Spring 2018 Director's Profile: Alison Klayman
Alison Klayman
Docu prescription: SXSW & Netflix

Director Alison Klayman—whose work spans lauded documentaries, shorts, commercials and branded content—is no stranger to the festival circuit, initially scoring with her feature documentary debut, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest, and was then shortlisted for an Academy Award, and nominated for two News & Documentary Emmys as well as a DGA Award.

This month, Klayman forged some new festival ground, bringing a film—Take Your Pills—to SXSW for the first time. She also experienced another first in her festival travels, coming to SXSW with a distribution deal already in place. In fact, one week after its debut screening on day one of SXSW, Take Your Pills premiered on Netflix (3/16).

Klayman—who is handled for commercials and branded entertainment by Washington Square Films—explores in Take Your Pills how today’s do-more-better-faster society has spurred on the popularity of prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are no longer just a treatment for kids with ADHD. These stimulants have made their way into college classrooms, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, virtually any place fueled by the need to succeed—and where there seemingly aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what we set out to do. Cognitive-enhancing drugs go hand in hand with the drive for productivity at all costs. Sadly, these pills have become the defining drugs of a generation.

SXSW, assessed Klayman, is “a dream fit” for Take Your Pills. She cited the festival’s appeal to Millennials, its focus on tech and the social conscience reflected in the different art forms showcased.

Klayman recalled that the project started with Netflix reaching out to her, leading to a conversation with Maria Shriver and her daughter, Christina Schwarzenegger, who wanted to do a film about Adderall. (Shriver and Schwarzenegger are EPs of Take Your Pills.) “It wasn’t even on my long list of topics to tackle but I immediately recognized it could be an important project, exploring the dynamics in our society which are making this the drug of our time,” said Klayman. “So many people feel pressured and stretched thin. This is something that touches many people in America—from all walks of life.”

Klayman was sought out for her documentary and storytelling acumen as reflected in not only Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry—which chronicles artist and activist Weiwei as he prepares for a series of exhibitions while increasingly clashing with the Chinese Government—but also varied other projects, including films she’s directed for the PBS series Frontline as well as the doc short The 100 Years Show. The latter introduces us to Carmen Herrera, a pioneering abstract painter who gained long overdue recognition as she approaches her 100th birthday.

From her feature and short documentary fare, Klayman has diversified via Washington Square Films into spots and branded work for the likes of lululemon and Hewlett Packard, among others.

Klayman’s penchant for authentic storytelling is fostered by her background as an accredited journalist in China who produced radio and TV feature stories for such programs as NPR’s All Things Considered.

Cinematic value
Klayman also brings filmic sensibilities to her work. “Adderall is not inherently a cinematic story. Part of my job is getting the best stories on screen and making them cinematic. Using creative graphics and animation was helpful. At first, I turned to them because we thought that these are personal stories that people may not want to talk about. But we worked hard to find people who were willing to appear on camera. We talked to more than a hundred people for our research, for background, in some cases for casting, in others for our own edification. We found some great stories and then worked to find the best way to show them.”

Opening titles were done by a graphics team at London studio Blue Spill which helped develop a look that helped define the Adderall aesthetic. “You can visualize the aesthetic for LSD and marijuana. We had to come up with a feel or aesthetic for the Adderall stimulant,” noted Klayman. “Every drug has its own particular cultural context and story.”

Additionally, the appearance of 3D people in environs was deployed to, for example, tell the story of a Goldman Sachs analyst suffering from addiction but who wanted to remain anonymous.

Klayman has demonstrated an affinity for incorporating animation and design into her documentary endeavors.  For example, she turned out a New York Times Magazine animated Op-Doc, The Night Witch, which shed light on the life of Nadezhda Popova, a.k.a. Nadia, who became a World War II hero as a member of a Soviet all-female bombing regiment. Klayman teamed with animator Dustin Grella to tell the story of the Night Witches.

Another dynamic informing Klayman’s documentaries is her ad work. “Branded content and commercials are really a gift in my life as a filmmaker,” she said. “I get to stay busy, to learn from these projects. Features take many years in development and even then don’t come to fruition. For me, I want to be able to continually hone my craft, build a bigger toolbox in terms of what I can do and how I can apply it to other projects. It’s refreshing to work on jobs that have shorter timelines. I’m very much drawn to the creativity in commercials and branded content. It’s still all about communicating.”

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