In my exploration of parenthood and family in the video industry, I wondered what parenthood looked like to someone who was strictly involved in the production side of things, namely the director. As an editor, I’m not a part of that world, and it’s obviously important to the process. Otherwise I have nothing to, uh, cut.
Directors are busy. Sets are unforgiving. Schedules can be nightmarish. How does anyone direct a film and raise a family, let alone a woman? Is it possible to be a mom and a successful director?
For Kate Chaplin, a writer/director in Indianapolis, it turns out that question is just the opposite. In my search for answers on raisin’ babies in today’s video work, my perspective has always been “how do kids fit into my world?” Kate offers a new perspective: “how have children inspired me to pursue my dreams?”
So as a selfish 20something who has always thought of kids as dream-wreckers until recently*, I decided I’d better listen up.
(*I’m just kidding, put your pitchforks away.)
Kate got into the business when she started making music videos with an old VHS-C camcorder she held as collateral from a boyfriend who owed her money. From there, she started working for her high school’s TV station, and eventually moved to California to attend UCLA. Life took her from LA to Georgia and back to Indianapolis, where she runs her own production company producing short and feature films, and has worked on projects for Discovery, VH1, and CMT. Kate also values education, participating in speaking opportunities at local schools, Indiana University, and the Indianapolis International Film Festival.
Kate has been married to her husband Joshua Leach for 14 years. They have two daughters: Kami, 9 and Samantha, 5.
When you first began your career, what were your thoughts or plans on having a family?
In LA I knew I wanted kids but we couldn’t afford good medical coverage and we didn’t want to raise our kids in CA. The school system and the peer pressure. So the Army was a viable choice as this was before Sept 11th. We would get 100% medical and be able to travel. We were still talking about it when Sept 11th happened and my husband thought it was a sign to do more for his country and signed up that day. Three months later we were in Georgia and I was pregnant.
As your career progressed, did your outlook on family life change?
It was actually the reverse. As my family life changed to now being a mom, it made my career all more important. When introducing my new daughter to my parents my dad asked “what is she going to be when she grows up?” and I said “what ever she wants to be.” It was a wake up call. I knew that I couldn’t truly support her in her dreams if I didn’t fight for mine. I had always wanted to be a filmmaker, but was really half-assing it up until then. I was waiting for someone to notice me, yet not putting myself out there. I wanted my kids to see me fight for my dreams and work hard at them so they would have a foundation to stand on when they fight for theirs. Those who have regrets for things they wanted and didn’t do seem to sabotage others and I knew I never wanted to be that person in my daughter’s life.
Why did you want to have children?
I always wanted to have kids. There was something in me that felt I wouldn’t be complete without being able to unconditionally love and nurture someone.
How did your family life determine where you chose to live?
Wanting a family got us out of LA. We wanted to stay in Georgia, but Savannah is actually a small town with few jobs. So we decided to come live near my parents in Indianapolis because then we’d have a circle of support. My brother also lives in Michigan, and we’d be closer to him and his family as well. Indiana had/has good job opportunities, good schools, culture and diversity (I wish there was more diversity though).
As a woman, how did you maintain your career during pregnancy and maternity leave? Were you ever concerned that you wouldn’t be taken seriously or might be passed over for opportunities because of pregnancy and motherhood?
I was lucky. I was an Army wife so I didn’t have a “real” job. In fact, we had one car so Josh would take it to the base and I’d stay at home while pregnant. I worked on my writing while pregnant. I wrote scripts and articles and was submitting constantly. When I was pregnant with Samantha I filmed LOSS, my second film as Karmic Courage Productions. The crew was very aware of the situation and we scheduled no mornings (because of morning sickness), they made sure I ate and was almost always seated. I have to say, it made for a great work environment because no one wanted to get too stressed out with a preggers lady at the helm. When Samantha was 8 months old, I made my next film, First They Came for… The prep was harder with an infant, but it was a learning experience to find the balance.
There’s not a ton of production opportunities in Indianapolis. How do you turn that around to your advantage? How does this strain your family life?
I don’t really think about it. I just want to make the films I have resources and funds to make. The main goal is to keep making films and getting them out there to people. I take the opportunity to work with other production companies to raise funds for my next project. They can sometimes be few and far between so I wait to make my next one until the funds are there.
Josh and I have a deal that by me staying at home I’m saving us childcare costs. Both my girls started school full time this fall. I have one year to start making a living at filmmaking or it’s back to the work sector for a paycheck. It does strain not having two incomes but we’ve made it work because my family knows I’ve got a limited time to fullfill my passion. We still have enough money to feed, educate and clothe my children and this opportunity is showing them that it’s hard work fighting for a dream but it’s worth it.
