Journey Through a Filmmaker’s Anxious Mind

Director Lila Schmitz on the personal journey of making her debut feature, the music documentary The Job of Songs.

People keep asking me, “Why does a documentary about Irish music center loneliness as a major theme?” My initial thought is always, “Um, because … obviously!” But then I tell the third grader in my head to go sit in the corner, and I attempt to explain. I directed a film called The Job of Songs, which is about musicians seeking joy and connection through music but ends up getting at the heart of what brings people together, what pushes people to go looking for a strong community in the first place. I saw loneliness in the community and came to discover that it went much further.

The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland.

As a teenager, I had traveled to Ireland with my family, chasing my ancestral roots. We stepped into a pub session, a gathering of musicians playing tunes that have been passed down through the generations and shared among friends and strangers alike. The feeling in that pub stuck with me, so years later, when I was applying for a grant to make a short documentary following my college graduation, this was what I wanted to capture. This feeling. I asked my dear collaborators and friends Anika Kan Grevstad and Fengyi Xu to come along, and we convinced the grant board to take a leap of faith with us.

Fengyi Xu on set of Lila’s thesis film Queer Qafé.

A few months later, Anika and I were in the Irish countryside having a conversation about what the film would center. Fengyi would be arriving in a few days, and our two weeks of “pre-production” (which actually just became production) had left us with more questions than answers. I had dragged them all the way across the ocean without much of a plan, and here we were sitting in the Irish countryside trying to imagine what we might be doing there. I remember Anika asking about what had drawn me here in the first place. We discussed the whys and hows and dipped into the philosophizing that fresh college graduates fall into quite easily. On the verge of tears, I voiced to Anika – and to myself – this feeling of loneliness I’d had throughout my life. The loneliness was not for lack of people around, necessarily, but was nonetheless present for much of my living memory. This conversation seemed to unlock something, a clue to the importance of what we were trying to capture.

Musicians play at the Monday night session at Fitz’s Bar in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland. Left to right: Eoin O’Neill, Kieran O’Connell, Adam Shaprio, Christy Mc Namara and Beth Tipton.

Production went well, but despite the positive progress of the film, I struggled with a huge amount of self-doubt and spent time fighting against a depressive episode. Even when we were getting amazing interviews and capturing beautiful, warm sessions, I had dark days. One such day, I interviewed Katie Theasby, who opened up about her difficulties with depression and alcoholism and was so willing to show her vulnerability, while staying steadfast and strong. That morning, I had barely been able to drag myself out of bed, but once I sat down to interview Katie, I felt comforted, seen and less alone. I saw myself in this community and this practice, and here was Katie sharing her vulnerability and putting words to what I felt. It brought tears to my eyes that day, and I am moved again and again each time I hear her say in her interview, “I just think we need to [say], ‘If you have depression, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s alright that you feel like that, because there’s plenty of others that are in a similar situation.’”

Katie Theasby sits for an interview in 2018 in her home in County Clare, Ireland.

Documentarians like to look for truth, often even claiming to communicate the “objective truth.” I don’t believe this is possible. As the filmmaker, I am telling a story through my own subjective experience. But at the same time, I saw loneliness in the community because it was there. I was able to pull out of this community something that is usually unspoken because I saw them. I saw myself in them. The music sessions are a way to connect with other humans, to breathe the same tunes, and to share stories and laughter. To me, that practice came across as a lifeline, a joyful escape from our whirring minds to sit with strangers and friends alike and combat life’s pains by joining in the music, whether listening or playing.

After a month on the west coast of Ireland, Anika, Fengyi, and I packed our bags and our footage and headed back to the United States. Over the next few years, we would edit the film while working full-time jobs. I felt such anxiety around trying to represent the musicians in a light that they would feel honored by and excited about. The musicians barely knew me, but I felt that they were some of my closest friends. Spending time with footage of real people is a very strange situation, especially for someone who feels empathically connected to characters on screen. I was so engrossed in it that phrases from interviews the musicians gave in 2018 are still a part of my daily lexicon.

In those years of editing the film, I questioned everything. Are we right to turn this into a feature film? What can we share that feels real but not exploitative? Am I asking too much of Anika and Fengyi? Will they – my actual, real-life friends – hate me when all this is said and done? Are these years of work headed anywhere? Is my career headed anywhere?

Three years after production, we got an acceptance letter from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival. In November 2021, Anika and I traveled to New York City for the world premiere of The Job of Songs. Even then, we were working. We had made it here, but we had to make sure other people came to see the movie! I sent hundreds of emails, and we passed out loads of fliers. While passing out fliers outside the festival’s opening night celebration, we heard older filmmakers say, mostly with their eyes but some out loud, “You made a feature film that is playing in this festival?” We were 26- and 25-year-old women and were full of an excited energy ready to burst through the seams at any given moment.

