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Categories: Interviews

Matthew Spivack talks with director, and Jammer, Ben Garfield to learn more about his career, the making of War & Cheese, and his latest project.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

I focused on media studies for A-levels when I was 17 or 18. One of our first assignments was to make the first 5 minutes of a thriller and I enjoyed it a lot. But I put filmmaking out of my head after I started to read about all of the director’s responsibilities. It sounded intimidating. I studied philosophy during my first year at Manchester. But after a year, I realized I needed to do something more creative. I shifted my focus to drama and screen studies.

There were two professors that were very inspiring. David Butler taught a unit called the art of film, which looked at film in terms of social context and how they reflect society. Even people who didn’t study film came to his classes. The other teacher, Johannes Sjöberg, was the funniest guy and totally politically incorrect. This influenced his approach when he taught us about making documentaries. By the time I finished school, I knew I wanted to make films. Seeing so many great films and learning from encouraging professors helped me overcome my doubts about pursuing a career as a director.

In March, you attended a workshop with Werner Herzog in Cuba. What was the best advice you received? Did anything surprise you about the experience?

Ben and 50 other filmmakers attended Werner Herzog’s 10-day workshop in Cuba.

There were some great Werner-isms along the way. I don’t know if I can pick one, but I’ll give you some examples. He talked about treating a project like a conspiracy with the people involved. You can see how he does that in his own work. Also, he talked about the importance of not spending too much time with your subjects until the camera is rolling. Preparation is vital, but don’t feel like you need to spend hours prepping them. Try to capture what you need in the initial moment you are filming. Finally, Werner encouraged us to be the “hornet that stings” rather than a “fly on the wall.” Create moments, construct them with people involved in the film rather than being stealthy and figuring out how you’ll put together a story in the edit.

The workshop, especially the way we made films, was a new experience for me. The task was for everyone to make a film over a 10-day period. Werner made sure to stress that, as filmmakers, we aren’t garbage collectors. Don’t film something just because you think it is beautiful. Your footage needs to support the story. There were times when something beautiful was happening, but I didn’t film because it wasn’t vital to the story.

In my film, Spelliasmous, the story involved three children who were really into Harry Potter in a small Cuban town. They showed me what Harry Potter meant to them. We did a big scene that was great and a lot of fun. There was another location, which was stunning, and they were excited to do another scene. But I had my eye on the time and I knew we had to prioritise other things that were more rudimentary, but essential for the film. I guess that was with Herzog’s ideas ringing in my ears. In the end, you need to have faith in what you are doing.

One of your films was screened at a Cinema Jam Session earlier this year. What did you get out of the night? 

Being able to screen your work to an audience, especially in that environment, is really useful. If people watch your stuff online, that is great. But it is better in a theatre atmosphere. It is always great to watch other people’s films too. I usually try to take notes to remember what I enjoyed about each one.

I actually met Roly Witherow at the screening and he became the composer for Spelliasmous. He had composed the music for another film that night. We talked afterward and kept in touch. I needed someone to compose something for the beginning of Spelliasmous and he did a fantastic job.

War & Cheese premiered on Nowness. What was your process for submitting the film?

My process was super simple. I finished the film after spending a lot of time and money. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Because of the political nature of War & Cheese, I had to release the film while it was still current. I literally just sent a message to the info email at Nowness. The site gave me a lot of exposure. They are very nice people to deal with and their work is great.

How do you find a topic like the one you explored in War & Cheese? How much did language play into the way you approached filming?

When something interests me, I look into a bit further. It is always a process of looking for reasons why it won’t work. With War & Cheese, it

Oleg Siroto shows off what he has to offer in War & Cheese.

is because of a friend of mine who was visiting from Russia. He bought all of the cheese in the supermarket to take back with him. I thought it was funny. He sent me an article about Oleg Sirota and I thought it could make a great documentary.

While we were planning this film, more and more stuff was coming out about Oleg. Most of it was in Russian and my producer (Andrey Kurganov) would send over translations. So, I wrote a tight script. I worked with the DoP on the film, Danny Salkhov, on the types of shots that we needed. Danny sent over some images of Russian paintings that were good references. I wrote some questions down and Andrey conducted the interview. Andrey would ask and then Oleg would answer in Russian. I’d nod and smile and not know what he was saying. Then I’d look over at Andrey and ask if we got what we wanted. Every time he would say: “yes.” We didn’t feed him anything. What you see in the film, that is just how Oleg talks. All that stuff about bulldozers crushing gorgonzola, and statues of Obama, Merkel, and Cameron, that is just him.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is about casting the right people. For me, people who have something to share with the world, and constantly want to tell their story, are great subjects for films. They are just waiting for an opportunity.

Find out more about Ben’s work on his website.

Matthew Spivack

Matthew Spivack was a regular contributor to leading news publications like Al-Arabiya, Financial Times, and Harvard Business Review before ditching his full-time job in the business world to pursue passions for filmmaking and conservation. Currently, he is focusing on film projects that make a positive social impact. In particular, Matthew is interested in creating content that transforms wildlife conservation into a no-brainer issue for young people and city dwellers. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and researcher for companies operating in emerging markets.

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Posted on Jun 12, 2017

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