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Julie Speer Jackson, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker & director of ‘A Home in Paradise’ 

(Publication Date: 6.18.24)

n this episode of We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Julie Speer Jackson, Emmy Award-winning documentary director and producer.

 

Julie talks about how she went from studying biochemistry in French, while a college student in Brussels, Belgium, to theater and eventually a career in filmmaking. 

 

She and Adam talk about her innovative DocuReach approach to making films. It’s a model for social change that makes filmmaking a team sport, rather an ego-driven, command-and-control kind of endeavor.

 

They also talk about the evolution of technology throughout Julie’s career, from digibeta to the role of the Internet and YouTube, to her becoming an FAA-licensed drone pilot and her thoughts on the use of AI. Among other things.

SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

Along with being distributed on podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org

 

Julie Speer Jackson

Website: juliespeerproductions.com 

‘A Home in Paradise’: wearechaffee.org/documentary

 

We Are Chaffee

Website: wearechaffee.org

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffeepod 

Facebook: facebook.com/wearechaffee

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

CREDITS

Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom

TRANSCRIPT

Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.

Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:14): Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of community, humanness, and well-being rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. 

Today, I'm talking with Julie Speer Jackson, the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who directed and produced A Home in Paradise, a homegrown documentary that highlights the housing crisis and behavioral health challenges and the impacts of the socio-economic divide right here in Chaffee County. We recorded this conversation with a live audience at the SteamPlant Theater during the Salida Film Festival where A Home in Paradise premiered last month. 

Julie is an incredibly prolific creator, as you'll hear me gush about in the conversation. She's received dozens of awards for her work as a director and producer, and that includes a number of Emmy Awards, 21 plus Telly Awards, and others. She's also been referred to as the Ken Burns of Colorado. 

In this conversation, Julie shares how she went from studying biochemistry in French no less while a student in Brussels, Belgium to theater and eventually a career in filmmaking.

(01:20): We talk about her innovative approach to making documentaries. She calls it docu-reach, as in documentary and outreach. It's a model for social change that makes filmmaking a team sport, so to speak, rather than an ego-driven command and control kind of endeavor. 

We talk about the evolution of technologies throughout her career too, from DigiBeta to the role of the internet and YouTube and TikTok to her becoming an FAA-licensed drone pilot and her feelings on the use of AI, artificial intelligence.

(01:52): We also get into the essence of Julie as a filmmaker, what storytelling is all about for her, and the million-dollar question of how to rise above the noise in a world where we all hold the creative capabilities of a content studio in the palm of our hands. 

The Looking Upstream podcast is supported by Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. Show notes with links and a full transcript of this and all Looking Upstream conversations are available at wearechaffee.org. Okay, let's do this with Julie Speer Jackson.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (02:34): So I want to get into your initial interest about documentary filmmaking, and I'm going to do it this way. Do you recall the '90s sitcom Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt?

Julie Speer Jackson (02:44): Oh, yeah.

Adam Williams (02:45): Yeah? Okay. It was set in New York City and Paul Reiser's character was a documentary filmmaker. Now, I was a teenager in the Midwest, far from New York, far from such concepts, and I had no idea how anybody could ever become a documentary filmmaker. How would you make a life of this? How would you make a living? Who would pay you to do such amazing cool things? And you are that person who has made a life of doing that. 

So my question to you is how were you initially sparked into this idea, "Wow, I want to do this," and then how did you have the belief unlike me that that was possible for a career in life?

Julie Speer Jackson (03:23): That is such a great question. First of all, I remember that show, but I had no recollection that he was a documentary filmmaker. I just remember the rom-com, like the love between the two, because I love rom-coms. So that's crazy that you remember that. The way that I got into this is I really wanted to make movies, but you really can't make a low-budget movie, but you can make a really low-budget documentary and then it'll fly. 

So it started out that way that it was just easier to make a low-budget documentary. And I did ironically go see Ken Burns. I'm talking like 1999. I saw Ken Burns speaking in Denver, and he said, "Documentary is what is. It's better than fiction, how truth is stranger than fiction," and it's so true. And so he kind of placed that in me and working at PBS, I actually got to meet him and he's great. So anyway, we started off doing documentaries, because it was easier to do a low-budget doc.

Adam Williams (04:34): I'm curious how you got to filmmaking, because I know that in college, which you went to in Brussels, Belgium and you studied international affairs and economics, right?

Julie Speer Jackson (04:43): Yep.

Adam Williams (04:43): How do you transition from that into filmmaking?

Julie Speer Jackson (04:46): Yeah, I grew up with that mentality of starving artist. If you're an artist, you're never going to make any money. So I didn't even consider studying film. I didn't consider studying anything artistic. I was actually going to be a lawyer, and then I was going to be a doctor, and I actually studied pre-med the first semester in Brussels, Belgium in French, and I felt so stupid because in Belgium, they let everybody in the first year and then they make it so hard so that they kind of cut the riff-raff, right?

Adam Williams (05:24): Okay.

Julie Speer Jackson (05:24): Once you make it to year two, it's easier. So it's like biochemistry in French. It was awful.

