Stories from Strangers: An interview with Documentary Filmmaker, Max Esposito

Field Notes #52: Max Esposito, Filmmaker

When we asked Max Esposito about what he does as a documentary filmmaker, he described his role as following strangers around with a camera until the strangers become friends and would hopefully tell him interesting things about themselves. Come to think of it, that's exactly what we get as viewers: hearing and seeing stories from strangers. There's a special intimacy that comes from documentary storytelling, where the film's subjects evolve and shift right before our eyes.

In Esposito's newest documentary Raising 7 -- filmed with his production company, Esposito Originals -- we get a glimpse of a high school football team overcoming obstacles more off the field than on. It's a beautiful film about human connection, passing on and finding solidarity. The intensity of the film was heightened by the pensive soundtrack from songs like "Symbols And Signs" by Courtland Urbano and "Waves And Swells" by Drew Barefoot. We caught up with Max about his process of following people, building trust and letting the right story unfold.

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

ME: Sometime between making videos of my high school track team and realizing I could make a living creating high-quality videos about things and brands I’m interested in. Documentaries are a wonderful excuse to be around so many interesting things.

M: What's your favorite moment of the filmmaking process?

ME: From a documentary standpoint, I believe the good stories, the really good stories, have a shift during production where emotion and trust between filmmaker and subject become incredibly intimate. The most rewarding projects I’ve worked on all have this moment. It’s hard to explain, but you feel it in your soul. It’s a certain smile, a hug, a thank you, a tear, a look, a subtle comment.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers' voice?

ME: When a filmmaker communicates with you through a film, through a scene, through a moment that they created or they documented -- when you feel that moment deep down, that’s when you clearly understand their voice.

M: Tell us more about Raising 7.

ME: Raising 7 is the culmination of some smaller projects I did in 2010, profiling my old high school football team. In 2014, the team would go on to raise the second of two jerseys as a tribute to members of their football community that died within five days of each other in 2008. I saw this as a story that uses football as a vehicle to deliver a message about human connection. I already had the access and it became a matter of finding quiet human moments between the madness of the sport to tell the story of brotherhood and fighting for something greater than one’s self.

M: Are there ever any happy accidents when filming?

ME: There has to be. It wouldn’t be creative otherwise. It wouldn’t be fun if it was predictable. That’s what’s so beautifully terrifying about making documentaries.

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

ME: You know how some couples get married and you couldn't be more happy for them -- the power of them together is so much greater than them separate. Together they posses an energy and enthusiasm for life that's contagious and exciting. It doesn't always happen that way but sometimes this rare union of two very different beings somehow finds this wholesome, magical balance.

Every once in a while, you get that feeling when you marry a sequence of footage with a particular song. Usually it works, it does the job, even does it well, but sometimes it really works. Sometimes it gives you the chills, makes you laugh, tear up or smile. The two mediums together become greater than the sum of their parts, together they create an emotion or mood that wasn't there before, that really helps further the story on a new level -- a new, subtly poignant level.

M: How do you feel music is misused in projects?

ME: The same way music is misused during sex.

M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?

ME: I was recently filming a documentary called El Chino. Toward the end of a seemingly never-ending production, I was interviewing Jon Wong -- the main subject who had become a good friend at this point -- for the third or fourth time. Wong shapes surfboards in the heart of Boston’s Chinatown, above his parents grocery store, the oldest in Chinatown. I asked him the same question a few different ways and he said, “Max, when you’re shaping surfboards, you can only sand off so much foam trying to get the shape right before the shape goes to shit. At some point, you just have to glass the fucking thing.” He wasn’t answering the question, he was talking to me about finishing the film. I don’t think you’re ever fully ready for the paint to dry or the clay to harden.

M: What's coming up?

ME: I recently got back from the San Diego Surf Film Festival where El Chino took home the Spirit of the Festival Award. Hopefully more where that came from. I’ve been working on a WWII personal project, experimenting across mediums. It’s in the style of an online magazine/interactive documentary about a veteran who spent his service in the dark engine room of a destroyer in the Pacific. I’m also DPing a WWII feature length documentary with director Barry Frechette in Japan and Boston, tentatively titled Paper Lanterns <>;, about a Japanese historian who documented the 12 American POWs killed in Hiroshima during the atomic bombing. It’s a fascinating story. That’s in post-production now. I’m also in discussions about a Capoeira documentary. And of course, sometime soon will have to be a trip to Portland, Oregon to visit the Marmosets.

What do you think about all this? Share your thoughts and comment below.

In the spirit of sharing, we'd love to see your most recent documentaries. Send them to and we'll feature our favorites on the journal and send sweet swag over to our featured filmmakers.

Posted on June 22, 2015 and filed under Field Notes.