Posts filed under Field Notes

The Power of Confidence and Letting It All Hang Out: An Interview with Merete Mueller, Filmmaker

Photo by: Jake Christopher

Photo by: Jake Christopher

Field Notes: Merete Mueller, Filmmaker, Producer and Writer

“I think that it's important for women to know that we can let it all hang out, however that looks, and that there's something really beautiful and confident  and powerful about that.” 

Dangerous Curves is a short film about being fearless, unapologetic and passionate about what you do. The main character, Roslyn (Roz) Mays, is the epitome of this description -- and Merete Mueller, the filmmaker, director and writer behind the feature, is cut from the same cloth. Starting out with a background in writing and entering the documentary world in 2013 with her film Tiny: A Story About Living Small, Mueller’s life and career is deeply rooted in storytelling.

Although Mueller’s knowledge of filmmaking was largely self-taught, the transition from spinning narratives in the written word to telling stories through picture seemed like a natural progression. With two amazing documentaries under her belt and more to come, Mueller is an impressive example of taking the reigns and paving your own way as a woman in the film industry. Fascinated by both her story and the stories she tells, we caught up with Mueller to talk about Dangerous Curves, life as an independent filmmaker and how she got to where she is now.


What is your story and how did you get into filmmaking?

Merete Mueller: My background is actually in writing. I studied writing in school and I had worked as an editor and a writer and  researcher in all different capacities. I was always kind of interested in film, from a distance, but I never thought that I would make them. The film, Tiny, that I made a few years ago -- that I co-directed with my partner at the time -- was my entry into filmmaking. He had gone to film school and he had a background in film.

It's funny, because when he had the idea to build the tiny house, I said to him, "Oh, you should make a film about that." This is something that someone else should do. I would never make a film. And he decided to go ahead with it. But then as the project progressed, I think we both realized that the idea and the story was mine. So, we ended up collaborating on that. And that was the first time that I understood I could make a film and that I really learned how.

In Dangerous Curves, did you do all of the editing and everything by yourself, or did you look for collaborators?

Yeah. I still look for collaborators. I find it's always really helpful to be able to bounce ideas off of people and just to get outside perspective. On Dangerous Curves, I shot some of it myself, and then I collaborated with a DP, Jake, who had also -- I went to high school with Roz -- gone to high school with us.  And then, I also collaborated with an editor -- I edited some and he edited some. Also, because I was so deep in the story, it was just helpful to have another perspective.

Do you feel like your background as a writer has informed the way that you make films?

The way I make films is definitely very story-driven, and it's very character driven. I'm really interested in people and finding out why they do what they do, and how they grow over time. But, I mean, other filmmakers make incredible work and they come at it from really different angles. Some people are just much more visually-driven. I think every filmmaker has their own approach. But for me, coming from a writing perspective, I'm definitely really story-driven.

Are you able to do writing/filmmaking as your day job? And if so, how?

Yes, I am a full-time filmmaker. It is a combination of personal passion projects and then also paid work. So I also will get hired as a producer/director by Vice a lot. They'll assign me stories that are either for a TV episode or for a web episode. I've also been hired to do commercial projects that are usually more documentary-style commercials -- so it might be a 10-minute profile of three patients for a medical company, that kind of thing. I would not be able to support myself through making independent films only at this point.

How did you get connected with those commercial branding projects?

A lot of it came out of when Tiny came out. The film premiered at South by Southwest, and then we spent a good year just on the film festival circuit, which is where I met most of the people that I know in the filmmaking industry. People from all over the country. People who have become really close friends, but also just business collaborators and things like that. I think film festivals really are the backbone of the documentary community, and it's where a lot of people get to meet each other and get to learn from each other.

That, for me, was also the entry point into meeting other filmmakers and figuring out how they were making a living. And then, next thing you know, it's friends of friends and people kind of help each other out. And that led to a lot of work for me.

Photo by: Danielle Lurie 

Photo by: Danielle Lurie 

Do you find that there are any challenges that come along with being a female director in the industry?

Yeah. Documentary filmmaking especially is so interesting, because it's humans -- we're all walking around in whatever body we're in, and that impacts how people relate to us and the relationships we form. That's kind of the part of the mystery of human communication. Documentary is interesting because my work is so related to the relationships that I make with subjects or with the people I'm collaborating with. So, it's something that I'm really curious about and constantly navigating. I find that being a woman, in a lot of ways, is an advantage. I think it's different in every situation and with every subject, but I do think that sometimes people might feel more comfortable or might open up in a different way to me than they might to someone else. But I guess I'm just me, so it's hard to really know.

I think that there are challenges for women in the film industry, just because there have been so few women in leadership positions. I've been in a lot of situations -- working with commercial crews or TV crews -- where I think, because mostly male crews so rarely see a female in a directing position, that there's this automatic assumption that maybe I don't know what I'm doing. It's something I talk about with my friends a lot. We're just like, “you just have to keep going.” I do think it's helpful to acknowledge it for each other, so we know that it's not like we're doing something wrong. It's just part of what we're breaking through.

I also think it's really important to talk about the gender gap in the industry and the importance of having more women, especially women of color who are even more under-represented, behind the camera and writing scripts. I would say that a lot of my work today has depended on the network and support of other female filmmakers here in NYC. There's a really supportive, collaborative community of women here. I don't know if I'd be making films today without them (plus a few very supportive male individuals!).

How do you make that connection with your subjects to where they feel comfortable enough, not only sharing their story with you, but with the camera and possibly thousands, millions of people who are going to see that?