Adam Williams (05:31): I would've felt stupid with it in English. Those are subjects that I can't tackle in English very well, so I think it's very impressive that you had the fluency in French to do any of it.

Julie Speer Jackson (05:43): No, I didn't. I didn't. It was pretty bad.

Adam Williams (05:46): Is that where you realized you didn't?

Julie Speer Jackson (05:48): Well, actually, I am fluent in French and I lived in Belgium for seven years, but speaking and communicating is very different than biochemistry, although it's Latin languages, so it's very similar even in English. Anyway, we could go down the rabbit hole of this, but anyway, back to what were we even talking about?

Adam Williams (06:08): We're talking about how you got started with filmmaking, what sparked that interest and then how you believed that that was a possible path for you?

Julie Speer Jackson (06:15): The jump, right. So I studied international affairs and economics. I wanted to be a doctor. Oh, thank you. Back on track, wanted to be a doctor. That first semester was so awful that I switched to, I was like, "I need to study in English." And there is a school part of the Flemish-speaking university called Vesalius College, and it was in English, and I was like, "Hallelujah. I can stay in Belgium and study in English." Brussels is like the capital of the EU. There's all these expats there, and it's an economic school. So of course, and I was pre-med that second semester, but it was boring, and whereas the economics classes were fascinating, and so I was like, "Okay, I'll study economics."

Adam Williams (07:00): That's another subject that goes over me, but okay, I'll trust you. It was fascinating.

Julie Speer Jackson (07:04): Economics is basically psychology of markets and why people buy and sell and how the market reacts to things. It's really cool. Anyway.

Adam Williams (07:16): Actually, the way you just explained it now it makes me think it is cool. If somebody would've done that for me in college, then I might've taken more to it.

Julie Speer Jackson (07:23): Yeah. Well, so I did that. But while I was there at this liberal arts school, learning all about international affairs and international business, I started a theater company. And so I wrote and directed several one-act plays, did a lot of improv shows, and so I feel like I got a minor in theater without actually having a piece of paper.

(07:44): And so I moved back to the US. I moved to San Francisco. I started the US branch of a Belgian market research firm, so again, international business, and I joined an acting troupe because I used to love being on the stage and acting. And anyway, that acting troupe, they are all like, "Let's go audition for this commercial." I auditioned for the commercial. I got the part, and I was like, "What is this magic with these cameras and things?" And the next job that I did for that director, I was in it, but I was also his assistant director. And then once I was behind a camera, I was totally hooked.

Adam Williams (08:25): I know you've met Ken Burns, and it seemed like you take positively to that comparison, but I wanted to ask how you feel about being the Ken Burns of Colorado versus him being the Julie Speer Jackson of wherever he is.

Julie Speer Jackson (08:37): Snap. I love that. Let's manifest that. That'd be great.

Adam Williams (08:43): I wonder if that has anything to do with how prolific you are. Like I mentioned beforehand, I'm just blown away by this. If anybody looks at your websites, they will see that you have made 1,000 plus films. And then I found out from you before we got started here, you actually stopped counting around 15 years ago. The math on that, just the thousand. I'm going to do some real quick math. That's 20 years of 50 films per year. That's like pulling off one a week for 20 straight years. And you've done way more than that. So as a creator myself in various forms, that just blows my mind.

Julie Speer Jackson (09:22): Wow, that's great math. Wow, that's crazy. One a week. Well, okay, so just to qualify, I'm counting. If somebody hires me to do a three-minute video, I'm counting that too. Not only the feature-length documentaries.

Adam Williams (09:40): It would be amazing if every one of those was three minutes and you still did it because people might think less of that now in this sense of how long it is because of things like Instagram and TikTok and something of this day, and everybody has a phone and everybody has a camera and they can put out videos, but they're not the produced versions of whatever you do. 

So three minutes from you to me is like poetry from somebody else where you're distilling down with quality in a way that's just not the same. So if you did 1,000 and we know plus 15 years and they were all three minutes, I am still on board for mind blown. It's just incredible to me. And I wonder how you look at being so prolific and what it is that drives that for you, if that's a word that you use for yourself or you take pride in or you've aimed for.

Julie Speer Jackson (10:27): Wow. No, I did not aim for that. I just love stories and I love meeting people, and it's a really cool medium if you think about it. I mean, so far, any story that I'm telling, people want to be involved with it, and it's always just me being curious. And like I wanted to go inside Cheyenne Mountain. I wanted to go see where WarGames was based on. So I was like, "Okay, I'll do a show on that just so I could go in there."

(10:59): And people are so generous and so open-hearted when you're coming with, well, it used to be $100,000 worth of equipment. I mean, now I can go with my phone and it's 8K, which I did start filming a documentary in New Orleans with our phones because it's amazing and you can, but people are very generous when you come with equipment and you want to do their story. 

Most of the time, they're really excited about it. And I will also say it's a team sport. Filmmaking is very collaborative. You have the camera person, you have writers, composers. I mean, it's all these different art forms coming together in a video story. So I haven't done it all by myself is what I mean.

