I Will Always Love You: Amy Dotson’s BAMcinemafest Speech
Amy Dotson, who recently departed her position as Deputy Director and Head of Programming at IFP, Filmmaker‘s publisher, is headed this fall to Portland, where she will step into the role of Director of the Northwest Film Center and Film and New Media Curator at the Portland Art Museum. Today she gave a speech at the day of industry talks at BAMcinemafest and kindly offered the text to Filmmaker to publish below.
Lotta change in the air, ya’ll.
So much has happened of late.
As some of you may know, I’m on the precipice of new adventures.
That said, I’m particularly excited to be talking with you today but….
If I’m being honest, it’s taken reading a lot of Dolly Parton quotes this spring to get me to this stage today.
“If you don’t like the road you’re walkin’, start paving another one.”
“You’ll never do a whole lot unless you are brave enough to try.”
“I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact I can do something else.”
“I just don’t feel like I have to explain myself.”
“Never leave a rhinestone unturned!”
“Take no bull from nobody!”
“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
In light of that last one, I recently ran into a wise friend who has been in this crazy business for 40 years — yes, since back when Earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the land.
He is happily married, grandchildren on his knee, having just retired after having touched the lives of hundreds of international filmmakers, producers, artists and executives with his kindness, curiosity, and can do spirit.
He is a force of nature, one of the good ones.
When I saw him, I was at the aforementioned crossroads above in a big way, more than a little lost, and trying to figure out where I fit in this crazy business and even crazier world.
I asked him what his secret to happiness was all these years, and his advice was both simple and surprising:
“Every 10 years, blow up your life. New job, new town, new adventure. Maybe dye your hair blonde again. Why not?”
Why not? 1,000 reasons I couldn’t, shouldn’t, would just never do it.
I’d dreamed and worked and saved and sacrificed my whole adult life to be here. To be in New York.
To be doing what I was doing.
We had built our life here.
There was no “other” plan. No after. No somewhere else.
God knows I wasn’t moving to LA.
I’d been doing the work and raising a family and helping out in our community wherever I could. This was it. I never even considered something else. This was what I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to be. Right?
“You’re right about the hair,” I told him, “I’ll think about the rest.”
WWDD? (What would Dolly Do?)
My hair was in a muddy brown, deep depressive funk. I looked like I was back in eighth grade, minus the clear braces and six weeks of mono. I looked like death warmed over, and there wasn’t enough magenta lipstick in the world to hide how I was feeling inside. Oooooh boy, I was reverting back to my eighth-grade self. Not a good look…
And so, I dyed my hair and looked better and felt better and thought that was that.
But his phrase kept worming into my brain at inopportune times.
It stuck with me during long-winded meetings surrounded by men, men and more men at work, distracted me during joyful bubble bath time for my kids, and beat like a drum against my skull on long runs through the neighborhood.
Especially when I realized that my identity for so long — both in life and in my career — has been nudging folks to take risks.
To tell their story loud and proud without distraction or noise.
To remind them that they are wonderful and talented and enough, but that that’s not enough to make the world care. Do the work.
To support them in this work and help find others who can help them make their projects, their journeys — and lives — a little better.
It dawned on me that I was talking but not listening. I needed to take my own advice.
After 43 years on this earth, I had to ask myself the hard stuff. I had to face the stuff bubbling just under the surface. I had to figure out who I was, what I wanted, and how I could be me again.
And I went all in, shocking even those closest to me, cannonballing into the deep end of the pool and into the unexpected choice. In a few short weeks, after 22 years of doing what I love in the city that I love — the city that gave me two beautiful children, amazing creative joy and growth, access to more interesting people and stories than I ever dreamed to take in — I’m heading out on the road, driving 2,600 miles cross country with my family, to parts unknown.
I’m going to blow up my life. New job, new town, new adventure. All at once.
I was snuggling with my six-year-old daughter, Zoe, this week, nervous about this talk I was giving today.
I told her how there would be friends, colleagues, artists, producers and film lovers coming to hear her mom pontificate about perseverance on a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn real soon, and that I wasn’t sure what to say.
Or how to make it memorable, meaningful or at least mildly entertaining.
I mean, everyone in the audience had their own stories — the hills they climbed, projects they finished and lingered on still, careers they’re navigating every single damn day. Their own unique histories and lives still to lead that they were forging forth with single-minded steadfastness that was just as interesting, strange and alive as my own journey.
“Zoe, what would you tell people?”
“Perseverance power is when you never, ever give up. No matter how hard it seems. No matter who tells you you’re not good enough. No matter what.” She paused. “Well, unless you’re near an active volcano, then you just run as fast as you can to get back to a safe place! Maybe you just talk about volcanoes, mom, that’s probably more interesting.”
So at her suggestion, my pro-forma chat about career and sustainability is now out the window.
