sitting at the feet of : a documentary filmmaker

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Spring Break, 1998. An eighth grader rode west from Kansas City to San Francisco. Inside a two-story Virgin Records store, he ascended an escalator and at its zenith faced his future in film-making.

After dozens of art classes, questions of color and light had saturated his mind. Around that time, his grandfather gave him an old Pentax. He shot through some rolls indoors and out in the yard. Shutter speed and aperture overwhelmed him. He wanted to return home with great images, so he picked up a disposable panoramic.

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“Films I liked were shot with this long frame. When we went out to Alcatraz—“

“That why you liked the film The Rock?” I asked.

“That’s the thing: I hadn’t seen the movie. It came out in ’96 and this was ’98.”

The Prison Island provided material for great shots. “I went to this ghetto one-hour-photo on the San Francisco strip.”

“Tattoo parlor by night?” I asked.

“Yeah, exactly.” The owner’s foreign accent unsettled his Kansas City paradigm. “I nearly gave the film to him and thought I don’t know… And he goes, ‘No it’s okay, man. You can give it to me. It’s okay man.’ And I was like, ‘No.’”

To his young mind, anyone who tried that hard to get a roll of film meant to steal his images.

Because of his family’s musical tastes, he hated all music (repeat: all music) prior to Armageddon’s release. Once the Armageddon trailer launched, he took note of its theme. “It was epic, this orchestral…. I would hum that little theme over and over.” Instead of digging to find the score at the bottom of a value bin, he attended theaters to hear the trailer’s music (hear it, starting at 1:17 below):

Soon after he ascended that escalator in Virgin records and heard music. “It’s the same Armageddon theme, but a different tempo or whatever. And I don’t know music, I just hear it and a code’s cracked: same notes, but slower.” His eyes released their focus as he hummed, as he recreated the moment using humanity’s first tools for scene-creation: voice-box, gestures, the dominant eye. He framed his imaginary shot with two crisp palms. “As I’m going up the escalator,” he said, panning his crane, “this screen comes into view playing The Rock. The Armageddon trailer had used music from The Rock.” The panoramic frame combined with his first favorite song seared that moment into his mind.

Upon his return, he found the soundtrack. “Hans Zimmer. And I listened to that thing until it — I still have it. It’s all scratched up.”

After the trip, they developed his shots. Derek’s dad down in Dallas still has the picture of some trolley car “at the beginning of its route where everyone waits in line. You see it and the road. I looked at the frame and said, ‘That’s has great compositional weight.’”

SanFran

Art professors seldom favored his work, but often credited him with the best composition. “’Do you even know what you’re doing?’ They’d ask. ‘I don’t. I’m just trying to see what feels right.’” Derek shoots unmindful of the rule of thirds, golden spirals, or triangulation, but he admits his shots adhere to them. Those rules are written to explain how intuitive minds like Derek’s work. “I move the camera around until I say, ‘There. That’s it. That’s the weight. That’s the weight of that image, properly balanced.’”

He acknowledges other styles exist “that cut off some guy’s head at the bottom of the frame. To me that doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing.”

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“It’s art,” he said. “I get that. I understand why people shoot in that way. But I started by enjoying big blockbusters. They weigh their visual frame. That’s their point. They want their viewer to never look away.”

 

The Rock pic 2

 

Then in high school, he took a photography class about “how you develop a film roll.” They covered zero technique, just like Mark‘s college experience. More focus on chemicals, less on principles of comp. “I never think of still shots as my progression like I had some plan.”

“It was a fade-in,” I said.

“It was a fade-in, that’s right.”

He was trying to drill into a then-nebulous cache: moving pictures. Early on, his sister received a several-thousand-dollar piano from his grandparents. “They never got me anything. I never asked. I don’t think like that. Somehow it came up, ‘You never got anything, Derek. Do you want something?’

“There was this camera – the Canon XL1 – that had come out. The internet was out. We had it in our home, still dial-up, but I remember finding B&H store online. This was 2000 or 2001. Five-thousand-dollar pro-sumer camera, the camera for starting an independent video business. Before that? You were spending way more trying to operate a huge business.” With the XL1, you could be your own production company. Affordable avenues for post production like Premiere had emerged.

