Gregg Helvey’s journey from Loudoun County Public Schools to the Academy Awards and beyond
By Matt Basheda
Oscar-nominated director Gregg Helvey grew up in Northern Virginia, and graduated from Loudoun Valley High School. He even took his first film class at Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg as a teenager. His master’s thesis, a short film called “Kavi,” took him all the way to the Academy Awards. But an Oscar nomination was not the conclusion of Helvey’s goal for “Kavi.” “Kavi” is the story of a young Indian boy who is enslaved, and works at a brick kiln. Helvey is now a prominent activist in the fight to end modern-day, worldwide slavery, his website for which is kavithemovie.com. Helvey sat down to talk about how this area helped his cause, why he’s glad he didn’t study film as an undergraduate, and how everyone has the power to help shape the world.
Was it challenging to try to develop as a young director in Northern Virginia, an area not known for producing film?
“I was just having fun, so when it came to making films, they were for high school projects. … I wasn’t ever really thinking about a career in film. Creative people always find ways of being creative, regardless of where they are.”
How did your film class at vo-tech [Monroe Tech Center] help you?
“It was a good opportunity to … have fun and create … and … to learn to not worry about the results but be willing to experiment.”
You majored in French and English in college. Why did you choose these majors? Was it simply because UVA didn’t have a film program at the time?
“I studied English because I just love good stories, and I wanted to become a better writer and a better storyteller. … And as far as French goes, I spent five years learning French before I went to UVA, starting at Blue Ridge Middle School [in Purcellville] all the way through Loudoun Valley High School [in Purcellville], and it really didn’t make sense to me to give it up once I got to college after … investing all of that time in it. I continued taking French … also because I love traveling and exploring other cultures and meeting people along the way. … I got to study abroad in Paris, and teach French at a boarding school in England, and … it’s opened up doors for traveling in Tunisia and Rwanda and other African countries. And I do love meeting people and … learning people’s stories; and with a second language, I can hear even more stories and explore even more parts of the world.”
How did those majors help with your filmmaking career?
“I really value a diversity of life experiences. And that’s why I’m thankful to have not studied film during undergraduate. I think different life experiences and studying things other than film is what will make films richer. … But I’m a little torn sometimes when younger people ask for advice about going to film school right after high school, because I think it’s really important to study other things and maybe do a graduate program or something for film, because that other life experience will inform what you do.”
At what point in your life did you begin to consider professional film as a potential career?
“Basically, once I took my first film analysis course at UVA, everything clicked for me. And everything just made sense. And I loved everything that I was learning, and everything came naturally for me, and it was a great fit. … The issue was that UVA didn’t have any production courses at that time, so … that summer I applied to NYU and did their summer film production workshop. But still, film didn’t seem like a realistic option after college, because unlike most professions, there’s really no clear path to get into the film business. But I guess … everything in film is unpredictable, and … it’s a risky career path. But it can be really rewarding.”
Do you have other jobs besides film?
“I do a lot of speaking engagements, and workshops, and that’s my day job, while I’m getting my next film ready. I really enjoy … being able to share my story and my journey and hopefully encourage other people who are interested not only in film production but just following their passions and their dreams to do what they have always dreamt of doing. … I will often do a screening of “Kavi” and give a talk or a workshop based around the film that can be directly related to filmmaking or it can focus on modern-day slavery and using it as an opportunity to raise awareness, and looking at ways that we can all use our gifts to serve causes bigger than ourselves.”
You grew up in Northern Virginia, but now you live in LA, and you’re involved with the film industry—pretty different from NoVA’s lifestyle. So now when you visit, what do you think of this area?
“Yeah, it’s very different from Los Angeles, but … I enjoy this area the most in the fall and in the spring, but mostly the spring because the air is, at least out in the countryside, it’s just so sweet, and obviously you don’t get that in Los Angeles. And I grew up out in the countryside on gravel roads and kind of in the middle of nowhere, and … I really like the quiet.”
Has Northern Virginia influenced your film at all?
“I think being close to D.C. was fundamental for me because it was the … location that made it possible for me to go work … at National Geographic Traveler magazine right after I graduated at UVA. And working at the magazine was so important because it was there that the editor I was working for, he was part of a nonprofit started to help save kids forced into sex labor in Eastern Europe, and that’s how I first learned that slavery still exists. And I was, you know, shocked to learn that, and since that moment had always wanted to tell people that slavery still exists, and that partly informed my approach to filmmaking, in terms of using stories to raise awareness, to make a difference, but also to entertain and engage people in a way that can lead them to want to make changes.”
You tend to film in exotic locations, at least in relation to the American suburbs, but would you ever consider filming here, in NoVA?
“Yeah, I would consider filming in Northern Virginia, if the story calls for it. … But … there’s always got to be a reason; it always has to be motivated. And I’m sure it’s possible to find an interesting story that ties into Northern Virginia that people may not be aware of. For me, when thinking about the films that I want to make, my priority is to tell a powerful story that takes the audience on a journey emotionally, and leaves the audience better off for having seen the film, and as long as I can still do that, then it doesn’t really matter where it’s shot.”
Have you ever run into serious danger while filming [overseas]?
“I produced a film in Kenya, and we had to have armed guards with AK-47s on set, because there was a lot of expensive film equipment. … And there was one point where we were [filming] in a small village … and we found out that there were some armed bandits heading our way, so we actually had to get armed reinforcements from another village and set up a perimeter as a deterrent. … So luckily we had a great line producer who was a local, and able to make that happen really quickly.”
Do you think “Kavi” has succeeded so far as a call to action?
“I used to think that the idea of raising awareness was a cliché until I realized that I couldn’t have even made “Kavi” without someone else raising awareness and telling me that slavery still exists. … Don’t underestimate the power of awareness, because you never know how someone else will respond and how they may take action. … “Kavi” has made a concrete difference. “One in particular is Sagar Salunke, who plays Kavi. … The Indian government … made a commitment to pay for Sagar’s education for the rest of his life. So that was a huge difference for a 12-year-old boy who didn’t have the benefit of this before. “And one of the other things is that I’ve been able to partner with International Justice Mission, which is based in Northern Virginia, and they have licensed the film, and translated and dubbed the film into three more Indian languages. And so what they’re doing … is screening it for 10,000 schoolchildren and law enforcement and local government officials all across southern India. “One other thing is that [“Kavi”] was used to help pass legislation in the California Senate requiring businesses to examine their supply chains for any elements of slavery.”
What advice do you have for kids who are currently in the same situation you once were—starting a film career from scratch in the suburbs?
“In no particular order: Work hard. Be nice. Be humble. Get a job working as a production assistant on a film set. Move to Los Angeles. Study a variety of subjects. Travel and experience the world. Watch great movies. Read great scripts. Learn how you can serve others. Make lots of short films. And learn by trial and error.”