I’m gonna start off by talkin’ to you all about volcanoes.
No, not the Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche 1997 film where LA was under siege. That cinematic gem has an exclamation point at the end. Or the manhole cover that exploded from on 23rd street last year — that’s just man-made steam.
I’m talking the real deal — mountains formed 250 million years ago that have outlasted almost everything around them. Formed by the accumulation of eruptions and fissures and unexpected rumblings in the Earth below. They’re literally everywhere — even under the Great Smokey Mountains that Dollywood calls home! — and they are earth’s ever-present game changer, script-flipper, reset button just lurking around the corner.
If you dig deeper, they are probably one of the most interesting things on Earth… and Mars and moons on Jupiter. They allow magma to float up. Up! They break the surface and let magma loose.
Magma only rises to the surface if there is buoyancy — a semi-magic scientific quality that helps keep something afloat. It is very hot and means business and only breaks free when volatile elements reach it and push it forward. Only then does the magma expand, erupt and form something new.
Volcanoes are artists of destruction and creation. They devastate and rejuvenate. They are always active, even if just below the surface until the time is right to transform. They are potentially dangerous but mostly benevolent. They are spectacularly strange, unique, and when they blow, they create formations that the world has never seen.
They are warriors.
They are badasses.
And when the time is right, they leave their mark.
And after the devastation, habitats around it have been reshaped. Scientists note that once things quiet down, volcanic soil fertilizes everything around it time and time again. The ecosystem is rebuilt and an even greater and more expansive variety of life surrounds it.
They are everything I want to be.
So Zoe, your sage advice was awesome. It made me feel better, it made me laugh, and it reminded me of who I am as your mom and as a woman navigating our world, this business.
And even though it would be the safe choice to stay here in New York and keep away from the volcanoes, metaphorical and real, I’m not running away from them.
I’m running right towards them.
Yep, I’m about to be surrounded by five of them. Our family is moving to the Ring of Fire — yes, that’s what it’s really called! — to Portland, Oregon, right into the belly of the beast where I can see them, climb them, lay on a blanket and eat cheese on them. We’ll explore them, invite others to join us, and build a new life under their gaze. They’ll be there as a constant reminder that we don’t run from our fears, we run towards them.
No matter how hard it seems.
No matter who tells you you’re not good enough.
No matter what.
When I asked my 9-year-old son Aden what I should talk about today, he said, “Mom, just to be yourself and tell a couple of good stories. And maybe don’t talk too much about boring, adult stuff like taxes or politics or wine.” So I’ll try to do him proud, too….
When I was first starting out in this business, my first full time job was at Miramax Films under the rather large and imposing shadows of Harvey and Bob Weinstein. I thought I’d landed my dream position, working there during the launch of Talk Books & Magazine, working in proximity as Tarantino wrote a 370+ page draft of Kill Bill, watching the first season of Project Runway come to life (Make It Work!), and getting work alongside as business affairs papered rapper Sisqo’s three-picture deal. What can I say, I guess Harvey must have liked the Thong Song.
It was a time where everything was supposedly changing in the independent film scene, especially with Disney’s recent stake in Miramax. The sky was falling, I mean, there were flip phones and Blu-rays disrupting the industry and Meg Ryan was making a comeback by God!
Prior, I’d been cobbling together jobs and freelancing to pay the rent. I worked as a butterfly wrangler at the Natural History Museum, a stylist for a Fox News Anchor that had me roaming Lohmann’s at 11:00PM at night for pastel power suits, an assistant to a producer who liked to give dictation while lounging about in half-open towels. I also did part-time work at Curious Pictures and New Line Cinema, where young powerhouse executive Kisha Cameron — who is in the audience today — first taught me to send a fax and work that copier.
By taking the Miramax job, I’d recently reduced my living situation from seven roommates and a hotplate to renting a 300 sq foot rat-infested shithole with a half-sink, half tub (yes!) and a mini-fridge all my own.
Yeah, you know, I was living and loving in New York.
On paper and at Thanksgiving dinner with the family, it did seem like I was moving on up. Or at least moving forward. But as the world now knows, working at Miramax was a hellscape. But together with my friends — many of whom are in the audience today — we sustained ourselves with laughter. Support. Friendship that has now lasted 19 years because we somehow understood at a very young age that we could only persevere and shine when we supported and cheered for one another, even as each of us struggled with our own personal shit.
It wasn’t about the glamourous bits, the soundbites to relatives. It was that I’d met people who had my back and have my back still, and not just when it comes to doing the work. When there’s a triumph, a defeat, a birth, a death, illness or recovery, something to celebrate or an intervention to remind each other when we can’t see past our own BS, that same crew is never far away.
And one by one, we extricated ourselves from our jobs as assistants to the supposed powerbrokers of the indie scene. That crazy late ’90s early ‘OOs hierarchy that lorded over us and over New York’s film scene.
