MPI Filmmaker Releases Documentary Feature

February 24, 2021

This week, MPI fellow Megan Harrington’s documentary feature The House That Rob Built enjoyed its nationwide release on digital and Blu-ray. The documentary, which has been acquired by 1091 Pictures, was workshopped in an MPI Documentary Storytelling Workshop under the guidance of MPI filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson.

With applications currently open for the 2021 MPI Documentary Development and Production Lab, MPI spoke with Megan to discuss her new film and ask what advice she had for filmmakers interested in applying to the Documentary Lab. 

In 2018, you were accepted into MPI’s Documentary Storytelling Workshop with a very specific goal: to workshop the rough cut of your doc, “The House That Rob Built.” Can you tell us a little about this project, your connection to the subject, and why you wanted to make this film? 
The House That Rob Built is the inspiring story of Rob Selvig, pioneering coach of the University of Montana’s Lady Griz basketball team. In an era when gender discrimination in sports was the norm, Coach Selvig built a “house” of inclusion and empowerment by recruiting female athletes from the ranches, farms, and Native reservations of “Big Sky Country.” For nearly 40 years, these athletes would establish the preeminent women’s basketball program west of the Rockies.

I played for Rob, so I know firsthand how impactful it was to have female role models to look up to in sports. As an independent producer in 2018, I was looking for the next project to get off the ground. When Rob retired, it opened the door for this story to come to life.

“The House That Rob Built” screened to sold-out theaters during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. What advice do you have for filmmakers who are in or about to enter the festival circuit? 
I think it’s important to research what festivals are the best fit for your film and think about what your goals are for entering. I’d also call the festival before entering to ask if there are any fee waivers or discounts they might consider. In some cases, it’s just a matter of asking!

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is located in Missoula, Montana which is my hometown and where The House That Rob Built originated. Screening there opened the door for our distribution deal with 1091 because someone from the sister company was following the festival and reading about the sold-out crowds. It’s a very well respected festival! 

If you’re telling a story with a specific location—whether it’s a city, state, or region— make sure to see what festivals are available in that area because they might help move the needle on press and visibility. 

We are currently accepting applications now for our Documentary Development and Production Lab in which a select group of documentarians will workshop their scripts with the possibility of having their project acquired by MPI and produced as an MPI Original Film. Can you talk about your own documentary storytelling process? What was your greatest takeaway from the MPI Documentary Storytelling Workshop? 
I’ve worked with a core team on multiple docs so we have a shorthand when it comes to process. With The House That Rob Built you had a story spanning 38 years so we had to dig deep into the research to get a blueprint for what we wanted to show. It was important to encapsulate Rob’s entire career and not just one moment or game. We were talking about a legacy and a family, so those threads had to be woven together. 

I am so grateful to MPI—especially Lana Link and Laura Waters Hinson—for the opportunity to workshop the doc. The workshop was organized and run so efficiently. I was at a stage where my film was an assembly cut with very little B-roll, so it was dialogue heavy and story driven. The group offered invaluable and constructive notes that helped us navigate the next shoots and phases of production and post-production. It also reinforced the importance of focus groups and sharing your work at different phases.

“The House That Rob Built” has been acquired by 1091 Pictures and will release on digital platforms and be available to rent February 23. The film also has some serious endorsements from pro athletes. How did you go about promoting this film, and how would you recommend others draw attention to their films? 
As with anything, the team that comes together is key. We hired T.J. Berden to lead the marketing and distribution efforts, and he was instrumental in threading the needle between distribution and marketing. 

The film is based on the University of Montana (UM) Lady Griz, so we worked strategically with the University (ie: athletics, alumni). We also reached out to connections who had relationships with influential leaders who graduated from UM or had a connection to the state. Local, regional, and national organizations that would resonate with the film and its themes were also a target.

With regard to endorsements, Jeanne McNulty King—former Lady Griz—is well respected in the basketball world because she’s a sports agent. She has a strong personal connection to the film and was able to secure incredible endorsements. 

It’s a continual process of grassroots mobilization, and once you have your subject and story, it’s worth brainstorming who in that world you know—or know by association—that might be able to help you with outreach.

Is there anything you learned on this journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project? 
I don’t think there is enough time to answer that. Ha! If I could go back for this film, I would have found a way to interview Tara VanDerveer at Stanford. When you’re in the midst of battle and financially burdened, you are just trying to find a way to get the film to the finish line. We knew we had to go back to Montana and there wasn’t room in the budget for two trips. Going forward, if there is a person like Tara who has a connection to the story, I’d make sure it was a trip that was nonnegotiable. I always remind myself in situations like this, however, to remember what all was happening in the moment because it’s easier on the other side to look back.

How has your Moving Picture Institute fellowship helped to develop your career? 
MPI allowed me to move the project to the next step, and the financial and creative assistance was a huge help. The workshop enabled me to move towards a finished film that is now making its way into the world. That, in and of itself, is a huge career development milestone.

As you know, our mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas? 
The best way for me to navigate telling authentic stories is by meeting people where they are and creating a meaningful connection. 

What’s your most memorable experience from making the film?
This film is very close to my heart because when I was a little girl my dream was to be a Lady Griz, so there were so many memorable moments along the way with the various interviews and interactions. Jon Cipiti (director), John Louis Caiella (editor), and I spent hours and hours and hours refining the cut, and it was such a huge deal getting it to the finish line. They put their heart and soul into the story. 

Rob came to LA for the scoring session, and watching the film come to life with him, Jon Cipiti, and our composer, Grant Fonda, was pretty special. It was also a surreal moment because we had reached the last step in all the elements of the film coming together.

Of course, watching it in Missoula, Montana at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival with family, friends, Lady Griz fans, and former teammates, and seeing their reaction is a feeling you can’t describe. It was so important to me that they felt proud of the story that was told.

Any final advice for our filmmakers? 
I heard John Debney talk once, and he said something I’ll always remember and have found extremely helpful: approach every film like it’s your first one. 

You can watch The House That Rob Built this weekend on your favorite streaming service, including Apple TV, Prime Video, and Google Play. 

Click here to learn more and apply to the Documentary Lab. The application deadline is March 15, 2021.

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