Amir Bar-Lev and Lisa Mehling Join SHOOTONLINE for New Directors Showcase Panels.

SHOOTOnline, June 1st, 2018
SHOOT New Directors Showcase Event Features Insights From Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, Cross-section Of Industry Pros

Agency, client and production company execs offer perspectives on changing relationships, Free The Bid, inclusion, new opportunities

SHOOT’s New Directors Showcase Event provided varied industry perspectives during two afternoon sessions, and substantive exposure that same evening for up-and-coming directors via a screening of their work and a Meet the Directors panel discussion, all held at the DGA Theatre in NYC on Thursday, May 24. The NDS Event After-party was hosted by event silver sponsor The Mill at their facility in Soho. 

Among the highlights was the annual In The Director’s Chair session, this time around featuring Amir Bar-Lev whose most recent film, Long Strange Trip, a four hour epic on The Grateful Dead, was described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most engrossing rock documentaries ever made”; it also made the Oscar shortlist, earned a Best Director nomination from the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, and was nominated for a Best Music Film Grammy.

Also in the music space, Bar-Lev’s directorial credits include the film 12.12.12 about the concert for Hurricane Sandy relief--as well as the Re:Generation Music Project for Hyundai and the Grammy Awards which won a Cannes Bronze Lion.

12.12.12 premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; the concert featured performances by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen, among notable others.

Meanwhile, Re:Generation Music Project made its festival debut at the South by Southwest Film Fest. This documentary found an ideal venue in South by Southwest in that it too married the worlds of film and music. Made in association with the Grammys and sponsored by Hyundai Veloster, Re:Generation followed five noted DJs--DJ Premier, electronic duo The Crystal Method, Pretty Lights of dub-step fame, Grammy winner Skrillex and producer Mark Ronson--as they remix, recreate and re-imagine five traditional styles of music. Ronson created his take on jazz, Skrillex on rock ‘n roll, Pretty Lights on country music, DJ Premier tackled classical, and The Crystal Method forayed into soul. Each artist collaborated with another artist or artists from each respective genre. For example, The Crystal Method teamed with soul singer Martha Reeves (of the Motown group Martha and the Vandellas). To this day, it’s considered a stellar piece of branded entertainment, celebrating the art of collaboration and what it can yield.

Bar-Lev’s reach, though, extends well beyond music. For example, consider his body of work that has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the years: 

My Kid Could Paint That debuted at Sundance in 2007, introducing us to the work and unexpected success of a four-year-old girl whose paintings brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, buoyed by comparisons to the likes of Picasso.

Then Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story premiered at Sundance in 2010 and went on to win an Emmy Award. It introduced us to Pat Tillman who left a multi-million dollar pro football contract on the table to serve in the nation’s military. The circumstances of his tragic death in the line of duty, though, were covered up by the military, which instead used his passing as a propaganda tool. The Tillman Story chronicled his family’s struggle to unearth the truth.

And Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley premiered at Sundance in 2014, shedding light on the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. The documentary was called “mesmerizing” by The New Yorker.

Additionally Bar-Lev directs commercials-----as well as branded content----through Chelsea Pictures. His spot credits include Call of Duty Endowment’s “The Honest Truth,” and this year’s Super Bowl ad, Verizon’s “Answering The Call,” which won a pair of ANDY Awards.

SHOOT editor Robert Goldrich interviewed Bar-Lev on stage at the DGA venue. The director shared that his documentary approach is not grounded in a conventional fly-on-the-wall perspective. Nor does he see himself as a traditional journalist, citing Happy Valley as an example. Bar-Lev noted that the documentary was criticized for not uncovering the “hard truth” about Jerry Sandusky, the assistant football coach at Penn State convicted of sexually abusing numerous youngsters. Bar-Lev explained that if you want that detailed story, go to a long-form journalist. Bar-Lev said he instead is “trying to do a piece of art” and that by “using the stuff of real life”--such as the reaction of the Penn State community, the dynamics within that culture--he looks to make a different kind of connection with an audience. Bar-Lev affirmed that “a little bit of art is useful” when trying to generate a real connection with viewers.

“The way to connect is by showing people how they are part of the story,” contended Bar-Lev. By focusing on the abhorrent, sociopathic behavior of Sandusky, you are distancing the audience from the story. People can’t relate to him. They may conclude, he conjectured, that “I’m glad I’m not living in that town.”

To properly connect, Bar-Lev opted to explore what was going on around Sandusky: the obsession with college football, “spectacle, distraction, celebrity worship--we are all part of that.” Making viewers participants in what they can personally relate to is more likely to have them coming away from the film thinking about their behavior, raising self-awareness about what they can do to better themselves and not be part of a culture that promotes denial or being outright oblivious to injustice. The art of a documentary can help evoke empathy, observed Bar-Lev.

Similarly, Long Strange Trip was not a linear, journalistic-style chronicling of The Grateful Dead. In terms of connecting with an audience, the documentary moves into the emotional, human areas of the band, their successes and foibles, the burdens of fame, their ambivalence about their celebrity. It’s these elements that have a universal resonance that enables viewers who aren’t Grateful Dead fans to relate to the band members and their stories.

