Interview with Ben Canales and John Waller

Field Notes Interview #81: Ben Canales and John Waller

We chat with filmmakers, Ben Canales and John Waller about their emotionally resonant works, what it's like spending time on the road and how to find the mythical work/life balance in their creative life.

Rising above the noise.

For filmmakers Ben Canales and John Waller, it's not about the hero in the journey -- it's about the emotional landscape that surrounds the protagonist. Founders and filmmakers of production company, Uncage the Soul, they focus on landscape in each of their films, providing a vivid sense of place as character. In our conversation with them, they give honest perspectives on the financial realities that arise in their craft, and rediscovering a love for the art form in any given moment. Enjoy.

M: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

John Waller (JW): Well, a stuffy introduction would be that I’m John Waller, owner and producer at Uncage the Soul Productions…but really, I’m just a human like the rest of us. Aspiring toward happiness, struggling with inner and external conflicts, working to create meaningful relationships with people, and constantly reminding myself to enjoy this time and this place that Im grateful to have. If my only accomplishment in the world is that I’ve left my own small circle and footprint in a little better shape than how I found it, it’s been a life well lived.  

M: How do you know what stories to pursue?

JW: The most compelling stories seem to reveal themselves without requiring a lot of hunting…but you have to be paying attention, because the hint of an amazing story can be fleeting. So I ask a lot of questions, and allow my curiosity to play around. Sometimes this leads to something truly exceptional. But then again, sometimes a great story just slaps you across the face and demands your attention. There's no shortage of evocative topics, crazy and inspiring characters, and mind-blowing phenomena on our planet, so it can be daunting to sift through it all and decide when you commit to a story.  For me it's timing, it's access, it's a sense of urgency, and it's the unique nature of the story that all guide my interest in pursuing it further. I invest a lot of myself in the stories I choose to explore and I don’t take this commitment lightly. So the stories that really interest me are also the ones that move the needle on things that are important to me…that hopefully contribute to that improved footprint.  

M: What was your first project?

JW: My first project was a short documentary about a friend of mine who attempted a balloon chair launch -- but in an unconventional style.  He bought 45 weather balloons off eBay, a $5 lawn chair from Walmart, and 14 tanks of helium, and planned his attempt during a Memorial Day weekend backpacking trip. So forty friends hauled all that gear three miles into the campsite, (along with 5 kegs of beer and a trampoline) and he spent the next two days filling weather balloons with helium. As part of a documentary filmmaking class with Portland-based NW Documentary, ( I produced my first documentary about this crazy weekend and his attempted flight.  How did it work out?

M: What makes a compelling story?

JW: There are some formulaic “hero’s journey” definitions of good storytelling that I think are generally sound, but that formula doesn’t get you all the way to something truly compelling.  The deeper layer is a story that evokes an emotional response -- laughter, tears, inspiration, exhilaration, anger, wonder. But even that, I don’t think, gets you to a story that rises above the noise of a very cluttered storytelling landscape. To really stand out, the compelling story inspires action…and a fundamental shift in behavior.  

M: How does travel affect your work?

JW: The thing I most love about travel is that it forces you out of routine, comfort, and complacency. You pay attention to the subtle details. You observe your surroundings with wonder. You are forced to confront your own fears and insecurities that may be holding you back in the comfort and security of your home.  Travel tears down many of these walls and puts you in a more raw and vulnerable place, and that translates into how you tell a story. Perhaps it's told with a more open perspective, perhaps with more uncomfortable honesty, or perhaps with a more creative or unconventional style.  Travel inspires me to be spontaneous, to be curious, and adventurous, and all of these things permeate into the work we do.

M: What's the last album you've listened to?

Ben Canales (BC): Truth is, I’m not a huge music person, so of course this is question number one I jump in on. My brain is really bad at remembering things I hear -- like, really bad. I enjoy it and celebrate it in the moment, but I am never the person my friends hand the iPod to at a party and ask to pick music. That all painfully admitted, I’ve got Anna Tivel’s Before Machines as my current go-to on road trips. I had that on repeat up at a fire tower rental a few weeks ago, and that set the tone wonderfully. This isn’t a tasteless plug, but, this is the reason I love a site like Marmoset. I suck at remembering music I like -- you’re awesome at showing me the perfect song. Boom, doneskies, lets get editing. 

M: When do you know a story is complete?

BC: I’m not sure I’ve felt the story has been 100% complete. On every project, we give it all we’ve got and work our hardest to tell a story to completion. But, nevertheless, months later I’ll watch the video and, because I’ve changed, my thoughts to the story change. I’ll experience something in my life, or watch a friend go through something and then watch a video we’ve done. And from that small/large increased perspective, I see new nuances, directions and questions I hadn’t thought of when we were pulling all-nighters, trying to make the edit as best it can be months or years ago. That’s frustrating, because it isn’t as simple as a matter of how hard have you worked -- it’s literally related to how much of the world around you are you aware of. But it’s also the source of wonder and joy for the process of growing in our craft and seeing it for the path it is. Each job/story is an opportunity to apply who and what I am in that moment to the opportunity in front of me. I’ve got some more learning of the craft and growing as a person to do before I can claim that 100% complete story badge. 

M: What would you tell a young filmmaker just starting out?

BC: Focus on getting good at telling a story before nerding out on shooting the most beautiful shot. Our social feeds are overflowing with gorgeous content, but rare are the ones that have a story with it. Viewers will forgive a not-great shot if the story has them riveted, but they’ll get bored at just another pretty scene that doesn’t engage them. 

Also, be prepared to be appalled at the financial aspect of this career. It’s become a very popular and celebrated craft, so there’s lots of people fighting for the paying jobs. Get ready to work your butt off to get a paycheck. 

M: What's one of the most difficult elements in filmmaking?

BC: For me at this point, it’s finding balance. I LOVE what I do, and I love the projects we’re involved with. So, I’m inspired to dig as deep as I can and carve away at it. But I’m finding my personality can be a bit obsessive, and there’s a vague line I cross between working hard on a film and losing myself in it. It’s tricky when I’m inspired by the project and want to keep plugging away at it late into the night...and the next night...and the weekend… and oh, crap, this has been going on for a month. And, whoa, I haven’t seen my friends much because those months keep adding up. And then that turns into a burnout and inability to be present in any project, because I’m not connected with myself. So, to avoid this final crash, I’m going a bunch of steps way back and stopping myself at the beginning from too many super late nights at the office. I think to be better artists/creatives, we should be better humans. A healthy us will naturally give into our craft abilities. 


M: What's coming up for you?

BC: Right now, John and I are about to get on some rafts and float the through the Grand Canyon for 21 days! Not for a job, but just fun. I’m excited to recharge the creative batteries and soak in the natural beauty without worrying if I’m getting a shot of the moment. My creativity is like a steam locomotive train. I occasionally need down time to let the boilers build the pressure back up. But, we’ve got some cameras packed for when the inspiration does hit.

After that, possibly some more adventure documentary projects, and some regional pieces. We JUST wrapped up this short film about cancer patients climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. I think we’re still unwinding from that amazing experience. 

Posted on April 11, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.