Did you ever worry about missing opportunities in your career to be home with children? On the flip side, did you ever worry about missing moments with your kids because of your career? How do you balance this? Do you feel like it’s a sacrifice in some ways?
I have missed working on great films due to childcare. There was a project that was a month long that I really wanted to work on. I gave the producer the number of how much childcare would cost and he couldn’t afford that so I was off the project. I have turned down projects that are filming on my children’s birthdays. We’re Buddhist and don’t really celebrate Christmas and Easter so birthdays are a big deal at our house. I do not work on my children’s birthdays.
I do worry about missing moments because I’m working. I have been lucky to see their first steps, hear their first words, see them go to their first days of school. I talk to them everyday whether I’m on set or not and they tell me about their day. It’s all a balance of what I’m there for and what I miss. I make a point to never miss the big stuff where they want mommy the cheerleader there. My kids honestly know that I am there for them no matter what. They come first.
How I balance? I judge their mood. I spend a lot of time on the computer in my office. They will come in and ask to play and if they seem pretty sad, I stop and play. If they have asked me for something to eat a billion times, it’s also a code that they want some attention and we’ll go play. I try to not work too many long days in a row so we balance out. What helps the balance is they know I’m fighting for my dreams and I expect them to do the same. To be hard-workers and be passionate about what they love but not ignore their family.
When you’re in the middle of a big project with long hours, how does it affect your family life? How do you alter things to make your family life manageable in these situations?
Working on a big project does affect the family. I know it affects Josh more than the girls because Josh sees my stress more. Again, it’s balance. I try not to work on weekends when Josh is home or I work one day of the weekend with a time limit. Josh and I really tag-team parenting. He takes over when I’m busy and vice versa. My mom and dad are close and we have great friends who will watch the girls so that both of us can get work done and the girls won’t be bored.
Video and film professionals often work independently running a business or as freelancers. How did this play into your family plans? How do you deal with things like having funds for kids’ activities, having health care insurance or funds for childbirth and kids, or generally just running a household without necessarily having a traditional full time job with benefits?
Josh’s job allows me to do what I do, running a company and doing freelance. His job provides pretty good medical and a close to stable income. I do still need to bring in money to keep my company afloat and big freelance projects allow for vacations or extra funds for the kids. I’ve also been attached to more projects that get cancelled than I’ve actually worked on, so sometimes family plans are a little weird. I’ll tell the kids we can’t do an event, and then we can. They are used to things being in flux.
When I was writing and staying at home I was awesome at housework. Once I started making movies I really have sucked at keeping the house up.
How do you deal with childcare and unexpected challenges that come up when raising kids (i.e. sickness) while also balancing often time-sensitive tasks such as directing a film?
When directing I make sure that my kids are with my husband or my mom. I plan shoots knowing their schedule. They work together to make sure the kids are where they need to be, school, ballet, home, on set, etc. I’ve had shoot when the kids were little and had two “baby wranglers.” It was nice having a make-shift daycare on set.
In prep for a film, everything is planned. Location scouting, production meetings. I know when I can get childcare and when I can’t. My kids always know what the week ahead brings and who they might visit during the week. I also work a lot at home when they are asleep.
If I’m doing freelance, I have less control over the schedule so I let the producer know that I’m a mom and if my kids get sick or have I have to pick them up from school, I’m going home. It’s family first. I do everything I can to have helpers so I can stay on set. Once I had a location scout that took longer than expected and I was 5 minutes late picking my daughter up from school. She was in the school office crying and I promised I would never do that again and just in case, we came up with a game plan for her to get home. Lesson learned.
When working from home, how do you manage your time with your children around?
That is THE hardest thing. This year is my first year of both girls in full time school. Before that there was always a little one here. When they were little it was always about a pen and paper following them around. I’d work a lot at night or during naps. I’d take them to playgrounds (McDonalds was a good one) and let them play while I worked. I’d come up with super tiring games with a lot of running around so they’d take a longer nap. If they fell asleep in the car, I’d stay parked somewhere and take phone calls. And I hate to say it but if I really needed some time to work on something it was DVD time. I knew I’d get 2 hours to get something done with little interruption. Most of the time I’d be right next to them working but as they got older I could go into my office and work. Basically I’d find every waking moment I can to work.
Some in the industry use the phrase “golden handcuffs” to refer to having to pass on or not seek further opportunities that involve more risk but may also progress your career further because of the responsibility of having a family. Do you feel like you’re in a “golden handcuffs” situation? What’s your opinion on this outlook?
