Ben Niles and I worked side by side as Art Directors for Atlantic Records. I knew then that Ben was a deep thinker with a passion for creating meaningful work with a story. He has gone on to become an amazing documentary filmmaker. If you get the chance to see one of his films, I know it will move you.
Ben's Creative Process :
When you create something, do you follow a linear path ? Is it fluid and organic or planned out ? chaotic or organized ?
I like to think it’s pretty well planned out and that’s important for sure, but if you don’t allow for a certain measure of spontaneity or fluidity you’re going to miss something vital and suck the life right out of it. Making documentaries sort of mandates you to be both, like it or not. You certainly must have a vision for the film and a strong sense of where you want it to go but without a script—usually—you’ve got to remain open to opportunities that might present themselves. And they will. But knowing which ones will take you down a dark hole and which ones will carry you to the end is the key. So some of the real creativity is your ability to recognize those golden moments and that’s hard to learn from a book. This all comes back to being very prepared and aware of what you’re after. So it’s both for me.
Warning: Sports metaphor here… My old soccer coach always said “you have to put yourself in a position to be lucky,” and I think that’s very true with docs, too. If you’ve done your research, considered the strengths and weaknesses of the story and/or characters, have worked hard at building relationships and gaining access, then it’s likely you’ll be rolling when those key moments present themselves and you might just get lucky, too.
What do you consider to be the most creative thing you have made or are most proud of ?
Well, honestly the first thing that comes to mind are my children. That may sound cliché but raising kids, or as a friend put it, “raising adults,” is such a challenge and your impact is so profound, it has definitely informed my approach to work and the creative process. My outlook is more about cultivating a body of work instead of simply focusing on a specific project at that moment. And if I’m working on several projects at once it keeps them fresh in my mind so I’m not bogged down on one film for months on end without some creative outlet to ponder others ideas.
But outside of my kids I suppose it would have to be my first (finished) film, “Note By Note.” When I look back and recognize how green I was in my approach I shudder. I’ve always been a late starter and mostly self-taught so the fact that the film has had a life and continues to play still shocks me a bit.
Do you remember how you made things when you were young ? Has your method of creating changed or evolved over time ?
I was lucky to have a father who was a very talented artist and art director and his studio was in our basement. This gave me access to all kinds of pens and markers, drawing pads and his music, usually Dave Brubeck or Roberta Flack, so this had a profound impact on me. Youth is so wonderful because you feel like you can do most anything and people have so few expectations of you.
I don’t recall any type of process, it was always about what was in front of me at that moment, not necessarily reaching for a greater goal. When I think of creating things in my youth I can’t recall too many tangible things. Sure there were paintings of sorts or pottery for Mother’s Day, but no process. But I do recall having a pretty vivid imagination about being in rock bands so I made posters with band names like FUTURE or ILLUSION or better yet, FUTURE ILLUSION! And I would draw those names all over everything with images of me and my buddies playing oversized guitars with massive speakers. I’m not sure when it happens (for most) but then there comes that time when one starts to question their own work. I must admit, it has taken me ages to get back to that youthful approach and in some ways I feel I’m coming ‘round full circle. I have experiences I can draw from, relationships I can feed off of and a bit more courage to follow my instincts.
Where or when do you feel most creative ?
I’m a morning person. Always have been. The crappier the weather, the better.
What environment did you grow up in that helped foster your creativity?
My dad had the art studio, as I mentioned before, and that definitely impacted me. I yearned to go to nude figure drawing class with him (I was 11) but settled for exploring his studio instead. His music impacted me as well, although I’m not sure I really noticed at the time. But it gave me a better appreciation for jazz and classical pieces and I find myself doing the same with my kids. But it was my mother’s approach to life (she “couldn’t draw a stick figure,” she always said) that has really informed me most dramatically. She had no patience for self-pity or boredom or laziness and encouraged us to pursue things with great passion. If the passion wasn’t there, she had no time for you.
How do you make something out of nothing ? Where does the initial seed come from ?
Documentaries can be long, arduous and expensive projects so although I’m drawn to stories all the time, I’ve learned to be very selective about what I ultimately decide to start filming. There’s this line in the sand and once you cross it you won’t want to turn back or kill the film entirely (even if you probably should) so research and exploration, asking yourself a lot of hard questions, is absolutely essential before you shoot a single frame. There are a lot of uncertainties with docs, one reason they’re hard to fund, so you’ve got to do your homework as best as possible. Some stories sound so profound or compelling but once you start to investigate you realize “this has no ending” or “the characters are actually weak or too shy,” or “I’m going to have to film on the other side of the world to make it.”
Do you collaborate with others ? If so, at what point does that become a part of your process ?
As a producer I believe it’s essential that you collaborate with others and surround yourself with the best talent you can find. And afford. That’s what “producing” is. I find it’s vital to have a certain key members of my crew and advisors who I can count on for honest input and criticism. But the truth is, with documentaries your crew is typically very small, if you have one at all, so often times I find myself working alone for a large part of it. Therefore, I have to share my work with trusted friends and family to allow for broader perspective.
Whose creative process are you curious to find out about ?
You can read more about Ben's films