Adam Williams (11:48): Sure. The fact that people say yes, I have said this before about podcasting, that when you ask people, they often will say yes. They understand there's a purpose. And I think that people want to share their stories. They just need somebody to ask who's willing to actually listen.

Julie Speer Jackson (12:03): Totally. And everybody has a story. Everybody has a story. Even if people don't think they have a story, they have a story.

Adam Williams (12:10): Yeah. You went into NORAD, we're talking about right for Cheyenne Mountain, is that right? So there wasn't red tape. They also-

Julie Speer Jackson (12:16): Oh, there's tons of red tape. Not as much red tape as the Olympics. That is so much red tape, like we just don't do that story. But this was being on staff with PBS for 10 years. PBS, there's a certain cache, right? So if it's like, "Hey, NORAD Marketing Department, we wanted..." I don't even remember how the heck, I have to go back. That was probably 10 years ago.

Adam Williams (12:41): I didn't know they'd have a marketing department.

Julie Speer Jackson (12:42): Well, I'm kind of making that up. I don't know. Who did we call? Who did we call? I don't even remember. But I ended up meeting five-star general. But my point is that when you call and I'm calling from Rocky Mountain PBS and I'm doing a show, Colorado Experience, we'd love to profile this subject. They're like, "Wow, that's great."

Adam Williams (13:03): Yeah, it opens doors when you show an interest, a sincere interest.

Julie Speer Jackson (13:08): Well, and if it's going to air on PBS, it's like-

Adam Williams (13:11): I'm sure that helps. 

Julie Speer Jackson (13:12): Yeah.

Adam Williams (13:14): How many films would you say you have in production at any given time at whatever phase they're in? Because again, with the threat of prolificity here, I'm trying just this math still, it boggles my mind and how you keep it all straight as you're going.

Julie Speer Jackson (13:28): Yeah. Well, it depends on if it's an original content project that we're developing on our own or if it's something people are paying us to do. So I've had upwards of 20, 25 projects in production because people are paying us to do it. And so they're all at different phases. And right now, I have seven projects that I am actively developing.

Adam Williams (13:53): I am speechless because those numbers are multiples of what I thought your answer might be. I thought you might say, "Oh, four or five." That's a lot. I don't know how you keep it all straight in your mind or on a schedule. Where am I supposed to be today?

Julie Speer Jackson (14:06): Yeah, but story-wise, you don't mix up Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. I mean, that story's that story and that story's that story. It's very easy to keep them separate. And I also am like, "Yeah, I can switch gears really quickly too." Like I can be editing something and then totally switch gears and meet about a different project because it's a different project and it's different people.

Adam Williams (14:29): You have a particular model for how you go about some of these things. And I'm going to reference A Home in Paradise, which is the homegrown Chaffee County-based documentary. They're premiered here. That was an example of you working with a creative committee in order to produce this thing. But that's a model that you apply I think a lot, right? That's kind of your go-to.

Julie Speer Jackson (14:51): That is my model.

Adam Williams (14:53): Well, you described that and why you do that, because one of my first thoughts is isn't that getting a lot of cooks in the kitchen? Doesn't that make it cumbersome for you to keep this one film going when you're having so many different voices and you're doing it across so many films like you just numbered?

Julie Speer Jackson (15:09): Well, so in 2001, this model, so we call it docu-reach. So documentary film and outreach. This model won a Denver Business Journal's Most Innovative New Product because back then, I mean, there weren't a lot of documentaries, and this is before participant films, it's normal now that you have action, social action with a documentary film. But back then, there wasn't. 

And over the last 20 years, the process has really honed in to be, yes, it's storytelling by committee, but it makes it easier for me if I'm working with a team of people who are really involved and invested in whatever that subject matter is, they know it in a way that I don't. So it is like community brain trust. You come in with all this brain power already, I don't have to come figure it all out by myself. So it actually makes it easier.

(16:12): And then I feel like if you look at Home in Paradise, it was a pretty cool process. So there was, I don't know, 25-ish people in a room that I led them through the process where we all got aligned of, okay, what is the biggest public health issue in Chaffee County? And it was very clear it was housing, behavioral health, and then transportation and aging were the top four of 20 different issues. 

And because we all came up with that together, everybody was bought in on, "Okay, this is the story, and now let's find interviewees." And it's really activating and mobilizing community members to participate in a story. And then what's really cool about the process, so like in Aurora, for example, the documentary is called America's Hidden Gem, and it's on Northwest Aurora, which anyone who is in Denver is always like, "Oh, Aurora." And it's poor and it doesn't have a really good reputation, and we're really trying to change that.

(17:14): But just the process of having the steering committee has benefited the community in a way because people who wouldn't normally work together are now working together on the story. So the process of filmmaking is actually social change in a way. And then I have people to bounce ideas off of, find interviewees, they review the cut, and most directors come in and they're like, "Do it my way." And my way is like, "Let's do it with everybody." And then the steering committee and the people who were involved use the film and they'll use it for years. And whereas I'm onto the next thing, which what's great.

Adam Williams (17:55): You were commenting on how that was noted as innovative in 2001. Is that model still extraordinary? Do you know other directors who had all tried to do what you do?

