THIS BRAVE FEMALE FILMMAKER IS THE ONE TO WATCH AND PSSST IS TEAMING UP WITH JLAW AND CATT

STEPHANIE SOECHTIG: FILMMAKER

Multiple documentaries under her belt, a passion for journalism and righting the wrongs, my friend, filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig rarely opens up about her personal or professional life. In our raw exchange, we learn from a woman who was born “different” why embracing our perceived shortcomings can fuel us towards our greatest achievements.

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Catt:
Let's talk about your upbringing, okay, Steph? A little bit.  
I know that your dad’s from Germany and your mom’s from Switzerland but you were raised on the East Coast.

Stephanie:
Yes, I was raised in Brookfield, Connecticut which is ten minutes from Newtown where the Sandy Hook massacre occurred.  Way to bring it down, huh?

C:
Oh, man. (Stephanie’s documentary with Katie Couric Under the Gun explored the aftermath of Sandy Hook, gun violence, and the gun control debate in America.)  When you think about your upbringing do you reflect positively on your childhood?

S:
In terms of my parental upbringing, I reflect very positively. My parents owned a restaurant, so I had two working parents which meant that there was a lot of time by myself, too. It also meant that we took a backseat to the business and interestingly in terms of what we're doing, I remember my mom always saying "I feel guilty when I'm at the restaurant that I'm not with you kids... and when I'm with you kids, I feel guilty that I'm not at the restaurant." I had very modern parents in that my mom ran this company and my dad was the chef in the kitchen. I have a sister and we were never made to feel that there was anything holding us back just because we were women. My mom paid all the bills and my dad was cooking and grocery shopping.

C:
So they kind of flipped gender roles in your household. Now, see, to me you are so independent and strong and fiercely dedicated to your career.  I was going to ask if you got some of that from your mom, but it sounds like you did.

S:
We were always told we could do anything we wanted to do. Because I was born with one arm, my dad once said that people would underestimate me and that I needed to be a little bit smarter and a little bit funnier and a little bit quicker than anybody else just for them to think that the playing field was level. Honestly, I think in some ways that fucked me up for a little bit because I felt like I was never good enough, but I think it also gave me that gift of drive. I was like, well I'm gonna be better than anybody then!

(Stephanie was born without her left arm.)

C:
Did he say that a lot? Repeatedly?

S:
Once. He said that statement one time.  I don't want to portray him as bad because he had good intentions. I was a bad student and he was trying to say "You can't rest on your good looks Little Lady."

C:
How old were you when he said that?

S:
My recollection is twelve-ish. But in addition to that, they also supplemented with tons of "You can do anything you want," and "There's nothing you can't do." Also with my arm, there was a lot of "There's NOTHING you can't do" so that was constantly ingrained in my upbringing.  “You want to play the piano? Of course, you can play the piano!" to that extreme. But then, similarly at NYU, I wanted to switch majors and go into film and Dad was like "Great, do it." So many of my friend's parents were like, "No, you have to be a lawyer or a doctor or something." I remember anytime we would watch the Oscars or the Globes my mom would be like, "I can't wait to see you up there one day." There was just so much encouragement, too.

C:
So around age twelve your dad said: "You have one arm, you are different than most. This is how you need to compensate for that within your lifetime." You had a prosthetic at what age?

S:
At three months old I had my first one.

C:
Until then, how were you resolving being different than your peers?

S:
I didn't realize I was different until fourth grade.  In fourth grade, I remember the exact outfit I was wearing and everything. I looked down and I wore a hook back then because that was the most advanced prosthetic you could get. It's still the most practical, sadly. But I looked down and I saw it and I thought "Oh my god this is so ugly, why isn't anybody saying anything? Why are they letting me walk around like this with short sleeves on? Why wouldn't somebody tell me that I look this different than everybody else?"

C:
So it wasn't really anybody else pointing it out to you, it was a self-reflection?

