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Daily Inspiration: Meet Julie Bayer Salzman

Today we’d like to introduce you to Julie Bayer Salzman.

Hi Julie, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
As a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of traveling to other countries — I wanted to see the world! — but being from a midwestern, middle class family for which global travel was not feasible, it was up to me to carve out my own adventures. So, I went as far from Chicago for college as I could afford to go, and that was to Austin, TX.

Texas was like another country as far as I was concerned. Everything about it was completely different from what I knew – the accent, the cowboys, country music…all of it. And I loved it. I felt more at home in ways I can’t really explain, and yet I was definitely an outsider. There weren’t a lot of out-of-state students at UT at the time – everyone I knew was Texan – so I was “Julie from Chicago”, and I dug being the outsider. I think that vantage point of being the observer was so inherent to my being from the start. Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in a large family and feeling on the periphery of it. I don’t know. But it’s a space and place in which I am quite comfortable residing.

My very first college course was in Cultural Anthropology, and on the first day of class, the professor played some Indonesian gamelan music. I was transported. That’s when I started to identify myself as an anthropologist of sorts. And then, I took a visual anthropology course, which exposed me to documentary storytelling, and it kind of sealed the deal. I recalled the days of my sister and I as teenagers, sitting on the floor and writing scenes to movies we were concocting in our minds, and it all started to come together…I needed to make my way into filmmaking.

One of my earliest jobs out of college was for The Discovery Channel outside of Washington, DC. It wasn’t on the production side, but it did lead me to London briefly to work on a documentary series with a small mom-and-pop production company, and that kind of work environment was so much more my style than the corporate world. I started to sketch out my future there: I’d spend 20 years getting to where I wanted to go professionally; the next 20 years living/being that professional; and the final 20 years teaching it. Strangely, that’s not that far from how things appear to be turning out!

After London, I spent a year working at an international boarding school in Switzerland and that was my first taste of teaching and working with kids. Surprisingly, I loved that, too! I’ve never had the problem of finding something I like doing, only the problem of liking too many things and having a hard time choosing. A real turning point was a moment in Prague, walking down a cobblestone street and wondering where to go next in the world. Was it time to start a “proper” career or do I keep working and exploring my way around the world? Just then, I kid you not, a neon pink sign in a travel agency caught my eye. It said “Paris to Los Angeles, $360”. My sister had recently moved to LA from Chicago, so I decided I’d join her if she agreed to it. Luckily she did, giving my film career a natural place to start.

After a period of freelancing, hoping to work in documentaries, I quickly came to the realization that a kid like me, who had a mountain of college loans to pay off, could not possibly make a living in the low budget documentary world, so instead I landed a job with a television commercial production company that worked exclusively with documentary filmmakers doing commercial projects. It was another mom-and-pop shop, and they became my work family for over a decade.

The financial benefits of a full-time job enabled me to make my first film, “Time & Tide” – a film about the impact of sea-level rise and globalization on the tiny South Pacific nation of Tuvalu. Making that film was my first true foray into directing a project of my own, and once I got a taste of that experience, I could not go back to only producing commercials for others. A few months after “Time & Tide” was released, I got pregnant, and that’s when I realized I could no longer do commercials for a living in order to make documentaries on the side, all while raising a child. I made the decision to walk away from the commercial gig and start developing my own projects. It was a risky move, no doubt, but in some ways I had no choice – it was either follow my heart or spend my life thinking “what if…?”, and I knew from a young age that I wanted to love my work. Luckily my husband was able to carry us financially for a period of time while I got busy writing and making short films while raising our son.

Fast forward a few years: our son comes home from kindergarten with a wealth of information about his prefrontal cortex, anger and the importance of breath, and the next thing I know I’m making a film about mindfulness. One led to another, and another…turns out these films are having a much bigger impact than I could ever have foreseen. I really enjoy the challenge of making something visceral and visual out of a topic as philosophical and cerebral as mindfulness. A few years ago, Sesame Street found my work and asked me to create content for them, and I’ve since done a handful of films under their name. If you had told me seven years ago that I’d be making educational films for kids, I’d have laughed at you, especially considering I was at that time writing an erotic screenplay! I have many varied interests, and that’s what’s kept me in filmmaking — I get to dapple in all sorts of subject matter. It’s like being in school all the time, and I love it.

