Big Men/Rachel Boynton

With a two-person crew, director Rachel Boynton traveled from Texas  to Nigeria to Ghana, uncovering the tangled layers of intercontinental greed, exploitation, and profit that gushed forth from newly discovered African oil fields. Boyton’s brilliance at gaining equal access to high-powered board meetings and militant training camps is unparalleled, as is her dogged quest for the truth.  •Availability:  Opens March 14 at IFC Center, New York, with nationwide openings beginning March 21.  Check for local listings of this incredible film.  Thanks to Matt Mazur, Donna Daniels PR, for arranging this interview.

DT:   Let me congratulate you on a fantastic piece of filmmaking.  How long did you work on Big Men?

RB:  It took seven years to make, and about a year and a half of traveling back and forth to Africa before we started shooting.

DT:  During that year and a half, weren’t you worried that the situation on the ground might change by the time you started filming?

RB:  I worried about that all the time. I went to Nigeria for the first time in August 2006.  At the time, there were all these pipeline sabotages and kidnappings. I came home for about a week before I got right back on a plane for Nigeria, because I felt this pressure to start filming immediately. I said to a friend, “All this stuff is happening.  I’ve got to start now!”  but he just rolled his eyes and said, “Rachel, this stuff happens all the time.”  He was very jaded about the whole thing, and he opened my eyes to the idea that there was no danger that tensions were going to disappear.  It sounds kind of obvious, and it’s sort of sad, but it’s true.  So I took a deep breath and realized, Maybe I’m OK for a while.

DT:  What kind of groundwork did you have to lay before you could start shooting?

RB: Ian Olds made a great movie called Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi [a 2009 documentary about a fixer and an Italian journalist who were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan].  I don’t generally work with fixers, who help journalists, usually in areas of strife, meet people on the ground and find their way safely.  Fixers often help with translation and things like that, and they make it possible for journalists to do stories more quickly.  After all, how are you supposed to find the people to interview and get the story done if you’re arriving on the ground and only have two weeks?  Oftentimes people rely on fixers to help them find their way.  I did work with a couple in the very beginning as I was trying to understand the layout and the landscape in front of me,  but I did not use any fixers in terms of making connections with the Deadly Underdogs or with the people at Kosmos.  Those were contacts that I made and developed over time by being on the ground and meeting people and coming back again and again and again.

Your goals as a producer are different from your goals as a director. When you’re traveling as a producer, you’re doing things like trying to figure out where you’re going to sleep, or what airline you can take without crashing.  You’re trying to figure out how you’re going to handle the fact that the electricity is off twenty times a day.  Or how many cell phones each of us needs to guarantee that we’ll actually have a working phone.  Those are production questions.  Directorial questions are more like, What is this movie about?  Who’s going to be in it?  How am I going to get access?  And where do I need to be in order to be in the right place at the right time to actually get a story on camera?

I was both the producer and the director on this film, and over the course of the year and a half that I was traveling back and forth, one of my biggest jobs was trying to form the connections that would keep me and my cameraman safe when we were actually shooting.  Very early on I met a Nigerian guy who had his own oil company in Nigeria, called Emerald Energy.  He was a lovely, lovely man, and I talked to him about possibly filming with Emerald.  He liked the idea, then he got a big promotion; he ended up becoming special advisor to the president on petroleum matters. When I needed to get a journalist’s visa, I went to him and said, “Dr. Egbogah, I really need help.  I want to make sure we do things properly, and I want to guarantee the safety of me and my cameraman.  Can you possibly write a letter of invitation so that we can come to the country?”  He did, so we had a letter of invitation on Nigerian presidential letterhead, which I had laminated and kept in my backpack.  It was way more important than my passport.  I pulled it out of my backpack at least twenty times a day.  And I believe that it was because of that letter that we were kept safe while we were filming the movie.

DT:  Like Our Brand Is Crisis, Big Men is told like a thriller.  Do you see a line between documentary and feature filmmaking, or is the line fuzzy for you?

RB:  That’s so interesting.  I’m married to a fiction filmmaker, and I spend a lot of time talking about story and story structure and watching movies and analyzing them. This film is very much a reflection of the way my mind works. I think in terms of story structure.  I think in a very narrative way.  You can see that approach in both my movies.  I see Big Men as a progression from Our Brand.  It’s like the next step up, but they’re very connected, certainly in terms of their themes and approach, and definitely in terms of their narrative structure. But that’s about my brain. That’s the way I see things; it’s not really a philosophical question about documentary vs. fiction—it’s more a question of work being a reflection of the person who’s making it.

DT:  Your ability to gain access to people and situations is almost legendary at this point.  Can you talk about how you do it?

