Infertility is often a difficult subject to discuss, but not so through the lens of Amanda Micheli, who’s always been able to find a way into serious issues, often related to women, with a light touch. Whether it was “Double Dare,” her high-flying profile of stuntwomen Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell, or “La Corona,” in which she and Isabel Vega visited a Bogota prison for beauty pageant held amongst the female inmates, Micheli disarms audiences before exposing them to deeply human subjects with the same dogged mentality that likely made her such an excellent rugby player (playing for America’s national team before seguing into filmmaking).
With “Vegas Baby” (retitled from “haveababy,” when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016), Micheli finds a doozy of a subject in the Sher Institute’s annual competition that the film’s title refers to, giving couples across the country the opportunity to win a free round of In Vitro Fertilization by submitting a two-minute video pleading their case. Perverse to be sure, it is also likely the only chance some couples will have at boosting their odds of having a child since a round of IVF averages $20,000, as well as a great promotional opportunity for Dr. Geoffrey Sher, a brash South African who makes no bones about caring as much about the business side of medicine as helping people.
Micheli watches as people flood the inboxes of Dr. Sher’s staff with videos involving tearful testimony scored to Coldplay’s “Fix You” or more lighthearted skits about their struggles, then follows three of the finalists – Ann & Brian from Green Bay, Athena from New York, and Rosalinda and Dago from San Antonio – as they take different paths to potential pregnancies. While the filmmaker finds the humor and heart-tugging moments in such a crazy contest, she also doesn’t shy away from examining the very real ethical and moral issues that are raised by commoditizing In Vitro Fertilization, with desperate would-be parents willing to go deep into debt for just slightly better odds at a baby and doctors incentivized not to stop them.
Micheli spoke about the birth of her provocative new documentary, how music became key in creating the film’s upbeat yet contemplative tone and how her own personal experience helped shape it.
How did this come about?
For this one unfortunately, I came to the subject matter through my own life experience. My husband and I struggled with our own infertility issues for the last few years during which he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. We never thought we would do the in vitro fertilization (IVF) when we got married, and we were very uneducated about it. We spent our life savings on one round of IVF and it didn’t work, and I was like, “Wait a minute. What happened?” I was really motivated to try to get more educated myself, trying to find solutions to my own situation by looking on the internet. I came across this contest, and I thought, “Holy crap. This is an amazing lens through which to see this subject.” You wouldn’t normally think of infertility being cinematic, but this contest to me seemed like a very provocative way into the subject matter, and to meet diverse people from all over the country who are struggling with this.
Is your husband doing better?
He’s in remission, and dealing with cancer is horrible, but the irony is his cancer has been treated and I can’t say the same of our infertility. It’s ongoing. It’s very hard to know when it ends. There’s a lot of hard choices and decisions to make, and we’ve had three rounds now of in vitro, and still no baby. There are options for us, but none of them are easy.
Because of your experience, were there any ways in which you found yourself telling your stories through the stories of these other couples?
With any film that you make, you bring your own personal baggage and experience to it, and this one was a very extreme example of that. Hopefully, it allowed me to go deeper with my subjects than I would have otherwise. It really required me to detach myself from my own experience as well because I didn’t want to walk around always comparing other people’s experiences to mine, or always looking inward. I really wanted to have this story go broader.
The opening scene thrusts the audience right into an In Vitro procedure. How did that introduction come about?
That opening scene was one of those serendipitous documentary moments where we called the Sher Institute never thinking they would agree to access, or just thinking it would be an uphill battle – and they were an open book pretty much off the bat. They knew they were opening themselves up to criticism, and they were used to that. Dr. Sher is kind of a cowboy. He’s willing to put himself out there, for better or worse. We were actually surprised [by other things]. We were trying to film at a state park in Florida, and they wouldn’t let us, but the fact that this private fertility clinic opened their doors to us was very surprising to us.
