Jason Schneider Explores His Identity as a Filmmaker with a Limb Difference in "Despite the Loss"
Jason Schneider has edited documentaries for ESPN, PBS, several NY Emmy nominated television series, and now he’s released his directorial debut, Despite the Loss. The film helps spark a conversation about the way we look at limb difference and disability in society, all while highlighting what the bumpy road to self acceptance looks like. Through personal accounts, interviews with the people who know him best, and profiles from a diverse group of amputees, Jason dissects and re-frames his life, intertwining the trials and tribulations of building a race car with his personal journey for self acceptance.
I reached out to chat with Jason about being a filmmaker with a limb difference, the obstacles he’s faced along the way, and the creative ways he’s exploring distribution in today’s indie-film world.
Tell us a bit about your background. How'd you first get involved with film?
I've been interested in film for as long as I can remember, and begged my parents to buy me a PXL- 2000 for Christmas when I was around eight or nine years old (a video camera made by Fisher Price that used audio cassettes to record grainy B&W video). I used to make movies with my friends while growing up in Queens, NY and fell in love with the art of storytelling. As I got older, a career in film and television just felt like some impossible dream to me so I didn't pursue it. I went straight into the workforce after high school and worked various retail jobs, as a mechanic for a bit, then got involved in the restaurant business through a family friend.
I've always been a hard worker and worked my way up from dishwasher to part owner of a small restaurant by my early 20's, but I was miserable. The restaurant business is a tough gig with lots of long/grueling hours, and I had zero passion for it. I felt like I was wasting my life, and decided if I was going to work this hard it should be for something I was truly passionate about. So I walked away from the business (lost everything) and decided to enroll in college for film. I graduated in 2005 and have been working in the industry as an editor ever since.
Where did you first get the idea to do Despite the Loss and how did it all come together?
I've been building and racing cars as a hobby since I was a teenager. My dad was a mechanic so it was something I grew up around and had a lot of passion for. I'd been working as a documentary editor for a few years and would chat with colleagues about the cars I was building on the weekends. They would always say, “That would make a great documentary!” But my response was always, “Why?”
I never really thought about the fact that I was building and racing cars without a right hand, because at that time I didn't want to be associated with having a disability or be labeled different in any way. I also had no desire to be on camera, and really didn't feel like what I was doing was all that special, so I would just dismiss the idea.
A few years went by and I hit a rough patch in my career where I wasn't very fulfilled by the work I was editing. I thought maybe it would be interesting to try directing, as a way to take control creatively. I never liked the way people with disabilities were portrayed in cinema (a feeling I would later learn could be described as “inspiration porn”), and had the idea to profile other people with limb differences pushing the limits of their “disability” so to speak. I wanted to tell these stories as authentically as possible without sympathy or turning them into “inspiration porn.”
We borrowed a camera and a friend and I shot some test footage of me working in the garage on a classic Mustang I'd restored. Literally just to get a feel for the kind of look we wanted before our first official shoot. I told a few anecdotes about my childhood post accident just to pass the time while filming. When I cut together that footage as a proof of concept and started showing it to people, the response was universal, “You need to be in the film!” But I still dismissed the idea.
We started filming that summer with a double amputee mountain climber named Jerod, and I was taken aback by how much we had in common–our thought process, the way we looked at the world, our attitudes towards “disability”–it was incredibly eye opening for me because up to that point I had not known or associated with any other amputees. I started to realize there was merit in examining the common threads we (amputees) shared, and that's when the film's tone began to shift.
You mention that your goal with the film changed as you were filming. Can you talk about that a bit?
Most documentary editors will tell you that the real story of a film often emerges in the edit. And thankfully because of my background, I was editing footage almost immediately after shooting it. Without giving too much of the story away, I realized my original concept wasn't working, and in a moment of desperation turned the camera on myself. That impromptu interview brought a lot of the deeper questions I explore about limb difference and disability in the film to light.
I realized through that interview, conducted by someone I reveal later in the film, that I had buried a lot of issues stemming from the loss of my hand and never properly dealt with them–the way I looked at myself, how I thought the world looked at me, and the stigmas associated with disability. The interview sort of opened up pandora's box, and watching myself talk about those issues on camera, in a quasi third person kind of way, was a pivotal moment. I just knew I had to explore it further, however painful it was. That's when the real story of the film started taking shape.
What do you hope people walk away with after seeing the film?
I think I would answer this question differently depending on who I'm talking about.
For able bodied people, I'd like them to walk away with the understanding that they should treat people with limb differences as people first, and appreciate that we're just trying to live our best lives and make our own way in the world just like they are; that we do not need, or deserve, their sympathy; that our stories matter, and shouldn't exist solely as inspiration porn to make them feel better about their own life.
