Last week, Yael Melamede ’88 ARC ’93 won an Oscar as producer of this year’s best documentary short, “Inocente,” a film centered on a homeless teenager’s dream to become an artist. She also produced the 2003 documentary “My Architect: A Son’s Journey,” which follows Nathaniel Kahn ’85, the illegitimate son of renowned architect Louis Kahn — the late School of Architecture professor who designed the Yale Center for British Art and one building of the Yale University Art Gallery — as he travels the world to learn about his father through his architectural works. Following her Oscar win, Melamede spoke with the News about her time at Yale and her career as a filmmaker.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
A: I had been interested in film all along — I actually applied to film school and architecture school together. I always feel like if you make a bad movie, you can put it in a closet; if you make a bad building, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s an interesting question: Which one has a bigger impact, given how far a movie can go or a building can go?
Q: How has your architectural background informed your filmmaking?
A: I’m very grateful for having an architectural education behind me. I think the ability to see something in two ways is always incredibly useful.
Q: How would you describe your Yale experience?
A: I came to Yale very young. I was 16. In retrospect, coming back to grad school was a real chance to take greater advantage of the school. It was a much more focused and mature time for me. Yale was in a great moment of transition when I was a freshman there. It was a time when the campus as a whole became a little more conservative.
Q: What is your favorite memory from Yale?
A: One of the big things for me at Yale was that I discovered photography. If it hadn’t been for photography, I would have had a very different track.
Q: Who was the professor that had the greatest impact on you?
A: Richard Benson [former dean of the School of Art] was my first photography teacher, and he really opened up my world. I’m always grateful to him, or in times of difficulty in this business I think, “Why did you do this to me?” The photo department in the 1980s was an inspiring place to be.
Q: What inspired you to make “Inocente”?
A: We had decided we wanted to make a film about resilience. We had also come across this statistic that one in 45 kids in America is homeless. By chance, we were looking for all kinds of kids to tell their story, and we came upon Inocente. The film was originally going to cover more than one kid, but she was so strong that she would have overshadowed the other kids.
Q: I know “Inocente” raised money using Kickstarter, an online funding platform. How is Kickstarter changing movie production?
A: Kickstarter has gotten so much press off of this movie. We loved having them around, and being able to raise money through Kickstarter was such a huge benefit. I think what’s interesting is the fact that you have to present your story to other people — why it’s important and why they should believe in it, which is incredibly useful as filmmakers and as artists. For us Kickstarter played a hugely valuable role, but it was less than 10 percent of our final budget.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I’m working on a new documentary about dishonesty with Dan Ariely inspired by his book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves.” I’m just finishing up a completely different film I adore about ultramarathon runners. I specialize in films that ask, “What is that thing we have that we can call upon when everything else is gone?”
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?
A: I would say to store up a lot of stamina. It’s a really difficult business financially and even emotionally. I think finding a mentor is also really important, and I think it’s a hard business to find mentors. And I think the more you collaborate with people, the stronger you can be, if you pick your collaborators carefully.
Q: Can you describe your ideal partner?
A: I really like to work with people where we fight a lot, but I don’t care who’s right — it’s just about getting to the right idea. The more people there are and the more smart collaboration there is, the better the result can be.