Anika Kan Grevstad (left) and Lila Schmitz (right) at DOC NYC 2021.

The premiere screening brought a huge audience that laughed and cried and joined us after for a live music session in the Irish pub down the block that went on for four hours. I was over the moon. After, my mom and I sat in a cozy cafe drinking tea and smiling, taking a moment of rest in all of it.

Lila’s mom drinks a cup of tea after the second public screening of The Job of Songs.

Then there was nothing. No one reaching out about the movie, like they describe in the dream scenarios of your directorial debut. Just sort of, nothing. Our mentor Doug Pray had warned me about depression being a common response to letting go of a project after so long, but I wasn’t letting go. I couldn’t. I was setting my sights higher and begging the world to take The Job of Songs. At least that’s what I tried to convince the depressive part of my mind. Anika and I were set on traveling to Ireland to show the film. I was so worried that they would hate it or hate me or regret having worked with us – the anxiety ate away at me and I knew we had to just go and do it, sooner rather than later.

At the Galway Film Fleadh, I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t figure out where to go and cried on the banks of the river. It is an isolating experience to enter a community of people who mostly know each other, when you are in a deep anxious pit that won’t allow for the necessary outgoingness to meet strangers. Perhaps that is the beauty of a session – you don’t have to talk to connect with the people in the room. Just by being there, you’re listening and you’re a part of it. Anika arrived and things started to look up. Then it was time for the film to premiere. Five of the featured musicians came up from Doolin and sat in the sold-out screening. Seeing them again after four years, I thought I might pass out. I was so excited and terrified and buzzing throughout the whole screening. The credits rolled, and Anika and I invited the musicians to join us on stage for the Q&A. Eoin O’Neill took the mic and said, “You captured our hearts, you captured our souls, you got us. And we’re very proud. And thank you very much.” I think that’s when I melted. I started to let go, very slowly, of the anxiety that had held me throughout the past four years.

A few days later, we played The Job of Songs to a jam-packed room above Fitz’s Bar in Doolin, where much of the film takes place, and continued to get positive feedback. We announced that we had won Best International Documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh, and people were really proud. I was exhausted, but finally able to take a deep breath.

In 2022, The Job of Songs plays for the first time in Doolin to an overpacked room above the bar.

When my partner tested positive for Covid a few days later, Kieran O’Connell, a musician in the film, offered up his cabin (that he built by hand during the height of the pandemic) for our quarantine in the Irish countryside, and we extended our trip to stare at the rolling hills and walk to the ocean. We got engaged the day we were Covid clear and celebrated by listening to Kieran play Irish music in a nearby town and then partying with him, his brother Jon, and some other musicians into the early hours of the morning. It felt like a celebration with long-lost friends and family. A year later, we got married and danced our first dance to “Liscannor Bay” by the Fiddle Case, a band featuring Kieran and Jon. Anika and Fengyi were there for all of it.

In 2018, Lila Schmitz, Anika Kan Grevstad and Fengyi Xu during production in Ireland. In 2023, they get ready for Lila’s wedding in Los Angeles.

At times, The Job of Songs feels like a loving letter to myself that says, “Hey! You! There are communities out there in the world that exist and are willing to support you and like what you have to say and maybe even like you, so quit that negative self-talk and take a moment to enjoy what is happening. Take a moment to smell the roses.” But it’s hard. The anxiety creeps back. The roses seem so far away. Sometimes it takes a philosophical chat to remind me. Sometimes it takes my dog smelling literal flowers and getting covered in petals. And sometimes it takes watching The Job of Songs and hearing Luka Bloom say, “We’re so busy experiencing all the time and challenging ourselves and achieving that I think we miss out on sunsets and we miss out on a bird that just happens to be there. We miss out on the heron that’s just sitting over there. That if you just waited another 10 seconds before you checked your emails. We’re complicit in this race. To what? For what goal? For what achievement?”

Lila’s dog Pippin smells the flowers.

Featured image shows Lila Schmitz during the making of The Job of Songs; all images courtesy Lila Schmitz.

Lila Schmitz’s first feature, The Job of Songs, an Irish music documentary that she directed, produced and edited, premiered at DOC NYC in 2021 and is now out on digital. It premiered internationally at the Galway Film Fleadh 2022, winning Best International Documentary. Her short films (both documentary and fiction) have aired on Rocky Mountain PBS, played LGBTQ+ festivals all over the United States, and premiered internationally at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She spent time producing in the documentary world (for PBS, CBS, Richard Linklater, Bill Guttentag) and worked at Anonymous Content for a year, learning about development and the business side of Hollywood. She currently works for Dropout TV, a media company that makes unscripted comedy, and can often be found trying (and failing) to learn an instrument.