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Rachel Segall gave her old college friend Erik Mercer a generous gift—she carried a baby for him and his husband. Even more remarkable: the happily married mother of three teenagers was in her late 40s at the time and insisted on doing it for free.

And then she volunteered to carry a second child for the couple.

Segall’s decision to help her friends begin a family of their own is the subject of a new film by Amy Geller, a graduate of the College of Communication’s MFA in Cinema & Media Production program, and Allie Humenuk. Geller (COM’16) attended Bates College as an undergrad and read about Segall’s story in her alumni magazine. Segall, her husband, and Mercer are all Bates alums; Mercer’s husband, Sandro Sechi, is not.

“She did it for free, and I was blown away by this act,” says Geller. Upon reading that Segall had agreed to carry another baby for the couple, again using donor eggs, Geller immediately thought their story might make a great documentary. She contacted her cinematographer friend Humenuk, and they arranged to meet the two families.

The film follows the families over the course of two years, cutting between Segall’s life in Newton, Mass., with her family and Mercer and Sechi’s life raising one and then two young daughters in Portland, Maine. The film premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in April.

Prior to directing The Guys Next Door, Geller had worked as a producer and line producer for commercials, shorts, and documentaries, including the PBS/BBC broadcast docudrama Murder at Harvard. She also produced the 2009 feature documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, directed by COM lecturer and BU Cinematheque curator Gerald Peary. Most recently, she was the artistic director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

Bostonia spoke with Geller about The Guys Next Door, how she convinced both families to let her tell their story, and her experience in COM’s new MFA in Cinema & Media Production program.

Filmmaker Amy Geller, directo of The Guys Next Door documentary

Amy Geller’s film premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in April. Photo courtesy of Geller

Bostonia: How did the project start?

Geller: After reading in my alumni magazine about Rachel Segall, who offered to have a child for her gay friends, we went on a three-year journey with these people, and they trusted us. We didn’t really know what the film would be; we were just doing what a lot of documentary filmmakers do, which is follow the characters and see how things evolve and develop over time. We stopped at a year into filming and edited a cut of the film, but we realized we needed more information and clarification, so we went back and shot more interviews, and then we cut those in. As the girls became older and started to have personalities of their own, watching them evolve became a really important aspect of the story.

How did you initially approach the families? Were they open to the experience of being filmed?

They were incredibly open. They’ve been asked this question at various screenings, and they say it was quite easy for them. I don’t think they quite knew what was happening: we just said we were going on this journey with them and would keep in touch at every step of the way.

It was a gift of trust that we were given. What Erik said was that it was our sense of humor that brought us all together. Very quickly, we established lines of trust. You can see in the movie that they have a wonderful sense of humor and they are fabulous people to hang out with, and we felt that and wanted to share that with an audience. I think they felt that we would protect their story and not exploit them. As a filmmaker, you want to tell a good story, but you want to honor the trust that you have been given by your subjects. That was very important to Allie and me as we were editing the film.

Did you have an idea of what the narrative would be when you began?

By the time we started shooting the story, Rachel was eight months pregnant with the second child, so it didn’t feel like the end of the entire story; for us, it felt like the beginning, a turning point. We traveled back to Sardinia, Italy, where Sandro is from, and that was another turning point in the film. As for the rest of the structure, we didn’t really know and that was a big part of what we hashed out in the edit room—the layering of the three main characters, interweaving their stories, the development of Erik and Sandro as parents and the issues they go through, and Rachel’s role in the lives of that family as well as her family, and then the two families together. That was the dance we had to play in the edit room, and it was really challenging and why I think it took a year to pull together.

How did you know when to stop filming?

That was really hard. Originally we had conceived of it as a year in the life, and we shot it that way, and stopped after one year. As is often the case with filmmaking, it became clear to us that time was actually a character in the movie, and we realized that we wanted to see these kids get older and how the families weaved together. For those reasons, we did keep filming, but it was more targeted. In the beginning, we almost lived with them. We didn’t have lights; we wanted a very intimate experience.