S:
Yes, so I went to the bathroom and I locked myself in the stall and I sobbed. From that day on I remember I always wore long sleeve shirts and I pulled my sleeve over my hook so that I could suddenly hide. I hid probably until 8th grade. That's when I got my first prosthesis that looked like a hand and it felt so liberating because it wouldn't be the first thing somebody saw when they looked at me. I would go trick-or-treating dressed as Darth Vader, and I would knock on a door and someone would be like "What are you? A Darth Vader and a pirate?" because I had the hook!  I remember it being so shattering and disorienting because I really didn't think I was different than anybody else because my parents really ingrained in me that I was just like everybody else.

C:
Did the functionality bother you though? Like when you were a little girl like "I can't curl my hair a certain way," I know you've got it down now because I've seen you at work and I've seen you with a phone and I remember just being astonished that the idiots like myself are just kind of clueless because it's not what we know.

S:
I still wouldn't know how to do anything with two hands. I notice it more now having a baby.  But no, I never felt physically like I was having a hard time. I would have liked to play the guitar maybe but who knows.  I danced, I did everything, my mom signed me up for piano lessons.

C:
Can you play the piano?

S:
No, not at all. I quit.

C:
To this day now operating the way that you are, how many times a day would you say you think about the fact that you have one working arm and hand? Does it even come up at all?

S:
Totally. 1000%. Because my prosthesis looks so real, so many people don't notice - so I lead this double life. I feel like no one at my son's school knows that I wear a prosthetic hand yet I stopped wearing my prosthesis somewhat in public recently and now I have to be constantly calculated and think "Okay, we're going here, will anyone from school be there?" Because if they see me they're going to be like, "What the fuck just happened to you?" because they'll think I had an accident.  I think about it a lot. You know? Not like woe is me, but more strategy.

C:
Have you ever considered just fucking it off?

S:
There's this conundrum though of the people that know me this way and... I don't know why I care.

C:
So it's a little bit more about how you're perceived and less about what you need to operate.

S:
Totally.

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C:
Did you have a professional dream as a young woman before you got to college? Did you say, I want to grow up and be...

S:
...Barbara Walters. I tried doing on-camera work and I was terrible. I was so bad, none of my personality would come through.  All my teachers at NYU were like "hmmm maybe you don't want to do this."

C:
What did you love about Barbara Walters and being a news anchor? What about that did you find fascinating?

S:
When I was a sophomore in high school I took a debate class and I had to write a persuasive essay on factory farming.  When I read about what was happening I was like "If people knew about this, they would never eat meat again. I wanted to be a journalist, these are the stories I want to tell.  So it's ironic that Fed Up was my first break out film. 

C:
And you were certainly telling stories, just not as the face.

S:
Correct, yeah. I don't know why, I just thought that's where the power lied, was being on camera. Little did I know you're all puppets! Just kidding!

C:
It's the truth! Are you kidding me? Why do you think I'm coming to the other side now? I mean it's nice to have a little bit of both but you're easily a disposable puppet when you're an on-camera person if not engineered the right way.

S:
No, you're not. It is a talent. To think on your feet like that, to just be authentic, I think I thought it was easier than what it was. It is not easy.

C:
That might be true.  There is an art to it.  You are so inspiring and I'm glad you chose to speak to me. You are such a badass.

S:
So let's clear that up. You know more than anyone that I suffer from horrible anxiety and crippling panic attacks so when I hear people call me badass or brave I'm like "I'm not brave, I'm afraid to leave the house.”

C:
Can you not be both?

S:
Huh.

C:
Why do you have to eliminate that? Own your anxiety, own that you like to stay home and you don't like to go out, AND that you are brave.

S:
Okay. I'll be both. I think it's important to put it out there because I feel like for everybody else that suffers from it who thinks that something is wrong with them, it's important to see that you can do both. You do have to go out and still function.

C:
Then how do you ramp yourself up for a big job interview or a big project or doing a deal with the Weinsteins? How do you get there if on the inside your voice track is so fear-based?

S:

A lot of therapy. Meditation. If I have to do something big like go to Sundance, I'll put myself in serious therapy, hypnosis, acupuncture and I'll try to exercise to like really train mentally to have the stamina.

C:
A lot of therapy is getting to the "why's" of it. Have you resolved why?