I feel like it's such a huge responsibility as well. Also, from the experience of Tiny, being one of the people who were on screen, but also I had complete control in a lot of ways, in terms of how I was on screen. And, so, I really do understand how vulnerable it is for someone to just share themselves and then not to have any control over how that footage might be shaped, or the story that it might be used to tell. So, I feel hugely responsible to people when they trust me enough to give me access to that.

And I think every filmmaker has their own way of approaching it. Some people I know who come from more journalistic backgrounds definitely really feel like it's important to just keep more distance from subjects and treat the relationships that way. But I feel like I always want every film to feel like a collaboration.

Especially with Dangerous Curves, because I have known Roz for so long. And also because the story was such a personal story, and it really was about exposure. I felt like it was really important that Roz felt like she was a collaborator. Even though she was never in the editing room for that film, I always made sure that she saw cuts before the world saw stuff. And I wanted to gauge her reaction because it was a vulnerable part of herself that she was showing. It's kind of a funny superpower in some ways, to forge that trust or create those relationships. And I feel like, for me, it's one of the things that... I want to earn that trust, and I want to be able to look back and be proud of how I used those relationships and how I used that trust... I never want to feel like someone regretted giving me access to a story.
 

Photo by: Christopher Smith

Photo by: Christopher Smith

Yeah, that's so important.

But it's tricky, because often times it's the thing that people don't want to share about themselves is often the most interesting thing about them. And it's been the thing that audiences would respond to the most. So, it is a very fine line of wanting to tease stuff out of people that you know is really going to have an impact on audiences, even though that might be the thing that that person feels most protective about.

I think it always has to be in the interest of knowing that in the end it should hopefully be a positive experience, both for the audience and for the person who's on screen, to let themselves be vulnerable and then that be seen.

With Dangerous Curves, I feel like you developed this very strong message about how to deal with criticism and being secure in whatever it is you're doing. Where did that thread start to take shape when you were making the film?

Because I didn't know Roz super well in high school, when we reconnected, my memories of her were always as this one-dimensional powerhouse of confidence. I was a very shy teenager, and so a lot of questions I had for her were sort of like, "How are you this way?" Or, "Are you really this way?" Or "What does it feel like to be like that?" Through the process or really reconnecting and getting to know her better, what struck me was how...she's not the kind of person who second guesses or filters herself. But she also does have a lot of vulnerability, and a lot of insecurity. When the media started writing about her, I would notice how everyone -- like myself -- was wanting to focus on this one-dimensional Superwoman. But I thought it was really interesting that that's not how people are. It's always a conversation. There's always moments of vulnerability. And what makes Roz so strong isn't that she never second guesses herself -- it's just that she's not willing to tone herself down or to hold herself back because she's afraid of the response she might get.

Is that the takeaway that you wanted people to get from watching the film?

Yeah, I think so. And I think also -- seeing the media that was being done on Roz and really getting to know her better, and really caring about her as a friend -- I think in some ways I wanted to let her have the experience of not always being this super confident powerhouse. And saying, “You can actually be insecure and vulnerable, and that's just as helpful to people to see that. You don't always have to pretend that you're a super confident woman all the time.” I really wanted to help tease that out of her in our interviews.

I think the fact that we shot this over such a long period of time, and we did a lot of interviews of me just going over her house late at night and us just talking...she did get more vulnerable than she was getting with most media at that time. And since the film has come out, I've actually seen her be a lot more vulnerable in interviews and stuff. I haven't actually had a chance to ask her about how that process has been for her, but my hope for all of us involved in the film and everyone who sees it is just the reminder that it's great to be confident, but confidence is not a static thing -- it's more of this fluid conversation.

I think for women, especially, we feel this pressure to be perfect before we put ourselves out there. I mean, I can only speak from my experience being a woman -- I don't know exactly how men experience this, but I do think that women are used to being analyzed and judged in a particular way. So, I think it's important for women to know that we can let it all hang out, however that looks, and that there's something really beautiful and confident and powerful about that.

 
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Posted on May 5, 2017 and filed under Filmmaking, Field Notes.

Canoes and a Love for Visual Storytelling: An Interview with Goh Iromoto

Field Notes Interview: Goh Iromoto, Director & Filmmaker

Goh Iromoto’s career thus far appears to be a seamless combination of environmental circumstance and a love for visual storytelling. Raised on the waterscapes of Northern Ontario, the only child of two journalists, it’s only natural that Iromoto’s two greatest passions -- filmmaking and canoeing -- are tied to his surroundings.

As a child, Iromoto recalls taking an interest in his parents’ photography equipment and using film to tell stories he couldn’t put into words. His summers were filled with long paddle trips through stunning rivers and lakes, followed by even longer hours in the editing room, stitching his odysseys together piece by piece. It’s not surprising, then, that his latest documentary, The Canoe, focuses on the vessel that has forged invaluable relationships and experiences not only for Iromoto, but for people around the world.

We caught up with Iromoto to discuss bypassing film school, the meaning behind the canoe and how the film came to life. Enjoy.


To start off, I'd like to hear a little bit about your background in film, where you're from and how you got started.

Goh Iromoto: I was born in Toronto, Ontario. The starting point of all this, I think, can lead back to my parents being journalists. They ran a small community newspaper here in Toronto, and because of that there were cameras available and with us everywhere we went, even if it was a family vacation. That's where I really got my hands-on experience. I remember a lot of family vacations -- I'm an only child, so I didn't have anyone to play with -- I would just be playing around with cameras and filming and whatnot. Fast-forward a number of years, I tried to use video as a tool for school projects to compensate for my writing skills. To this day, I still have an insecurity about those. But that's where video and filmmaking was able to help me communicate.

