Bronwen Hughes: Hard Evidence

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I met Bronwen Hughes (director of Forces of Nature, Harriet The Spy, Stander as well as of some episodes of The L Word and Breaking Bad between others) on a video call, while she was in Atlanta shooting a TV series.

The focus of our conversation was her latest movie, The Journey Is The Destination, now streaming on Netflix. As everything related to the fascinating life of Dan Eldon (the protagonist of the film), I soon realized that there was so much more to discover…

QUESTION: The Journey is the Destination is the story of a very young man, Dan Eldon (Ben Schnetzer), who was an incredible artist and a brave and socially active photographer who traveled the world. He died at only 22, in Somalia. However, it feels like he lived more than many other people… What speaks the most to you, about his story?

ANSWER: The crazy thing about Dan is that he was so young, but he already did so much. Since I was sixteen, I have always loved travelling – but Dan already travelled to 46 countries. I would write a diary about my trips – but Dan would keep journals that are considered art pieces. I would always support humanitarian organizations – but Dan would collect the money and deliver it in person. When I discovered his story, I felt like he did everything I loved, but maximized.

IN DOWNTOWN JOHANNESBURG, WITH BEN SCHNETZER IN THE ROLE OF ‘DAN ELDON’

Q: It looks like one of the biggest challenges, for Dan Eldon, was to be taken seriously. He was so young, yet so opinionated and sure of his choices – even questioned by his own mother. This speaks to many people still today, also in the industry. Have you ever struggled, as a director, to be taken seriously for your choices?

A: I was so young when I started that I feel it was a very good protection of my hopes. When you are that young you don’t even realize that it’s a problem. You just do your thing and only later you look back and you realize “oh, that was difficult”.

Things are more competitive now, and sometimes you may wonder “wait a second, with my experience, why is he getting the job?”. You start being aware of things, but it’s not healthy. You can’t approach a job with those chips on your shoulder. If you already go in feeling intimidated, everybody smells it. You don’t succeed. The only way to succeed is to be passionate and so forward thinking that all of the obstacles fall away.

Q: I have read that you believe in eradicating “female director” as a category, in the same way that “male director” does not exist. However, the percentage of women directors has been dropping from 7% to 6%. How do you think we could change this paradigm?

A: Yes, this percentage is terrible. I think that for myself my number one job is to make movies no matter what it takes, so that no one can deny that females make movies. I will be the hard evidence – that’s my job. The change that is happening is vital, overdue and important but has to happen from two different ways. One way is from the artist side: to be the hard evidence, women have to keep making good movies. On the other side, there must be the public shaming of this terrible percentage. I think that the shaming has to come from the law and the social world just as we shame people into not smoking into not throwing garbage on the ground, into not drinking and driving… (…) What is missing now from the sexual harassment and the entire “me too” are all the women who were coerced and succumbed to Harvey Weinstein and people like him. You are only hearing the stories from the people who got out. You think he didn’t have sex with anybody? He did, but those people are still too ashamed to admit that they were coerced in this terrible way. The “me too” is only the people who got out, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg, there is a way longer list of people who were coerced and can’t come out.  So yes, zero tolerance publicly, socially, governmentally and professionally. And on the other side we come out with the hard evidence that we make good movies. I think that these two things coming together is the most powerful force for change.

Q: The Journey Is The Destination has incredible scenes: there are huge locations, war scenes, traveling parts… was it a challenge to make your vision become true?

ON THE MOGADISHU SET WITH PRODUCERS RICHARD ARLOOK AND MARTIN KATZ

A: Oh my God, what a challenge! Dan travelled so much that it doesn’t even fit in a movie. And yet, it takes place across 6 African countries, then I did a traveling unit all over the world where just the main actor and myself departed on a plane with a little camera that shoots 4k and we went to London, Barcelona, New York… And then we have war zones, military areas and we even had to recreate Mogadishu which is all in ruins and we had the most extraordinary time doing this.

Q: Was it hard to find the financial support needed to make all of this happen?

A: We all just wanted to tell this story but once we decided to make this movie, many things stood in our way. Hollywood changed, and we couldn’t make it as a Hollywood movie. If it’s unusual, it is a very hard time to make a movie, now. Luckily, we are that driven – we never quit and we found a group of investors who liked this story and decided to make it happen with us.

Q: Did you work with the same crew you always work with?

A: I took 0 people from Hollywood. The crew was 100% African. It was the most authentic experience. For the cast, I had Somali refugees to play Somali refugees. Mozambican refugees to play Mozambican refugees. It was very emotional and it meant that you would be working with people who really lived in their lives the things you were grabbing. One day I found some Somali women crying, because they were there when these events happened. We didn’t bring someone from Brooklyn to play a Somali…

(…)

The first day working with the Somali we did the scene at the feed center. There is chaos, people need food. We have 200 Somali who have never been on a film set. My AD, who spoke 11 languages, was there explaining them how it worked. When we call “action”, the Somalis don’t know how to fake it, and we basically built a riot for real, and the AD becomes the bodyguard of the cameraman. The camera has been pushed because there are physical people pushing against it. My DP, Giulio Biccari from South Africa, he comes from documentary and he was very willing and able to function in this chaos. He was right in the middle of it with both his eyes open.

FOR THE RIFT VALLEY SEQUENCE, AMONG THE KENYAN MAASAI

Q: The Journey Is The Destination feels like a project very close to your heart. What is going to guide, now, your decision making for your next projects?

A: The truth is that there was something very special about Dan’s story. So many people in the world were touched by even just hearing about it, and now that we have started screening the movie in festivals people would come to me, crying, saying that they can’t get this movie out of their heads. I wanted to touch one person, but when you touch people like that you really feel like you have achieved a visceral effect, which we hope people will turn into inspiration. It is hard to find another story with that kind of emotional behind it, but the projects that I hope to make next have in common this idea of a person who finds himself in a point or time where changes are happening – the refugee crisis, the Cuban revolution, or the atomic age -, finds things unacceptable and becomes a hero because they risk everything to fight it. Characters with the need of becoming bigger than themselves in order to affect change.

 

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Giulia was born and raised in Monza, a small town in Northern Italy.  Since the moment she first picked up a pen, she could not stop writing. This led her to enter a nationally recognized writing competition where her short story exploring a potential reversal of the stereotypical female archetype was recognized as a revolutionary piece and awarded first prize. While studying International Relations and European Institutions at the University of Milan, Giulia completed a course in Film at UC Berkeley. This experience motivated her to pack her bags and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in storytelling.  Giulia earned a diploma in producing from UCLA, while interning and later holding a job at the Mexican production company Canana, owned by Pablo Cruz, Diego Luna, and Gael García Bernal, where she is co-writing the pilot of one of their TV shows. In her spare time, she writes and collaborates on the blog of We Do It Together.
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