When the pandemic hit, I wanted to do something to help, so I did what I know how to do and made a short film called “Surfing Corona” – it was a kind of love letter to humanity at a time of great fear and uncertainty. In August though, my filmmaking life had to go on the back burner. This year, we were supposed to be in Portland, OR, making a feature doc about the nation’s first for-credit course in mindfulness for public high school teens, but instead I’ve been at home helping my now two kids with remote learning and doing my best to keep them happy and healthy. In addition to our biological son, we added a foster son to our family right before the pandemic hit. It was a bit of an emergency situation for him, and we stepped in to help for what we thought was going to be just a few months, but then…COVID. All that time together in lockdown solidified a new family dynamic and now it looks like he’s with us forever — what a blessing! I’ll get fully back on my career track when the kids are back to school next Fall. Life is about learning how to pivot, right? My goal is to get a little more graceful at it as I get older.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Smooth? HA! How boring would that be? Easier, perhaps, but do we grow from things that are too easy?

So many struggles…mainly financial, really. I worked my way through college and still had a pile of debt afterwards. Doing documentaries definitely was not going to help pay those off! Having to work in the commercial world was a necessity if I wanted to be in film at all, and because of it, I learned a great deal about the entire production process in a very short timeline, which was extremely beneficial. It was like getting paid to go to film school.

Once I started to do my own projects, it became painfully evident just how hard it is to secure funding. When I started “Time & Tide”, it was the year 2000 and no one was talking about climate change. There was no interest in funding a film about sea level rise halfway around the world because funders didn’t see any relevance to our life here in America. It was only going to be “sexy” if the islanders were naked (I’m not joking – that was actually something a potential funder told me). Thankfully we were able to self-fund because I was in the more lucrative commercial world and could afford to make my own film at the time.

When I left commercial production to focus on my own family and work, that’s when it got tough. I started doing short films instead of pursuing larger projects and chose to stay close to home. Films on mindfulness aren’t exactly “sexy” either, so it’s not easy getting investors to jump on board, despite the successes the films have had. So, yes, it’s still tough, and yet I haven’t given up. I’ve learned that when you really want to do something, you find ways of doing it, no matter the obstacles. You can’t let limitations prevent you from getting to where you know you need to go. The beautiful thing about limitations is that they make you more resourceful and adaptable; you become a more creative problem solver, and there’s nothing bad about that. I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now had money come more easily back then. So I guess ultimately, once enough time has passed, it’s easier to see what we perceive to be “struggles” as just mere circumstances that led to a different outcome than perhaps the one we hoped for, and often those outcomes are just as interesting or successful. Word choice is everything. That all said if anyone reading this wants to be a patron of my art, holler! I don’t exactly love financial insecurity; I do have a family to raise, and I’m not that zen. 😉

As for other challenges…my husband is my greatest and most important creative partner. Making films and raising a family with the same person is not for everyone. Thankfully, we’ve had both a great therapist and a stellar group of friends to counsel us along the way. Couples who both work and live together have to learn how to compromise in ways not everyone is willing or able to do. We’ve overcome some extremely difficult times over the past 22 years and grown exponentially as individuals and as a couple because of those challenges and the career compromises/sacrifices we’ve made to keep our family together. Neither one of us gives up too easily on anything. Sometimes that tenacity can be irksome, but mostly it’s a blessing. We make each other do better work behind the camera and in our home.