Then, not long after that I started to get my first projects and gigs, so to speak. That took me around the world, filming some of these outdoor travel events and show type of contests. Which leads us to my latest project, one based on the canoe.

In Canada the canoe is a symbolic, iconic craft and vessel. It was also something I’d been doing since I was a child. It's not very common for an immigrant family to be involved in canoeing, but my parents got me into it and as a result I was able to develop a passion for it. In line with filmmaking, it culminated into my latest project.

It sounds like you started filmmaking and working with video at an early age. Was that all self-taught? What were the challenges with that?

So I was self-taught, and I actually have a university degree in Human Geography. It's an inter-disciplinary subject that mixes in anthropology, economics, political science and physical choreography.

I'd say the challenges to this day may be that I don't have formal training or educational knowledge, but I think that -- especially in this day and age of digital filmmaking -- is also my biggest advantage. I've found ways to create without feeling obstructed by any of these formalities or traditional methods. Not knowing any of those helped me find my way and work the way that I do -- which is quite minimal and independent.

Backing up a bit, what was that first project you referenced that took you around the world, and introduced you to long-form, documentary style?

One of the things that I still do to this day -- I got into this when I was in university --  is a sport called Free Diving. It's where you hold your breath and you dive underwater. Any of the underwater shots that you see in The Canoe are shots that I would have taken while holding my breath underwater. And that goes back to my very first job, which was a free diving organization out west, because I went to school at UBC.

It was a client that was a free diving organization and my first gig... what happened was that the organization I was training with gave me 50 hours of footage and I turned it into this promotional video. They got all excited and right away I was filming the World Championships competition in Vancouver. Then they commissioned me to do a documentary on a world record dive for a month and a half in the Cayman Islands. That was crazy because I had just started and they were looking for someone who could tell a story and put together video. And here I was, keen to do anything. That was a really cool experience, it definitely changed me. As a start to filmmaking, that was probably what I would call my schooling. More so than having taken classes and lectures and workshops.

I learned a lot. It was so intense too, because I think it was before YouTube even existed. The client who was running the project had big dreams already of streaming videos to audiences, so my workflow would be to be filming all day long and then staying up all night editing to have something to put online the next day. I remember the resolution being such crap and we had to accommodate for dial-up modem internet still, because some people who were watching would watch videos that way.

It was cool, because I've always been involved in sports that are not mainstream. I grew up watching snowboard, ski, and surf videos and films. I think that’s why I got involved in things like free diving and canoeing, giving them a voice. In simple terms, making it look cool, and making it feel cool to be a part of that sport.

Besides your growing up as a paddler, what inspired you to make a long form documentary about the canoe? How did the story come together?

One thing for sure is the landscape and the waterscape here in Canada, in Ontario. I think I was 7 when I started going to the summer kids camp. Then, I became an instructor and an instructor guide.

Throughout all those years, I've been paddling around Ontario, seeing the different landscapes -- the waterscape has been amazing -- and doing all of these little back country trips. Eventually, I got into filmmaking and I've been doing projects around Ontario for the last 5 or 6 years... It's been amazing. Also, meeting people from overseas and the UK, then talking about the landscape was nice, because I sometimes take it for granted. It helped me realize that.

Along with that is hearing people’s stories. It was quite touching to meet all these people who were equally passionate, or had these memories or nostalgic experiences with the canoe. This thing that's just a vessel was no longer just an object -- it became this device that connected people and really affected them and had an emotional resonance.

Speaking of the people that you highlight in this story, how did you cast them? Were they friends, family, strangers?

It wasn't a traditional casting method. In some way it was a bit of a challenge to find the right combination of people. We wanted to showcase people that fit different scenes and archetypes, not only in canoeing culture but in society as a whole. That's how we did our vetting process.

It worked out. What I love is the diversity that we ended up with -- from an age perspective, culture, ethnicity, race, sex even. It's actually a total fluke, it wasn't intentional that the majority of characters are women, which I am quite proud of. I know a couple of months before the film came out, there was a professor at the University of Victoria who made a huge media statement about how the canoe is symbolic of white male privilege. There is a truth to it. I didn’t want to refute her but I really wanted this film to show that there’s a different path being carved out in our society, which goes against that traditional view -- something new and different coming along.

In the film there are a couple of shots that seem really vigorous -- you're canoeing through the rapids or what have you. Where those shots difficult to capture?

Logistically, we had a small crew. Basically it was myself and my partner, Courtney Boyd. Between the two of us we did almost everything. From sound, to filming, to camera assisting, to media managing -- everything. So, that makes logistics easier in a way, because as long as we could get there with the gear we needed, we can get the shot. The part that made it easy is that the landscape is there. We didn't have to manipulate it or light it, and as long as we hit the right time of day for lighting, I mean, you're seeing what we saw.

We were definitely blessed with unbelievable conditions. Some of the shots that you see in there seemed so magical when we were filming -- the sunrises sunsets, even the misty conditions. I know they're common and things that a lot of people can relate to, but at the same time it just seemed so convenient or almost fateful to have these sort of conditions for us.

I think all the water our underwater shots weren't so much of a challenge, only because it's the other part of the work I do. So it was more that I was able to apply it as opposed to it being this new challenge to get underwater. The aerial shots were done by drone, and the same thing, I would say that it wasn’t necessarily a challenge. Maybe the challenge was in just being able to work as long days as we did, back to back to back, with such few people.

It seems like a lot of your work is inspired by nature and the beauty of landscapes. Do you think that's because of where your roots are or is that what you’re most passionate about?

I think the combination of travel, exploration or the outdoor world, along with people. It's the combination of those things that influence of a lot of the work I do.

