Ask a Filmmaker: Ben Nabors

As we kick off our 2014 season, we’re introducing a new interview series, where our filmmakers and film experts share their personal experiences and offer guidance for best practices in the world of filmmaking. First up is Ben Nabors, Brooklyn-based director of the documentary William and the Windmill and founder of {group theory}.

When did you become interested in documentaries?

I often find that what happens naturally is far more appealing and fantastic then what I could have imagined on my own. I think my interest in nonfiction started there — with an appreciation for the deep complexities in the human experience, and an interest to represent them appropriately.

Then came inexpensive HD cameras, feasible editing platforms, and the ability to watch, record, and re-watch. When you’re holding a camera, and looking through a lens, you’re granted opportunities that don’t regularly come your way — doors open, people answer questions. For me, most meaningfully, it is the permission to watch, even to stare. I really value the opportunity to interpret a look, weigh the meaning of a word choice, explore an emotion across a person’s face. This medium makes it permit-able, somehow.

Why did you become a filmmaker?

It has always been important to me to actively contribute to the larger conversation going on, ideally in some way proportionate to what I’ve taken from it. I didn’t know what that contribution would look like, and though I have always had an interest in telling stories, making films seemed too implausible. I didn’t grow up around filmmakers (or professional storytellers) and I didn’t train to do it. I just simply started, quietly and safely.

“Filmmaker” was never a title that I felt comfortable using until I successfully showed a film to an audience. This happened in March of last year (2013), when this particular AFS project premiered at South By Southwest. Prior to having that screening with an audience, I was just a person working privately on an unfinished video project. This lasted almost 6 years.

Now, in retrospect, thinking about why I wanted to do this, I believe it was the story that motivated the work. I found something interesting first, then that thing became a film. It required a strong character (in my case, a very compelling, fascinating and impressive young problem-solver) and a series of complex experiences that I didn’t know how to interpret. These things required the structure of a film to work and make sense, so I did it. I now believe that film is one of our most potent mediums; I am committed to working in the form. These things just happened.

How have you balanced your efforts between commercial works and personal projects?

Balance is essential to independent film production, particularly when the projects are very long-term and not immediately lucrative. Success, to me, is being able to dictate how one spends their time, so I think it’s important and fulfilling to cultivate a variety of projects and business models. Practically, this materialized as a production company called {group theory}, which I founded in 2010.

Because the studio is an extension of a particular work philosophy, I don’t draw a distinction between commercial and personal. It is all “personal” and it is all “work”, just some of it is contractual and some of it is self-generated. Each project gets the same consideration and focus, and thus we’re proud of both categories. As a result, we’ve been fortunate to be selective about what projects we take on.

What is the hardest part about making documentaries?

Endurance is the hardest part. This is an endurance medium. Documentary — the way I feel comfortable working in documentary — takes a lot of time and a lot of resources to execute well. People must be motivated, relationships must be built, systems must be trusted, and you must believe in something that you can’t yet see. This is terribly challenging, and entirely impractical, and so it’s hard.

Which documentary has had the most profound impact on you?

These are always hard questions to answer. I think the films that you watch are just as important as the the time when you watch them. Are you ready to sit with a particular film? Are you ready to think about the story, or the storytelling techniques? I watched films like “The Oath”, “The Act of Killing”, “Dig!”, “The Fixer”, and “Sherman’s March“ when I really needed to see them and they profoundly affected me.

What first attracted you to the story of William Kamkwamba?

William’s windmill first attracted me to this story. It was a beautiful image, a romantic idea, and a very powerful force in his life. As a symbol, it was potent and magnetic. As a machine, it was practical. Originally, I thought this film would be about William and his first windmill, but over time it became something else entirely.

What was the process like editing down all of your raw material into a 95-minute film? How did you come to discover the narrative thread?

We shot for about 5 years on this film, and that generated more than 400 hours of footage. That amount of content was daunting, at first, but over time it became clear what belonged and what did not. Filming can be a lot like sketching, and sometimes you have to sketch to really understand that you’re making. When we sorted the sketches away from the true work, the narrative thread became clear.

The film’s two editors had a huge hand in this: Jonathan Oppenheim and Carlos Pavan. In conversation, we would ask ourselves: Does this belong in a film? Does this footage stand on its own? Does this convey what it felt like? Those questions shaped our process and helped us stay true to what we were making.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m currently working on two documentaries that are in the late stages of editing, as well as writing a narrative feature. In “The Happy Film“, which I’m co-directing with the film’s subject, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister develops a series of self-experiments to see if he can make himself happier; along the way, life unexpectedly happens. For the past three years, I’ve been collaborating with director Jacob Cohl on a behind-the-scenes documentary about Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark, which tells the story of the most expensive Broadway show in history. And, over the past 10 months I’ve been writing a feature length version of a narrative short that played the festival circuit last year. The project is called “Palimpsest”, and myself and my writing partner Michael Tyburski were recently at the Hamptons Screenwriting Lab with the script. We’re making a lot of progress, and plan to move into development later this year.

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