I met Barbara Rick in Taos during a year-long intensive with Natalie Goldberg. I noticed her sitting across from me in the Zendo, her dark hair framing her pale skin. We were in silence, but you could see she was lit up; her quick intelligence and creativity flashed in her eyes. We stayed in touch over the years, getting together for coffee, dinner, or a movie whenever I was in New York. We usually met in her downtown studio, crammed with copies of her films, her many awards, and the large-screen monitors where she worked. She was always eager to talk about process, particularly the connection between spirituality and creativity.
I thought of Barb for Creative Mix because she was making a living as a documentary filmmaker. I wanted to know how she transitioned from a successful career in television news to founding her own film company, earning money making work that mattered. I knew she had talent and had experienced success at a young age. I knew she worked hard, often driven by ambition. But based on our conversations, I understood there was something deeper driving the work.
Barbara’s films inspire with stories of people standing up in their lives and making a difference: A nun taking on the Vatican over her ministry to gays and lesbians (In Good Conscience). A cast of Broadway stars singing soulful lullabies to soothe breast cancer patients and raise money for research (A Broadway Lullaby). A school for girls in Kenya, where outside support helps educate brilliant young women who would otherwise be lost in poverty, grooming them for leadership and change (School of My Dreams, Girls of Daraja).
As a photographer and director/producer, Barb has an eye for brilliant color and an attraction to shimmering surfaces — the body of a flute, a spray of bougainvillea, a gleam in a young girl’s eye. She’s drawn to light and hope, capturing people at their best, contributing to the greater good.
Saundra: Before we talk about your film company, Out of The Blue, tell me about your prior life as a producer of television news.
Barbara: I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, inspired by Woodward and Bernstein. I was in college at Fordham University post-Watergate and embraced the idea of journalism as a cornerstone of democracy. While I was still in school, I was offered an internship at a local news station. I almost didn’t take the job because they wanted forty hours a week of unpaid labor. I told them I couldn’t do it. I was working my way through college and didn’t have the luxury of working without pay. But then I realized it was an important opportunity and that I needed to do everything I could to get that internship and excel at it.
It was a decision that came from outside me, which has been a theme in my life, taking a step back and then feeling guided or getting direction from something greater than myself to do something positive for my work and for what I believe in.
I took the internship, worked hard at it, and one day the legendary reporter, Gabe Pressman, took me to lunch. Gabe is a topnotch journalist to this day and one of the first people to spot me in the journalism world and believe my work had value. We recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and I had the honor of saying a few words. Gabe asked me to work with him and paid me $100 a week out of his pocket. It wasn’t much in the way of money, but I took the opportunity to work alongside him. A few weeks after I accepted the position, he was offered a job at another station and had his attorney write me into the contract. When I arrived at the new station, everyone assumed I was a hard-hitting, experienced producer, when I was just this young, heavy-smoking intern who used a lot of profanity and fooled everyone into thinking I knew what I was doing when I knew nothing.
Gabe and I worked well together. On the face of it, it didn’t appear like this Catholic schoolgirl and the legendary Jewish reporter had much in common. But we were inspired by a lot of the same people, like Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair, and by the idea of social justice. We won a Peabody Award, which is like the Pulitzer of broadcasting. At the time, our boss Al Jerome pulled me aside and said, “You realize you’re the youngest winner in the history of the Peabody Award, don’t you?” Until then I thought everybody won awards for their work, that everybody took a bow at some point. Our special reports addressed pressing issues such as the mentally ill homeless in New York. One of our Emmy-winning documentaries, “Asylum in the Streets,” is in the Paley Media Center. We made the piece in the early 1980s, and I think it still holds up.
During the course of filming, I became aware that there was little difference between me, the hard-charging, tough-talking news producer, and the person who was mentally ill, alone, and hungry on a street corner in the dark night. Except that I happened to have a roof over my head and parents who would bail me out if needed. That early understanding, the light that went on that there’s no difference between me and anyone else, informed the work and I think made it strong.