It might be my Dad being a big influence. He hitchhiked around the world for 9 years after university, which was a really uncommon thing for someone in Japan to do that back then. So I know his stories and descriptions of different lands definitely influenced me. I knew I wanted to be someone who traveled and explored, and at the same time was able to connect with people. When you emailed me initially, I was in Africa, working on my next project. It's client-based, but they're looking for someone who can tell stories, who combines the landscape, wildlife and people. So that definitely seems to be the direction and the type of work that attracts me most.

What process do you go through when you're finding music for a film?

I guess from the moment I started, music has always been a really important part of the work I do. At one point, when I was in my growing filmmaking years, I worked solely in editing for a couple of years. I definitely learned that music is the element that really influences and affects mood.

For the work I do, it's super important. In fact, before I lay picture down, 100% of the time I would usually have the music selected and finding that music... It really comes down to the feeling inside. I really have to judge whether I feel something or not.

What's the most difficult part of what you do, and the most rewarding?

The most rewarding is definitely hearing the feedback from people, and not in an ego-building way necessarily, but actually hearing about the affect it's had on people’s lives. It's hearing that a combination of moving picture and music and voiceover can have, not just an impact, but some sort of an emotional experience -- a resonance, a reversion back to some sort of nostalgic moment. And then maybe as a byproduct of that, even reflection. To me, that stuff is mind boggling. When you hear the people who take the time to respond to a video about something deep, that's quite rewarding. It shows that you've made a change in a way that's subtle.

The hardest part is the discipline it takes to craft these types of works. Because I don't storyboard, I don't shoot with the exact edit in mind, it's a very documentary-style approach, which often means filming hundreds of hours of footage and then crafting it together in the edit room.

There were definitely times where I could have passed off as a hermit living in a cave, for many days straight. I thought it was quite funny, because I have an assistant editor and he's at university still, and he'd often ask these questions like, 'How do you think of these things?' I think he might think that I have this flawless work process where I always know what I want, and I always know exactly what to do, and that's not the case. It’s a process.

 
 
Posted on February 27, 2017 and filed under Field Notes, Filmmaking.

The Art of Scoring a Podcast: An Interview with Matthew Boll

Field Notes Interview: Matthew Boll, Lead Audio Engineer for Gimlet Media 

In the past few years, the popularity of podcasts has exploded, providing listeners with endless opportunities to explore the world outside their own and learn something new. Without a visual aspect to inform the audience, music plays an integral part in telling the story. In fact, there’s a whole set of nuances involved in scoring a podcast. To delve into the relationship between music and podcasts, we spoke with Matthew Boll -- Marmoset artist, Ultraviolet and Lead Audio Engineer for the award-winning narrative podcast company, Gimlet Media -- about his experience with composing in the podcast industry.  


M: To start off, what's your musical background and how did you get involved in podcasts?

Matthew Boll: I started playing at 16, and then I went to school for music and audio engineering, and then after college moved to Chicago and just played. I was a musician and played in bands for 8-9 years.

Did the whole thing, made records, toured, you know. All the things that you do in a band. We weren't just into making normal rock and roll records -- we were making weird audio art pieces with a radio producer who ended up working for Radiolab. We would do strange pairings of music and voice together, and we'd use people's voices to write songs, and then we'd put them in the stories that he was producing and it would be like a hybrid of the two things we were doing. Then we would perform them live either on tour or we would put shows together.

I kind of got into radio and podcasting because of that. Then a year ago, Gimlet was hiring for a lead engineer and I just applied. Now I do podcasts full time.

Do you think choosing music for a podcast is more challenging than if you had a visual?

Yeah, I find you have to have a much more subtle touch. You don't have a visual to support a really emotionally hefty thing. Things can get overwrought really quickly, and you can miss the mark a lot quicker, I think. So the emotion of the scene... you just have to be much more specific about it. It can't be very broad. If it's broad, it's too sappy or it's just too much.

The other thing that's strange is that, because it's just audio, the relationship of the timbre of people's voice to the music is really important. It's almost like you're making a song. It's very similar to when I've made records in the past. The way you put stuff together and the way that things relate to each other and the trajectory of a story -- starting in one place and going to another place, and the way you use music -- is very much like writing music and putting together a song. You just have to be very aware of how someone's voice sounds with this piece of music, not just what the piece of music is telling you.

Is there  a science to deciding when to use the music within a podcast? Obviously you have an intro and an outro, but how do you approach weaving it throughout?

I've only been making podcasts professionally for a year, and there are some rules that people have told me about what makes music effective in a podcast and why to use it. A lot of those rules are very functional. It's like if you want someone to remember this line, put a piece of music right after it, or if you want someone to remember this line, end the piece of music and have that line without any music over it. Then of course the intro and outro.

Those things have been really useful, but for me, I've tried to approach it much more as an integrated part of the story. It's part of telling the story. Part of the editorial process is using music to get to those places. Maybe you don't write something there, maybe you just use a piece of music used to do that thing. Or, like I said before, when we do original composition sometimes we try to do something where we actually use the voice that's part of the music. Where we use sound effects as part of the music and the key and the timbre and all that, so that it feels almost like... it's part of the building the story you're telling.

Are there certain instances when you know that you'll probably be composing a piece as opposed to licensing it?

I think that there's always the drive to write something original to the story that you're making, but I've been really surprised about finding music and then just fitting it into the story.

A lot of times I'll pick out themes in the show, or the producer of the show will pick out a theme that seems like, "Oh, we should try to write something to this." It seems kind of primed for it's own original thing. Other times it's not, it's just, "Let's do a music search and maybe we'll find something that we can use here" and then we're surprised by the results. It can be both, I think.

