to set up a light. It also requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to juggle a lot of things at once. It’s real life so you can’t always plan it. Sometimes you have to pull a whole shoot together in two days. It can be really hard work in a lot of ways.
Do you have a project that you consider the most special or significant?
SK: I think “Black Dolls” would be that in a lot of ways because I had freedom at Dartmouth to make the film, and I poured everything I had into it for a year. I cite that as one of the best things — if not the best thing — I did at Dartmouth because I got a lot of support from people and I’m really proud of what I was able to create and how I was able to maximize the collaborative nature of documentary filmmaking and filmmaking in general to create something that shows off everyone’s skills of those who worked on it. One of my current roommates is the one who shot it, and we met at an internship so whenever I see the film I think that’s the product of that relationship, and I’m really proud of that relationship. It taught me so much, and I had a really fun couple of years after when I got to show the film all over the country. I think that’s what made it the most special film for me.
How have your expectations from the moment you graduated from Dartmouth been different or similar to the realities you’ve experienced in the film industry?
SK: I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve gotten work to make a living doing this, which is great and I’m glad that I get to do this. But I think the other side of this is you quickly realize that you shouldn’t con t lucky to get to do this work because it’s really hard work. It should be taken seriously. I think the thing with the film industry is there are great projects and there are not so great projects. People cut corners, and the same way you apply a critical eye to any job, you need to apply that to any creative endeavor. With the arts, sometimes, you feel like you may accept something that’s isn’t so good jobwise as it should be because you’re thinking, “Oh well, it’s lucky to be working.” But I think it’s realizing that you should still be treated fairly at work. I know a lot of friends who don’t think they’re getting paid enough or their hours are too long, but they love the work. I think it’s learning that, yes, it’s great to be able to make a living doing this, but you still need to stand up for yourself and make a fair wage.
What are some future projects or interests?
SK: I’m currently working on my own short piece about my uncle who was a member of this hip hop group called, “The Cold Crush Brothers.” They were incredibly pioneering, and when I started Googling him, I realized there’s so much documentation of their influence in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s kind of incredible. They’re mentioned in the footnotes of so many history books. I’m kind of developing a short piece about that. It’s not fully formed. I’m just shooting a little and kind of exploring. Then, after working on a Boston Marathon bombing documentary for HBO with two Dartmouth alums, I’m going to be working on a film about campus violence. After that, since I’m a freelancer, I don’t really know.
What does your current job as an associate producer entail?
SK: My current job has two main components, which are coordinating film shoots and managing the archival material. This week, I’m going to do some archival research and see which of the requested material has come in. The fun part about it is I get to work with the editor and get a sense of what she needs. Then, I can go back and figure out how I can sort through archival to achieve what she needs. Also, it’s hiring crew and making sure we have gear, making sure we have access for the next location of our shoots and making sure our subjects are ready and confirmed. It’s of course a collaborative effort.
Do you have a motto or a saying that helps you overcome obstacles that could be used to inspire aspiring “film nerds”?
SK: One kind of mantra that I’ve been saying to myself — and that I’ve been talking to my friends to the arts about — is know and protect your creative mind. I think very often your creativity and your passion is what can get you into this industry, but you realize it can be hard to maintain a high level of it, and it’ll ebb and flow. That’s okay. Learning what works in terms of feeling creative and what doesn’t and leaning into the things that work, I think that’s the interesting part about being in the real world and getting older and knowing yourself more. It’s important to know what gets your creative juices flowing.