Updated: Wednesday, December 6, 2017, 5:52 AM
As Melissa Davey recalls, the question was intended more as polite conversation than anything life-altering:
“What do you really want to do?”
Posing it was the film director M. Night Shyamalan, who had just learned from the Valley Forge grandmother of three that she was an insurance executive specializing in improving the Social Security Disability Program, work she had been doing for more than 20 years.
Davey, 65 at the time, had outbid a New Jersey dentist in a charity auction for a day with the movie-industry icon from Chester County on the Philadelphia set of his 2015 thriller, The Visit. Shyamalan had put the career question to her during a lunch break.
“He was only kidding. He probably doesn’t even remember he said it,” Davey said recently. “But he struck a chord, and my immediate response was, ‘I want your job.’ He just chuckled and said, ‘Do it.’ ”
She went home that day and asked herself a question: “What the heck am I doing? I’m in my mid-60s. Am I going to stay there [an executive-level job at Genex Services] until I’m in my mid-70s, or am I going to try to do something that I’ve never tried before, but time’s running out, so I ought to try it?”
Swiftly, she had her answer.
“It was just, ‘I’m going to be a filmmaker.’ I’d always had a fantasy about it. But you know, when you start to think about those things you’ve never done, there’s a little voice or people’s voices saying: ‘You can’t do that. You don’t know how to do that. You’re too old to do that.’
“So I was hearing those things, but then I was like: ‘You know, forget them. This is what I want to do.’ ”
Within a week, Davey gave a year’s notice to Genex.
Later this month, she expects to preview for a focus group her first film, The Beyond Sixty Project, a documentary about women over 60 far from calling it a day.
“We’re ready to put it out to film fests,” Davey said during an interview at Expressway Productions, with which she’s partnered on the project. The Philadelphia company is owned by three men in their 30s who immediately saw value in showcasing the women Davey selected.
“It’s a demographic of stories that’s not being told or heard in this particular way, coming from an age of women with a wealth of wisdom to offer,” said Expressway cofounder James Madison, 35, of Havertown. “Without having these stories told and accessible, we’re really missing something as a culture.”
The Beyond Sixty Project features 10 women from throughout the country, three of whom – Greta Paulsen, Pat Weber, and Gloria Tolla – are part of the Sun City Poms, a cheerleading/performance squad in Arizona whose members range in age from their 60s to mid-80s. Weber, the group’s 85-year-old choreographer when Davey interviewed her, joked that her husband’s death had paved the way for her to join — when she used to talk about doing so, “he said, over his dead body.”
The other women of The Beyond Sixty Project are:
• Susan Bennett of Atlanta, who is the voice of Siri, Apple Inc.’s intelligent personal assistant.
• Paula Yankauskas, a veterinarian from Vermont, who at 62 became the oldest woman to swim across the English Channel.
• Peggy Bradnick Jackson, of Shade Gap in Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon County, who became a mental-health advocate for the incarcerated after surviving a kidnapping as a teenager by a man released from prison without adequate professional attention.
• A’Lelia Bundles of Washington, a former Emmy Award-winning producer and executive with ABC’s and NBC’s news divisions and a descendant of Madam C.J. Walker, whose wealth came from creating specialized products for African American hair.
• Sara Picasso Lavner, a psychoanalyst/drama therapist in New York City who was married to the painter Pablo Picasso’s son Claude.
• Karen Atta, a New York sculptor whose clients include Lady Gaga.
• And, locally, Celeste Walker of Glenside, an actor, director, and adjunct professor at Arcadia University.
Walker, 65, was working on her solo show for the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Collette Reloaded, when she learned of Davey’s project and wanted in.
“I think it’s really important for people to be aware of how vibrant you can be in your 60s and beyond,” Walker said in a recent interview. “I think it’s really important that people don’t discount the fact that even through we’re a certain age, we can still be very productive and very creative.”
Davey foresees the project going beyond the film, continuing as a web-only initiative at www.beyondsixtyproject.com because “there are so many stories out there.”
In the “stars” of her documentary, Davey found several common traits, including resiliency and a desire for continued relevance. Each woman spoke not of retiring but “re-creating,” she said.
“They inspire me to keep going,” Davey said. “So any doubts that I have about making the decision that I made to leave something very comfortable, something that I could do in my sleep, the doubts are overshadowed by this new learning experience.
“We talked a lot about the invisibility of women and how we shouldn’t be invisible, especially at this point in our lives, because we have more to offer.”
Concurring is UnitedHealthcare, a sponsor of The Beyond Sixty Project, which Davey said has cost “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to produce, mostly from personal finances.
“One thing we consistently hear from the people we serve, and especially the baby boomers who are rapidly aging into Medicare, is they want to stay healthy to pursue life’s dreams,” said David Shapiro, senior vice president for consumer and provider experience at UnitedHealthcare. “We view our role as helping people live the lives they want as they age, and Melissa’s film showcases women who are doing just that — and powerfully.”
Important affirmation not only of The Beyond Sixty Project but Davey’s career transition has come from her husband of 25 years, John, who has a law degree and whose work arranging land acquisitions for cell-tower construction is arguably more reliable.
“I heard him say, ‘She’s a filmmaker,’ ” Davey said, calling herself “one of the lucky ones” for having a “quietly supportive” spouse.
She hopes her documentary serves as a nudge for more conversations like the ones she had with the women in her film.
After they see it, she said, “I’m just hoping people walk away and think about maybe a woman they know or are curious about, and it will prompt them to go talk with them.”
Should she ever get another chance to spend time with Shyamalan, Davey said, she would tell him how transformative that day on the set of The Visit at 30th Street Station was for her.
“He gave me an opportunity that day to realize something inside myself that had been bubbling and bubbling, but I was ignoring,” she said. “Little does he know, he made a dream of mine come true.”