You touched on this a little bit already, but how do you think music contributes to a podcast as opposed to in a film?

I've scored one documentary, so I'm a little less versed in how music is used in film. Other than just being a student of how music is used in film, I think the main difference...it's just the subtlety with which you use it. It has to be just so much more surgical. It's hard to paint these broad brush strokes of emotion with music in podcasting because it doesn't work all the time.

Especially because a lot of what we do is journalism and you're trying to get the truth out of it, so when you lead the emotion or give away the emotion before it happens...you're trying to make people feel something that maybe they're not supposed to. Or maybe you need to let them feel it and not you tell them how to feel it, you know? There's a lot more room for that in podcasting. I don't want the music to just be secondary with the story. I want to hold hands with the story as best I can.

How have you used Marmoset to aid in your process of deciding on the right music?

It's the easiest way that we've been able to license. All other music that we license... of course, we have to either find the publisher, or the management, or the artist and make a deal and sign the contract and blah blah blah. It takes so long and I have to keep track of it all, you know. Marmoset's great, I don't have to do any of that. If the song is great, I buy it right there, I put it in, and it's good to go. I love that you guys did the mp3 to audition without a watermark in it. Super helpful, oh my gosh, I love that.

What type of mood were you trying to establish with your project, Crimetown?

We were trying to get the weight of the story without being too heavy-handed. There's a lot of percussive tracks in that too, it just moves things along really well and it also has an added urgency to it.

Then we swiveled a lot with if we want to go more electronic or more organic. I think we kind of struck a nice balance with that and eventually kind of melded the two. I think there's a darkness to the story that we were trying to hit on, but we also didn't want to hit it too heavy. The voices in the story do most of the work in telling you what's happening, so once again we wanted to hold hands with that and try to help tell that story.

Although you've only been at Gimlet one year, you've been doing music for broadcast and radio and stories told in that way for a bit. Do you have any pieces of advice for someone who is either composing for radio or a podcast, or trying to find music for their podcast?

Yeah, I think the best thing that I learned to do is get out your first four shitty ideas, you know? Just keep trying, it takes a really long time -- at least it took me a really long time to find the thing that works. You're gonna do two, three, four, five really bad ideas first, and they kind of have to be bad.

You have to find a way to get those out first. You have to be okay with just throwing it out and trying again, throwing it out and trying again. Maybe you go back to something you did, who knows, but typically the first try is never the thing that's worked. So, I would say keep trying, and then my advice would be find musicians who are willing to go down a weird rabbit hole, because I think music and podcasting and scoring in this world, we're still really [in the] wild West era.

A lot of it is experimentation and there's a lot of new things happening, so if you can find musicians who are willing to do strange things and use people's voices in cool ways and explore that, I think that's a big thing.

Posted on December 13, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.

"Portraits" of a Young Filmmaker: An Interview with Ben Fitzgerald

Together, Fitzgerald and his filmmaking partner and childhood best friend, Jake Hunter, make up (1331).

Together, Fitzgerald and his filmmaking partner and childhood best friend, Jake Hunter, make up (1331).

Field Notes Interview: Australian Filmmaker, Ben Fitzgerald

At the age of 22, Benjamin Fitzgerald has already pinpointed a feeling that most people are never quite able to put to words. Fitzgerald and his film partner and childhood best friend, Jake Hunter, struck a chord in the hearts of many with with their short film and Vimeo Staff Pick, Portraits. The film displays intimate vignettes of young adults in Sydney, Australia, who are in the midst of the dreaded transition from adolescence into adulthood. While the characters differ in personality and aesthetic, each of the voiceovers describe the same overarching themes: ambivalence, uncertainty and lack of direction.  

Set in the subjects’ bedrooms and soundtracked with little other than the vocalization of their deepest thoughts, Portraits exudes a magnetic vulnerability. Partially serving as a projection of the directors’ own thoughts, the film serves as a relatable personification of a universal truth: nobody really wants to grow up. We spoke with Benjamin Fitzgerald about filmmaking, the creative process and the story behind the fascinating film, Portraits.


Marmoset: How did you get involved with filmmaking, writing and working with your film partner, Jake?
 

Benjamin Fitzgerald: Jake and I have been best friends since we were 12, or younger maybe. We went to school together. We weren't really that into film -- we were huge into surfing. We live near Bondi Beach, so we'd surf everyday together. That was kind of all we did and all we focused on wanting to do. We had hopes of being professional surfers, but that didn't work out. That's how our friendship started. My dad is a First AD [Assistant Director] and makes commercials, so maybe when I turned 16, he used to start getting me on to jobs as background extra number 41 on a car insurance commercial, or a Schweppes commercial or whatever. Again, I didn't kind of really take that much notice in it. I just did it because it was good money and I was 16. I was a kid and all I wanted to do was go surfing and hang out with my friends.

I was not really doing that much, and then my friend Jake started getting into photography and he went to film school. He’s got very specific taste in what he likes. He had a music video project that he had to do, and he didn't trust anyone that he was working with at film school. They were all Star Wars nerds to him, and he hit me up and was like, "Do you want to help me write and direct this music video?" It wasn't particularly good because it was the first thing we'd done together, but it was from doing that I was like, "Wow, this is really fun to be able to create something." That really inspired me. We did that, and then I signed up for film school pretty much straight after and he and I have been working and doing stuff together ever since.

That's awesome. Is it a pretty collaborative experience when you guys are coming up with an idea for a new film? What does kind of the inspiration and development process look like?

