By Patricia Caso/October 28, 2016
Photos: Courtesy Stacey Reiss
As an award-winning producer, writer and director, documentarian Stacey Reiss has probably seen and done enough to make a movie about herself. Her most recent effort as a producer is THE EAGLE HUNTRESS, which takes Stacey to “the ends of the earth” to follow a thirteen-year-old Mongolian girl, Aisholpan, through her challenges to realize her dream to be the best eagle hunter.
“Her story is universal. It’s a story of a father supporting and teaching his daughter, which I can certainly appreciate as the mother of two children.” Stacey Reiss
I was intrigued to find out more about the producer behind this stunning film that harkens back to traditions and culture from the days of Genghis Khan…
EYE: Why did you jump on board to do this seemingly obscure story?
STACEY: Morgan Spurlock, a noted documentary filmmaker, showed me some pictures of Aisholpan and some of the footage the director, Otto Bell, put together. I was so captivated and inspired by her story.
I felt like I would do anything to work on that film. Her story is universal. It’s a story of a father supporting and teaching his daughter, which I can certainly appreciate as the mother of two children.
The Eagle Huntress Trailer/Sony Classics
You can’t take your eyes off Aisholpan when you see her in pictures. When you meet her, she’s such an incredible person. I am so glad I said yes even though it was a difficult shoot.
EYE: What were your challenges?
STACEY: I had never heard of eagle hunting, so I learned a lot about that. I had some trepidation in going to this place where our small three person crew would be trying to communicate in totally different languages, It was such a different environment, a nomadic way of living.
I remember the director Otto Bell saying to me, “You know it’s [Mongolia] really the end of the earth.” I’ve never been somewhere so remote. It is not only the end of the earth; it is the end of the earth and then some. There are no roads or electricity. We are different religions.
“How was I going to communicate with all that? How were we going to trust each other? How were we going to share this beautiful story and be authentic to them?”
I found out very quickly that there is this universal language that we speak. You can speak with your body language. I showed Aisholpan’s father pictures of my children. My son was 12 and his daughter Aisholpan was 13 at the time. As parents we both could show pictures and be very proud of our children. We made them feel comfortable so they wanted to share their story with us.
EYE: What is eagle hunting and why is the Golden Eagle Festival so important to Aisholpan?
STACEY: Historically, eagles were used to hunt foxes and rabbits for food and warm clothes. Eagle hunting is more of a sport now. However, it remains popular and important culturally in the Mongolian region.
It is usually passed down from father to son. For my film, it was capturing the unique experience that Aisholpan had being first huntress in her family in twelve generations.
For two days, the first weekend in October every year, the Golden Eagle Festival is important, a big tradition, for 70 or more eagle hunters to show off their skills.There is a lot of pride in that. No woman had ever competed in the Festival, much less won.
EYE: How do the events reflect the tradition of eagle hunters?
STACEY: The first event is a nomadic fashion show where the contestants are judged on their furs, style and their ability to ride. In another event, Aisholpan had to be the catcher, catching the eagle from someone letting the eagle go from the top of the mountain. The eagle then lands on her as she is riding her horse.
She is then judged on the speed, the grace, and the fact that the eagle is trained to her call to land on her arm. The third event is about how quickly the eagle lands on a rabbit that is being pulled along. It’s not a real rabbit; it’s a fur piece that is balled up. It’s also to show speed and agility.
EYE: Any particular behind-the-scenes stories that stick with you?
STACEY: I did actually hold an eagle. Aisholpan’s father invited me get on his horse and wear his eagle hunter hat and put the eagle on my arm. It wasn’t until that 15 pounds of eagle was on my arm that I realized how heavy that bird was and also how difficult this is to do.
I was just sitting there on a stationary horse holding the bird on my arm. Meanwhile, here’s [Aisholpan] a thirteen-year-old girl riding a horse, holding a bird and competing. It was then that I appreciated how challenging it all was.
EYE: In addition to the adventure, what can the audience take away?
STACEY: This is a G-rated film for audiences 9-99 who are transported to a totally different world by magnificent cinematography and story. It’s a great story of a supportive family. Her parents provided the incredible foundation for her to pursue her dreams.