RB:  There are two things I usually say in answer to this question. One is I don’t give up very easily.  People say no to me, and then I say, OK, tell me why you’re saying no and then I continue the conversation.  I’m also a pretty darned sincere person.  What you see with me is what you get.  I’m not somebody who’s coming in making promises I don’t plan on keeping.  If I say I’m going to do something, I do my darnedest to really do it.  And I’m not someone who’s coming in trying to catch people with their pants down.  I’m not trying to embarrass people.  I’m trying to understand them, and understand them in a really intimate way. I think that once people understand that about me, they become more comfortable.

DT:  They respond to it.

RB:  I’m not trying to make them look evil or bad.  I’m trying to understand what’s going on in their heads and what’s going on in their hearts and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

DT:  You were an associate producer before becoming a director.  How did that influence your directing?

RB:  I went to Columbia’s School of Journalism.  When I graduated, I wrote letters to alumni, asking for advice.  One of them was Margaret Drain, who produced The American Experience on PBS and had gone to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. When I met with her, she gave me some really great advice: “Go work for people whose work you like.”  That was really terrific advice, and I’ve repeated it many times.  It has really stood me in good stead.

I was lucky to work with several filmmakers who taught me an enormous amount.  The very first feature film that I worked on was a film called Well-Founded Fear, by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson. I was with them for about a year and a half; it took them a long time to get permission to film inside the INS. People coming from all over the world were asking for permission to stay here, claiming they had been persecuted in one way or another in their home country. My job on that film was to sit in the room and convince these people to be on camera during their asylum hearings.  As I would sit there, I’d make little origami cranes for people and pass them out, trying to start a conversation with somebody in a very small way.  That was really phenomenal training for the kind of work I’ve ended up doing.  And to give credit where credit is due, I also worked with Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker.  They were making what started out as a series and ended up being a single piece called People Like Us:  Social Class in America.  These guys had a great sense of humor, and I learned a lot from them about how to bring your own stamp to what you’re doing, about going out in the world in a way that reflects your personality.

DT:  With Big Men, you were filming the story as it happened.  This meant that while you were shooting, you didn’t know what the outcome would be.

RB:  It was a nightmare on many, many levels.

DT:  That’s my question:  What obstacles does that approach present, and how do you overcome them?

RB:  It’s a nightmare.  I often compare it to standing in a dark room and trying to figure out the elephant.  At the same time, people are giving you money, and you have to go around being superconfident that you know exactly what you’re doing.  But the scariest part comes in the very beginning, when you have this instinct, some smell that’s saying to you, There’s a movie here, and you’re out there looking for it and you don’t really know what it is.  You’re trying to be in the right place at the right time, yet you don’t know what the ending is, so how are you supposed to know what the right place is?

DT:  Exactly.

RB:  Because you don’t know what your outcome is, it’s extraordinarily difficult to be in the right place at the right time, so you have to make sure while you’re filming that you’re covering your bases and that you’re guaranteeing that no matter what, you’re going to walk away with a movie.  For example, I shot a whole story that’s not in the movie—I filmed with the US Navy in both Ghana and Nigeria as they were training local navies to better protect their oil fields.  I did this because I needed to guarantee that if Ghana had not been a good enough story—if it couldn’t serve as the spinal cord for the film—I needed to make sure that I had another way of holding the movie together.  If that Ghana microstory about human nature and intrigue and what happens to these people hadn’t worked, I was going to make a film with a much bigger macro story.  I was guaranteeing that I had a movie in the can.  That’s the sort of thing you have to do to make sure you can make a film that feels like a movie, that actually works structurally.  As a director, you first have to know what the questions are.  You have to understand the structure well enough to ask the right questions.  You need to be asking yourself, What do I have?  What do I need?  What am I doing?  What is this movie about?  And that question, that seminal question—What is my movie about?—is guiding you in all of your decision making.  Am I going to shoot this, or am I going to shoot that, because I only have one camera and I can’t be in both places at once.

DT:  In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, you said that you tell your subjects you’ll try to show them a final cut of the project before showing it to the public.  Were you able to do that with Big Men, and what would you have done if they’d said they didn’t want you to release the film?

RB:  I’ve not shown the movie yet in Ghana or Nigeria.  I had two babies over the course of making this film, so it’s made quick travel to Africa a little more difficult, but it’s something I very much want to do and that I will make time for.  But that said, I was able to show it to the guys at Kosmos [in Texas] before I showed it to the public and before it premiered at Tribeca.  They were happy with the film.  They feel like it’s true, and they feel very comfortable with the truth.  I think that in general, if you make a film that’s honest and true, people will recognize that, and it makes me feel good that people watching the film feel like it does reflect truth.  They couldn’t say to me, We don’t like the movie, you can’t show it, because for the first time in my life I actually had a contract with them, and the contract says that I own the footage and I own this film. So they didn’t have the right to tell me not to show it.