Julie Speer Jackson (18:09): I don't work with other directors, so I don't really know, but I think it's more normal just for the director to come in and be the boss of it all.

Adam Williams (18:18): Other than the ways you described about how it actually helps you, I mean you get those people in a room and they can say, "Well, here are all these potential sources and subjects." That can be helpful when you're not from that community. But I'm wondering what other reasons you might have that motivate you in that human outreach sense? Why is it you've decided this is the model that you really want to do from that standpoint of how this does get carried on even when you move forward with other projects?

Julie Speer Jackson (18:45): Well, it just works. I don't know. I feel like it makes the projects more resilient and more authentic.

Adam Williams (18:53): Yeah, fair enough. How do you choose projects? If people come to you and they want to hire you, how do you decide what to say yes to? What is the nugget that has to be there for you to say, yes, this is a story that I feel something for?

Julie Speer Jackson (19:08): That's a great question. I don't know that I've ever turned away a story. My work speaks for itself. So the people who come to me are people who resonate with my style and vibe anyway. I have a lot of repeat clients that I've been working with. There's one law firm in Denver that I've worked with for 15 years. 

And so it just depends on, I don't know, if they come to me, mostly I say yes. I don't know that I've ever said no, but also this is documentary. It's very different. Now, I'm about to do my first feature film with actors, and I am the director and I wrote the script, so maybe it is my way on this one. We'll see.

Adam Williams (19:56): Are you concerned at all about the learning curve for that? The transition from one style to another?

Julie Speer Jackson (20:01): Yes. It's like I'm that kid again in the biology class in French like, "What's happening?" People name-drop with me all the time, actors' names and director's names. I don't know who anybody is. And I'm always like, people who know me, I'm like, "Please don't name-drop with me." And if you name-drop say that, "Oh, that's a famous actor, that's a famous director. This is someone..."

Adam Williams (20:24): Give you context.

Julie Speer Jackson (20:25): I just don't know. So there's that part that I just don't know who's who. But filmmaking is filmmaking. There's still a camera and lights and editing, like process I think is largely the same. It's a lot bigger budgets. So that's new.

Adam Williams (20:41): You have interviewed, I would think easily thousands, maybe several thousand, maybe more.

Julie Speer Jackson (20:48): Maybe tens of thousands.

Adam Williams (20:48): Okay, over the years. That has a lot of observation about people, their behaviors, how they act when they get in front of a camera, in front of a microphone, what they're willing to share, what they're not willing to share, and just plain learning from their stories when they open up and they're actually vulnerable and they share real things. So I'm curious what you have learned in the process of spending so much time getting intimate in these conversations with so many people.

Julie Speer Jackson (21:15): And honestly, that's my favorite part is filming. And those interviews are my favorite part. And yeah, I've learned all kinds of little tricks, but number one is look people in the eyes, because then if you're looking them in the eyes, then their level of vulnerability and trust is already a lot higher because boom, "Human, I see you." And I think it's just I genuinely listen with curiosity. And so when you're really present and listening, people share because they're like, "Oh, you really do want to know."

(21:50): And it used to be that if someone cried, I felt very like, "Yeah, I made him cry." But now it's like, I don't know, that's to me it's sort of normal. My job as the interviewer, I'd be curious to see what your job is, how you see it. But for me, my job is to create literally a safe environment. So I kind of imagine a bubble, and if someone is feeling, I can feel if they're nervous, and then so my job is to be so calm and I literally will breathe out their nervousness, if that makes sense. It's just like holding space for them to feel safe.

Adam Williams (22:32): I definitely understand that, and I think that we might go about it differently. You can tell me if I'm wrong, because I'm guessing about the way your job functions versus the way I handle say this podcast. In general, what I do with people is we get into deep and vulnerable spaces when that's what they have in their story and to help them feel safe. Part of what I do is speak on my story because to me, that's showing them the distance we can go with this, where are the boundaries or not, so to speak. I want them to feel safe. They're not the only ones that are going out on that branch.

(23:04): They're not exposed and in the hot seat, and I'm sitting back protected and safe because I don't have to share anything. I'm the one asking the questions. So I will often answer the unasked question. I will share my own vulnerability in order to entice them into knowing, actually, I don't think that's the right word. That feels negative to me. 

I want them to feel safe. And I think that by knowing they're safe with me because I've shared something of myself, whereas for you behind the camera, I'm guessing it's not so much you sharing you with them and you still get them to share their vulnerability.

Julie Speer Jackson (23:36): To be honest, people don't know about me because they don't ask and I don't tell. So yeah, our methods are very different. So my method is just to 100% be with them in the moment, and it's like a cathartic process for them in a lot of ways, and there's a lot of emotion, and then there's hopefully healing and then I'm just in it with them, if that makes sense.

Adam Williams (24:01): Are you a reflective sort of person that when somebody is sharing from those vulnerable places with you, even though you're not sharing it back to them, is it stirring things? Do you go home at the end of that day and you're thinking about whatever your life things are over the years that you might be trying to resolve within yourself?

