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“This was our film school”, said director Aron Gaudet about his first feature documentary, The Way We Get By, which has screened at more than 20 film festivals in the last three months, including Silverdocs this past week. Gaudet and his now fiance/film’s producer Gita Pullapilly spent four grueling years on the project, working full time at other jobs while traveling sometimes 19 hours in a car for a shoot. But the overwhelmingly positive reaction from audiences has made the journey much more than just a learning experience.

Set in Bangor, Maine, the film follows three elderly individuals – Bill, Jerry and Gaudet’s mother Joan – who go to a small airport every day to greet the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite facing failing health, depression and mounting debt, the three are committed to greeting the troops as they first step back on American soil, even if it’s as early as three in the morning.

I had the opportunity to chat with Director Aron Gaudet. Here’s what he had to say:

Q. What was the impetus for making the film? How did you come upon these characters?

Gita and I both worked in local television news around the country and when we met I think we both agreed that there were so many great stories that got passed up in local news just because it would take more than a day to tell the story. And it was really frustrating to us. We’d see all these great personal stories go by and we’d say: we don’t have time for that, let’s go to the town hall meeting. It wasn’t very fulfilling. I had always wanted to make documentaries and when I met Gita and I told her about that, she took the ball and ran with it. She was like, we’ll start a company and we’ll find a subject. When I went home that Christmas and got her to meet my mom, we saw that flight come in and we said: this could be at least a great short documentary. And then we went home with Bill that first time and saw his living conditions and we had already known that he had been battling prostate cancer and saw how he was living and he told us about his wife dying. We just realized this guy is going through a lot and he’s out there all the time. He’s a compelling character for a movie. It all kind of started with him and then we met Jerry.

Q. What was your biggest challenge in making the film?

We were first time filmmakers and I think we went in thinking this would be easy. I shoot everyday, I edit every day. We’ll just get the equipment and we’ll do it. We weren’t thinking of fundraising and getting the money and all that. This was our film school. Over the four years we made the movie, we learned so much. We didn’t start fundraising until we were almost done shooting three years into it. It got to the point where it was like: if we don’t get money, we won’t finish this. It was at that point that we got funding from ITVS. We got it just when we needed it.

Q. Were you working on other projects in the meantime?

We were working full time jobs for the first three years of it. At first we were still working in Michigan and we would drive to Chicago, fly to Boston, drive Bangor. Or, if we didn’t have money to do that we would drive from Michigan to Maine which was like a 19 hour drive, stay there a couple of days and drive back. Eventually we said we’ve got to do something to be closer, so we moved to Boston, so it was a four hour drive. So that made it a lot easier. And having my mom call and say, the 500,000th troop should be coming in on a flight tomorrow, we could drive up and be there. We would start at my mom’s house and when she got a call, we’d go in with her at the airport. And then at the airport, we’d pick Bill or Jerry and follow them.

Q. What has the response been to the film?

We premiered at South By Southwest and in the last three months, we played at over 20 film festivals and the response has been great everywhere. When we had a chance to have one of the subjects there with us, the response has been even greater. By the time I was done editing the movie, I didn’t know what we had. I walked out of the editing room and I remember saying to Gita, I don’t know what this is. It’s because you’re so close. And it wasn’t until we saw it with audiences and saw them respond that we knew what we had. People would always come up after and say l loved the movie and then launch into this personal story, like my dad had prostate cancer. It always became how it related to them personally. One woman was saying that it had a lot of universal themes and that’s what we’re starting to take away from it. Everybody is connecting to it on a really personal level. It’s been really overwhelming.

Q. Bill says in the movie that he feels like he’s outgrown his usefulness. Has the film changed that feeling for him?

The best thing out of everything so far to me has been watching him when we are able to bring him to a screening and then watching people come up and talk to him because of what he says in the film. To see these people come up to him and say what he’s doing means to them. The most fun of all of it has been to experience the film through him.