S:
I feel like I've resolved it twenty times and yet the anxiety persists so I don't know what that is. And honestly now I think I may have a little PTSD from making Under the Gun and spending two years immersed in stories of people losing their children. You're so focused on the victims that you never really step back to think as the storyteller what that does to you. It was one of my mentors and donors that brought it up to me. Everytime I say goodbye to my kids, I'm like "Will this be the last time I see you?"

C:
Jesus, that’s heavy. And understandable.  Under the Gun brought some emotional turbulence for you personally but also professionally.  You and your partner Katie Couric were cleared in the 12 million-dollar defamation lawsuit for the controversial and questionable edit in this film. What did the hardship associated with that experience teach you?

S:
You know, that was a really scary and dark time for me on so many levels. For starters, the day before I had to face a full day of media interviews about the situation I learned that my nine-week-old fetus had a fatal development issue and she wouldn’t make it... so whilst being hammered with hate mail and social media harassment I was dealing with the loss of this baby girl...it was a lot to deal with at once. I think I learned a lot from the experience but one major take away for me was to trust my gut and do what I thought was the right thing. I was getting a lot of advice and pressure from a lot of people and it was when I stopped listening and did what I thought was right - for me, yes but also for all the survivors I was representing - that things took a turn for me. (I have to add that I also had a distributor - Epix - that ALLOWED me to trust my gut and they supported my decisions throughout.)

C:
Before docs, you started your career in television.

S:
I started at 20/20 working with Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. I interned there, got a job six months after I graduated doing long-form programming. Then from there, I went to Bill O'Reilly, then to VH1, then moved out to LA and worked at Tyra, then E, and finally started Atlas Films.  

C:
Back to 20/20, was Barbara Walters everything you had hoped she would be?

S:
No, she was cold. She was cold AND she wouldn't look at you in the elevator.  But other people were really nice like Diane Sawyer. She was so lovely. Sam Donaldson was so lovely.  

C:
When you did get to E, how was that?

S:
I hated E because it was the time that we were reporting on those girls without underwear, remember that whole Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan underwear debacle? I really was miserable, but then I had this shift in mindset where I said: "You can hate what you do every day or you can make the most of it and see what you can learn from it." It's really a choice and a mindset. I shifted my attitude and once I did it made a big difference in the day to day of it. I was like "I can begrudge this or I can see it as a really great opportunity on how to manage and how to oversee projects and all of that."

C:
It's often you learn what you don't want to do through many experiences. You just do the job. It's not always going to be your dream job in the early days. You are often learning what you don't want to do.

S:
There's always something you can learn even from the worst of jobs and that mindset I think is really helpful.

C:
Yes. More importantly, about the day we met in 2006.  I think it was February. You were the boss bitch. I was the TV host. Did you like me? Be honest.

S:
I was scared of you. You were talent and the talent is always so glamorous. I loved you. Instantly! I remember thinking you were so nice.

C:
Well, I’m not a bitch. I do have that going for me.

S:
Especially for talent. You were so down to earth and I think you weren't wearing makeup when I first met you I was like, "Wow she's so nice."

C:
You were there as supervising producer at The Daily 10 for how long?

S:
Two or three years. I launched it, remember?

C:
 Yes! You left E and that's when you birthed Atlas Films. Why did you want to depart television and enter into this whole new world?

S:
I would say 70% of the people that I know who work in news want to do documentaries and I was definitely one of them. I still think I'm a journalist at heart more than I am a filmmaker. I love the research, I love becoming an expert on something.  This opportunity presented itself to me. My business partner sold his company for a boat ton of money and he said "I really want to do something that's on the plastic pollution that's in the ocean. Do you want to make a documentary?" and I said, “Sure!”  And he said, "Well, why just make a documentary? Why don't we start a company?" and I was like, “Okay.” He just had the utmost faith that I could do it. I remember sitting with him at dinner and I was so scared that he was putting so much money into me. I was like "Why are you trusting me?" He was like "You got this. You got this." And he totally believed in me. I didn't believe in myself, but he did.