Julie Speer Jackson (24:21): No, but that's because I've been doing it for 20 years. I used to, yes. And now when I'm in the moment, I'm in the moment. And if there's one amazing moment that I remember, there's a woman who grew up, Native American woman who grew up in boarding school, and she was telling me the story and it was very painful, reliving it. And I literally apologized to her, I'm a white woman and I apologize for what happened. 

And we are crying and hugging, and it was a beautiful moment of sharing and healing, and then it was done. I remember it, but I processed it in the moment. But one of my first films when I was much younger was called Haiti's Small Miracles, and I went to the island of Haiti, and man, this is the worst slum in the Western Hemisphere. The poverty is next level.

(25:20): And I came back and I literally wept in the grocery store because we have an aisle for cereal, and I had just been with people who don't know what they're going to eat. So I was kind of a wreck for a couple of months, just the guilt of what we have in America and I was heavy with what I saw. But then I realized if I don't release that, I'm going to be no good to the story. What good am I if I'm just stuck in the heaviness of the emotion? So part of my job became experience. One woman that I am doing a film with called me the witness like I witness, and then I put the story together, capture the light of it all and share it.

Adam Williams (26:11): Kind of the conduit for the story as the storyteller. But I see from my seat here as a facilitator between you or whoever is the guest of any given podcast conversation with anyone who ever listens after this, and you serve as that conduit for very meaningful stories. 

So I understand what you're saying about how upsetting that was to come back in the abundance that we have and so many of us take for granted, and there are people who are in such dire straits that there's a disconnect, but for you to tell that story is the way to shine light on what needs to be, right?

Julie Speer Jackson (26:46): Exactly.

Adam Williams (26:47): I've heard you refer to yourself, or the word I should say, as a light worker, as working with light because it actually functionally factors into the medium of photography, of videography, of these things that work for television and film, but there's also, for lack of a different word, coming to mind, sort of the spiritual essential sense of light and light work. Would you care to speak to that, to any and all of that?

Julie Speer Jackson (27:17): Yeah, and that is I feel like you've just nailed my essence right there that I feel like my purpose on this planet is to see the beauty of what is happening. Yes, a lot of the issues are placed within the evil and ugliness of humanity, but it's to capture what's working, capture the beauty, and then share it out so that people are healed, so that people can feel something, learn something, and then hopefully be a part of a positive change. So it is very much to connect humanity. That is my personal mission is to connect humanity with this medium, which is, as you've pointed out, literally transmitting light. It's like capturing and transmitting light. It's powerful stuff, I will say. Yeah, it's pretty cool. I'm very blessed and now I'm hoping to do it more bigger.

Adam Williams (28:20): You've said that this medium is fundamental to who you are, and I wonder how that is different for you compared to back when you were starting with theater or some other way of expressing yourself. I mean, I used the word poetry earlier. You could have been a poet, you could be an actor, you could be so many things that still touch people's hearts, still help as a conduit for good in their lives. What is it about this medium of film in particular that really is fundamental to who you are and how you communicate?

Julie Speer Jackson (28:52): I do paint as well, and I love poetry, so I feel like an artist is an artist, right?

Adam Williams (28:59): I think so.

Julie Speer Jackson (29:01): But this medium specifically, I mean, I used to be very purist. Oh, theater is the only true form of, I was like a performing arts snob when I was really young, like late teens, early 20s, and then this crazy thing called the internet came out and it was like, "Wait a minute, you can share the same story on the internet, millions and millions and millions of times?" And it's like this is super powerful as a medium. This is the most powerful medium of today. Bar none, the most powerful medium. So it's like, "What are you going to do with it?" For me, it's about love and positivity and truth.

Adam Williams (29:44): Speaking of the internet, I wanted to be able to talk about this evolution of technology in the field in your career, because you happened to be at a time where you started with what I assume was still film, if you were toward the end of that, before going into digital.

Julie Speer Jackson (29:59): It was DigiBeta.

Adam Williams (30:00): Okay. Then what we've done here though is the internet has come along, then we've got YouTube, we've got iPhones, all these technologies we've talked about. You can pull out your phone and it's crazy and create something amazing from it all the way up here to flying cameras. You are an FAA licensed drone pilot and AI, right? Artificial intelligence.

Julie Speer Jackson (30:23): Yeah. 

Adam Williams (30:23): The evolution of your career technologically is, it's-

Julie Speer Jackson (30:28): It's crazy. You guys, the first cameras that when I entered this field, yeah it was documentary, so we didn't have the budgets for film, but most people were still filming on film. I remember going to Sundance and there was this whole the digital revolution. And Star Wars was going to be shot on digital, and everyone was like, "What?" So yeah, the first films that we did, the cameramen had to be men because the cameras were stupidly heavy and big, and that's why it had to be $100,000 worth of equipment because it was just expensive and big.

(31:04): And so I saw the cameras come down to when I could actually film because I could hold a steady shot, and it was like a Sony FX7. It was like yay big. And now, yeah, on my phone. So just the cameras, it's insane to me. It's 8K. My phone shoots 8K and there's literally 1, 2, 3, 4, there's five lenses on this camera, which is like this is the best camera or phone camera. 

