Field Notes: An interview with Filmmaker, Will Saunders

Will Saunders is not afraid to get personal. And as a filmmaker, his stories on screen are no different. Getting to the emotional core of the story is one of the most impactful elements in every film he creates.

Saunders' portraits of people are intimate, vulnerable and compelling. It's no small coincidence that each story in Will's films parallel his own fascinating personal story.

Through our interview with Will, we learned more about his personal backstory and how it informs his filmmaking technique. At the end, we were left in awe and inspired.

M: When did you start filming?

WS: I truly wish that I could claim that I grew up with a creative calling or even an interest in filmmaking, but honestly, I did not. I grew up the son of a carpenter and started building houses with my dad in the summers at the age of 12. If time travel was a realistic possibility, and you had the opportunity to observe me on December of 2006, you would probably predict that my destiny [due to addiction] would be resting in a tomb on December 26th.

Broken and hopeless, two men intervened in my life because they loved me and believed that I could change and use my talents to make a positive difference in this world. It was my brother Shawn and Sheriff Jimmy Ayers of my hometown in Amherst, Virginia. They stood by my side every step of the way as I entered and completed a one-year addiction recovery program at a homeless shelter in Durham, North Carolina. My pain, hopelessness, and brokenness transformed to a renewed sense of purpose. I was infused with a burning passion to live a life of humility and goodness so that others who are experiencing hardship can see that there is hope to change...there is always hope. While at the shelter, I met a couple who were volunteers, tutoring a young man named Bruce how to read. This couple was different than most folks because the majority of people would come in and bring meals and do one-time acts of generosity (which is great). They were different though because they wanted to build relationships - inviting homeless men out to dinner & welcoming them into their home. This blew me away. As a new staff member, they sporadically took me out to eat at a run down (but superbly delicious) authentic Mexican restaurant with the gentleman they were tutoring. It was then that I knew that my life with this couple was just the beginning of an amazing journey. 

That couple was Nathan and Rebecca Clendenin. Nathan was a professional photographer and videographer. From that moment, we built a genuine friendship. Shortly after meeting, they both went to South Africa to serve in community development work. Upon returning from their trip, I had started a non-profit addictions recovery ministry with my brother and immediately reconnected with Nathan in a Starbucks. When we reconnected, I asked Nathan how much he would charge to photograph my wedding with my bride Amy, as well as some pro-bono video and photography work for the ministry. It was at that moment, looking into his eyes and seeing his passion, that I knew we were starting on a journey together that would be incredible.

M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

WS: As I began to ask Nathan more consistently to take photos and videos of our non-profit work to showcase to our ministry partners, my intrigue in filmmaking began to grow. I’m a natural born fundraiser, and the one thing that moves people’s emotions is narrative driven experiences. Film is the one thing that gives you the opportunity to craft a story that produces emotion, which leads to action. As a marketer and fundraiser in a non-profit context; stories, films, and photos are what moves people to cause-driven participation. 

The specific moment when I knew that I wanted to become a filmmaker was when Nathan was tasked to produce a film to be shown live at a fundraising banquet. I’m the type of guy who is attracted like a moth to a flame to learning the in’s and out’s of how to do something. I’m a problem solver at heart. I was so intrigued by how he put that video together that I immediately asked him to mentor me and teach how to do what he does. Truthfully, I wanted to learn and push myself so that I could be better than him. That’s my nature. I admit that I haven’t reached that point yet, but I want to do the best job possible and create the best storiesimaginable...that’s what drives me.

M: What's usually your favorite moment when working on a film?

WS: When working on a film, my favorite moment is delivering an end product that surpasses the client’s expectations. This is an area where I believe a lot of filmmakers can improve. Filmmaking is about delivering an authentic representation of your client’s desires. I’m obsessed with learning about our clients and what makes them tick, who their audience is and what their goals are. I firmly believe this is an area in the creative filmmaking realm that we as a community need to improve. Without a doubt, we are committed to and believe in story...but more importantly, we love people. My favorite moments are when we as a company produce deliverables that represent and satisfy our customers. Creating the strategy is so much fun but each client is different, and as a filmmaker it’s so gratifying to deliver a project where the client says “You Get Us”. That’s the best. On a side note, my nickname is Bill Buttercam....which is because I’m the steadycam dude that is addicted in a good way to capturing shots that I envision as impossible. However, I will make a way to make them happen. For example, we were doing a video for UNC Healthcare about two doctors who were rock climbers. The one shot I had in mind was walking slowly to the edge of the cliff and then dipping down to reveal them climbing up the mountain. With the safety of our climbing crew, and some rope, it was a killer shot. We actually nominated the video for regional Emmy....hopefully it wins!


