The Making of a Late-Life Filmmaker


“I’m in the third stage of my life. What does it mean to be old?”

Katherine Roselli, a longtime pediatric physical therapist, found her second vocation while she was watching “Black Beauty” with a seven-year-old who can’t speak. Her companion was Isabelle, a former patient who had become a friend. Isabelle loves movies, and Roselli got the strong sense, sitting next to her that night, that Isabelle wanted a film made about her.

So Roselli, who was preparing to retire, went to her local community college in Weed, California and honed her craft by taking the same TV studio production class three times and creating segments for the college cable TV station.

“What it did was show me the steps to bringing a film out,” she said. “It took away the mystery. You learn about producing, directing, audio, filming, editing. I loved every aspect of it.”

Roselli’s first film, “Portrait of Isabelle,” won the Audience Choice Award at the 2012 Focus Film Festival, in Chico, California.

Seven years later at age 68, she has just finished showing her fourth film, “Old?!”at five film festivals around the country, as well as at a recent sell-out benefit for the film festival in the town she moved to four years ago, Ashland, Oregon. The film is built on interviews about aging with people in every life stage — from toddler through centenarian.

“It reaffirmed for me that there is no such thing as an ordinary person,” Roselli said in a recent interview with Senior Planet. “We’re all extraordinary. We all have wisdom to share with each other,  from little kids on up. It was a delightful and wondrous process to see people open up and share.”

Roselli spoke with Senior Planet from the road in Minnesota about “Old?!” and how she made the transition to filmmaking.

What inspired you to make “Old?!”?

I thought, I’m in the third stage of my life. What does it mean to be old? Ever since we’re little kids, everyone asks, “How old are you?” Then there’s a period of life where it pretty much stops. No one goes up to teenagers and asks, “How old are you?” I didn’t have any agenda other than listening to people talk about their perspectives on aging. But I didn’t want it to be aging experts talking about what it means to live longer. Still, I feel like so many of the things experts say came out in the film.

How did you find all the people for the film?

Through the very first person I interviewed, Andy Baxter, who runs a gym for over-50s. I would be working out, and I would see people coming in who were 20, 25, 30 years older than I am. I said to Andy, “I bet you know some very cool older people.”
He introduced me to Virgil, who was 93 at the time. Virgil tells the story of how he was a pitcher for his college baseball team, how he struck out the elder George Bush. He was my first interview.
One person led to another. I’ve also accosted people. In the film, there’s one man in his 20s who says age is like a tree. He was walking out of the grocery store. I said, “Would you like to be in my movie?”

One woman tells a bittersweet story of reconnecting with a World War II pilot who had been her teenage sweetheart. She finds him online and is visiting him when he dies of a heart attack.

That was my editor’s mom. When she came to visit, I asked if she’d be willing to share it. It was hard for her, but I think there was the sense that it was a good thing for her to be able to share it in that way. For her to have reconnected, as brief as it was, was very special. They hadn’t seen each other in 70 years and were together just a few months. She had loved him in her teens. He was older; each of their parents kept them apart from each other and they went on to other lives. He got to spend his last moments with her, the love of his life.

I didn’t want to leave out the hard things. Even with challenges, there’s an overall positive flow to the film — they’re talking about what they’re learning.

What’s your goal for “Old?!”?

My goal is to get people to think about things that are happening that they might not be paying attention to, and through that process to help engage them more in their lives and help them prepare for the different stages. Aging is happening, and aging with attitude is great. At the same time, there’s that shift in consciousness that I feel in mourning the things I no longer can do, embracing the things I can do and going forward with as much energy, joy and attitude as possible.

Let’s talk about how you made the shift: Did the skills you honed in your first career help you with the interviews during your filmmaking process?

Before the interviews, I said, It’s just going to be me and my camera. I appreciate you being spontaneous and speaking from the heart. All my years working in healthcare, where all the people I was dealing with were in pain and anxious — I learned the art of making people feel comfortable. Some of the same skills came into play while I was interviewing for the film as when I was making people feel comfortable in an intimidating medical setting. Everything we have brings us to this moment.

Making films is cost intensive – How do you finance your new career?

I finance my own films with one of my retirement streams. I use an SLR camera that does video; I use a mike that goes with the camera that allows me to do “run and done.” I use natural light. One of the reasons I get intimate interviews is that it’s just me and the camera. There’s not a whole bunch of filmmaking paraphernalia around me.

Where has the learning curve been especially steep?

I started out trying to edit my films as well. I realized it was a big learning curve. I would do an edit and it wouldn’t be what I wanted, and it would take me 30 minutes to try and fix it. Then I’d sit down with an editor and it would take them 30 seconds.

And some of the biggest challenges?

One of the hardest things as a film maker is to leave people on the cutting room floor, especially if they’re friends. The first cut of “Old?!” was an hour and a half. The final cut is 55 minutes. As a filmmaker, I want people to leave and say, “I wish it were longer,” not, “it was good, but it was way too long.”

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

You have to have kind of a thick skin when you put your stuff out there. More than half the film festivals we entered didn’t accept us. The ones that did, we did really well. A lot of film festivals are looking for edgy, and we’re not edgy.

Was there any subject whom you interviewed and thought, “This is who I want to be when I’m older?”

The two artists, one is 81, the other is 93, who are both creating and doing new things with their art, who are so engaged. The 81-year-old artist, her focus is on farm workers and wanting to bring them to life and how much our whole food system depends on them. Harriet, 93, lives by herself in the woods. She’s creating new ways to paint.

What does aging with attitude mean to you?

For me, it means waking up each morning and being grateful that I’m here and healthy and that I want to contribute something of myself to every day I have. For me, it’s the attitude of gratitude.


 Watch Katherine Roselli’s film “Old?!” on Senior Planet

Ever thought of starting over? What work would you want to do?

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