It really depends. Portraits was the third thing that he and I did together, but only the second thing that came out. He'd [Jake] been at film school for a year before I had started -- I'm only graduating this year. With Portraits, he'd started taking photos of a bunch of our friends, who were dudes who think they're tough, in these really vulnerable sort of weird ways. It was an image of these people that I hadn't seen before. I looked at it and was like, "Let's turn this into a short documentary and we'll just see what happens.”

From there, he will typically control the visual style. We'll talk about that and we'll talk about shots that we want to do. Typically, I'll be like, "Okay to tell the story, I physically need these shots. I need this, and we have to see that," and then he'll come back to me with a bunch of references, and we'll come up with a style that way. I'll normally either write the project, depending what it is, or I'll write the premise.

It's so much easier having a partner that you can be like, "I'm stuck and I don't know what to do. What do you think? We need this character to get from here to here," or whatever, and they can be like, "Yes, that's a good idea. I really like that," which then helps you have more ideas because you're like, "Yes, I'm amazing." Or, [they] just give it to you straight and be like, "That's terrible. Do not do that." Working with a partner's fantastic and we definitely work very creatively together and bounce off each other in different ways, which is cool.

In Portraits, the sound beyond the characters talking and telling their stories was pretty minimal. Was that lack of music/sound in the background intentional? How do you think that contributed to the theme of the film?
 

Jake and I's ethos is there's no point in trying to be overzealous or super ambitious when you have the budget we have, so basically we want to look at what is available to us, what can we make work, and then make that a stylistic choice. That's why we do everything handheld and everything's got natural sound and stuff like that, because there's no point of us trying to do something that you would see in a Hollywood film and us do it terribly.

The idea with having the natural sound in, we just wanted to make it feel as intimate as possible, because everyone's a real person and we're shooting in everyone's actual bedroom, so we wanted to make it feel super personal with the really close wide angle lens, closeups on people's faces and doing the voice service through recording off loudspeaker on a phone. We wanted to make it feel like you were really there with them and like they were opening up to you.
 

Who were the subjects?

Friends and mutual friends. Some people we knew really well. One of them was my girlfriend, Jake's girlfriend was the French girl, and then some people we've worked with in the past, good friends of ours and a couple people who had really good looks that we wanted.

Because we knew a lot of the people, it made it so much easier for the interviewing process. It wasn't the case with everyone, but with a lot of people, I knew things about them and I could just bring out the things that I wanted to hear or steer them in a direction that I knew they would be comfortable with. I sort of knew their insecurities already, and I could just kind of get them in the space to start talking about some stuff, which is great.

Would you say that Portraits is a reflection of how you and Jake were feeling at the time when you made it?
 

For me, there was definite catharsis involved. Asking the questions is almost like projecting my problems on other people, and I tried to make sure that I wasn't the only one alone. That was one of the missions of the film -- just to bring light to the fact that I am not the only one who feels terrified and doesn't know what he's doing.

It definitely came from my own fear of the future and struggle that I went through from ages 18 to 21, just becoming almost a completely different person. At 18 I was just a massive piece of shit, really.

In that space, there's just such a radical change that happens in your brain where everything you know just gets flipped around and there's these two or three years that you're just so confused. I really wanted to bring light to that and sort of deal with my own problem that I was having with it, and make myself not feel so alone, and then hopefully make the audience not feel so alone as well.


You've been making films for a couple years now, how do you go about the process of finding music and how do you think music affects the films that you make?

I think music and sound, in particular, is one of the most underrated things. You can have a terrible, looking image, but if you've got clean sound recording, everyone just thinks, "Oh that's a stylistic choice." But if you have terrible dialogue recording or anything like that,  as the audience you're completely taken out. I think the same with music. If you don't have the right music to fit the piece, a story that is told really well and shot really well with great acting can just feel completely off, with the wrong vibe and the wrong feeling, and therefore the audience isn't sold and captivated and taken on the journey that you want them to be taken on.

As a young filmmaker, what's been the most challenging part of your career so far?

I'm definitely as green as anything, even doing interviews or talking to anyone. I had a girl from England email me -- she had to do an assignment on a director she found inspirational. I was like, "This is so weird. You don't realize, but...I'm also at film school." It was really cool. I guess the goal is for Jake and I is we want to put out as much high quality work as we can that's got interesting stories and resonates with people, and that are unique and they look really good.

Right now it's trying to come up with the unique concepts that we can do with the money that we have -- which is very little -- with the actors that we have available to us, which are also very little. Then trying to just deal with that sort of stuff and put out as much good, quality stuff as we possibly can.

Getting the Staff Pick was such an encouragement for us. Just being like, "Oh my God. People actually like this, and recognize it, and we're not crazy to think this is cool." Also wanting to prove to ourselves that we're not just 22 year old dudes who don't know anything. But I know that even though we've done some good stuff, it's going to be a long time before we are given proper money to make something. I think you really have to earn it.

We've got a lot more work to do and we've got to show more variety, and all sorts of stuff...It’s not really about that anyway -- as artists, we just want to keep doing what we love.

Posted on December 1, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.

The Long Road of an Independent Filmmaker: An Interview with Dan Sadgrove

Field Notes Interview: Dan Sadgrove, Independent Filmmaker 

“Make the films that you want to make, stay original, find your voice and look for inspiration outside of film.”

These are the wise words of Dan Sadgrove, world traveler and independent filmmaker.  From New Zealand to London and finally the United States, Sadgrove’s nomadic lifestyle has lent to his unique and authentic style of filmmaking. In an effort to get a glimpse inside his creative process, we talked to Sadgrove about his travels, tribulations, and latest short film and Vimeo Staff Pick, Last Exit to Elsewhere.


Tell us a little more about yourself. What brought you where you are today? How did you get into filmmaking?