Saundra: I knew your work had a distinct element of social justice, and empathy, but it’s something to hear how it developed and that you had that insight you were so young.
Barbara: Thank you for saying that, and for giving me the opportunity to go down that road and remember. You can get far away from whatever it is that runs you, from who you are or what you’ve done. It’s a wonderful to have the opportunity to take stock.
Saundra: Let’s continue then.
Gabe and I worked together on a half-hour documentary, “To Bear Witness,” chronicling the first world gathering of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Israel. Gabe filmed the event, and I worked closely with the editors to put the piece together, working with the legendary news director, Ron Kershaw, who was the subject of the film “Up Close & Personal,” his character played by Robert Redford. When it came time to write the credits, I hoped I would be acknowledged as the producer of the piece. But you never know when you’re young if you’re going to get the credit you think you deserve, especially in those days when it was unusual for women to automatically be acknowledged for their work. When I was compiling the list of credits, I said to Ron, “And the producer is?” And he said, “Well you, Babs, of course. You.” It was a powerful moment for me.
I was Gabe’s producer for seven years and we accomplished quite a bit together, and then I began producing the 11:00 news and other news broadcasts, bossing around large numbers of people at a very young age, which I loved, although I’m sure no one else appreciated it. But it was a great experience, being part of that engine. I decided what stories were covered and what order they would show, how much time each story was allotted. It was a heady time for somebody so young.
But getting back to that idea of good journalism as a cornerstone of democracy, that what you’re doing matters and is important. In time there was a turn away from that mindset in the business, and I realized I couldn’t do the serious storytelling that was important to me. The industry was changing, becoming more focused on the bottom line, getting away from its original mission in a huge way, and I had trouble making that transition.
I took a buyout in the nineties and decided to explore other avenues. At the time I was also married to a co-worker, and we were in the process of getting a divorce. Taking the buyout was difficult, because the steady paycheck and the security it provided were important to me. I had grown up in the news business and was hesitant to leave. But it felt like an opportunity to seek creative freedom. Again, I felt something greater than me at work. I don’t think I could have made that choice on my own. But the events lined up, the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to make that leap.
With the buyout money I was able to further my education and travel. I took creative writing and Irish literature courses in Ireland, traveled around, wrote some children’s books, taught some. I felt myself expanding. I realized I still loved journalism, however, and found freelance work writing for one of the networks, which was more satisfying in a lot of ways than doing local news. I wrote for several programs and eventually made a home for myself on a national weekend newscast, becoming a regular freelancer there, or “permalance” as we call it.
I liked freelance writing at the network level. I had no expectation around it, no rivalries or disagreements or any of the baggage we bring to a full-time job. I felt great to be free of that, clear I was there one day at a time to do a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. At the same time, I was building my documentary business. I believed documentary offered what I was looking for in terms of storytelling and that I could make could make a living from it, as well as make use of my skills to direct and produce something solid.
I started Out of The Blue Films in the mid-1990s. My first independent documentary, “Sounds Sacred,” explored the way humans connect with the sacred through sound. Our next documentary aired on PBS and won several awards, including a DuPont citation and a national News & Documentary Emmy Award. For an independent competing with the major news organizations, that was a satisfying moment.
Saundra: I want to back up a bit, because you made a few leaps. You took the buyout, and while it was scary, it bought you some freedom.
Barbara: Yes, you could say it was like bungee jumping into the abyss.
Saundra: Exactly. I didn’t want to skip over that part.
Barbara: You’re right. So many women are at that point trying to decide what to do next. It was hard to give up the security of the steady paycheck, I will say that. It was frightening. But I felt like I needed to do it.
Saundra: You also said that you couldn’t have made that decision on your own, that something larger came through you and gave you the courage to do it. Where does that come from?
Barbara: So much of my creativity is tied up in spirituality, and it was one of those key spiritual moments in life where you’re shown the next door.
Saundra: When those moments come, when you’re shown the door as you say, you have two choices. You can ignore it and stay safe, or you can leap. You can bungee jump into the abyss and trust.
Barbara: Let’s say I leapt in spite of my distrust.
