Meet Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Amber Sealey – “No Man of God”

Amber Sealey is an award-winning filmmaker. She is attached to direct “The Education of Shelby Knox” and a comedy pilot she wrote called “Sistered.” She has written scripts for Duplass Brothers/Donut Productions, and is excited to be partnering with them again on the TV series “Bastards.” She has been supported by Sundance, Film Independent, Women In Film, and is a fellow of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. She was selected for Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative, the NBCUniversal Directors Initiative, the WeForShe DirectHer program, Film Independent’s Directing Lab, and their Fast Track program.

“No Man of God” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words. 

AS: “No Man of God” is about the relationship between Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) and Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), the FBI agent who got Bundy to come clean about his crimes before his execution. But it raises deeper questions at its core:  How can one sit so close to evil and not be affected by it? How can you stay good while surrounded by bad? Does god exist, and if so, can one be absolved of their crimes? Why are we as a society so obsessed with serial killers? What does it feel like to be a woman sitting so close to these stories?

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AS: I was originally drawn in by the people that make up SpectreVision. I know they are real artists who deeply love film and love pushing creative boundaries, and those are the kinds of people I most enjoy working with. And then when I started to think about Bill Hagmaier and Ted Bundy’s relationship, I got very interested in the concept of what it must feel like to sit so close to evil.

At the time that I got the script Trump was president, and I had felt so utterly confused as to how anyone could possibly support that man and his politics. And I got interested in the concept of how liberals and conservatives can grow up in the same country, in the same towns, at the same schools, often in the same families, and still have such hugely different beliefs.

I also felt that Bundy hadn’t really been shown through a female, or even feminist, lens. I was curious, as a woman, why our society is so fascinated with serial killers. It’s not a fascination that I have, and I felt like that was a really interesting vantage point to start from. As a woman, as a feminist, and as a filmmaker it felt really important to me that I add this layer to the film of essentially asking the audience: Why are you so interested in this man that does horrible things to women?

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

AS: This question is always a hard one for me to answer about any of my films because I really don’t like to spoon-feed audiences. I trust them to come up with their own opinions and feelings about a film, and I love when they see new things, or connect new dots that even I didn’t see. My favorite thing about making a film is getting to talk to people afterwards and seeing what organically came up for them.

But I guess if there was one thing I’d like people to think about it’s essentially why do we, as a society, always remember the names of the killers and not the victims? Why do we lift these people up and make celebrities out of them? I’d hope we could all be reminded that where we put our attention in this world is important.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film? 

AS: This is a hard one! During filming we were not only dealing with the pandemic and all of the new safety protocols that it entailed, but there was also an earthquake our first week of filming, as well as the horrible fires last fall. The air was the worst quality I’d ever seen it in LA — people were taping their windows closed and being urged not to even go outside at all. Smoke was everywhere and the sky was purple and brown. It was very apocalyptic.

I guess I would have to say that COVID was for sure the biggest challenge. I was determined to keep everyone safe on set and I feel very blessed that we got through the whole production with no positive cases at all. Everyone’s health and safety was always the most important thing to all of us.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

AS: This film was funded by the production company, SpectreVision/Company X. This was one of those wonderful jobs where you come on and the money is already there and you don’t have to worry about finding it or going out to pitch it.

We did need to raise a little bit more money at the end to cover all the new PPE and testing costs that we hadn’t anticipated originally — since we started prep the first time before the pandemic began and then had to shut down and re-start — but we were lucky that there was already interest in this film and we didn’t need to start from scratch.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker? 

AS: Since I was a young child, I’ve always been connected to the performing arts. I began acting and dancing at age five, then all through childhood I was an actor and dancer, and I studied theater arts in college.

After college I started working in devised, or experimental, theater in London, and I started writing and directing. I was very inspired by the Dogme movement going on in Europe at the time and it just felt very natural to make my first low-budget movie.

From there I was addicted to the whole process — writing, filming, post-production, I loved all of it. I think I’ve always been drawn to the ways people connect and their personal stories. I love hearing about truth in one’s life, those inner dark corners we all have inside of us, and to me filmmaking is about the revelation and sharing of all those intimacies.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

AS: I wish I could remember! What stays with me is the feeling that people give off, the helping hands or the closed doors. I don’t ruminate much on what people say but more on how they behave and whether or not they are helpers or hinderers. I always try to be a helper.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

AS: I believe that this industry doesn’t have one path or way forward. What works for one person won’t work for another: You have to find your own way.

There really aren’t any permanent rules. Everyone has to forge their own path. There are so many unfair things in this world that make success easier for some and harder for others, so my only advice would be to find a happy life as best you can. Cultivate good friends, be kind, be true to yourself, make mistakes, and then get back up. It’s all subjective anyway, so who really cares what others think?

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AS: I couldn’t pick just one film or just one director. I love Andrea Arnold, Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsay, Sarah Polley, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Kelly Reichardt, Mary Harron, Eliza Hittman, Céline Sciamma, Ida Lupino. There are so many!

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

AS: I found this past year incredibly hard and in ways that I don’t even know if I can properly explain yet. When the pandemic started it was nearly impossible for me to stay creative. I felt like everyone around me was happy writing new screenplays and growing vegetables in their garden, but that just wasn’t my experience. I felt very disconnected from things and it was hard to find a way to move forward apart from simple things like making meals or watching TV. I was envious of my friends who were able to be so creative and still find goals to work towards. I felt goal-less and disconnected from my usual drive.

I think it’s only since recently becoming vaccinated that I’ve been able to start making plans and feeling connected to the outside world again, connected to others outside of my bubble. It’s likely that a lot of what I was going through was due to the fact that I have children and they were suddenly with me 24/7 with no breaks. I’m someone who really needs space and quiet to be creative and write, and without getting that it felt hard to connect to myself as an artist in the way that I normally do.

That said, I was able to shoot and edit “No Man of God,” so I’m really grateful that I had that project already lined up, or I likely would’ve never gotten out of my pajamas the entire year. Ha!

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive.

AS: I think it’s down to each and every one of us to be really conscious about representation at every stage of filmmaking. When hiring, casting, writing — all of those areas are moments when we can pause and ask ourselves if we are falling back on stereotypes or not, are we hiring outside of our social circle or not, are we listening to and raising up voices and stories that are different from our own or not?

There are so many ways we can improve and we are just at the beginning of learning how to make things more equitable in every way.

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