The Rover interviews Notre Dame alumnus filmmaker

On September 22, Notre Dame alumnus and successful documentary filmmaker Justin Mitchell arrived on campus ready to embark on a 10-day filming shoot. Last year, Mitchell directed a short documentary about two homeless pre-teen girls as they attended their first ever Notre Dame football game, which was part of At Home With The Irish, Fighting Irish Media’s “First Time Fans” series.

Returning this year, Mitchell followed quite a different subject: the music genius Todd Rundgren. Rundgren was a visiting artist-in-residence at Notre Dame during the last week of September and very beginning of October. While he was here, Rundgren did almost everything a first time fan could do at Notre Dame: he was a guest on the Brian Kelly Radio show, toured campus, performed at the pep rally, went to a football game, promoted his Spirit of Harmony Foundation, and taught a one-credit master class, open to all Notre Dame students, for six days.

During Rundgren’s time at Notre Dame, excited fans were full of questions and ready to learn from him. However, like a true documentarian, Mitchell was constantly in the background, camera in hand, ready to capture just about any unforeseen circumstance or exciting “scene.”

Mitchell graduated from Notre Dame in 1995 with a degree in Anthropology, but he also enrolled in numerous film-related classes. At the time, the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center did not yet exist, and the film major at Notre Dame was only just developing.

Mitchell’s first documentary, Songs for Cassavetes (2001), follows the ‘90s D.I.Y. indie punk movement and captures its expansion, mostly in California and the Pacific Northwest. His inaugural film would later be brought by the Sundance Channel.

Mitchell has worked on many other award-winning documentaries, including the Postal Service documentary Everything Will Change, George Fest, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully: On the Road with Death Cab For Cutie, Dreamgirls, and Shia Labeouf #Introductions.

The Rover sat down with Mitchell to ask him about his experience and journey from being a Notre Dame student to a successful documentary filmmaker in Hollywood.

Irish Rover: From what you can tell, what do you think of Notre Dame’s film program?

Mitchell: You guys have everything you need: editing suites, 3D production courses, expensive equipment—that’s all real world stuff. That’s a way to have a career. You have everything here, and at the same time you have the benefit of having this amazing, broader education at Notre Dame.  

You said you studied Anthropology?

I started in architecture for two years because it was a five-year program. I was like, “Sign me up for five years of college. And a year in Rome? Even better.” It ended up not being for me, but I liked the idea that if you studied architecture … you would be an architect.

After you graduated, did you jump right into working? Did you know you always wanted to work in the “rockumentary” genre?

I knew coming out of college that I wanted to make a film. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I guess my plan was to make a film. My dad was a cameraman, so I grabbed his 60mm camera and started to make the film.

I shot some footage that January, cut them into VHS tapes, sent them to all the bands and said, “Hey, I want to make this film, want to be involved?” The whole thing started from there.

My dad had shot a lot for 60 Minutes. He shot a piece with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which was set up after shooting the Schindler’s List. It was a foundation to interview every last Holocaust survivor. We are talking 45,000 people at the time.

[The foundation] was set up on the Universal Studios lot. I got lucky because my dad told people there that I was graduating, and so I got a job as a multimedia production assistant.  For three or four months, I was getting lunch and coffee, and I was really bad at it. I thought, “When is the multimedia coming into this?” And at some point, this woman gave me the chance to make an educational CD-ROM for the foundation, and all of a sudden, I became the Production Manager. So we created this two disc CD-ROM. It was like a pre-website. While I did this for two or three years, I would go shoot a band (D.I.Y. band) once a month. I kept doing that because I knew I wanted to just a make a film.

Were you always involved with a music scene?

I played in bands here at school. Notre Dame had a unique original music scene, not so well known now. Notre Dame paid for us to go and record tracks, and we actually put out two campus CDs of original music. We would have big basement parties with original music, and bands touring the country would come and play in our basement and … you know, this had nothing to do with Notre Dame.

I merged the film I made called Songs for Cassavetes into a music documentary, and everything from there followed a path. Even [when] I am here [at Notre Dame] now, I keep working in music. Music is still in my core.

How has it been working with Todd here at Notre Dame?

Our schedule has been super hectic, but it has been awesome. I was worried about the schedule but I think what’s exciting now is that I think Todd has been affected by this experience. I don’t know how much, but I think being here has affected him some way that’s cool and unexpected. His class last night was great. He touched on the topic of spirituality, and it was deep and fascinating.

How is it being a documentary filmmaker and freelance worker while being a husband and father?

Freelance work is amazing for having a family because you can spend a lot of time with them. But it is hard at the same time because when work comes up, you have to take it. I do have my own production company, so that helps and works for me.

And what is you favorite type of music?

Hmm, I’ll answer how Todd would answer: when you’re asked your favorite of anything, it’s never good!

Crystal Avila is a senior studying film and television. She really enjoyed working with Justin Mitchell and meeting Todd Rundgren while they were here on campus. Since then, she has been listening to her ‘70s music playlist non-stop. If you have any ‘70s suggestions or want a track suggestion, email her at