So the cameras are amazing, change of technology. Oh, and the hard drive space. My first film, the Haiti film, Haiti's Small Miracles, our hard drive was 800 gigabytes, and it was like this big, and we were like, "Oh my God, it's digital and we're going to put it in this big thing." And now it's like the SD drives that are this big that are 10 terabytes. It's crazy.

Adam Williams (31:56): The size of your thumb.

Julie Speer Jackson (31:57): It's crazy. I mean, I love it. I love it, I love it. I love it. Now with AI and my industry, everybody's freaking out because AI is totally... I dream of the day where I can upload my script and AI just spits it back, "Here it is," like the video.

Adam Williams (32:16): You could get a script spit back to you right now if you wanted to put in a prompt for something, right?

Julie Speer Jackson (32:21): Yeah.

Adam Williams (32:22): I mean, are these tools that you envision using in a positive way or are you also freaking out about it?

Julie Speer Jackson (32:28): When it first started, I was freaking out. It's like the Terminator and it's the beginning of the end, but I am more of a Star Trek kind of person. Trekkies are the utopia of the planet, the alignment of all of the species and the Federation. If you think about it, they're using technology all the time for good, and I think for me it's always fundamentally, what are you going to do with it? What's your purpose? 

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And I am not a Hollywood studio. I am not replacing hundreds of people's jobs with AI because I employ... In Home in Paradise, there was under 10 of us working on that, but I didn't use AI on any part of that because we didn't really need to.

(33:17): So I'm not afraid of the technology now. I'm actually really curious about it and I'm starting to use it. So we use AI for script reviews. You pop a script and then you literally in five minutes get this complete coverage and it gives you really good feedback. You can get it to write scenes, which is kind of freaky, but you still need a human to discern the story. You also have to check AI like GPT chat. Sometimes it just makes stuff up and it's like you can't assume that it's true, which is crazy to me.

Adam Williams (33:55): When you ask it for feedback, what are the kinds of prompts you're using for that? How are you trying to elicit feedback from it or what kind of feedback?

Julie Speer Jackson (34:04): Okay, so with White Prairie, this is the script that I'm working on now, I put it in and I got back, I get a grade, so my goal is to get a nine out of 10. That's my goal with it. I have an eight right now. But so for example, the feedback from the AI is you need more drama between the bus driver and the teacher, and then I can ask it, "What kind of drama?" 

And then it literally talks to you and then I can ask it, "What line would you suggest?" Okay. To be very clear, I did not put any of that into the script, but it was really fun to kind of play with it and see what it says, but I've let it distill. And now within the next month, I'm going to go back and do a rewrite, but it's been in my mind, if that makes sense.

Adam Williams (35:01): Yeah. Let's step back in technology to the old, old days of when YouTube and Instagram and things were invented versus AI, right?

Julie Speer Jackson (35:09): Yeah. Which I remember the first when YouTube first came out, that's how old I am, I was doing exports before YouTube. And the first one that we could put on YouTube is so small now, it's still on YouTube, but it's so small and pixelated because that was the biggest format you could import at that time, and now it's like HD, it's crazy.

Adam Williams (35:32): What I'm wondering about that is how, again, it's made it so democratic and so ubiquitous that anybody can make a film, they can put it on YouTube, have distribution, they can put it on TikTok and promote, they can do all these things. I'm curious how the evolution of all of this has affected you or your mindset as one. 

You're probably having to keep learning if you want to keep going with it, but also if you feel like there is a negative impact on you at all by the evolution of all of this, because does it saturate content production? Everybody is a content producer or can be, and they have the tool right there with their phone for audio, video, stills, everything.

Julie Speer Jackson (36:15): That's the million-dollar question right there. Yeah, when I was young, there was literally four channels and it turned off at midnight, and it was the waving flag.

Adam Williams (36:25): I only had three channels.

Julie Speer Jackson (36:26): Okay, three. Well, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS. Okay, four.

Adam Williams (36:34): I don't know that I got so many. We had rabbit ears. I lived in rural Northern Missouri. We didn't have anything. It was a big deal when we finally got the cable box that would set up on top of the TV and you'd have to walk up to it because it wouldn't work with the remote and click down on the thing to watch MTV when I was in high school.

Julie Speer Jackson (36:34): Yeah. We had to get up and turn the dial and there was 12.

Adam Williams (36:52): Yeah, yeah. Two to 13. Yeah, so 12 channels.

Julie Speer Jackson (36:55): Okay. So I started with four. But yeah, so everybody was watching the same thing.

Adam Williams (36:59): Right yeah.

Julie Speer Jackson (37:02): It was very focused and now thousands.

Adam Williams (37:06): We're drowning in content.

Julie Speer Jackson (37:06): No, there's so much content. So the question now is how do you rise above the noise? Well, in Hollywood, you get the biggest celebrity you can. Yeah. How do you rise above the noise? I still believe it's about story and a good story is going to rise above. I mean, I'm maybe very optimistic about that. So it's always story, good story. I haven't had a negative impact on that because I'm very democratic. I love the idea of self-distribution, which is what is happening now in my industry. So I am actually really excited about it. We'll see how it all unfolds.