Dan Sadgrove: The short of it is I’m from New Zealand, moved to London in 2009, then hit the road in late 2013. I’ve been involved in the industry in one form or another for about a decade now -- low level jobs really -- but it’s only recently that I have been focused seriously on making films. Something just clicked when I was on the road and I’ve just gotten on with making my own films, as difficult as that can be.

From watching your films, it appears that you spend a lot of time traveling, would you agree that this is true? If so, why do you think travel is important for filmmakers?

I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last three years, so it’s certainly true. I’m not sure travel is important or not for filmmakers as I don’t speak for anybody else, but something I read in Paul Cronin’s "A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Werner Herzog" really struck a chord.

In the book, Herzog talks about going out and experiencing life being more important than film study:

“Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation.”

As far as my films are concerned, they tend to exhibit a direct reflection of my reality.

Can you recall any hard lessons you’ve learned about film or filmmaking while traveling? If so, what are they and how do you think they have molded your career into what it is today?

I think over the last year or two I’ve come to the realization that no one is going to do it for you. Maybe that was holding me back earlier, I’m not sure. I’m confident in myself now and not worried about what other people think -- something that comes more easily as you get older, I feel.

Motivation and struggle will always go hand in hand. I’m not sure if it gets any easier. I hope it does and I wish I had an unlimited resource of talent to lean on, but I don’t. I don’t have a career in filmmaking, though that is the goal. These are self-funded films. Some days, the struggle outweighs the motivation, and a lot of days I wish I had a production team behind me, but that’s not my reality. I work with what I have and go from there.

I have to find the motivation myself because no one is there pushing me, so it’s an honest question I ask myself daily, whether I have it in me. Does the will and effort outweigh the struggle? I only have myself to answer for, which is a blessing and a curse at times.

Sometimes you just have to get on with it. For Tomorrow’s Flames are Already Burning, I did all the liquid effects, filming, and editing. I learned about liquid effects from an old Cinemax issue featuring Doug Trumbull. I looked at using the 5D with Magic Lantern to get the most out of the camera I borrowed off a friend. I made PVC pipe lighting and shoulder rigs from what I could find at the local Home Depot. I just experimented.

It’s an endless education and expense for me. I’m always striving to be better and improve.

"If a man can keep alert and imaginative, an error is a possibility, a chance at something new; to him, wandering, and wondering are part of the same process, and he is most mistaken, most in error, whenever he quits exploring."  – William Least Heat-Moon

Let’s talk about your recent short film, Last Exit to Elsewhere. What inspired this film? Why was this story important for you to tell?  

I had done a road trip in America the year before, visiting 12 national parks, and it was pretty exceptional as far as experiencing nature and building character was concerned. This time I decided to head south, away from most of the national parks, and drive from California to Louisiana and back. I knew heading out that I wasn’t really in the right headspace for it. I had just spent some time in Svalbard up near the North Pole in the wrong season and was pretty uninspired about travel in general. I didn’t know what to do, so I got in my camper and just drove without direction and with no immediate destination in mind.

I’m an avid reader, and I picked up a bunch of books on America and road trips before I set off. One that stood out was Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s a really good read and an honest -- and sometimes funny -- account of what happens on the road. There’s no sugar coating the experience with Heat-Moon.

While reading it, I felt I was mirroring his journey on the road. I had picked up a camera somewhere in Phoenix and just started filming stuff with no story to start with -- I just knew I wanted it to reflect the reality of my road trip. I’d seen a bunch of road trip videos online and they never felt true to my experiences being on the road; they have the inspirational music, the slow motion running and jumping, the endless joy, crazy eyes, big smiles and bullshit. There’s a certain tension I feel when watching those films -- it’s like someone trying to hold a smile for a photo with a camera that takes far too long to release the shutter.

I’d read Blue Highway, and his journey was my reality. The long boring drives, the spaces between quiet and solitude. The empty bars, the five day old gas station coffee, the lonely nights camping in National Forests. I wanted to capture a sense of what I was experiencing on the road. It was slowing down and appreciating the small things in life that you take for granted otherwise. I had a really nice conversation with a tow truck driver when I broke down in the middle of nowhere. We even stopped on the way back to the shop and assisted with a woman who had broken down as well and changed her tire. Shit always happens on the road, but you learn to deal with it and try to get the most out of the situation. You try to see the good in the bad.

Those small pleasures for me were a decent meal, a warm night’s sleep, strangers to play pool with, and, in one extreme case, watching a giant flock of birds dance in the sky. What came out of it was Last Exit to Elsewhere.

Can you elaborate on what the relationship of music and film looks like to you? How do you feel a single track can affect an entire film?

Music is half of the whole. It’s really important for me in reaching a certain emotion. I stress pretty hard over music, and I often find it hard to express exactly what I am after sonically -- but I’m learning. I spend most of the time editing just looking for the right music track to fit. Music makes the film. Just watch some of the stuff out there in silence to see what I mean. It’s the choice of the director in the end, but the relationship between sound and the visual ultimately gives the film its resonance.

With your response above in mind, how did this view play into the track you choose for Last Exit to Elsewhere? Did you know it was the perfect track the first time you paired it with the film or did it grow on you over time?

I knew as soon as I played it that it was perfect. It even matched up pretty closely to the edit I had on a temp track I was using, so I didn’t have to move much around. Hanan Townshend is such an unbelievably talented composer and a lot of his music was working, but the one I used said everything that I wanted to say. It really complements the voice and drives the visuals.