Lastly, I wouldn’t trade anything for the time I’ve spent raising kids, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the hardest aspect of my life. Striving to be an all-star mom with career ambition is extremely challenging if not near impossible. Our society barely assists working families to begin with, and film is a pretty cruel industry to work in as a woman and mother. The demanding hours and deadlines do not bode well for a family in which both parents are working on different projects. I never wanted someone else raising my kids so I had to accept that whatever growth I was going to have would be very slow-going…and it has been just that…but it’s growth nonetheless, and I have no regrets there. My boys are both thriving right now, despite Covid, despite the changes, despite everything. Suffice to say, I’ve had to redefine what success means to me every step of the way.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I’m a filmmaker/photographer/storyteller, and there are so many of us doing this work, many of whom are far more accomplished and successful than I am, so these questions are a little uncomfortable for me to answer, in all honesty. I don’t really like tooting my own horn, but I am proud of the work I’ve done nonetheless.

I suppose I am most known for my mindfulness short film work; there aren’t a lot of us in this category. “Just Breathe” – a short in which elementary school kids talk about anger and how they use their breath to calm themselves down – was the breakout, and it has now been translated into seven or so languages. “Release” (middle school kids learning mindfulness to manage anxiety), and “Into Light” (high school kids navigating depression with the help of mindfulness) followed, and all three films are part of what I hope will one day be a series that teaches how to use mindfulness to shift various emotional/habitual states throughout all stages of life. Schools around the world are using these films in their curricula and even though that doesn’t help pay the bills, it does help me sleep well at night. I’ll take peace of mind over a fat bank account any day.

My film work tends to be more experiential and empathic. Work that resonates with me generally is the kind that helps shed light on the human condition; that improves our overall well-being; that promotes empathy, compassion and peace. I deeply believe that our external and internal environments are inextricable, so if we’re hurting inside, we’re likely going to hurt the planet, too. I hope to continue to be able to create content and tell stories that help heal both individuals and the planet as a whole, whether through advertising, narrative, feature documentaries, short experiential pieces, or games/apps.

As for photography and writing, they’re more like side hobbies that keep my creative juices flowing. My husband uses some of my photos for art pieces he makes out of salvaged wood. It’s nice knowing my photos are on people’s walls in ways that I never intended. And screenwriting is the way I work towards my future. I don’t call myself a screenwriter because I’ve never tried to actually sell a script, but as a movie buff, I can’t help but write the stories I want to see one day. Everything will happen when it happens. I’m in no rush. I refer to myself as a “slow motion multitasker” for a reason.

Are there any apps, books, podcasts, blogs or other resources you think our readers should check out?
I’ve been a student of both Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Sharon Salzberg’s teachings for many years, and they’re always good to re-read. “Everywhere You Go, There You Are” by Kabat-Zinn and “Real Love” from Salzberg are permanent fixtures on my bookshelf. Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast is a default when out on a long walk, and Dan Harris’ “Ten Percent Happier” is another great podcast as well. All of that helps my psychological/spiritual game.

“This American Life”, “The Daily”, “Serial”, and “The New Yorker Radio Hour” — these are the podcasts I go to for meaty, thought-provoking storytelling and content that taps me into the zeitgeist and challenges me to explore the issues in it. The “Nice White Parents” podcast blew me away, and Ibram Kendi’s audiobook “How to Be Anti-Racist” really opened my eyes to systemic racism and the ways in which it is essentially my duty as a white person to help dismantle it.

Creatively, music and nature are where I get my soul inspiration. I use them to tune into my body and get out of my head, so I’m always on the hunt for a variety of new and old music to listen to while out on hikes. (A shout-out here to KCRW and all their excellent DJs and radio producers.) An extensive music library is a must when you’re a filmmaker – it helps set a tone at the start of the editing process and holds tremendous influence over the film. I recently got turned onto “Song Explorer” on Spotify and have been enjoying listening to artists talk about the origins of a particular song of theirs. I love hearing about others’ creative processes – how they unfold, what their challenges were, etc. Having context when listening to a song can change the listener’s experience entirely, and I really appreciate KUT for producing this podcast.

Lastly, I have a load of photography books on the shelves and always draw inspiration from them — Graciela Iturbide, Sebastiao Salgado, Steve McCurry, Saul Leiter and so many others whose works reflect my curiosity for the world and inform my own work in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious.

Contact Info:

Image Credits:

Jose Angel Castro, Jackie Bryan, Barnaby Willett

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