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The Way We Get By

Courtney Eckerle | Friday, November 13, 2009

Courtney Eckerle: How did this idea for a documentary start?
Gita Pullapilly: I met [director] Aron Gaudet while I was working in news, and this was before I knew that anyone could just pick up a piece of equipment. We thought a documentary was our best option, coming from a news background. He took me home in December of 2004 to meet his mom, and we were looking and looking for stories and couldn’t find anything. Aron’s mother was going out to greet troops at three in the morning, and we went with her. It was the first time I met WWII veteran Bill Knight. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer that day, and he was still at the airport greeting troops. Aron and I looked at each other and said, “Yes, this is going to be a good story.” We realized the challenges, but five years later … here we are.”

CE: Why are these three characters so compelling?
GP: They were so open and honest, right from the very start. If they were happy, sad, if something was happening, you would go on this journey with them. We wanted that tone. If something was happening in their lives we wanted to go on that journey with them. When you watch the film, you are discovering things as we are.

CE: What significance does the title have?
GP: When we were making this film the title was the most important to us, because we knew it would either appeal to people or it wouldn’t. It’s about everyday life. “The Way We Get By” is really about … the way we all get by. The way we overcome difficult obstacles in our life. We see it as a very universal film. People who watch it have a very deep, personal connection with all three of our subjects. So they come out of theater inspired to do something for their community.

CE: You majored in finance at Notre Dame — how did you find your way into filmmaking?
GP: I graduated with a finance degree, and my first job was financial analyst for General Mills. I quickly realized I did not want to work in the corporate world. I was looking for other opportunities, and I had done some work for The Observer and The South Bend Tribune in school. I went to grad school at Northwestern and did journalism there. I loved the storytelling aspect, and I loved the avenues video had. It’s compelling to see how the visuals could tell a story, and that’s how I got into television news — my first job was in Green Bay with a CBS station. I love being able to tell stories, but when you’re in a newsroom your stories are really short so you really can’t get to the heart of the story.

CE: How important is the idea of growing older in this film?
GP: One thing we realized about this film is senior citizens are pushed aside in our society. They have so many skills and talents, and they’re just forgotten. We think that because they are past a certain age they have lost their purpose, but in fact they have more purpose than most of us. There are people who have had amazing careers and are still waiting to share their stories and wisdom.

CE: What are some of the ideas you hope people come away with after seeing the film?
GP: I think the film affects people in a lot of different ways because there are layers — supporting the troops and seeing that seniors have a purpose in their lives. Anyone can do anything in a short amount of time and have a huge impact. The story takes place in Bangor, Maine. It is seeing how in this small community, people aren’t worrying about the politics and are seeing that these humans beings are sent off with respect and come home with respect.

CE: What shape does the “hero” take in this film?
GP: A lot of it is showing that ordinary people can do such ordinary things and have a huge impact on people. Our tag line is: “Sometimes all it takes is a handshake to change a life.” And we really believe that. You don’t have to be a superhero to do that. You can be an ordinary 87-year-old WWII veteran and know that you’re doing something to change someone’s life every day, and dedicated to something. Bill [cast member William Knight] struggles with finding purpose in his life. He finds this purpose and realizes that he is helping them do something, and making a difference. For Bill, this film has come full circle for him and he realizes that he does have meaning in his life, he does have a purpose. In all the theaters we’ve been to where he comes, he gets a standing ovation.

CE: What makes this film so special?
GP: At the heart of it, it’s all about that human connection. We all know what it’s like when we’re coming home and someone’s waiting there, and we all know what it’s like when you come back and no one is waiting there. Multiply that with a life and death situation, like heading off to war, or coming back after being in a war zone for the first time or even the sixth time.