When you leap like that, you make a unconscious decision to partner with something greater. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. But I also knew that because it was hard, that if it paid off, it was going to be one of the best things I ever did. And it was. It’s wonderful to be able to look back on a moment like that and see what unfolded from taking that chance. Although I think even if it had all ended in tears and failure, it was the better way to go.
I was talking with a friend recently about doing the work you’re called to do and what comes of that. She said I make it look easy, and I thought that was so funny, because it’s anything but. I’m dancing as fast as I can over here. It’s like being philosophical about a beautiful bird soaring across the sky when all the bird knows is this sweaty, endless flapping of wings. That’s how I often feel, like that sweaty bird.
Saundra: Can you tell me what was involved in getting your film company off the ground? How does something like that even come about?
Barbara: Meditation has been a constant throughout this creative life and has often made the next step clear. Early on while I was sitting, the idea for the name of the company came to me from out of the blue. (Laughing.) It occurred to me that a lot of good comes out of the blue (bad things are more from left field). I loved the name and it stuck with me, so I went through the process of naming the company and getting a DBA, and later incorporating.
I believed I could do well in documentary because I had the journalistic experience and won the awards as a young woman. The question was, could I do it as an independent? I didn’t know very much about independent documentaries per se, which made it a bit of a challenge. So, I met with different people who were working in the field.
There was a period of bumping around and feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing. My friend, the former journalist Pia Lindström, had the idea for “Sounds Sacred.” She came across something about a music festival in Fes, Morocco and said, “Maybe this could be something you work on with your new company.” I ran with it, because it contained a spiritual element that appealed to me. We shot the footage and interviewed Deepak Chopra and Pia served as the executive producer. I threw myself into that project and it did well, was accepted into a few film festivals–Mill Valley Film, Lake Placid, Maui, and some other places. But it was difficult to get it seen on a wider scale. The whole distribution angle of documentary filmmaking is still something of a koan. It’s a difficult nut to crack.
Just before this time, I took a ten-week trip traveling to ten countries, a kind of vision quest. I was doing a lot of morning pages, a lot of journaling, asking myself and the universe, what was the next step with the business? I was living in northern New Jersey then and would look out and see the Empire State Building, so beautiful and always a magnet. In Europe I was using the trains and traveling in different countries with different languages and doing well, just thriving. It became clear I could navigate the city and felt called to live there. When I got home, I packed up my apartment and moved to Manhattan. That was a huge creative leap for me and felt like a homecoming.
Also, in the late nineties, I met and studied with Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron. Meeting those women and studying with them was like cold water in my face, waking me up. Also, Anne Lamott. I think of them as my holy trinity of spirituality and creativity.
Saundra: Let’s head into some more of the nitty-gritty, the pragmatics of creative life. I’m wondering how you balance your creative work and earning income, and if Out of The Blue has solved some financial issues for you.
Barbara: For me, being a creative artist and entrepreneur is like playing a chessboard, with all sixteen pieces in play simultaneously, trying to move them all at once—the nonprofit work, the filmmaking, the journalism, work-for-hire clients, the photography, the painting, now also episodic television writing. And you’re trying to move all of those pieces forward as elegantly and smoothly as possible.
Saundra: How are you managing that on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis?
Barbara: It’s always a dance and not always a fun or pretty one. Lately it works for me to get to the meditation and creative writing in the morning, and then filmmaking, Out of The Blue administrative work, and fundraising in the afternoon. I go to Zumba or yoga at 6:00 and spend time with my husband in the evening.
For me, the key to a happy life, or not even a happy life, but one that makes me willing to carry on on a daily basis, is what I call, MEW—meditation, exercise, and writing.
Saundra: I love that.
Barbara: If I can get those three things in every day, I can continue. I don’t often get them all in, but when I do, it brings me to a deep place in my work and I experience some contentment and a willingness to continue. And sometimes I say it’s MEWLB, which is meditation, exercise, writing, love, and bookkeeping. That’s an even better day.
