Introducing Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano, directors of the documentary AMERICAN BEAR. In this road trip film, Sarah and Greg set out to explore different states by relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night.
Q1. When did you both realize you both wanted to go into the film industry?
GREG: I’ve wanted to tell stories since I was a kid – my second grade yearbook says I want to be an animator or a roller coaster designer. I started making movies when I was twelve, made four features with a group of eight friends while we were in high school, then headed to NYU Film school. I’ve always been most interested in writing and directing, working with actors, telling stories about memories and the gray areas in relationships. “American Bear” was our first documentary project, and we couldn’t be happier about the experience it’s offered me personally and creatively. It’s still about relationships, but they’re all real, and after touring with the film for 10 months and speaking to audiences across the country, I can see how much of an impact it can have. I’m still writing screenplays, but I’ve also found a new love in exploring nonfiction, and sharing the stories of people who are so often left out of the media. I used to think filmmaking was about exploring my own interests and neuroses (and that they’d be universal, somehow) – “American Bear” helped me evolve so that filmmaking is now so much more about being part of sharing other people’s stories.
SARAH: When I was a child (age 2 or 3) I thought that my extended family lived inside of my father’s video camera when we weren’t with them. The camera was an object of magic. I also loved cleaning my room, lighting it to look its best, and sharing my accomplishment with anyone who would listen. The lights were the most important part. I made books with yarn and paper reams, and wrote down my dreams as soon as I could spell. Everything I loved pointed towards movies, but it took me quite sometime to realize it for myself. Primarily I studied the fictional aspects of film in film school at NYU (where Greg and I met!), but making a documentary actually made me feel more confident in the magic of fiction. Meeting the people we met while filming “American Bear” made me realize how magical real people are — sharing the lives of those people in screenwriting classes, I often had professors who said that the characters “weren’t believable” or they were “too contradictory”. But people are very layered, very complicated.
Q2. Your documentary “American Bear” documents the journey of traveling across the country and relying on the kindness of strangers. What inspired you to film this unique idea?
G: Sarah and I are both optimistic people – we tend to expect goodness in our interactions with other people. The media tends to perpetuate fear – especially after 9/11. We’re told to be scared of our neighbors, the people on the other side of town, the people on the other side of the world. This isn’t how we see the world, and we wanted to tell a story that shed light on how wonderful most people are. Part of our experience was learning that so many people are yearning for connections – someone to share stories with – and to us, there’s subtext there about the obstacles we face in building real relationships due to distrust in our society.
S: I would just add that I grew up in a Bed & Breakfast and I adore strangers. But when we made the film I don’t think we were that aware of our privilege. So our expectations and naiveté inspired us, and we couldn’t have made the film without them. But it was such a powerful learning experience.
Q3. Traveling across the country can create some exciting yet challenging moments. Did you both face any setbacks during filmmaking and if so, how did you overcome them?
G + S: We had a car accident! That was a setback, though it wound up being sort of wonderful for the movie itself – an unexpected climax that really changes our circumstances and gives the movie some of its most emotional moments. The most difficult thing about making the movie overall was the camera itself. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to film everything that might be interesting, including our conversations, reflections, and arguments. The stress of turning the camera on whenever we started a conversation took its toll – it felt great to finish our journey and turn the camera off for good!
Q4. Since you both visited different places, is there a particular state and/or city you both would call “your favorite?”
G: It’s so hard to choose favorites! I was struck by the natural beauty of Montana and Arizona – they’re probably the most beautiful states from the road (though living in Colorado now is giving those some serious competition). I had never been to Las Vegas, and though we wound up sleeping in our car that night, it was a blast to spend a single day there and soak up all the energy and lights of the Vegas Strip. My favorite part of the journey overall was becoming friends with our hosts, and we certainly can’t pick a favorite there. We learned so much from each person we stayed with, and we’re honored to be friends with many of our hosts still.
S: I’ll second that. America is really quite stunning. Visually and culturally. The road trip is an amazing way to see things, and get to know people.
Q5. Are there any other exciting adventures you both are planning in the future?
G: We are very excited to start our biggest adventure yet in January: we’ll be starting a 10-month trip through Asia, Africa, and Europe! Each of us plan to make some personal projects along the way, but we’re taking a break from feature films, at least during the trip. I’m currently working on a screenplay about a woman coming to terms with her high school self as she prepares to get married – it actually explores some of the themes we’ve talked about here, as she moves through memories in New York, Costa Rica, and during an American road trip (you have to write what you know, after all!).
S: I am so excited for this extended travel. I am hoping (and perhaps naively expecting) that I will learn just as much as I did through the process of making “American Bear”.
I am also writing a mystery-noir-sci-fi-western set in the creepy cattle town that I grew up in and based on true events from 1967. I wrote several drafts but I have gone back to researching and the truth behind the circumstances is so much more bizarre (and magical!) than I could have ever imagined. And its bringing me closer to my community and its very tense history.
Watch American Bear.