They were like, “Come on in,” and that was our very first day at the clinic. Can you imagine if you were one of those women going into that procedure and someone said, “Okay, put your feet in the stirrups, and a film maker is going to come in?” None of these women knew me at that time, and it was crazy but a couple of women agreed, and that woman, who is in the opening of the film, just started talking. She just took her oxygen mask off because she wanted someone to listen, and witness what she’d been going through. It was so emotional, and so raw. It was just one of those moments where I had the camera on my shoulders, and I just got goosebumps. I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be a movie” because I just felt like there were so many people who wanted to share their story. It just all clicked. There was just something emotionally as a filmmaker having that moment from our first day of shooting as the right place to start for the movie.
In general, was it easy to get people to agree to be in the film? As it’s said in the film, there’s definitely a stigma attached to infertility.
Sure, it’s one thing to put a short two-minute video out, and it’s another to let a stranger into your life, your bedroom, and your doctor’s appointments. It’s really a very intense and sometimes invasive process, but I think partly because I empathize with what they were going through and have been through it myself and partly because of the relationship we built, they really trusted me with their stories. It wasn’t always easy. We had a lot of ups and downs. There were times when we got uninvited and we always came back, and those relationships were really strong because at the end of the day, I think all the people we were filming really believed that the film would bring this issue to light.
How did you pick your main subjects?
We filmed with seven of the 10 finalists. I actually went to their homes, and interviewed them. We would have loved to have filmed them all and follow them all, but as often is the case in the filmmaking process, you have to distill things down. We landed on three stories to follow, but it was hard to choose.
Did you actually have to criss-cross the country at the same time?
Yeah, our travel budget was a high line item, and sometimes we had multiple camera crews, but we were very lean indie film, so that was challenging. Fortunately, I have a lot of talented friends who were willing to help out. For example, on the day they announced the winner, we had three cameras across the country on the same day, and sometimes there were multiple things happening at the same time that I couldn’t be at, so it was a logistical challenge, especially since we were dealing with women’s reproductive cycles. I can’t really imagine anything less predictable for scheduling a film.
One of the things that impressed me the most, and I thought that the music might have a significant part to do with it, was how the tone of the film feels positive yet skeptical at the same time?
There’s two sources of music in the film. One is Paul Brill, a very talented composer, and the other is The Books, which is a band I’ve always been a fan of, and we started using [their music] as temp music. They use cello, but then they mess with it, editing and digitizing it, so it has this organic and digital quality all at the same time, which I thought was a really good mix for a movie about test tube babies. But it’s unexpected – it’s not what you would normally associate with a film score. It’s emotional, but it has an edge to it. It’s a little weird and a little awkward at times – that’s what the opening credit sequence is, The Books.
It was an interesting creative challenge for Paul when we hired him to score the rest of the film so that it could be in the same family with that music from The Books, but really go to the sad and the happy emotional places we needed to go. It was a challenging juxtaposition. Actually, pretty much every single person who worked on this film in a creative role has at some point in the process said to me, “What we’re doing here is weird. I’m not quite sure if it’s going to work, but I kind of like it.” There was something very ironic about the film, but then at the same time, it had an amount of emotion and pathos — and we all creatively struggled with that tension. At the end of the day, we found what we all felt was a very humane and balanced place for the film to land, emotionally speaking. And the music is a great example of that.
There’s a notable dissenter in the film – Keiko Zoll, an infertility advocate. Was that an important voice to have?
She was someone that they had invited to be a judge, and she declined to be a judge so she was an interesting voice of dissent as it were, but even she wasn’t ready to condemn the Sher Institute for having a contest. She was more interested in questioning the system that allowed a contest like that to thrive.
Throughout your filmography, one of the things I’ve been impressed by is you always seem to tackle women’s issues from such an interesting angle. Has that actually been something that’s important to you?
Absolutely. For me, it comes back to what I want as an audience member because I love movies, and I really respect filmmakers that tackle important subjects with experts and interviews, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I was a sports girl, and I liked Scorsese movies, and I was always very drawn to character-driven stories with something unexpected – something that on the surface seems one way, and then you discover something deeper in it. In this case, the contest seems like this crazy proposition, then through that you learn a lot of deeper, universal human truths.