I’m very aware of my situation and my limitations and I work with them. I don’t seek out freelance outside the state because I have little kids. I don’t take on jobs that are low pay for many days. If I can come home each night, it’s great, no matter how late the kids are happier when they know I am asleep in the house. A few days away are fine for my family. A week or longer, that gets tough on everyone. I only commit to things that are a benefit to my family, i.e. money or a film/show they can see. I’ve turned down high paying gigs that are on my daughters’ birthdays or ballet recitles because it doesn’t matter how much anyone pays me my kids need me then, they need me there to know that I support and love them.
What other challenges do you have with balancing a film career with children, if any?
A cute one is that Kami, my oldest, likes to be in my films. She’s had a cameo in almost all of them. On the last one, Ingenue, Kami had a big role and it really wore her out. She was used to being on set for a few hours, doing her little part and being done. This was 11 days and some days she was on set all day without her sister and she had a few melt downs due to being so tired. She says she still wants to act but we’ll take it one role at a time. She’s great to work with but it’s a lot of a kid to be on set when their mom is busy directing.
What was the hardest part about being a mom and shooting a feature film?
The feature + mom was tough. I scheduled it with being a mom in mind. I scheduled it for summer so no one would have to pick my kids up from school, or take Kami out of school because she had big part in the film. I scheduled for 4 days on 3 days off. This helped me and my family. I organized babysitters way ahead of time. I have a wonderful support system of people who love to take my kids to the park, or the zoo and keep them happy and entertained. The filming wasn’t as bad as the pre-production. Lots of meetings scattered throughout a year. Always working on Ingenue but the filming date so far out. they have a short attention span and had a hard time understanding why it was taking so long to start filming.
Do your kids understand if you’re not around or busy for periods at a time? What do you hope Kami and Samantha learn from seeing your work?
They understand that making movies is what I really want to do. “Daddy has a job, but Mommy makes movies” is how they sum it up. If they forget, I take their love-of-the-moment and explain. For example, Kami wanted to be a Zoo Keeper a few years ago and she didn’t want me to work the next day. I asked her to picture herself all grown up and working as a zoo keeper and washing the elephants and having a great time and then not being able to come into the work the next day. I asked her if she’d miss being able to be at the zoo and take care of the animals, she agreed it would be hard to be away from the elephants. I explained that that is a lot like my job. I like making movies and being on set and I want to go work but I always come home.
I really try to take on projects my daughters can see. They see all of my films but some freelance projects I haven’t let them see but I tell them about it. Having them at the premiere or a screening or even bringing home the DVD lets them have proof that mommy was working on something. I also like having them on set when someone is there to take care of them. They are both super quiet and understand “quiet on set.” There was a feature film I was a script supervisor on and they filmed a scene in my house and Kami was my assistant for a few hours. The director explained what was happening in the scene, I showed her what I was writing down and how important it was, she tried not to laugh at the actors in their comedic scene, but as soon as “cut” was yelled she burst out with “Great job! You guys are so funny!” The actors loved it as it was a true honest reaction.
Despite the challenges of parenthood, what are the positives to having kids? What makes it worthwhile?
I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for having kids. They have taught me to work harder. They have given me the inspiration to do my best. They show me that dreams are worth fighting for. They are there when I come home late and give me a hug and tell me they missed me. They watch my films and tell me I did a good job. They are my biggest fans and I am theirs.
The films I make are determined by the things I hope to teach and show my daughters when they are ready. I make films with strong female characters for them. I don’t believe there are enough female characters for them to draw inspiration from, so when I write I think of the message they will get out of it – at their age and when they are older.
It sounds like if you hadn’t had children, you probably wouldn’t be directing films at all.
Correct. I would have hid in the retail world with a love of movies, but never have picked up a camera and done something about it.
What is your advice to someone in the industry who is considering having children, but is worried about being able to have a career and a family?
Weigh your passions. Having children is not for everyone. Don’t have kids because you think you have to, have kids because you want to. There is no getting around it, having kids will change your life. For me it made my life better. If career is more important than family then go full-fledged into a career. If family is important and you won’t feel complete without one, have one. You can balance both. In fact, drawing inspiration from your children and giving back inspiration to your children is the way to go. They won’t always understand the day-to-day of your job but if they know it’s what you love to do, they will understand that and it will help them with their goals and passions. Have a circle of support around you at all times. Child-raising is hard and there are times you want to crack under the pressure. Have babysitters and friends with kids who understand, they will be there for you before you can even ask them.
I was glad to hear this side of the story from Kate. She’s making things happen for herself in a smaller video production market, and she’s showing her daughters what’s possible if you act on your dreams.
And she stays busy. Kate is currently in post-production on her first feature film Ingenue, tentatively scheduled for completion in spring 2013. She’s also producing a short called The Dream Job to be paired with that film. Kate is working on finishing her memoir I Blame Lucas, a chronology of 50 films that inspired her to pursue directing. You can follow her on Twitter or read her blog for more information.