DT:  I’m stunned.  Self-image is an amazing thing.

RB: I appreciate the fact that they feel the movie is reflective of the truth.  I said this before: I’m not a filmmaker who’s out to try and make someone look like a real jerk.  That’s not what the movie’s doing.  There’s very little in my film that you can point to and say, “That’s a cheap cut.”

DT:  Absolutely not.  That’s why I’m saying self-image is an amazing thing, because you’re drawing out the truth while there are many, many people—like me—who find the truth rather unpalatable.

RB:  And I told them that.  I said to them, “Listen, guys, a lot of people aren’t going to see this film the way you do.”  I was very open with them about that.

DT:  And what did they say?

RB:  The same thing happened with my first film [Our Brand Is Crisis, a documentary about James Carville’s consulting firm, hired by the president of Bolivia to help him win the next election; they based their campaign on the message that the country was in crisis, and the president was the only one who could handle it]. One of the things that disturbed me was the fact that while making the film, I worked really, really hard to listen to the consultants, be open to their perspective, and present their perspective in the movie.  The film was extremely well received by the press, but every time people talked about it, they just tore the consultants to shreds.  I wanted to make it harder to do that with this movie.  That was very deliberate on my part, because I feel like the moment you can tear someone apart and point your finger and say, “That guy is bad,” it’s a way of distancing yourself from the bigger questions in the movie. It’s like you become less involved.  But I completely agree with you about the whole self-image question.  It is remarkable.

DT:  What makes you want to turn a news item into a film?

RB:  That’s not really the way I think.  Let me cite the work of a filmmaker who really inspires me—Marcel Ophüls, who made The Sorrow and the Pity.  I love his work.  Each film is like a little treasure box.  It’s like a time capsule.  He manages to go out into the world and ask really important questions. He created films that you look at in thirty or forty years’ time and say, “Oh, my God, how did he have such foresight to be asking those questions in that moment?”  He managed to capture subjects and big themes that were incredibly vital in the moment in which he was living.  When you’re living in the moment, it’s often very difficult to see what’s right in front of your nose—to see the thing that’s most important.  What I’m trying to do with these two films is to look at big questions that I think are really vital to the way we live now. For me, Big Men is not just a film about Africa or Ghana or Nigeria or even Texas or New York.  It’s a film about the way the world works today.  It’s a film about the economic structure of our times.

That’s what interested me in it.  It wasn’t about an individual story…I’m interested deeply in the much bigger themes in the movie.  My dream is to be able to make a film that you can watch in thirty, forty, fifty years and say, “Wow, she really got it.  She really was looking at something that was vital in that moment.”

DT:  Your interview style reminded me of Errol Morris’s in The Unknown Known.

RB:  I love his work.  I love his early stuff in particular, although I’m a big fan of Fog of War as well.  He does an interview with an older woman—I think it’s in Vernon, Florida—that goes on for eight minutes.  He lets it go on and on and on.  This woman really reveals herself, and he doesn’t cut…he just lets it play.  He allows people to reveal themselves in their relationship to the camera.  He has wonderful dialogues between him and the person sitting in front of the lens.  And I am very interested in the dialogue between me and the person in front of the camera.

DT:  That’s precisely what caught my eye.

RB:  I’m very interested in the conversation.  A lot of people in the cutting room say, “Cut the questions.”  But when we’re dealing with people who are not exactly wearing their hearts on their sleeves, the questions are often extremely important.  It’s a way of understanding the context, and the conversation is far more interesting than an isolated response.  Much more cinematic, too.  The interview becomes more like a scene than an interview.

DT:  What would you do if you found that a story you’d started filming  was actually too big for you to tell?

RB:  I can’t imagine committing to a project and not completing it in one way or another.    I’ll give you an example.  There was a phenomenal film to be made just about Nigeria.  It’s not my movie, because my movie’s about the connections between all these different places.  There’s a phenomenal film that no one’s ever made about Nigeria, and I have it in my footage on the cutting room floor.  I probably have several great movies on the cutting room floor, but when you’re making a film, you have to be brutal. You have to make choices.  You have to say, I’m telling this story and not that story.   The way you guarantee that you can make a movie is by honing your vision.  Make your choices.  You might find yourself in a massively complicated situation, but you take a sliver of that situation and do your very best to try and understand that sliver.  Try and take the layers off that sliver.  If you set your sights too big, you’re going to set yourself up for failure.  You need to try and focus.  Maybe it’s by focusing on a particular person.  Maybe it’s by focusing on a particular situation.  But the world is made up of little microcosms, and you can see bigger stories reflected in smaller things all the time.  You just need to be asking the right questions.


Copyright © Director Talk 2014