C:
That's very very cool. Sitting here today you now have made Tapped, Fed Up, Under the Gun, and The Devil We Know. You also produced Last Animals. As you are well aware, female directors are very much the minority in this town. Does that bug you?  Does it fuel you? Are you aware of it?

S:
You know, I am not really aware of it. Especially in documentaries.  Any of the names of directors that I admire are all women. I think I am blissfully naive because I was raised to know that it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman, you just do the job.  I never thought of it that way. Reflecting now at this point in time, I look back and see things that I never saw before. I mean, I have many sexual harassment stories. Big ones.

C:
“Stories” in that you experienced something and never reported it?

S:
No, I didn't report it.
And, also what Cheryl Sandberg refers to as this "Imposter Complex." So I always feel like I don't know what I'm doing. Every time I get a new project I'm like "I can't believe I've tricked them again. I don't know what I'm doing." And then I'm reading Lean In and she refers to this as the Imposter Complex that women have because of just the cultural norm of things and it was a real awakening to me to know that this is a real thing. It's not just me.  I'm a woman director and I haven't had trouble getting work thus far knock on wood.

C:
So although you've had Me Too moments throughout your career, you don't really see obstacles associated with being a woman that are keeping you from doing the work you want to do?

S:
Not from keeping me from doing the work that I want to do, however, I do feel like coming up in the business, you had to have a certain degree of likability to get promoted. And I don't mean in a sexual way, but you did. There were the guys that were flirty and if you were to say they were inappropriate, you certainly wouldn't keep getting ahead.  I'm not saying that I slept with people to get ahead, but I felt that I had to play that role. That I had to be cute and likable and sometimes reciprocate the flirtatiousness or at least not turn it down. And I did not know that was wrong. I didn't know it at the time, I just thought it was because I was so young. Now that I'm an old broad I wish they would flirt with me!

C:
Did you meet Harvey Weinstein and what was your impression of him?

S:
I did!  Two things. First of all, let me say that Harvey bought Fed Up and my business partner negotiated the deal. We were on the phone with him negotiating the deal and I had just had Luca so I was pumping [breast milk] on the phone with Harvey Weinstein hammering out the exact amount they were going to spend on this movie and I remember looking around and being like "This is such a surreal moment." First of all look at how unglamorous this is I'm like pumping and we are sitting here. How cool is this?

C:
How much meditation and acupuncture did you have to do before that call?

S:
It's weird. When the shit hits the fan, [the panic] goes away. It's for little things. Like this morning when you guys were coming over I was like, "Oh I don't feel so good," but then I was like that's panic. You feel fine.

C:
But if Harvey, on the other hand, is on the phone, you're like "Let's do this."

S:
Yeah, I don't know why. Isn't that weird? The real big shit is okay. It's the little things, like going out to dinner with someone.

C:
Okay so your impression of him on the phone was just business, but he came to the premiere and...

S:
And he was just a big fat executive. Nothing skeevy or creepy at all. He really pursued buying Fed Up so there was a flattering component to that and the fact that he showed up to our premiere. We felt so honored that he was there. I never got the creeps from him. Harvey bought my movie, I worked for Bill O'Reilly, and Morgan Spurlock was initially attached to The Devil We Know. So wherever I go, the sexual harassers follow.

C:
Or maybe they're just so rampant that you can't escape them these days.

S:
More likely the case.

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C:
We have partnered up and by the time this conversation hits the internet, we will have sold Her Story. You have obviously dipped into a lot of social issues throughout your docu career. What most excites you about this project?

S:
I am most excited because I think we can create a real cultural shift in how we view these issues. The headlines are not doing justice to the real issues. Many people said Fed Up changed the way they ate, and I think Her Story can change the way people look at workplace inequality and gender equality at the home. When you look at the sexual harassment that's taking place I think it's important to go deeper and say "What environment were you raised in? What kind of world have we created where so many men think that this is okay?"  And looking at how other countries do better, and the whole feminist movement we wanted it all and really we just got two jobs, right? Two full-time jobs. And that's not how it was supposed to end up. I'm excited to look back historically and see how we got here and where we maybe took a wrong turn and how we can correct things. I think it can really create a cultural shift in things and I'd be psyched to be a part of that with you.

