Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley aren’t like most documentary filmmakers. The Chapel Hill couple, whose production company is based in Brooklyn, likes to joke that they make films about losers.
“Well, they’re losers who are really winners,” Galinsky adds.
Galinsky and Hawley have made several documentaries over the past 15 years, and their filmography clearly reflects their interest in underdogs. For example, the couple’s first documentary, Horns and Halos (2002), captures a wacky punk rocker’s quest to re-publish a biography of George W. Bush that had been famously recalled by the original publisher.
Another example is Battle for Brooklyn (2011), which follows an unlikely activist fighting in vain to stop New York City from claiming eminent domain and allowing construction of the densest real estate development in U.S. history.
Now streaming on Netflix, Galinsky and Hawley’s Who Took Johnny (2014) unravels the tragic story of a dauntless mother whose kidnapped son became the first missing child to appear on a milk carton but was never found.
And most recently, All the Rage (2016) is about an unconventional doctor whose theory of pain is dismissed by the medical establishment but whose patients include several celebrities and even Galinsky himself.
Each of the underdogs in Galinsky and Hawley’s films are resilient in their pursuits, and they never compromise their beliefs. The same can be said of the filmmakers themselves.
Galinsky grew up in Chapel Hill but moved to New York to attend NYU. After college, he played in a punk band and took photographs of musicians. He met Hawley at a party, and they started dating soon thereafter. She was working on her MFA in film at the time but decided to quit to make a film with Galinsky.
Several films, a production company, and two kids later, the two moved to Chapel Hill, where they live in the house Galinsky grew up in.
“One of the reasons we did move down here was to get a sense of space and a sense of grand time,” Hawley says. They were already more than 10 years into making All the Rage, and the slower pace of life in Chapel Hill allowed them to focus more on the project and complete it for a world premiere at DOC NYC, the largest documentary festival in the country.
Galinsky and Hawley are resolute in making their films their way, even when that means missing out on funding opportunities. Specifically, they reject the trend toward social issue documentaries. “With the social issue documentary idea, you had to do these things that are going to create change. You had to be an activist,” Galinsky explains, “With any grant, you had to tell them, ‘Here’s how my project is going to lead to social change.’ And I just felt like that was kind of madness.” For Galinsky and Hawley, the only way to make a film is to tell a good story — anything else is propaganda.
Their maverick style and nonconformist ethos have led the filmmaking couple to notable success by most standards. Horns and Halos and Battle for Brooklyn were each shortlisted for an Oscar, and Who Took Johnny is now on Netflix. Yet none of their documentaries have been accepted to Sundance, where the most lucrative deals for independent filmmakers happen.
When asked whether they’ll adapt their approach in order to get into Sundance, Galinsky’s response is curt: “No, we won’t change the work just to appeal to festivals.”
That’s why, Sundance or not, Galinsky and Hawley are winners.