The most surreal moment of Ali Roberto’s quarantine? Explaining ring light placement to Goldie Hawen. ”The craziest thing I’ve ever done is explaining how to set up a ring light to Goldie Hawn,” the filmmaker laughed during a recent interview. “She’s amazing and so sweet and wonderful — and Kurt Russell came in and played art department and it was hilarious. They were wonderful, but it was the most surreal thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
While the onset of a pandemic in 2020 led to drastic changes in plenty of people’s work life, those who were accustomed to massive film crews, multiple teams working at once, and bustling sets probably had some of the strangest shifts. Initially, the shut down led directors like Ali to work as remote team members, occasionally trotted around sets on iPads.
But once everyone settled into smaller crews, careful quarantine pods, masks and testing, Roberto was able to work on LA-centric projects that opened her up to what else smallness brings — intimacy. One such project was a docuseries for Dr. Martens focused on musicians based in New York and Los Angeles, and how they were coping with a year spent in quarantine and isolation. This shift from her prior backgrounds on commercials, music videos, and as a creative director was unexpected, but very welcome.
“I’ve never worked in such tiny crews — but that’s exactly what documentary filmmaking is,” she said. “You work in small, intimate crews and you’re this fly on the wall; you’re not controlling and building this whole world, you’re documenting it and getting to be a part of it. It’s very different, storytelling-wise, and I wasn’t accustomed to it, but I had to learn to work within it and fell in love with this way of storytelling.”
Growing up in Connecticut, Roberto was close enough to New York City to dream about moving there, but just far enough away to still rely on MTV for her introduction to the music scene. She remembers being obsessed with MTV from “such an early age” and gravitating to the ‘60s and ‘70s rock her dad favored, along with “really sludgy, grungy music full of raw emotion and energy.” She cites videos for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blind Melon’s “No Rains” for piquing her early fascination with combining music and visuals, and includes bands like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains in her core musical influences: “When I was just a kid, like when I had my very first pair of docs back then, that’s what my 13-year-old self was listening to.”
Later on, ‘90s hip-hop and R&B came into the mix, along with metal, but even more than specific artists, the concept behind MTV Unplugged became a framework she wanted to replicate in her own work. “The Unplugged Series that MTV did played a huge influence on how I structured this Dr. Martens series,” she explained. “I added a live music element to each episode — which is unique to my series — but it was something I felt really strongly about because I fell in love with seeing musicians break down their songs and do them in a different way on Unplugged.”
After high school, Ali moved to New York and began studying at SVA (School Of Visual Arts), where one of her professors singled her out early on to come and work at the company she’d idolized — and Ali landed her first gig at MTV before even graduating college. Taking her experience with the platform and running with it, she began to direct music videos, commercials, and eventually shorts. After close to fifteen years in New York, Ali recently moved to Los Angeles — though still considers New York home, in many ways — and worked on projects for Netflix like Glow and The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. Currently, she’s expanded to work on a couple of series projects, including one about a group of young women in LA during the early 2000s who start a band.
The intersection of music and visuals is a thread that runs strongly through Roberto’s work, regardless of platform or film style, as does a satirical element and an emphasis on uplifting women. “My work is often featuring and empowering women, but there’s a satire, snark or humor to it,” she said. “When there’s wit, and it’s reality-based with smart writing, but there’s a bit of whimsy, when all those come together, I feel like that’s when I’m the most effective at what I do. That’s where I live and breathe and have the most fun.”
And though the Dr. Martens docuseries campaign is coming to a close — today marks the release of the last episode, spotlighting psych-rockers Franke & The Witch Fingers — Roberto found solace in the work of telling these stories one-on-one during a time that many were feeling particularly alone.“It was therapeutic for us, and then it was also content we could give other people as we’re all finding different ways to stay sane,” Roberto said. “It’s a beautiful series about resilience, creativity, community and social awareness. I wanted to work on something that made my soul feel good and like I feel like I’m contributing positively to the world. This was the series that helped me through quarantine.”
For today’s final episode (below), Ali remembers how good it felt to hear the band recording live at a tiny studio in Echo Park, and feeling the wall of sound the band created reminded her of the physically healing power of live music. “I really felt like this was how I could help — heal people through music,” she explained. “And getting to see bands perform live together again. When we were in the studio with Franke & The Witch Fingers — they’re this psychedelic/garage/punk rock band that’s so rad — to be in the studio with this wall of sound vibrating through my body, it felt so good to hear music that loud and powerful again.”
Though Ali has been able to build her career in a very male-dominated field, and she cites fellow female filmmakers like Diane Martel and Sophie Muller as her own role models, one thing she’s looking forward to when restrictions lift is getting back to work as a mentor. When it’s safe to do so, she works with Free The Work and Ghetto Film School to help increase diversity and representation in the film industry, and is excited to bring students onto her sets again.
“Free The Work is a nonprofit organization that helps women helps women and underrepresented talent be seen,” she said. “They’ve helped me so much and has given me so much support,” she said. “And now I am an ambassador for them and work with them to create opportunities for others. As for Ghetto Film School, they’re a film school for underrepresented talent and kids who wouldn’t be able to afford to go the traditional route and they create opportunity and schooling. I really want to give more opportunity and have students on sets with me again, directing pieces and learning once it’s safe.”
For now, check out Ali’s work on the entire Dr. Martens docuseries featuring episodes on Sunflower Bean, The Regrettes, Tolliver and plenty more, and watch the newly-released episode spotlighting Frankie & The Witch Fingers above.
Check out all of Ali’s recent work as a filmmaker here.