“Our job in nonfiction is not the same as a journalist who has to be exhaustive, encyclopedic,” said Bar-Lev who wanted Long Strange Trip to be musical and not just about music. “It shouldn’t be a bunch of people telling you what good music talking about the first time he heard ‘Dark Star.’” It’s like humor--you don’t explain the reason it’s funny. You have to make a funny piece, observed Bar-Lev. Thus for Long Strange Trip, Bar-Lev tried to invent a layered editing style that “felt musical,” working in tandem with several editors, including Keith Fraase who has cut for director Terrence Malick (To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups, Voyage Of Time: Life’s Journey). Bar-Lev noted that Fraase told him that Malick would lay out a timeline, and then smudge it as if to make a painting abstract, to create a sense of irrationality so it’s not so historical. Bar-Lev observed that the collapsing of time is musical as he shifts form a modern-day moment to the past, snippets from archives, the present-day discovery of those archives as artifacts, iconic photos as well as pictures taken just before and after those iconic moments.

Long Strange Trip found an audience on the festival circuit, in cinema (selling out 70 theaters for a one-night event) and on the Amazon platform.

In the spirit of such work as Happy Valley and Long Strange Trip, Bar-Lev noted that when trying to figure out what subject matter to tackle next, he’s “judging less on the topic and more on the opportunity to be inventive.” He added, “That’s what I love about commercial work” which has “real tolerance for formal inventiveness.”

Bar-Lev noted that he’s grateful to Chelsea Pictures for supporting his documentary sensibilities in the context of ad projects. “What they try to help me do is bring whatever my skillset make a safe place for unsafe, authentic reactions to happen.” He acknowledged that in a short timeframe of a commercial, the general norm is to “be very deliberate” in what you set out to do. But Chelsea helps collaborators take a leap of faith to realize authenticity and thus successfully engage an audience.

A prime example of that is this year’s Verizon Super Bowl spot “Answering the Call” which used still images to show moments of incredible rescues as we hear people thank on the phone the first responders who rescued them. Bar-Lev and Chelsea Pictures collaborated with creatives at McCann New York, ultimately taking the leap of faith to not film reunions of first responders and those they rescued but rather to stay with striking images from the rescues as we hear people express their heartfelt thanks. Bar-Lev said that his documentary filmmaking informed his commercial work in this case as he affirmed the need to stick with the idea of eavesdropping on these conversations and going low-fi. “It was scary for all of us--a Super Bowl ad with subpar sound,” said Bar-Lev. But he knew that the authenticity of these unscripted moments of thanks--for the first responders and those they rescued, such as Cedricka expressing her appreciation to a firefighter who helped her escape a fire in her apartment building four years ago--would resonate with viewers, bringing an entirely new dimension to and departure from the typically loud, visually splashy crop of Super Bowl commercials.

Conversely, commercialmaking and branded content have informed Bar-Lev as a documentarian. For example, Re:Generation Music Project had DJ Ronson creating a southern brew of New Orleans jazz, teaming with an all star cast of Erykah Badu, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def, Zigaboo Modeliste, and members of The Dap Kings. Bar-Lev recalled filming Ronson and Badu when a creative director asked him if he was okay with am ambulance being down the street at the time. In an ideal world, Bar-Lev would have preferred the ambulance not be in the scene. So it was moved. Bar-Lev said that he then fully realized that the “granular attention to detail in the commercial world” could yield benefits without necessarily compromising the truth of a scene.

Yet while you can control a visual element like an ambulance, Bar-Lev is not interested in controlling ambiguity but rather embracing it in his filmmaking. During the making of My Kid Could Paint That, the revelation emerged in a 60 Minutes story that some of the work by the child prodigy may have been painted by her father. This led to some soul searching by Bar-Lev as to how his documentary should proceed. “In a way we were lucky never to figure out exactly the answer,” said Bar-Lev who said the film was a lesson in how to deal with ambiguities by inviting the audience to be a participant. “The climactic scene has no interview, no narration,” noted Bar-Lev. Instead shown in full view is a painting by the child--one that is clearly hers since we had seen her paint it. “To my eye, it looks different than the $25,000 ones,” observed Bar-Lev. The painting is shown to the accompaniment of Nino Rota music.

The audience was pulled into the story, with Bar-Lev reporting that about one-third of viewers believed that the child was a genius, with two-thirds concluding that her prodigy status was fabricated. This participation on the part of viewers underscores that “good art,” said Bar-Lev, is not a one-way proposition.

When asked what advice he has for aspiring directors, Bar-Lev said he recently fielded the same query from a teacher on a Skype call with some high school students. He responded, “Ambiguity is an important thing, especially in this day and age.” He advised young filmmakers not to avoid ambiguity but to deal with it because it can afford them the opportunity to “create empathy.”

Embracing Change
The title of this second afternoon session--Embracing Change: Inclusion; Tapping Into The Freelance Talent Pool; Agency, Client and Production Company Relationships; New Opportunities--is a mouthful. Appropriately enough, providing a mouthful of relevant observations and info were panelists representing varied sectors of the industry: Nathy Aviram, chief production officer, McCann New York; Jeff Greenbaum, leading industry attorney and partner in Frankfurt Kurnit Klein + Selz; Lisa Mehling, owner/EP of Chelsea Pictures; Ben Haynes, head of broadcast production, sales & marketing procurement, FCA Fiat Chrysler Automotive; Emma Reeves, executive director, Free The Bid; and Molly Schaaf, founding partner, Always Be Holding.

SHOOT’s Goldrich moderated the conversation, which initially centered on Free The Bid, launched about a year and a half ago by director Alma Har’el, who back in January earned a DGA Award nomination in commercials. In its relatively brief existence, Free the Bid has positively impacted the industry. The non-profit initiative, which has picked up widespread industry momentum, asks ad agencies to include a female filmmaker on every triple-bid project, production companies to sign more woman directors, and marketers to seek one woman’s bid on each of their commercial productions. And now Free the Bid has expanded to other industry sectors to open up more opportunities for women DPs and editors. 

Find the full article over at SHOOTOnline.