For people who are limb different but don't self identify as disabled, I'd want them to walk away knowing there's nothing wrong with that. Language is an incredibly personal thing, and everyone has a right to identify as they see fit. The same respect and understanding we demand from the able bodied community should apply to those with different viewpoints within our own community as well. But more importantly, I'd want them to know that they are not alone, and that there's an entire community of people that have gone through exactly what they may be going through, and it's ok to reach out to (and embrace) that community. I hope that the film can provide some comfort and guidance on their own path to self acceptance.
Talk a bit about your original distribution plan, the struggle of the film festival world, and how you're creatively working to solve some of the problems indie film is now facing?
Early on in my career I was fortunate enough to work with several veteran filmmakers and witness firsthand how the traditional path to distribution played out. The plan was always: apply to festivals, get into festivals, hope for a warm reception at said festivals–then sales agents and distributors would follow. As far as I was concerned it was the only legitimate way to go about it. So naturally when it came time to release my own film, I wanted to follow that same formula.
What I failed to realize at the time was that most festivals (as they exist today) are no longer geared towards independent creators. You need industry connections to get a submission taken seriously, and even then there's a slim chance (if any) for a film with a minimal budget by an unknown director to be selected. The circuit has basically been co-opted by studios looking to attach festival credibility (and free publicity) to their own mass market projects. It's a giant ponzi scheme.
I spent close to $2K on festival submissions from late 2017 through 2018. Out of 24 submissions, only seven festivals actually watched my film. Seven. The rest just took my money and sent out a rejection letter without ever watching the film. I could have dealt with rejections based on the merits of my submission, but to not even watch the film? It was a heartbreaking experience.
With the door closing on a festival run and no backup plan, I signed up for a distribution bootcamp that summer and gained some valuable insight into self distribution (although initially dismayed to hear about 75% of the panelists talk about how important festivals were to the process). Towards the end of the day one of the special guests said (paraphrasing), “I never count on festivals or distributors for my films. Why would you just hand over a film you’ve spent years of your life on, literally your baby, to a group of strangers in the hopes they promote and get it out there correctly?” This made total sense to me, especially given the deeply personal nature of my film.
I started researching filmmakers who'd had success with the self distribution model and formulated a plan based around that research. I ultimately decided against an independent theatrical release (as much as I wanted one) because of the substantial upfront costs involved and significant lead time required to secure theaters and generate enough publicity to make it worthwhile. Transactional Video on Demand (TVOD) felt like the best place to start, and I decided to go with Amazon Prime Video Direct, which allowed me to sidestep the expense (and 60-90 day turnaround time) of working with an aggregator, and get the film in front of a large audience as soon as possible. Because of my experience in post-production I was comfortable meeting Amazon's delivery specifications, but if you're not tech savvy, working with an aggregator may be preferred.
The beauty of starting with TVOD for me is that once the film premiered, it wasn't going anywhere. Traditional marketing plans call for very tight advertising windows geared around specific events–a theatrical run, TV premiere, DVD release, online launch, etc.–miss your advertising window (or even worse, have an unsuccessful campaign) and you may never break even, let alone profit. This can be a death sentence for traditionally distributed indie films, as distributors are quick to cut their losses and move on to the next project, leaving your film to languish in obscurity.
I can grow my audience slowly over time, try out different types of campaigns, and even build complimentary marketing strategies around the initial TVOD release, which is critical for an issue driven film like mine.
Phase two of my marketing plan involves reaching out to organizations with similar mission statements to try and engage the communities that might benefit most from the project, and I have several screenings in the works partnering with those organizations. Phase three involves the educational market, and I'm currently still researching how best to approach that.
What advice would you give to a documentary filmmaker just getting started on their journey?
The best advice I can give is to research every aspect of your project thoroughly, from pre-production all the way through distribution, and formulate a solid game plan before ever shooting a single frame of footage. Despite The Loss was my first feature, and I basically hit the ground running with a “figure it out as I go” attitude. In hindsight, the lack of preparation was a huge mistake on my part, and one of the many reasons why my film took eight years to make.
Having said that, trust the process and don't be afraid to improvise and modify your plan accordingly as new opportunities present themselves–it's just the nature of documentary. You'll encounter many challenges along your journey; the best filmmakers embrace those challenges and evolve accordingly.
Also, try not to spend your own money making the film. I nearly went broke twice, it's not fun.
You can check out Despite The Loss right now on Amazon Prime Video in the US and Amazon Prime Video in the UK, or find more information at DespiteTheLoss.com and following them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.