We quit, even after being told with spit dangling from boss’ lips we’d “never work in this town again” and that “there were 10 people in line begging for our jobs.” Even after the sexual advances, the abuse, and cups of black bean soup being lunged at our heads.
We got the hell outta Dodge and blew up our lives.
Sure, we spent nights angsting over what would become of us, where we’d all end up, where rent would come from while we figured out our next move. I remember those nights so well sitting on the floor at someone’s apartment, drinking too much wine (sorry Aden!), subsisting off $4 hamburgers, $1 pizza, thick slices of bodega salami and doughnuts (yes, together), trying to help each other figure out what came next.
Colleagues from that time now run major studios, are top execs and talented producers, top travel agents to the stars. Some perform Shakespeare in Vegas, make documentaries in San Fran, set up parties and events that set the world on fire. They’ve made careers — and lives — for themselves that matter.
They are warriors.
They are badasses.
And when the time is right, they’re leaving their marks.
Post Miramax, I headed to Washington, DC where I worked for a relatively new documentary film festival called Silverdocs. It was there I met Rose Vincelli Gustine, who in a circle of life moment, is the producer of today’s talks here at BAM and was one of the folks kind enough to invite me to do this. I knew I liked her as soon as I met her because that woman took no shit from anyone. Still doesn’t. I love her. Also a badass.
It was there I also met Michelle Byrd, who just spoke in the last panel and was the long time executive director of IFP. She was kind enough to buy me fish and chips at the Silver Springs Mall and talk to me about what I wanted to do with my life. I admitted that I didn’t know what was going to come next, but idealistically, I wanted to help people tell their stories and give everyone a chance to see great films. She probably did that kind of thing all the time, but for this 30-year-old woman still figuring it out, she ended up changing my life.
Her advice was to check in occasionally with Milton Tabbot, her senior programmer, to see if IFP needed any help. Speaking of perseverance power, that man had to put up with me calling his office for six months asking him to hire me. I either finally charmed him — or more than likely wore him down — and he did.
I sat less than five feet away from him for 13 years, charming and wearing him down in equal measure even still to this day. We did so much together at IFP — laughing, arguing, coming up with new ideas together and fundamentally disagreeing on many things, hiring countless talented people, nurturing storytellers from around the globe and spending late nights on the phone when times were tough. He gave me a chance and granted me this beautiful life in this complicated business, allowing me to meet and work with so many of you.
And I am so grateful that all I could think to do to show him how much he meant to me as I left last week was buy him a six foot cut-out of Jon Hamm.
It was somehow perfect and not nearly enough. It was both a literally gorgeous gesture and a giant representation of the end of a fantastic, impossible era.
The places and spaces at IFP and beyond that Michelle, Milton — and many of my colleagues inhabit — have been reshaped over time. Yet, they continue to enrich everything around them time and time again with their passion, smarts and kindness. Whether they realize it or not, they took the first steps in rebuilding today’s film ecosystem and primed all of us here today to encourage and nurture an even greater and more expansive variety of life.
They’re volcanoes alright. And powerful ones at that.
I feel like time is moving faster now. Everything is moving faster.
And some things have changed. Like everything. In my life and yours.
Change just keeps happening.
People I love keep disappearing and arriving anew.
The stories I see on screens big and small are at once familiar and groundbreaking.
My children are transforming daily, right before my eyes.
The days are long, but the years go by so quickly.
The rules, the players, the landscape, and the world around us is shifting.
Magma is just below the surface and it’s going to be buoyant. It is going to rise up. I am a firm believer that we are on the precipice of evolving, but evolution doesn’t mean that we get rid of the old to make room for the new.
We honor what and who have come before us as we look to create the future ahead. We share our own stories, thoughts and journeys not in arrogance, but in hopes that whomever comes next has it a little easier, stands up for their friends and for what’s right, reaches back to help someone new succeed.
The bottom line is, we’re all gonna have to run towards our volcanoes and not away from them. To be brave, think differently and function in new ways to prepare for its eruption and to rebuild from it.
Some of us might even stand up and be the damn volcanoes, using our words, our creative endeavors, and our careers to erupt, disrupt, affect change.
It is everything I want to be.
Make no mistake, affecting change is hard, both within yourself and certainly with trusted friends and mentors out in the world. There are like 400 Pinterest boards with quotes in good fonts about it. I’ve perused more than a few.
Sustaining ourselves during uncertain times is no picnic either.
To sustain means to nourish. To assist. To simply continue and carry on.
Being there for our friends, our families, ourselves. For those who gave us a helping hand along the way and those that are looking to find a toehold now.
Finding the balance between our desires and our team’s wants and needs.
Figuring out how to make enough money, time, space to create and challenge ourselves and others to do more.
To make a life for ourselves the way we want to and to support others inclusively and open-mindedly along the way.
