Janet Tobias talks No Place on Earth

Janet Tobias talks No Place on Earth, in theaters April 5th

Filmmaker Janet Tobias makes her feature directorial debut with the powerful documentary No Place on Earth, after a successful career as a TV documentary producer for shows such as Dateline NBC, 60 Minutes, and Frontline. The film's inception came from Chris Nicola's National Geographic article that chronicled the incredible journey of the Stermer family, who survived in a Ukranian cave for 18 months (the longest recorded sustained underground survival) while hiding from the Nazis in World War II.

I recently had the chance to speak with Janet Tobias over the phone about No Place on Earth, which debuts in theaters April 5. Here's what she had to say.

I read that you initially had some trepidation about taking on this story, when you first heard about it. Can you talk about discovering Chris' article and what lead you to decide to make this?

Janet Tobias: A colleague brought the article to me and said there's this great Holocaust story. I said, 'No, no no, I really don't think so," because the number of truly great films that have been done, in drama and documentary on the Holocaust, we can begin to list them, right? The bar, to me, was quite high, if you want to add to that canon. I was initially reluctant, and my colleague said, 'You've got to go meet Chris Nicola in New York, the New York State Investigator, and listen to his story about how he worked and worked and worked to figure out who had lived in the cave when he found the objects. The you've got to go meet the Stermer's in Montreal.' I did both. Out of college, I had the great luck of going to 60 Minutes, and, really, since 60 Minutes to the present day, it's really one of the best stories I have ever heard. I thought, sometimes, stories direct you, rather than the other way around. It's just too incredible a story of human survival, that transcends time and religion, to not tell. There was such pride in the Stermers', for what they accomplished, and, so many Holocaust stories are as dark as it gets. You are pressed up against a level of evil that we cannot imagine. The Stermers' had a story of triumph against every odd, and, as Esther says in her book at the end, 'When we dusted off the mud, we were masters of our own fate.' You felt the strength and optimism they carried through it, which is very unusual, obviously, for a Holocaust film.

It's also kind of surprising, given the amount of great Holocaust films out there, to find a story like this that hasn't been told yet, that is undiscovered, so to speak. It was interesting to hear a brand new story of survival, in a very intriguing way.

Janet Tobias: I laugh because I logged over 127 hours, but the joke on the team was, '127 hours? Forget about it! 511 days!' (Laughs)

That's great. How forthcoming were the Stermers' when you spoke with them? Aside from their optimism, was there anything else that particularly surprised you about what they had to say?

Janet Tobias: They were very forthcoming, because they had dealt with Chris. They told it all the time, among each other. The brothers joked that they told it on the golf course so much that they almost had to have a rule that they couldn't talk about it for a few holes, because we're not going to be able to play golf! What surprised me was that they could laugh about it. It's a love story about family and close friendship, and a love story about brothers. You see the brothers' love for each other. I say to friends of mine that, in a world where now violence is often associated with young men, teenagers or young adults, it made me really appreciate the incredible honor and bravery of these young men, that when they're fighting for someone they love, or their family or their closest friends, they do amazing, crazy brave things. We're all alive because of that.

How did your background at 60 Minutes, Frontline, and shows like that help you form your own kind of style to tell these kinds of stories?

Janet Tobias: I was taught by people like Don Hewitt and David Fanning. I've been privileged to work with the very best in journalism. There is that attention to detail, and fact, and caring about that. In this case, these people are eyewitnesses who can say, 'That really happened to me.' 10 years ago, people were saying that, but now it's really true. They are the last people who will be able to say that they saw that. With that journalism background, that's obviously very helpful. The drama was new to me, and, initially, I did it with great caution. I'm not a fan of a lot of reenactment, because I think it doesn't work and pulls you out of the film and can be cheesy. To do this film, I think we really need to have the audience experience the drama of what they did, as actors, to go out and do what they did, experience the darkness of the cave, and to also really understand that they were young. They were teenagers and children and young people. We made the decision to blend doc and drama, then I went in search of the best directors of photography and editors I could find, who had a lot of experience with drama. We got César Charlone, who shot City Of God and The Constant Gardener, Eduard Grau, who shot A Single Man, and Peter Simonite, who often works as Terrence Malick's second unit. You can't get much better than that, so I just shined their shoes as much as I could.

Has making this film made you want to get into doing more dramatic narratives? Or do you still want to move forward with more documentaries?

Janet Tobias: I love them both, and I may actually split them. I am working on a drama, because I fell in love with that process of creating our own team to be able to shoot underground.

Can you talk about the drama you're working on right now?

Janet Tobias: I'm working on a drama about the explosion of wealth in the oil industry in 1920s Oklahoma. When people started dying, because there was so much money at stake, the FBI investigated it. That's one, and on the documentary side, I'm working on a film about the World Memory Games, which is the crazy feats of people who try and remember as many binary numbers in a half an hour and see how fast you can memorize a deck of cards.

Oh my God.

Janet Tobias: It's two polar opposites, right? They're both fun and use different parts of the brain.

Do these Memory Games happen in the same place every year?

Janet Tobias: They move it around. This year it was London, and next year it may be London or it may be somewhere else. Adults compete from around the world, and oddly enough, they allow children to compete as well. They don't do as well as the adults, but there's a mixture of competition where you have children and adults.

That sounds really fascinating.

Janet Tobias: Yeah. You have to create visual journeys, so you create the craziest, most inappropriate, off-color place that you can imagine, and you throw what you have to memorize in that environment so you can memorize it.

What would you like to say to anyone who might be curious about No Place on Earth about why they should give it a chance in theaters starting April 5?

Janet Tobias: It is the most incredible adventure survival story.

Excellent. That's all I have. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you.

Janet Tobias: OK. Take care.

Janet Tobias' powerful documentary No Place on Earth debuts in theaters April 5.