I had actually met Hanan on the road when I was driving through Austin and have been very fortunate to be able to lean on him for music. I had heard Hanan’s work before on Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life and To the Wonder and was a huge fan so I reached out to him. He took me out to lunch at a local BBQ joint and made the best coffee I had had on the road. He knows the struggle of American drip coffee, it’s the small pleasures in life. We’re working on a few more projects, and I’m extremely grateful that he gives his time to me when he can.

I told him about the film I was shooting and he said he’d love to contribute. How I met him goes back to another lesson I’ve learned while making films: don’t be afraid to reach out to some of the industry heavyweights. If you are genuine in your approach, then they will almost always respond.

How did it feel to have your film featured as a Vimeo Staff Pick? Do you feel that it has made you more confident as a filmmaker? Has it affected the way you think about your approach to filmmaking?

It’s nice to be appreciated, and it gives your film a platform for more eyes. Maybe it has given me confidence to continue, but ultimately I don’t think it matters much. You shouldn’t be aiming for external validation. You should only be asking yourself “have I asked the questions I wanted to ask and made the film I wanted to make?” I can only control what’s in the frame. If I’m happy with the result then anything else is just a bonus.

Do you have any advice to offer young, aspiring filmmakers?

I don’t think I’m quite yet in a position to give advice to other filmmakers, but this is the mantra I follow: Make the films that you want to make, stay original, find your voice and look for inspiration outside of film. Like Herzog said, look to life experiences to influence the stories that you want to tell. And books. Read lots of books.

 
 
 
Posted on November 1, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.

Field Notes #100: Great Minds Come Together

Field Notes #100

Since we started our Field Notes series in 2014, we have amassed an invaluable amount of wisdom from composers, filmmakers and creatives across the nation, and even the world. To celebrate our 100th edition of the Field Notes Interview Series, we wanted to do something a little different. We know that filmmaking can have its peaks and valleys, so we chatted with seven inspirational artists and filmmakers from our creative community, and picked their brains about the different stages of a film project. Below, you’ll find our favorite quotes from each interview, with links to the full interviews as well. Dig in, learn and enjoy.


Inspiration

Do you seek new project ideas or do they just come to you? 

“I don't have any lack of ideas. I have come up with ideas for stories, for films, and sometimes those are more well suited to a short, and sometimes they're more well suited to being feature length. I take notes and I write them down. I have a "film ideas" application on my phone and if I have an idea, I just sort of write it down. The vast majority of the ideas aren't very good.  -- Anson Fogel, Director and co-owner of Camp4 Collective

 

 

Financing

Do you feel like, beyond the promotion and everything that you didn't have any limitations in what you were filming? 

“The travel cost of any film is what can really skyrocket things quickly. That's what you have to be ready for because as soon as you have airfare, traveling as budgeted as possible just adds up quickly.” -- Rebecca Hynes, Filmmaker/Producer

 

Development

How do you know when you find a good idea that you want to develop?

“I think the most important criteria is how much passion do you have for that idea? For me, is it something that I feel really strongly about emotionally, intellectually?” -- Anson Fogel, Director and co-owner of Camp4 Collective

“I don't ever go into production without knowing exactly what I'm going to do. There is never a process where we just show up with a camera and start shooting.” -- Anson Fogel, Director and co-owner of Camp4 Collective

 

Pre-Production

Is there an instance where you thought something would be really difficult in pre-production that turned out to be easy? What about vice versa?

“You plan and think it’s going to be easy, then some variable is thrown at you -- rain, gear breaks, behind schedule etc., which makes things harder and you have to go to 'plan b' and start making things happen. This is a big part of being a filmmaker -- thinking quick on your feet and being able to problem-solve and make changes on the fly.” -- Joe Simon, Director & DP for The Delivery Men

 

Production

What has been your biggest learning lesson while in production?

“You can never plan too much. Without a solid plan you always run into issues in production and these can kill a project. Be prepared, have a shot-list and a back up plan, so when you run into issues you can still create the film you set up to make.”  -- Joe Simon, Director & DP for The Delivery Men

Post-Production

Is there any part of post-production that you think is often overlooked/not focused on enough that probably should be?

“We think that the first step to an edit that is often overlooked is creating something that we call a ‘skeleton.' When starting any edit, we try to use carefully chosen music and interviews and/or VO to create a cut with no visuals. We try to have 3 acts that have naturally occurring valleys and peaks to keep the audience’s attention. If the video works from a storytelling perspective without visuals, we are on our way to an impactful edit. The idea is that we then have to use visuals to inhabit that skeleton with a benevolent ghost that will make the bones dance for the viewer.” -- Dan Riordan, Producer at Gnarly Bay Productions

 

Composing

Do you prefer more or less direction when composing music for picture? 

"I think that it depends on the relationship and experience that you have. It's great to work with a filmmaker who is like, 'I don't want to prescribe any direction. I want to see your take on this.' They have to really mean that." -- Paul Damian Hogan, Composer

 

Scoring

What obstacles come with choosing music for your films?

"From logistical to creative obstacles, there are a lot of hurdles that come with choosing music for films. Logistically, some of the more common ones are working within the limits of the project, which isn’t always easy or fun. You can dream up the ideal piece of music for a project and realize it’s way over your budget, or the artist or composer doesn’t want to license it out... I’ve found with myself and other filmmakers that thinking about music as early as possible in pre-production is hugely helpful."  -- Emilee Booher, Music Supervisor at Marmoset/Filmmaker

Distribution

Would you say that in the past couple of years, with everything happening with social media, that affected how you share your work?

“I think social media has become vital to the distribution of any documentary film, whether it's long form or a short. I don't think I know a filmmaker who's not using social media.” -- Jeff Gersh, Founder of NarrativeLab

 
 
Posted on October 25, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.