Leslye Davis & Catrin Einhorn on Exploring the Effects of Military Service in “Father Soldier Son”

Leslye Davis has been a documentarian and photographer at The New York Times since 2012. Her work highlights salient modern conditions, including the American opioid crisis, the proliferation of mass shootings, and the fight for marriage equality. In 2016, she was on the team of journalists who were awarded the Overseas Press Club’s David Kaplan Award for their coverage of the ISIS-led terrorist attacks in Paris. Her work has been nominated for an Emmy and a Gerald Loeb Award for explanatory journalism, and she was part of a team of Times journalists who were finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. In 2017 Pictures of the Year International (POYi) awarded her runner-up for Multimedia Portfolio of the Year and in 2011 she won the competition.

Catrin Einhorn is a journalist at The New York Times who reports and produces narrative-driven work in a variety of media, including print, video, and audio. She was part of a team of reporters who were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018. In 2016, Einhorn and Jodi Kantor wrote a series about everyday Canadians adopting Syrian refugees, documenting the surprises, challenges, and intense relationships that arose over the year of sponsorship. Previously, she was part of a team that examined President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan by telling the personal stories of one battalion’s yearlong deployment in a multimedia series called “Year at War.” Her work has also been recognized with awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Emmys), Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University, World Press Photo, and Picture of the Year International.

“Father Soldier Son” is now available on Netflix.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

LD&CE: “Father Soldier Son” is the story of military service and combat rippling through generations in one family. Set against the backdrop of the nation’s longest war, it explores themes of purpose, sacrifice, duty, and American manhood through the lives of soldier and single father Brian Eisch and his two young sons, Joey and Isaac Eisch.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LD&CE: The boys! We realized that they offered an intimate look at how a parent’s deployment to war affects their children — both while the parent is away but also after they return. There has been powerful reporting on the aftermath of war on individual soldiers, but we wanted to explore its consequences on families and relationships.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

LD&CE: We hope people will consider the many ways that military service affects not just the service member, but their whole family. We want people to see what happens to the humans behind our national policies and the sacrifices called for by some of our cultural values.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

LD&CE: This family lived through one of the worst tragedies imaginable, and witnessing their loss and grief was very difficult. We mourned too.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

LD&CE: The production of the film was paid for by The New York Times as part of our regular jobs there as journalists. We worked on this film over the course of nearly a decade, and as the family’s story continued to grip us, the project grew.

Netflix got involved in 2018, at the tail end of production. They funded the final shoots and post-production.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

LD: I studied photojournalism in college and I loved the medium, but I found it limiting. Filmmaking felt like a far more holistic way to allow other people to tell their stories and share their experiences. I was inspired by the people I was documenting to want to expand into that medium, and of course, later, by the work of many great filmmakers I admire.

CE: I have wanted to make a documentary film since I was a young public radio reporter at WBEZ in Chicago. The scale, depth, and immersive quality of film called to me. I took a class called “Developing the Documentary,” taught by Judy Hoffman at Chicago Filmmakers. All these years later, here we are.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

LD: One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a dear friend who said, “What’s a great life without someone to share it with?” I’ve tried to keep a key group of beloved friends and family members at the top of my priorities. That doesn’t always mean I can make it to the reunions or the birthday parties, but it does mean that my people can rely on me and vice versa. I think especially for filmmaking — which seems to require so much soul — you really have to take care of your own to make honest work.

One of the worst pieces of advice I ever received was from someone who told us that we should stop making this film because it would be too hard! Luckily that was just one voice among a chorus of people who pushed us to keep going.

CE: The most important advice I’ve ever gotten is to treat other people as you would like to be treated. I try to bring that to all facets of my life.

I can’t recall an easily shareable example of bad advice, but I will say this: I love getting advice, including unsolicited advice. Some people seem to get offended when others offer advice, but I enjoy the feedback. Sometimes I take it to heart, other times I discard it, but I appreciate getting it all the same.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

LD: Do things that challenge you so much you’re bound to stumble; know what you need and don’t be afraid to ask for help; cherish generous collaborators who lift you up and do the same for them; most of all, never stop striving to be a better listener.

CE: Be exacting, relentless, and compassionate all at once — with yourself and others.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LD: “American Honey” is one of my recent favorite films directed by a woman. I’m originally from rural Kentucky, and I remember feeling like Andrea Arnold had uniquely captured some of the dysfunction I saw growing up, as well as the messy experience of someone between childhood and adulthood who’s being pulled too far in the latter direction. And that was just in the opening scenes of the film!

CE: It’s so hard to choose! I can’t decide on a favorite, but a recent one that I simply adore is “Frozen 2,” directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. It’s about finding yourself, atoning for sins of the past and, when you’re paralyzed with grief, just doing the next right thing.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

LD: I covered COVID-19 for The New York Times for a couple of months when our city was the world’s epicenter. I saw a lot of strength and unity in covering NYC’s fight against the virus, but I also saw a lot of devastation, and for a while it left a cloud of anti-creativity over my work. I’m keeping creative now by filling notebooks with scrawled ideas for my next project.

CE: Practically speaking, it’s been a blur between my kids’ remote learning, child care, and so much news to cover. My husband and I are both journalists and until recently we were both covering the pandemic, so it’s been very busy. Now he’s taken three weeks of vacation to do Camp Dad, and I am so grateful to have a partner who makes it possible for me to do this kind of work. Emotionally, we are grieving with the world over so much loss.

July 19, 2020
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