Chasing Beauty provides a rare glimpse into the modeling industry peeling away the veneer that all too often seduces ingénues hoping to be catapulted into the big leagues. I recently previewed the film and was excited to have the opportunity to speak with editor and co-writer Pete Sepenuk. With brilliant candor, Pete spoke to Emily Sandberg and me about the genesis of the film and his working relationship with director Brent Huff.
What challenges did you face when making Chasing Beauty?
There are always challenges when making any film, but I think the documentary is its own unique beast. I previously edited three other narrative features and several short form documentaries, but this was my first time doing a feature documentary, so it was extremely daunting. Without a script written ahead of time, you’re essentially writing and crafting the entire film in the editing, figuring out the story and character arcs through the hours and hours of interviews and B roll. I was not at all prepared for the amount of time I was about to invest, fourteen months, when my previous features had only taken an average of about eight weeks. It’s like a marriage in that you have to truly love what you are working on and stay committed for a long period of time. In many ways though, the feature documentary is actually a dream job for an editor, because you are creating the entire story almost from scratch, which is actually pretty exciting. I’m also a credited writer on the film, along with the director, Brent Huff.
Was there anything that surprised you to learn during the research and development stages of making the film?
I had heard so many amazing stories about the fashion business from Brent, the director, who is a former model himself. Although I never had much of an interest in the fashion business (you should see my daily wardrobe), the more I heard from Brent and the more I watched the full interviews with our subjects, I was surprised at how fascinated I became with the business. I found more heart in the business than I did heartlessness. The main thing that drew me to the project was our five main characters’ different stories and the inherent real life drama and humor that come along with that.
What biases, if any, did you discover you had about the industry during the process of making the film?
Obviously the business is for the young and skinny, so I was already set up for that bias. Before going into this, I also thought that the modeling industry was full of selfish, vapid people whose worth was determined by either their waist or the number of abs they’ve chiseled out. I was surprised to find that many models, their families, and the people they work for are all very human and strive to succeed in a way that lifts the industry and the individual. I think some other documentaries were too biased, which means they really are only focused on one side, i.e. aging models, the dark side of modeling, drugs, extreme weight loss, etc. Our portrayal of the industry in Chasing Beauty covers all aspects, revealing the pitfalls, excess and success, and really gives the viewer an honest look at the current state of the beauty business.
How did your perception of the modeling industry evolve during the making of the film?
I actually found that bad things happen to truly good people. The hardcore motivation for success in the modeling industry can cause people to put on blinders to the point where they are doing literally anything to get to the next level. Modeling is an intense profession, and some people forget who they are in an effort to reach the top, or just to become successful at all. It’s a trap that exists in any industry, but because the shelf life of a model is so brief, many of them are on overdrive to make that success happen now. There really is no later. My perception evolved in the sense that I learned about the urgency these people face in their lives if they want to be successful. Many people think of models as shallow, but I learned that they are just intensely focused on what is important in this industry – looks, personality and the ability to outwardly “sell” a product, because they have to be – or else they won’t have a career.
How is the approach to making documentaries different than other films?
The main thing is that the process is completely reversed. There isn’t a script to hang your story on so you need to be prepared for a much longer journey. You may think you’ve nailed a section, but then realize it’s in the completely wrong place in the movie, or a sound bite you think is hilarious on its own, doesn’t work at all in the context of the story you are trying to tell. Just like a narrative feature, you could work all day on something that you think is brilliant and then watch it the next day and think it stinks. With a documentary, everything already is real, whereas with a scripted film, you are trying to make everything seem real. If you are saddled with trying to edit a bad performance in a scripted feature, the challenge then becomes to make it as realistic as possible. In a documentary it’s all real, so you never are cutting based on performance, only what’s relevant to the point you are making, and if it’s moving the story forward.
I think the main key to getting through any long-term film project is to have a sense of humor and work with people you really enjoy and click with artistically. Working with Brent is always extremely creatively satisfying. We have very similar sensibilities and are never at extremes.
You have done a lot of voice over work for movies. Do you have a preference when working in film?
My preference changes every day, depending on my mood. The great thing about these two professions is that they are polar opposites. The voice over work is fun, doesn’t take very long, you get to work with a lot of different people, and provides instant gratification when you record on a Tuesday and you see and hear it on TV the following Friday. Editing is the quite the contrary. It takes up all your time, mental focus and energy, you work mostly all alone, and the gratification only comes sporadically in waves while you’re working. It can also be extremely gratifying in the end when you finally see the finished product up on the big screen. It’s highly creative in a much different sense than the voice over work, and since I am an insane movie buff and love watching movies, working on them satisfies my creative passion, whereas doing voice overs fulfills my passion for performing. I’ve been doing voices and making movies since I was seven, and still feel the need to do both so that I really appreciate the other.
What message would you like the audience to take away from your film?
I think the message is two-fold: that modeling is a slippery slope, and that like any business, there are a few who are highly successful but many who are not. The main message is that the subject of beauty is universal. It’s one of the few subjects where everyone has an opinion. I think the film’s strength is that even after the viewer spends time watching models, beauty brokers, and agents in the film, they will ask themselves, what does beauty really mean to me? I was always coming at it from an outsider’s perspective, meaning how could I entertain an audience member who may be like me: at first skeptical and not too interested in models, to in the end, really embracing this film on a human level and finding a universal connection.
What projects do you have in development that you’d like to share?
I am the voice of Gabe in the feature film Gabe the Cupid Dog, which comes out on DVD and VOD on October 23. It’s a very sweet family film with a talking dog who plays matchmaker. I am also featured in the 3D feature Dorothy of OZ, which is the animated sequel to The Wizard of OZ, coming out in early 2013. Right now, we are gearing up for the release of Chasing Beauty, which will come out in January 2013.
Any advice you’d like to offer to models starting out in the business now that you’ve covered some of the pitfalls?
Just know going in exactly what you’re getting into, that you may not always be treated with the respect you feel you deserve, and you may not achieve the success you think you will. That being said, if this is something that you really feel passionate about, then go for it.
Would you be interested in covering the fashion industry again? If so, what next would you like to look at?
I think if I were to cover anything in fashion again, it would be from a magazine’s side or the agents’ perspective. I find their process to be fascinating since it’s all from the business perspective. Truthfully, if it’s a good story with great characters, whether it’s a narrative or a documentary in any genre, I’ll be interested.
Learn more about Chasing Beauty here
Rent and purchase on iTunes