This movie can make you feel unafraid to go for it, pursue your dreams. We are in such a divisive world right now with a lot of anger and hatred. I hope this story brings people together. These are the big messages in the film.
EYE: What is it about documentaries that you enjoy so much?
STACEY: I worked for NBC News for many years. I’m captivated by nonfiction stories, things that are grounded in reality. The truth can be a lot more interesting and stranger than fiction. It presents a challenge to work with people’s stories, the interviews they give you, the material you get.
There’s a lot of the unexpected when you go out into the field. When you get those special moments, and you know when you get them when you are out in the field, it’s not something you could have scripted. To me that’s the best part of the process.
EYE: Do women have a tougher time succeeding in positions like yours in the documentary world?
STACEY: I think the documentary world is more open to women. I’ve worked with female directors, editors and crew members. Our executive producer for THE EAGLE HUNTRESS is Daisy Ridley, who was Rae in Star Wars. Typically directors have been male, but that’s changing.
It is really important in the business for women to support other women. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, whom I’ve made two films with for HBO, IT’S ME, HILARY and SUITED, and I love nothing more than working with strong smart women with big voices.
EYE: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten as you’ve come along?
STACEY: One of the best things I learned at NBC was from two great executive producers there, Neil Shapiro and David Corvo. They would say: “Play to your strength.” When you have your material, especially in the edit room, you know what is your best material.
You know who the best characters are. I’ve also said that to other people when I watch cuts of things. I say, “We should be playing to the strength. This is the best part of the film. There should be more of that.”
EYE: Do you have a favorite story from all the projects you’ve been involved with?
STACEY: For THE DIPLOMAT, a film about the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and directed by his son David, we interviewed such an array of leaders from Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton to John Kerry and ambassadors around the world. For me that was an incredible thrill.
I came out of journalism school at University of Wisconsin, Madison at the time of the Bosnian war. Coming of age as a journalist and then to be able to meet some of those players was an amazing experience.
On another lighter side of behind-the-scenes, we were out shooting IT’S ME, HILARY at Hilary Knight’s home in East Hampton. [He is the artist who draws Eloise.] It is a beautiful piece of property with this huge pond. I was assisting in getting a shot, helping this person get on the canoe to go on the pond. The cameraman was standing next to me helping me get all this organized.
Whoops! The next thing I knew I ended up falling into the pond with my camera, with my phone, on the first day of production. I had never worked with this crew before. It was very funny; ultimately, I gathered myself, returned and didn’t lose my cool.
EYE: Do you have any advice for those following in your footsteps?
STACEY: It’s all about great stories and having access to those great stories. If you have a story to tell, go out there, record some if you can. Come in with a story that people cannot say “no” to. I feel like anyone can do that. We see that every year – people coming from all different disciplines with incredible stories to tell.
EYE: What is next for you?
STACEY: I’m working on two new documentary films and a scripted series. I’m also developing new projects with some of the same collaborators I’ve worked with in the past. When you find people you like to work with, it’s exciting to continue to create great work together.
EYE: How do you balance all that work with your family?
STACEY: The key is having a very supportive family. My husband is a partner in raising our children, 9 and 12, and is very supportive of my career. And, our extended family often pitches in to help while I’m traveling as well as a couple of very trustworthy babysitters.
One of the benefits of my job is that it’s flexible and when I’m not on location, I often work from my home office so I can schedule my time for sports’ games, volunteering and field trips.
EYE: Finally, from where you stand now, what is most important to you?
STACEY: It’s really important to me that I’m a role model for my children; I want them to see firsthand the benefits of working hard to achieve your goals. I hope the stories I can share and the lessons I learn on my projects will instill not only good values but a passion for learning.
One of my sons shared with his homeroom what it was like to meet the Mongolian family in THE EAGLE HUNTRESS after they came over to our home for dinner. I hope by meeting people from all cultures and places, it sets them on their own path of adventure and exploration.
EYE: TWE looks forward to many more of your ideas making a successful impact in social awareness and entertainment. THE EAGLE HUNTRESS and your other films to date are certainly worth the experience! Thank you so much for taking time to share your insights.
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS opens in New York and Los Angeles November 2. Check out this website under release to find information about other locations.