But in terms of balancing creative work and income, I would have to say I’m making great and frequent use of miracles. I’ve been fortunate with funding. At times, it’s been an abundant journey with many people embracing my efforts. When I made the decision to go out on my own to make these films, I teamed up with other creative people, and became open to receiving.
One of the best things you can do as a creative artist is to polish your receiver. And not only for information and for inspiration but for the material stuff that we need to get things done, and to do that in a way that has integrity and spaciousness to it and possibility. It’s important and hard to do, because I want to clamp down on everything and hang onto the first nickel I ever earned and never let it go.
But I will say that I’ve experienced an incredible amount of generosity from philanthropists and friends, people who see and understand what you’re doing and want to support you in some way. Having a nonprofit makes that a lot easier. Mary Catherine Bunting, who has given considerable funds to many important causes, got wind of some of my work and was particularly interested in the ENVY project. She not only contributed to that project, but made it possible for my film company to become a nonprofit, which means that when people want to support my work, they can do it directly and get a tax deduction for it, which makes it more attractive for people to contribute. It requires diligent bookkeeping and record keeping, which can be onerous for a one-woman operation. But it is such a help and it says something in a larger way about being open to help from outside sources.
That’s a longwinded way of saying I’ve been able to pay myself a modest wage. In 2005 I was able to leave network news and make my living solely on the documentaries, a wonderful blessing, to focus on that kind of work and get paid for it.
There have been periods where I haven’t been able to pay myself and that’s when it gets really, really dark, where you’re spinning your wheels, doing a lot of work, but not getting compensated, which is not sustainable, and makes me really, really uncomfortable. But then other revenue streams appear and opportunities come up or ideas. Recently I decided to revisit an early film I’m quite proud of, “In Good Conscience,” about an American nun taking on the Vatican over her ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics. Sister Jeannine and I went all over the world bringing that film to people, and Albert Maysles was the legendary cinematographer who volunteered to shoot it. I also met my husband, Jim Anderson, a wonderful cinematographer, while working on that film, and we’ve been married for twelve years now. Ellen DeGeneres gave money for that film, as did Susan Sarandon, and Trudie Styler, Agnes Gund, Henry van Ameringen, and N. Peter Hamilton. Also Deborah Santana, my dear friend, philanthropist, activist, and author. And foundations!
It was such an abundant, important project, and a difficult one for me to decide to do, because I happen to be straight and this is a gay subject. But I resonated with this idea of a woman standing up to the patriarchy of the Vatican and refusing to be silenced over a matter of conscience.
Recently I was thinking it was time to update the film for a new generation. The world has changed in a positive way when it comes to how we think about gays and lesbians and their rights. I proposed the idea to some of our original funders and many of them have come through with funding again. And we have new support from Kathleen Treat of the Speranza Foundation. We’re condensing the original film and raising money to go to Rome and shoot a new ending with Sister Jeannine. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to meet with Pope Francis.
Barbara: We’re in the process of reaching out and making arrangements to do that. But it’s an example of opportunity rising you when you’re polishing your receiver and getting in tune with what you’re being called to do. You ask yourself, what am I meant to do right now with my creative work? And last fall I was invited back to the network and have been freelance writing there again on occasion after an eight-year hiatus. Great being back!
Saundra: Tell me about your workspace.
Barbara: For twelve years I had a great, funky workspace in Manhattan, which I loved. It was in the village and my heart was really there. But I had to let that go to economize during the recession. It seemed like the smart thing to do. I’m working out of the home office now, which has been working out better than I expected.
I did not envision myself living and working in the Bronx. I’m a real Manhattanphile. When Jim and I first started dating I thought, “Oh, I like this guy, but he lives in the Bronx.” Like that’s so terrible. It was difficult because I had a love affair with Manhattan and I couldn’t envision myself having a similar love affair with the Bronx. Our work with Natalie Goldberg helped, the idea of blooming where you’re planted and seeing the place where you are through new eyes. I not only made peace with being here in the Bronx, but I’m actually enjoying being here. We’re on the water near the Throgs Neck Bridge with a gorgeous view and a spaciousness that my husband used to lure me. “It’s good for writing to be by the water,” he assured me.