It was a simple production. Allie did the shooting and I had a boom and would help with sound, or I would be out of the room so Allie could really be a fly on the wall, and that enabled us to capture those really quiet, intimate moments that would have been harder to get if we were a huge production. We would kind of live with Erik and Sandro because they were in Maine, but Rachel was in Newton and more local so we would just pop over and shoot. We had enormous access, like when we shot in the hospital for the birthing scene. That was amazing to be there for that and have that access. There were like 15 people in that tiny room. We didn’t know what to expect at all—it’s something you can’t control, the birth of a baby. Nor did we expect the reaction of Erik and Sandro, how they would feel about it. That was incredible and special.

Sandro Secci, Rachel Segall, Erik Mercer, subjects of The Guys Next Door documentary film, at their baby shower in 2010

Sandro Sechi (from left), Rachel Segall, and Erik Mercer went on a journey into parenthood together. Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

How many hours of footage did you end up with?

We probably had 40 to 45 hours, which actually isn’t that much these days for a documentary, but it was still a lot, and having to cull through that was enormous. We hired an amazing Boston-based editor, Rachel Clark, who worked intimately with the footage and helped us shape the story. That process took a little over a year.

Did the film count toward any of the requirements of the COM MFA program you’re enrolled in?

No. It’s a one-year program, and it’s specifically fiction filmmaking. Part of the thesis requirement for me—I came into the program as a producer—is to produce two of the short fiction films that we created in teams.

It wasn’t a requirement, but I worked intimately with Jodi Luber (CGS’84, COM’86,’90), a COM master lecturer in film and television, who has a business, media, and marketing background. We did an independent study together, and she helped me think about a business and strategic marketing plan and how I would release it and fundraise and some of the questions surrounding distribution. It wasn’t a requirement, but I was able to work with Jodi, who is an incredible person and an amazing professor. I also took classes in the Media Ventures program, which focuses more on new media ventures, like websites and apps, and has a bit more of a business focus. So I learned a tremendous amount about the business side of things. BU played a fundamental role in the making of this film.

I understand that you screened this film for BU students and professors before it was finished?

Allie, our editor Rachel, and I came to BU late in the process, just before we finalized the film. We wanted to show it to film people who didn’t know the film at all for a fresh perspective. We showed it to professors like Jan Egleson, a COM associate professor of the practice of film and television, and a few students in the Cinema & Media Production and New Ventures programs. It was exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it. They asked all the questions that we needed to clarify and tweak. It helped us find out what parts of the film confused people, and basically everything that those students and professors said during that screening, we did to the film, and it made it a lot better. It was incredibly crucial.

Did BU play any other kind of role in this film?

Even though BU wasn’t the place where this film was born, it was definitely the place where it was turned into a real, vibrant, and workable film. I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of the inaugural year of the Cinema & Media Production program. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and I’m proud to be a part of it and have my film be a part of it.

I also won a BU Women’s Guild scholarship, which helped with the distribution and outreach for this film.

How have audiences responded to the film?

It’s been pretty thrilling to see the response, because it’s been extraordinarily positive. One of the worries we had about the film was that there was no external conflict, nothing horrible happens that turns this family inside out, which I think a lot of people have come to expect in documentaries these days. Some of those documentaries are amazing; I watch a lot of film and I’m super-supportive of them, but that was never going to be this film. The conflict is more internal and less external, so our worry was that people were so used to a type of film that they wouldn’t appreciate a film that didn’t have this big drama.

I’m happy to say that I was wrong. We’ve come very close to winning audience awards at three or four film festivals, and we were runner-up out of 174 films at the Sarasota Film Festival, where we premiered the film in April. Audiences come up and just want to talk about their own experiences being gay or having a gay family member. Some gay families have brought their kids to the film because they can see their stories and experiences in the film.

As a filmmaker, you have to go into a bubble to make a film because there are so many distractions in terms of the other aspects of filmmaking, like fund-raising, marketing, and so forth. You hope that people will embrace the film and appreciate it when it’s done, but you don’t know that. So it’s been awesome being at these screenings and peeking into the audience and seeing people sigh, laugh, or even sometimes cry. It’s just incredibly rewarding and really inspiring.

Find future screenings of The Guys Next Door here.