Adam Williams (37:52): I think it doesn't do us any good not to be optimistic, I suppose that's one look, right? We need to be optimistic if we're going to keep on with our work and keep trying to shine the good and we reach who we reach. It's far more distributed now than, like you said, when we only had a few networks and everybody watched all the same things. Those days are gone.

Julie Speer Jackson (38:09): They're totally gone. And there's no barrier between me and audience, between any content creator and audience. I mean, if I had a crystal ball to predict the future, I think that creators will have direct connection to audience. And I think in the short term, there will be an aggregator. Yeah, say it's Amazon is aggregating for the audience, but long-term, the audience will just go directly to the creator, I think.

Adam Williams (38:43): It continues evolving so quickly.

Julie Speer Jackson (38:49): Yeah. And it's so fast. Yeah, who knows? 

Adam Williams (38:51): At the heart of it is story. And like you mentioned that ultimately despite the heavier things like in Haiti that you cover and it ultimately is about can come to joy and love and those sorts of things, a word that often comes up for me is resilience. And that by getting into the vulnerable of people's stories, what we're doing, whether it's film or audio, whatever, is following the hero's journey that the arc of you have to have the hero face some sort of challenge and there's darkness, and then how did they overcome this? 

And there's resilience to go through it and have joy and come to love and the light and all these sorts of things. So I think the essence of that is in all of us as humans and as long as we exist, that's going to be there and that's part of it.

Julie Speer Jackson (39:37): Totally. And it's about feeling, it's literally about emotions. That's why people watch stories is to feel something, is to learn something. I think that's why there's such a hunger for horror films, which is so not my genre. I'm more of a rom-com sci-fi kind of gal and documentaries of course. But I think people love horror films because they want to feel something. 

Right now, I think humanity is so disconnected from their authentic... Each human disconnected from their authentic self that they need that outside stimulus to feel something. So I'm all about, okay, but remember who you are, see the good, be in your body, be in the moment and participate. And I don't know, it's like let's just all wake up.

Adam Williams (40:37): If we are disconnected from the authenticity within our individual selves, then how can we possibly have better connection with others, which is I think the state of the world right now, and what we're feeling is a lot of disconnection and anxiety around it.

Julie Speer Jackson (40:48): Thank you. And when someone is their authentic self, that inspires and makes it safe for other people to be their authentic self, which is the beauty of documentary. People show up and they're like, "This is me, this is who I am." And the viewer feels that, right? People feel that when they're watching the documentary and then they can show up as their authentic self.

Adam Williams (41:11): I feel like when people are watching or listening to other stories that are being shared so openly, maybe it's a raw as something, it's vulnerable and there's just full of humanity that it's not as much that they are connecting with that person in terms of all in focused on their story as much as what they feel, and then it brings to mind for their story. 

Like if I see something that might remind of something with one of my parents, something in my childhood, whatever, I start going mentally down that rabbit hole of my own story, and that's how I feel connected to that person, not the specifics of what their lived experience has been.

Julie Speer Jackson (41:46): Totally. It's how it makes you feel. Totally.

Adam Williams (41:47): Yeah. So let's talk about success and as part of that, failure. You've obviously had a lot of success. I started off with all the awards, this incredible lengthy list of dozens of awards that you have received for your work, and that oftentimes gets looked at as success and fairly enough, but at any creator, surely, or any human really in their own lane of life is going to experience failure along the way. So I'm curious what you have to speak to that, the idea of failure as part of your path to whatever you determined is success for you in this field.

Julie Speer Jackson (42:25): Kind of where I'm at right now is that, yeah, the awards are outside validation, which I feel like I've always, I mean, I have insecurity, part of the journey of being a female in America. I have constantly felt not good enough and just insecure. And so the outside validation in form of awards has been very affirming for me. Where I'm at in my career now is that I need to stop needing the outside validation. It's like the success is internal, if that makes sense. That's kind of where I'm at at this moment.

Adam Williams (43:08): It does make sense. What I'm wondering is how you might define that internally. What is that intrinsic sense of reward or success or accomplishment just within yourself, measured only against yourself?

Julie Speer Jackson (43:19): Yeah, it's the feeling. It's all feeling and it's all the emotional grounding, which I have very much with documentary production and documentary work, and it's that newness of the narrative space that I get... have the anxiety that's familiar from 20 years ago, but failure to me is part of learning. It's like my husband pointed this out with golf, we learned how to golf, and I would get mad and he's like, "Why are you getting mad?" And it's like, "Wait, good point. It's like how you play the game. So I've had lots of failures.

Adam Williams (44:06): Is there anything coming to mind specifically that you care to share as one of those challenges? Or to me, when we're saying failure, I feel like we need to put error quotes on it too because of the fact that when it's part of the process and when it's part of the learning, it's not in my mind actually failure. It might feel like it in the moment, especially if it was something related to an award or something like that that you felt like you wanted for your validation in the industry. 