To invite new people to join us and not stay in the safe places doing things same same.
As I bring my talk to a close, I could sit up here and stay safe, tell you that this volcano thing is just a metaphor, gratitude is lovely and move on in my day.
But this is an opportunity to not hide, to put myself out there on last time, and speak my truth so that I — and you — can make efforts that are real and meaningful to improve our industry, how we value one another and how we support one another when times are tough.
Look, by no means is this is not a talk from on high; this is meant to be a conversation. And I wish I could tell you that I had even some of the answers or sound, sage advice, but I’ve never been a “one size fits all” kinda gal.
We all go our own way.
What I can say is that I searched the interweb and there is not a talk, not even haiku on a bumper sticker, nary a beer cozy bon mot to guide you cursorily — about volcanoes in the film industry. Whew.
But funny enough, if you think its hard to find parallels there, there is absolutely zilch, anywhere, when it comes to Perseverance.
Perseverance is heavy and complicated. It’s not fun or witty or a “we’re in this together” team builder that sustainability is. You can’t wrap it around a symbol like a volcano or weave it easily into conversation with strangers — or friends for that matter.
Because that shit is personal.
You gotta do the work and push through your way what’s thrown at you and evaluate who you are and what you want — good and bad — with grit, spunk, backbone, honesty and good old-fashioned guts.
Ask yourself not what your next career move it but rather, What does it take for you to keep your head up? To keep your heart in it? To give and give to others and save some love and encouragement for your self? To create something new? To have a life and a career and a creative vision that isn’t safe? And help others find their way to do the same.
If you haven’t done this of late, you might want to. It might be time to blow up your life too.
I just did it, and let me tell you, it was keynote worthy — it was a whole embarrassing, messy cycle of finding my way back to perseverance and to myself.
There was the “lay in bed prostrate and watch Killing Eve” phase, the “angry cry at inappropriate times” phase, the margarita phase, the “talk, talk, talkin’ it with anyone who’ll listen out” phase, the “pull it together and get damn perspective” phase, the “I got this” phase, followed by what felt like a heart attack, but was full-blown panic attack, that landed me in the ER — to get to the “see things clearly” phase.
Like I said, not sexy or cool.
But only then could I rise u, and remember my worth.
Only then could I find resolution and start to find a way forward, not just for myself but perhaps change the conversation — and opportunities — for those to come next.
To put myself out there with brutal honesty to make it okay for all of us — but especially women — to say with humility and integrity that it is hard to persevere. It is hard to reinvent yourself and try new things. It is hard to walk away from the safe, the steady and the known, to run right at your fear headlong and headstrong. To ask other for help, especially those who have come before you.
There’s a lot to lose, but so much to potentially gain.
Lotta change in the air, ya’ll.
So much has happened of late.
As now you all know, I’m on the precipice of new adventures. I think we’re all on the precipice of persevering. That’s why I’m particularly excited to be talking with you today.
I thank you all for the Dolly Parton and power-fist gifs, kind texts from friends new and old, and the hilarious talks and bittersweet goodbyes of late.
If we’re just meeting, I thank you for being here today and it’s damn nice to meet you. Ya’ll are all welcome visit me in Portland. It’s not New York but give it a chance. I’ve heard good things about volcanoes and cheese.
And to Gina Duncan, an incredible woman, innovator, curator and kindred spirit who I barely know, but reached out when I was down and lifted me up. Gave me courage. Gave me this gift of speaking with you all today even when I don’t begin to know what will happen next.
And for my family that’s sitting here supporting me — Zoe, Aden and especially my husband who flew in after being in four cities in four days and probably only vaguely knows where he is right now — you know you’re the best but sometimes it means more if I say it loud on a microphone in front of a fancy audience.
Positive affirmation and thank you’s — Yes, ya’ll are fancy and fabulous.
Now let’s end on a little more Dolly shall we?
“When you get past 40, you can’t ride the fence anymore. You gotta make definite decisions about your life. Be secure in who you are. And don’t kiss nobody’s butt.”
“I don’t like to give advice. I like to give people information and love, because everyone’s life is different and everyone’s journey is different. So find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”
And most of you sophisticated folks probably know this, but Dolly’s most famous song, “I Will Always Love You,” is not a love song. It’s actually about her stepping out on her own, parting ways professionally from all she’s ever known — from her mentor, friends, colleagues and her long-time home on the The Porter Wagner Show. Stepping out of the safe and familiar and out into the world on her own terms.
Appreciating what and who got her to this stage. Blowing up her life. Persevering.
I’m certainly no Dolly Parton but in many ways, I get where she’s coming from.
If I should stay, I would only be in your way.
So I’ll go, and yet I know, I’ll think of you every step of the way.
And I will always love you.
I hope life treats you kind
And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of
And I wish you JOY and happiness
But above all this, I wish you love!
And I will always, always love you