Meet the Crew: Associate Producer Emily Singer Chapman

On starting out in the industry, verité filmmaking, and being a woman in film.

As a child growing up in Portland, Oregon, Emily Chapman wanted to be an obstetrician. “Biology and medicine really fascinate me.  Because of the excitement that can surround pregnancy, an obstetrician is a doctor that people are often actually look forward to seeing,” she said in a recent phone interview.

However, her plans changed in high school after she purchased Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at a local garage sale. By the time the credits rolled, Emily was sobbing. “As I was crying, I was beginning to process the social and political power of film.” With the memory of Mookie fresh in her mind, Emily approached her guidance counselors and began exploring a future career in film.

Following high school, Emily attended the University of San Francisco, where she studied experimental filmmaking techniques with professors such as Melinda Stone and Academy Award nominee Sam Green.  Emily worked on documentary projects around the world before joining Ark Media in Brooklyn, NY. Today Emily is an Associate Producer for The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

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Emily originally got her start at Ark Media as an archival researcher on the documentary film Clinton and the genealogy series Finding Your Roots. “Making a film is a thrilling way to delve into history and personal stories.”  Watching hours of footage from the Clinton Administration provided Emily with an intimate portrait of one of America’s most scrutinized families. “The inner world that you’re able to access when you have the time to dig in and investigate a whole story puts you in a really unique position.”

Two years ago this month, Emily began working on The Story of Cancer. Initially, Emily was one of a small team rapidly learning about groundbreaking medical theories, and getting brought up to speed on the history of cancer research. After that it was off to Baltimore, where she rented an apartment with Field Producer Ali Sargent and spent a year filming verité footage – candid footage of the everyday lives of doctors, nurses, and patients at The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Interviewing and filming the lives of these individuals is a film assignment that will remain with Emily forever.

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“Filmmaking is unparalleled in the way that you ask people to open up personally to you,” Emily said. “There is a school of thought within journalism ethics that requires you to keep your subjects at an arm’s length so that you can give balanced and fair representation.  Such a style of coverage really can’t extend practically to this form of documentary work however, particularly on this film.  We have sit-down interviews with physicians, patients and family members and we are present throughout their journey. In order to allow individuals to tell their stories we have to be right there with them emotionally, put ourselves in their shoes and understand what it is that they’re going through. It’s a difficult thing to ask of people – to invite us into their lives in such a personal way.”

These days, Emily is immersed in the editing process and is working with a team that includes Deborah Dickson, a pioneer who blazed the trail for women in the film industry. “Luckily, I have a lot of women working around me and don’t face the same adversity that others have dealt with in their careers. Many of the women on our team lived through the experience of being the only woman in an editing suite or on a crew.”

“Today, more emphasis is placed on the value of having a production team with varied perspectives, and I think there can be real advantages to being a woman working in documentary film.  While it wasn’t universally true, it may have been that some people initially felt more comfortable with the idea of two women in their hospital or exam room, or in an interview setting. Ultimately though, it comes down to being someone that people respect, someone with whom they can connect and trust.”

Working with this experienced group has been one of Emily’s favorite parts of the filmmaking process.  “Watching the world in which I’ve been living for two years come together on the screen in front of me is very exciting. Director/Senior Producer Barak Goodman, Director Deborah Dickson, and Editor Karen Sim have done an incredible job with our verité footage. They understand the gravity of the situations we filmed – they laugh and cry with our families, and they pick up on the glances or passing moments that might seem irrelevant at first but later become some of the most poignant pieces of the film.”

“Looking back now at all the footage we recorded during the production process, I continue to be touched at the way families allowed us in and let us capture their lives in such an intimate way. I very much look forward to seeing it all come together in the final film.”

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