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Last month at the Cannes film festival launch of her latest picture, Bright Star, Jane Campion (Sweetie, The Piano) urged ambitious women storytellers to boost the current percentage of working female directors (a paltry 6 percent). To get there, she said, they'd have to develop tough skins. I would add they also need flexibility, patience, passion, self-confidence, and tremendous stamina. Recently I interviewed someone with all those qualities: the sharp and personable Kate Churchill, a one-time Chicago resident who was back in town to promote her first theatrical feature, Enlighten Up!, a documentary about yoga that took her five years to make.
After majoring in theater at Connecticut College, Churchill moved to Chicago to work as an actress. "I really loved the rehearsal process," she recalls, "but found the performing tedious. I realized I was on the wrong side of the stage." In the early 1990s she became the first producing director of the Lookingglass Theatre, where she produced more than half a dozen shows, including Mary Zimmerman's original staging of The Arabian Nights (a revival is now running downtown). Then Churchill headed to Los Angeles to break into film and television, working as a unit production manager for Disney before scoring a development deal at Universal. After little more than a year in Hollywood, she left. "I just didn't like it," she says. "I hightailed it back to the east coast, and landed a job at Nova." Churchill stayed employed for six years and traveled all over the world, producing and directing documentaries. In 2001 she started her own company, Nama Productions.
But in her late 20s she found herself hitting a wall physically, despite being a toned and competitive athlete. "I was in a lot of pain, and I thought, 'This is ridiculous. I'm in good shape, I'm young, and I feel awful.'" She took up yoga seriously. "It was like I had been given a new body," she says. It also changed her life in another way: at her Boston yoga studio she got to know Tom and Jeanne Hagerty, who had decided to produce a documentary about yoga and tapped Churchill to direct.
On a panel for a leadership conference, Churchill met New York journalist Nick Rosen, who reportedly wowed the audience with his off-the-cuff remarks. Later he mailed her some of his articles, and eventually Churchill asked him to take part in Enlighten Up!, serving as a human guinea pig who'd be curious about but skeptical of spirituality.
For six months they crossed the globe on a shoestring budget, amassing 500 hours of footage. The editing process took three years; as Churchill says, "Story is your king, and if [a scene or sequence] doesn't serve the story, it's out." The first version took nine months to cut but was scrapped for one that stressed the growing friction between Churchill and Rosen, who was finding enlightenment elusive.
Churchill spends time in Boston but has no fixed abode; it's no wonder that she relies on meditation to keep her centered. Following a two-month publicity tour for the movie, she'll travel to Northern Ireland to assist her longtime friend Tom McCarthy (director of The Station Agent and The Visitor) on the HBO pilot Game of Thrones, an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's best-selling fantasy novel. If there are yoga circles in Belfast, no doubt she'll find them.