Lately I’ve been going to this 1912 pastry shop off Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. I love it because it’s all Zen and cannoli. Human beings of every ethnicity wander in and out. I don’t even eat sugar, but somehow it’s the perfect place for me. I have my coffee there, and they know me. I’m working on an episodic comedy and think about what it will be like when my show takes off. I’ll be one of those familiar, eccentric figures lurking around Arthur Avenue, and people will see me in the coffee shop and say, “There she is, she’s writing something right now.” There are also botanical gardens here, which are one of my great muses. I go there all the time, and take long walks, and all of this feeds the practice.
Saundra: You met Deborah Santana in a workshop with Natalie Goldberg and that turned into a long and beautiful creative partnership.
Barbara: It’s stunning where that one decision to attend the workshop led. My creative partnership with Deborah and her Do A Little Foundation has been one of the great highlights of my artistic life. And because of her vision and her generosity, I’ve been able to travel to Africa three times and create beautiful work that wouldn’t have been made without her. The first time Deborah invited me and my husband to chronicle her family’s journey with Artists For a New South Africa. It was a humanitarian delegation, which we had the opportunity to witness and to film for Deborah’s family archives.
Deborah has been executive producer on three of our projects. We created “Road to Ingwavuma” out of that 2006 journey to South Africa, and then Deborah invited us to accompany her to the Daraja Academy, which is a unique and extraordinary school for exceptional high school girls living in poverty in Kenya. The girls come from all over the country and they’re amazing. We were so grateful to have met them. We did our first filming there in 2010 with Deborah, and the result was “Girls of Daraja” and followed up two years later with “School of My Dreams.” Both films have won awards and have been shown around the country and have been received in a beautiful way. We joined Deborah and our narrator, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, at the Smithsonian this fall for a screening of ‘School of My Dreams’ at the National Museum of African Art.
We also met with former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, which we filmed. It was a tremendous honor, the highlight of my life and my husband’s life as well. Alfre Woodard introduced us when we were done filming, and I was able to tell him that I admire him more than anyone on the planet. It did something for me inside, completed something to be able to say that to him.
Saundra: I met you around that time, when you traveled to South Africa.
Barbara: Yes, we were in the silent workshop with Natalie. It was a four-week silent meditation workshop where we traveled to Taos one week out of every season for a year. That was another one of those life-changing, creative moments.
It’s hard for women to make decisions like that, to take that trip, make the time and money investment in a workshop. You think, Can my husband live without me? Can the dog live without me? And of course, if you have children, the first and most important thought: Can my kids live without me? Making that decision and going is the single greatest thing you can do for yourself, your art, your spirituality.
Saundra: As a mother, if I’m unhappy it’s going to affect my child, but also my relationship with my husband, if I’m not satisfied creatively and professionally.
Barbara: What are we here for but to answer the call of what is reaching for us?
Saundra: I was impressed when you were talking about your daily meditation practice and how far back that goes and how so much has come out of that. It’s amazing what that will do for you and then the people around you. You see how it spirals out to the planet for the good of humanity, to sit still for twenty minutes.
Barbara: In a way meditation is listening, and listening is the key to life and writing. As a writer you want to notice everything, and that means being empty and available. And listening begets kindness, begets gratitude, so all things flow from the same fountain. These are keys to living, and also to writing, storytelling, personal and professional success, social justice. Listening, kindness, gratitude, it’s all the same fabric.
Saundra: No separation.
Barbara: And no separation from other people. The more I get quiet, the more I understand this truth that we are all connected. And I’m so much more open to that when I have my regular practice. And I do think that that’s what can make the work really, really good.
Some things go well and some things don’t take off. Or there are too many obstacles, most of which have to do with funding, although sometimes there are other roadblocks. I have to be careful of my overdeveloped sense of competition, which can be helpful when attempting excellence, but tricky if you start aiming for perfection, because there is no perfection. From meditation I was aware that envy was holding me back. Thoughts of not having enough or that other people are getting all the attention and resources and there isn’t enough for me. That kind of thinking hindered me in a lot of ways. Still does.