But in the end, whatever we learned from those moments, I think when we look back in hindsight, then we see that's why this went this way. That's how this set me up for this success, this opportunity. So failure or challenge, however you want to look at it, is there one that specifically, maybe earlier in your career, where you learned a particular lesson that you have carried with you for the years since and how you produce your work?

Julie Speer Jackson (44:57): Wow, that's a really good question. I think for me a lot of it is it's mindset, and I also believe everything happens for a reason. Like what you just said like, "Oh, that happened, and so this happened because of that." So I do sort of trust that it's the spiritual kind of anchor again that things happen for a reason, but it's like, what is failure? My first film is really terrible and I was acting in it and I was murdered and it's just bad, bad. It's like a good B movie that... But is it a failure? I don't think so.

Adam Williams (45:39): Were you excited about it at the time?

Julie Speer Jackson (45:41): I was so excited about it because first, I was acting in it and then I quickly became a part of the camera department because it was like one guy, and so we needed a two shot. I was literally hanging off the side of a cliff in Northern California filming. It was so fun. I mean, it was so fun. It was so crazy and probably very dangerous, but it was really fun. It's a terrible, I mean, sorry to the people who created it, it's a really good B movie, but I don't see it as a failure because it was a growth process. It was a learning process, and at the time I was so proud of that thing.

Adam Williams (46:23): I think that's a really key piece of our process of understanding of what failure and success is when you were younger and that's where you were in your career, and it was so amazing and it was fun, and that was a success in many ways. So to look back in hindsight without the grace of, but that's where I was then, right? 

So it's interesting how the definitions of those things, success and failure, can shift, just like success for you included awards for a while as it is for all of us. And at some point then we reach a place where we're like, "But those accolades aren't what really sustains me in this now. What is my why for doing this now?"

Julie Speer Jackson (47:01): Totally. It's funny I'm thinking about when I was a kid, I was a straight A student and I remember crying when I got a B, because I am that overachiever. And you know what I got a B in? It was P.E. I was so mad at her. Anyway, I had this whole vision of that moment, but fast-forward to probably six years ago, the hardest thing I had done in a really long time was get my FAA drone license and it's math and science and all the things, and I was so nervous about this test and I got a 71 and I was like, "Yes, a C." I was so excited because I passed. And I remember in that moment laughing at myself at how my 15-year-old self would have been devastated by that C, but my adult self was so thrilled that I got my license and the C was just perfect.

Adam Williams (48:02): Perspective is so funny.

Julie Speer Jackson (48:04): Yeah.

Adam Williams (48:05): Let's wrap with this. You are prolific. I have talked about this because I find that so impressive and I say that as utmost compliment to you. So I know you have work ahead. What's next? What are you about to go do? What are you already in the process of?

Julie Speer Jackson (48:24): Well, I'm hoping to transition into the narrative space and I have a feature film, my first one that I've written and I'm probably going to direct unless somebody really, really famous wants to act and direct in it. I'm totally open to that. And then I have a few series that I'm going to produce and hopefully one of them will be right here in Salida and Chaffee County because I feel like narrative stories have a bigger audience and a bigger reach than documentaries. I mean, there are some documentaries of course, that reach the planet and I'll try to do one of those too.

Adam Williams (49:04): You mentioned Ken Burns saying that documentary, I don't remember the exact wording of this, but basically documentary shows what is.

Julie Speer Jackson (49:10): It is what is. That's what he said, yeah.

Adam Williams (49:12): So when we're talking about truth and fiction through that narrative sort of filmmaking you're talking about, how do you see that? How do you see the value of being able to show what is through those fictional representations of story?

Julie Speer Jackson (49:26): Well, White Prairie is inspired by a true story of why school buses are painted that yellow orange, and it's a true story of my Great-Aunt Clara and 20 kids and a bus driver who were stranded on a blizzard in 1931. So it is truth in what happened, and then it's actually really exciting to me. We can't go interview Clara because she's passed, everybody who was on the bus, they're gone. 

So we get to recreate them and then it's having the emotional authenticity with the actors portraying them, and I mean, we get to make it with visual effects and computer generated graphics of the blizzard and the snow, and it's pretty cool that we get to do that. We couldn't do that as, well, I did do a documentary on it and you have photographs and you have historians, but it's not a first-person account, so it's actually really cool to be able to use narrative as a first-person account and then have that emotional sharing.

Adam Williams (50:35): Do you find there's freedom in being able, as a creator, to use fiction to get to that emotional place in telling that story, that sense of truth in fiction? Are you looking forward to the freedom of being able to work with fiction?

Julie Speer Jackson (50:48): You know what I'm so excited about right now is writing fiction now that there's no budget limitation on paper, that is what I'm really excited about. It's like, "What does my imagination have?" It's okay. Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. Put it on the page. That is really freeing to me. I'm really excited about that.

Adam Williams (51:09): This has been great to talk with you, Julie. Thank you very much for doing this with me.

Julie Speer Jackson (51:10): Thank you.

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (51:25): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparked curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. 

If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info@wearechaffee.org. We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. 

We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.

(52:00): Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Lisa Martin, community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative. 

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. 

You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at Wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.

[Outro music, horns and guitar instrumental]

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