C:
I feel like there's no one this doesn't touch.

S:
Agreed.

C:
Even if they don't know that they want to watch this, I feel like it will serve them.

S:
And I think that there are so many aha moments in it. This whole idea that children do better on their tests and are better students when their dads take them to doctors appointments or show up at school. Little tidbits like that where you're like "Oh, this isn't just about me getting flex time at my job but it's about men getting flex time, too, so they can do half the child-rearing.” And this struggle we have as working moms, how do we ever really shift culturally? And how do other cultures do it better?

C:
We're going to stamp our passports. I can't wait. If there was one get or one interview or one person we could land for the docuseries that would make you ultra happy, who would it be?

S:
Hilary. But interestingly, I'd be really psyched about Monica, too. We probably couldn't get them both! It would be a little weird. We'd put them in the same room.

C:
Never say never! You take Hilary, I'll take Monica. I feel like you'd be really good at a Hilary interview. I'd be so scared.

S:
She's so warm, did you know that? I met her once and she's motherly. Doesn't come across on TV.

C:
Can we get Michelle Obama too?

S:
The queen? Yeah.

C:
Speaking of the balance and the juggle and the dance as a working mom, you have created all of this while doing the pumping and breastfeeding all the while.  

What’s your philosophy on being a working mother? A lot of moms feel guilty, how do you settle that within yourself?

S:
I haven't yet. I still really struggle with it all the time. In that, you're not doing either job well. I appreciate that it's a real luxury to own your own business which means I answer to me, and being able to afford help is huge.  I'm not Sheryl Sandberg - I don't have that kind of money. But even on my humble salary, I can afford the kind of help that I need. I also have a partner who really contributes, who drives our son to school, who can run home if I need help with something, who comes to Sundance with me - so I have it better than most people do. I couldn't imagine going to a 9-5 job and having kids. It feels so unnatural to leave your babies for so long.  Even if I'm working and editing, I'm still able to pop in and out. So as far as they're concerned, I'm mostly here.

C:
That's so beautiful.

S:
It is and in a sense, you're never fully present either so there's that guilt. But I'm lucky and I have it better than most.

C:
We're gonna explore that in our show also. The work life balance. So many women can relate.

 

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If you could trade lives with one person for a day, who would it be and why?
Amal Clooney. Need I say why? She's everything. She's gorgeous, she's brilliant.

What is success?
If I'm being perfectly honest, my first idea of success is tons of money, right? But it would be tons of money with healthy children and a supportive partner, too. The idea of not having to worry about money feels very successful.

Most used curse word?
Fuck

Who is the last celebrity who texted you?
You

Last thing you ate?
I just had a turkey, cheese alfalfa sprout sandwich on whole grain bread.
C: So you're a vegetarian still?
S: Well I just had turkey. You're real smart, aren't ya?
(Catt dies laughing. Clearly not listening.)

Bed time?
10

Last gift you received?
I didn't get anything for Mother's day, you can print that.
C: Nothing? Not even acts of kindness?
S: I got a nice picture drawing from my son Luca. Does that count?

 If you could switch bodies with anyone for a day, who would it be?
Alessandra Ambrosio. She was in a pilates class I took once. I was like "I'm never coming back."
 

 

LAST QUESTION ADDED: WHERE DO WE INSERT THIS? 

C:
If there are young women today who are entering the film and documentary business, what advice would you give to them?

S:
Work your ass off and do everything. I feel like these kids today are so entitled. I was the first one in and the last one out. I would offer you coffee, I would run and pick up your lunch, I was catering to everybody. As a result I got to do all of the fun stuff because they noticed that I ran my tits off.  I feel like people don't do that today.

C:
They definitely don't say they run their tits off either I'm pretty sure. This is why I love you.

S:
I'm gonna coin the term.  But I really did, I hustled. I feel like it gets you noticed. When you're willing to do the worst job people will invite you to do the best job.

Catt Sadler