M: Have there ever been happy accident when filming?

WS: Happy accidents... we always find a gold needle in a haystack when filming. When creating a video, it’s pretty standard to plan out all your shots and be very dprofessional & organized in doing so. I like that philosophy... but most of the time it leads to films that seem scripted, performed, and unrealistic. 

Our happy accidents occur when my partner Nathan says that our interview is a wrap and the interviewee has this big change of spirit because they are off camera (or so they think). He keeps talking to them and asking them questions because they are in a relaxed, realistic, natural zone. They don’t even realize that I’m in the back still running the cameras. These are the moments where the gold nuggets are brought to life. We do around 100 videos a year. Without a shadow of a doubt, people think they need to perform in all of these circumstances. The happy (but carefully planned) accidents happen when we make them feel like they are not on camera. That’s the key.

M: How do you feel music plays a role in filmmaking?

WS: Music is huge in filmmaking. Whatever mood you are trying to set, the music is what brings it to fruition. Stories are so complex that the music you choose can make or break your video. The one thing that [I] know is making us better is the selection of the proper music for the proper mood during the proper transitions. Music is key to a good story, bottom line. And our music has up’d its game 200 percent since being turned on to Marmoset.

M: When do you know you've found the right soundtrack to your film?

WS: Our process to finding the right soundtrack is identifying the mood we are attempting to accomplish with the narrative and flow of the story. Each story is so dang unique and each client is so different that you have to find what fits best. 

I use the system to describe the mood, tempo, and flavor and BAM... tons of songs are outputted. We then go through the songs and choose two to three and lay them in to see which flows best with the story that we are putting together. This is a tricky process though because some videos are music driven with frames flowing on beats, while others are driven by native sound with the music softly enhancing the mood. One thing is for sure, Marmoset is the best we have come across thus far. The built-in mood query settings with the endless options for length, arch, and instrumentation is mind-blowing. After I was turned on to Marmoset through a blog post many of months ago, it’s become our go to source for music because music is that important.

M: How do you feel music can be misused in film?

WS: Music can be misused in film because it can conflict what’s actually being presented with what’s actually occurring. You can force people to feel a certain way through music, even though your film doesn’t coincide with the mood. To be honest, I do not want to fall into this trap. But, that does not mean that we sometimes select music in a section of video where the mood we want meshes with what’s actually flowing on the screen. This is where pushing yourself to be an exceptional filmmaker comes into play. Music elevates your film, but it does not dominate it. Music is misused when you rely on the music to be the paramount piece of your film.

M: What are you excited about? What's coming up for you?

WS: Wow, we are currently working on about 20 projects to get done before year-end. Actually, we need to get them done by end of November because we want to rest and do business planning in December... maybe drink a little eggnog, organize our hard-drives, build some desks, etc. 

A couple of projects we are working on are:

1. Telling the story of a UNC Doctor who moved into a refugee community complex to truly make a difference through building relationships and using medicine as a means to do so. 

2. Telling the story of a physician who delivered over 5,000 babies in his career, was diagnosed with leukemia, and was saved by the cord blood of two babies from Texas and New York. He never collected cord blood in his career as a OBGYN. 

3. We are doing several videos for a software company who created a software for banks that produces awesome metrics and variables to price loans based off of the customer’s desires that align with the banks goals. Mind blowing stuff!

4. We are producing several videos for an organization that funds and supports tech start-ups in the Raleigh-Durham Area, who recently held their massive annual conference. This was really cool to see the technology and the opportunity to meet some pretty amazing people. 

5. We have a lot more projects going on that are just incredible. This year has been so great for our business. Through listening to our clients, working well with them and aligning our videos with their desires – the work keeps flowing in. We are so blessed.

Posted on October 28, 2014 and filed under Field Notes.