I wanted to make a film on envy, the causes and consequences of the most corrosive human emotion. I raised money for the research and development and then the bottom fell out of the economy. Since 2008, it’s been very challenging. I had to put the project on the backburner and work on other things. But I want to pick it up again and get it done.
Saundra: Circling back to where we started, talking about empathy and your realization when you were working on the piece about mental illness among the homeless. It occurs to me that empathy and envy are polar opposites.
Barbara: We are all fully human, with so much empathy and so much envy. It’s part of being human. To me it is endlessly fascinating and rich, that we can hold those two things so clearly.
Saundra: You mentioned some wonderful people that you worked with first in the news business and then later as an independent. Are there any role models that we haven’t discussed?
Barbara: I’d have to say Goldberg, Cameron, and Lamott, that great legal firm of spirituality and creativity are primary ones. But also Deborah Santana. I can’t put it into words how helpful and generous and ahead of her time she is when it comes to improving lives of women and girls all around the world. A lot of my films share a theme of women overcoming difficult odds, transforming themselves and the world around them.
Gabe Pressman, always. And legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles who is a giant in documentary has been so kind and encouraging to me and many others. And Tom Fontana, one of America’s top TV show runners, whom I admired from afar when I saw his credit on St. Elsewhere. I thought back then, ‘I’d like to work with that guy someday.’ Many years later, it was a dream come true when Tom agreed to help fund one of my films and came on board as Executive Producer of IN GOOD CONSCIENCE. Also filled with awe at filmmakers Krzysztof Kieslowski, Alfred Hitchcock, Agnes Varda, Jane Campion, and so many more. And all my writer and filmmaker friends living a creative life, especially those who parent creatively.
Right now I’m fascinated with episodic television writing and throwing myself into that. I’m studying with Cheri Magid, who is a wonderful teacher. I recently heard Terry Winter, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and an amazing show runner, speak on craft. He said he doesn’t go to bed at night without doing one thing to move his writing career forward in a positive way. He also said that he has approached his whole writing career as if he were a professional ballplayer, taking it to that intensity, that level of craft, that level of technique and dedication. I’m trying to do that with my creative writing career as well. It’s a huge leap from TV journalism to that kind of writing. But writing has always been a constant, a kind of home for me, whether it’s writing practice, Natalie Goldberg-style, or Morning Pages, a la Julia Cameron, or writing for broadcast with an emphasis on clarity and brevity and agility.
I’m reading Dara Marks’s book, Inside Story, which is very powerful on the feminine heroic. Not just the hero trying to scale the heights, but with the feminine, going deep down into the soul and emerging whole. And another favorite book on writing and the relationship among spirituality and creativity and storytelling is The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. It’s one of my favorite books. They tell a story about a rabbi who said, “We can be redeemed to the extent to which we recognize ourselves.” I feel that is the role of the storyteller, holding up the mirror.
It’s such sacred work, a beautiful way to make a life.
Saundra: Something that strikes me as we’ve been talking, is that you are continually educating yourself. On the one hand you are steady with your practices and with the themes running through your work. At the same time, you’re not afraid to take a class with a group of younger students and try something new, to continue to enrich your creative and intellectual life. You’re an award-winning filmmaker and you still are still learning, always learning.
Barbara: I feel fortunate that I don’t let expertise in one area hold me back from learning something new. I’m having so much fun in that pilot writing class. But it’s hard, a different kind of writing than I’ve done before. For me it’s easier to adapt, translate, boil down something that exists rather than create a world from whole cloth. But the raw materials are all around us. I’m reminded of Donna Tartt, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. People often ask her how she creates her characters, and I think she said, “Just by going and writing somewhere like the library. They all walk by.”
I saw so much in the Bronx today. Toddlers staggering around in the sunshine holding hands with their caregivers, a van full of sausage from Arthur Avenue turning the corner at the light. An ancient, smiling face. There’s so much to see and take in. We’re so lucky to be alive and aware.
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