Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, 53, has conquered a diverse range of subjects — including the heartbreaking struggle of life in America’s Appalachian country and a heartwarming tribute to her mother, Ethel Kennedy, who raised Rory and her 10 siblings after her husband, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968 during his presidential campaign. Kennedy’s latest documentary, The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari, premieres in theaters Dec. 9 and on Netflix Dec. 16, and is both a harrowing and inspiring story of the tragic 2019 volcanic eruption off the coast of New Zealand.
How do you choose your subjects, or maybe they choose you?
That’s always a hard question to answer, because I don’t think there’s a total logic to the decision. These films take a lot out of me. They are all-consuming … [and] ultimately, I have to make the decision on a gut check that this is a good story, an important story, something I think people should watch — will want to watch.
What’s the “important story” behind The Volcano: Rescue From Whakaari?
There is something very reassuring about humans and the fact that they turned up and they showed up for each other in so many ways and risked their lives to save each other, that there are people around us who try to make the world a better place and lessen hardship and pain and suffering. There was something kind of beautiful for me about that.
Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera?
I started doing photography pretty early on in my life. I had a camera in my early teens. I actually never took a film class really. I took photography classes in college, and I always had a camera with me. I was always interested in photography and using photography to tell stories. And then it expanded to film. I remember in college I did sort of little mini-documentaries about various things that interested me.
Who or what were your inspirations for getting into documentary filmmaking?
The films that really inspired and impacted me were films I saw when I was a teenager or in my early 20s. Films like Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A.; the Maysles Brothers [Albert and David; and Albert’s] film Primary; the [PBS] Eyes on the Prize series; then [filmmaker] Michael Moore was emerging too in those years. He had a great capacity to tell hard-hitting stories, but in an entertaining way. I was also greatly influenced by Sheila Nevins, who was running HBO at the time when I started making documentaries, and I was lucky enough to work with. She was really at the forefront in looking at what was happening in the dramatic and narrative world and saying we could do that too. These documentaries don't need to be spinach. We can make films about sex. We can make films about drugs. We can make films about edgy stuff and entertaining stuff.
You travel quite a bit in your filmmaking. What nonwork essentials do you always pack?
I take a very large tea cup. I love tea. I take my Bigelow Earl Grey tea. I sleep with an eye mask, so I take that too. I always take a water bottle with me too, because I hate drinking plastic. I'm pretty religious about that, because I'm very anti-plastic.
What’s your favorite (volcano-free!) vacation destination?
I love love love being home. I love my husband, and my son is here; my two daughters are off at college, but I love being with them. We have three dogs who I adore — they all have poodle in them, mostly, because my husband is allergic — Butter, Biscuit and Bean. My kids named all the dogs, so you can ask them for their rationale. We have a goat — there were two, Tom and Jerry, and then Tom just died — and a tortoise, Zippy. They’re all very cute, and they all get along pretty good. The goat’s actually wandering around outside of her pen right now.
Given your family background, have you ever thought about going into politics?
It's a question that comes up often. I really appreciate people who get into politics and the work they do, and honestly the sacrifices they make in their lives. I’m very invested in electoral politics and the importance of it and how relevant it is and how significant it is right now. But personally, I feel like I’m on the track I need to and want to be on right now in making films. I do other things. I support politicians. I campaign and I write checks. There are some foundations I helped start and some initiatives that I work on, but I am not pursuing any kind of political future as a politician for myself right now.
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