It took six years and over 300 funding sources, but Free A Man To Fight is in the can.
In 1993, working at Dino De Laurentis Productions, I was considering ideas for a documentary. At a lecture at the Burbank Aviation Museum, the speaker mentioned the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). My jaw dropped. I had never heard of them. As I researched, it became clear I had to expand my story to all women in World War II.
I needed a trailer, so I took a crew to Sweetwater, Texas, (not sure how I would pay for it) where the wasp were having their 50th anniversary reunion. We borrowed cameras and equipment, and I put everything else on my credit cards – film stock, travel, van rental and a local sound crew.
Once there, women began, literally, begging us to tell their stories. I was so overwhelmed and touched, I had to duck into a telephone booth, and I wept.
When we returned to L.A., Consolidated Film Industries developed the film for free, a friend did the telecine for free, and another the editing. Miraculously, we had our trailer.
I needed a partner adept at financing, so I turned to Roberta Shintani, the CFO at Dino DeLaurentis. An impassioned speech, and she was hooked.
Roberta put my trip to the National Archives on her credit cards. There I unearthed volumes of documents, some only recently unclassified – recruiting reports, morale reports, letters on how to `handle’ black women soldiers, photographs, letters home – and, in the Congressional Record, the heated debates and subsequent victories that had created the first women’s service branches.
We recruited scholars, and the ida became our fiscal sponsor. We wrote dozens of grant proposals, spoke to women business owners and every organization we could think of. All turned us down. So, we cooked dinners, gave lectures, cleaned houses and asked everyone to donate $5, $10, $100, whatever they could. People came through, donating cash, services and frequent flier miles.
In August of ’94, service branches were meeting in Boston, Milwaukee and Orlando. A week before, we won the Roy W. Dean Grant (on our second try) from Studio Film and Tape in L.A.: in-kind services for film, cameras, and processing. We paid for everything else with donations and credit cards, and went off to our three-week shoot.
When we returned, Roberta and I (again, with credit) hired an editor to create an 18-minute trailer for the Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) in New York in ’95, where we met our distributor, International Creative Exchange (ICE) from Valencia, California. They loved our project, but couldn’t give us an advance. Our bills were through the roof, and I had been taking whatever jobs I could find. We kept searching, but as first-time filmmakers with no track record, we ended up paying for a majority of the film ourselves.
Finally, in 1997, we persuaded General Wilma Vaught (after four weeks of phone calls) to show our trailer at the Women In Military Service For America (wimsa) dedication of the Women’s Memorial in Arlington. Charlie Mayday, VP of historical programming at the History Channel, saw our film and offered us a deal (exclusive cable in North America for four years, plus home video rights), and means to finish the post.
The stock footage research began in earnest. We found some terrific material – including footage the Office of War Information had created to lure women into service – and we created new masters for unseen material that had been buried in the National Archives. Our film was finally coming to life, at a grand total of US$120,000 in cash, plus in-kind services.
We wanted our audiences to fall in love with these women the way we had, and from responses so far, we accomplished that. The women vets no longer fear that their powerful stories will go unheard.
Mindy Pomper, Two Girls From Back East Productions, is the producer and director of Free A Man To Fight. Her partner, Susan Emmanule is a writer, living in L.A.