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The Work That Made Me: Erin Sanger


From Johnny Cash to National Geographic, Panoptica Films director Erin shares some of the work that's shaped her career

The Work That Made Me: Erin Sanger

Erin Sanger is an award-winning director with an impressive background in the documentary realm. She's directed for brands including 23&Me, Allergan, JVC, and Bai. Her work has screened at over 60 film festivals internationally including SXSW and Tribeca, and has been featured on National Geographic, The Atlantic, PBS, and Topic. Recently, she directed MACK WRESTLES for ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, which won five festival awards before airing on both ESPN and ABC. She's currently in post-production on her first feature-length documentary THE COMA CLUB, which was the recipient of NYU's coveted Richard Vague Production Fund. She is a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…

I still can’t watch the music video for Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” without tearing up. I’m drawn to documentary work, so it’s probably one of the reasons the video impacts me. The pairing of archival footage — shots of a shuttered and empty House of Cash, images of a younger and more hopeful version of himself intercut with an older Johnny Cash performing — renders this spectrum of emotions: grief, nostalgia, regret, gratitude. It’s a simple technique, and it really hits me. 

The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…

It’s not an ad/music video, but I decided I wanted to go into the industry when I was in high school, and at that time, I was pretty obsessed with Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson films. I can’t tell you how many times I watched either Goodfellas or Boogie Nights over the years. I still love those movies. 

The creative work that I keep revisiting…

I’ve been drawn to Lynne Ramsey’s work for a while. I’ve often rewatched her films before I direct narrative projects, because I’m so blown away by what she does with the camera — the way she abstracts her frames, values details and silences, how she can manage to say so much without saying anything. 

My first professional project…

My first directing job out of film school was on a documentary project called The Next Part. I was following a military couple at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre facing fertility issues following a catastrophic war injury sustained in Afghanistan. They’d been told by their doctors they would never conceive a child naturally, and then they did, miraculously, while I was filming with them. It was amazing, and the project stays really close to me because of the friendship that grew out of it. I made that film eight years ago, and we still talk regularly. 

The piece of work that still makes me jealous…

I love sports marketing campaigns. I could throw on an old Nike or Reebok spot and immediately feel inspired to get outside. I’d love to direct one, and am totally jealous of anyone who has. 

The creative project that changed my career…

The first larger-scale branded documentary I directed, Leaders of the Pack, which was commissioned by Tribeca Studios and acquired by National Geographic. We followed a renowned New York Times photojournalist covering a rookie training for her first Iditarod, which is a 1000-mile dog sled race across Alaska. At one point, we were literally riding dog sleds to get to our shooting location in the tundra, and I remember thinking, “wow, we’re really doing this.” I’ll never forget the experience, and it started me on a track of directing for bigger brands.

The work that I’m proudest of…

In terms of branded work, I’ve done three different campaigns with Tribeca Studios (Leaders mentioned above, as well as campaigns with 23&Me and Bai), and I’m proud of all of them. I think with these pieces, we were able to capture really personal, intimate human stories in a beautiful way. To me, this is one of the highlights of branded documentary work — being able to tell meaningful stories, but also having the resources to capture them really cinematically. 

I was involved in this and it makes me cringe…

There are projects I’ve worked on I wouldn’t put on my reel, but they did pay my rent. So, I don’t consider them my best work, but I’m still grateful for them because paying your rent is pretty great, too!

The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most…

I have a 30-minute scripted dramedy in development that I’m excited about. 

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PANOPTICA, Thu, 16 Sep 2021 09:53:55 GMT