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Grandma agreed to pay for half of the camera which (was less than the piano). “Twenty-five-hundred? I just needed twenty-five-hundred dollars more.” He saved up a good chunk working at a printing company, a video game store, and mowing.

“I brought the camera home, so pumped. It’s clean. I take it out in the backyard for the first time, press record, and look at the image in the viewfinder. And I’m like, ‘This is it?’”

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I laughed.

He chuckled. “You’re a kid, for one. And you’ve never done this stuff before.” Today he considers himself nuts for having thought that way. “Not only would that camera never reach the quality of The Rock. It would never. But I thought, ‘Five-thousand-dollars? Of course it will!’ It was 4:3, not 16:9, and I’m wanting to be shooting in 2.35:1 by that point.”

One night, he planned to hit local trails on roller blades. “I was like, ‘I bet I could get cool shots because I’m moving and moving smoothly.” With a five thousand-dollar camera?! “Going fast. On roller blades. If it breaks, it’d suck. But it’s not doing anything sitting under my bed.”

He chanced it.

And got fantastic shots.

“That became the thing I’d do: roller blade, take the camera, learn to hold it.” He got ahold of a student edition of Premiere. Ignorance about filters compounded his problems. “I was scared of filters because that was manipulating the shot.” He thought the big-name directors never used something like color correction, their cameras were “just good.”

“But the image had no snap. I applied color correction and was like, ‘Holy cow! This is getting closer to Hollywood images.’” He found a 2.35:1 filter, which helped, but he still felt like “a fake.”

“One of my few friends, his sister was getting married.” She asked Derek to film the wedding and offered him a hundred bucks – ten, eleven hours of normal teenage work. He worked hard and she loved it. Another came for a hundred and fifty bucks, then one for three-hundred. For seven years, his wedding business grew.

about-me-square1“First, second year in college I was hired by a company that filmed weddings. I probably need to give that lady more props than I ever have. Her name’s Maura Coleman Murray. She has Creative Films in Kansas City. She must have seen quality in my work, I hope, but as young as I was… My folks had moved to Dallas, it was huge to get paid that much.”

“She gave you financial space like grandma,” I said.

“It really, really helped me. She’s so professional that she’s able to charge a lot of money.”

Maura charged thousands, paid him well, and his shots went into her final product. That helped him reappraise his work. “She was pleased, so that meant I could charge a thousand dollars, two-thousand dollars, three-thousand dollars a wedding as long as I put in the time to edit.”

In 1999, The Matrix came to theatres and again in 2000 as a DVD. “I could watch films in anamorphic wide-screen.” Derek hadn’t dissected many films. “Once DVD hit, it was easy to scrub through using chapters. I wasn’t as acute to editing, but I was starting to think of films in terms of shot-breakdown.” The culture of DVD special features had emerged and he devoured directors’ commentaries.

“Terminator 2 – that was a turning point. I get to hear the person who made it. It’s almost like… you read the Bible, you get to hear about the person who made everything. Here’s a director who made something you love. Sometimes, it was incredible. Other times you’d sit there and say, ‘This guy made this?! Okay, there’s hope for me.’ This movie’s great, but when I hear this guy talking it sounds like he didn’t even know what he made or how.’ That turned me towards their crews.”

Afterward he came to Ozark. As he studied, he created short films for random assignments and more dorm videos that played in chapel, one involving some forty men in a giant choreographed swing dance number. “I didn’t realize at the time that if I failed, these guys in the dorms would be okay. I felt I had to prove this to these guys. It’s a wrong way of thinking, but it’s definitely motivating. I worked so hard on that first open dorm video and whenever it went well, it was a huge boost.”

Then he went to Poland for a summer to do video work at this kids’ camp. “In Poland, I learned that I could do good work. Ozark had given me a place to start striving. Poland was a challenge because I learned lessons beyond technique: language barriers, how people work together. Before that, I had always worked alone, even at weddings.”

That was 2005. Then he created random sermon illustration videos. In 2006 he went to Congo to film a documentary on street children, but unforeseen obstacles prevented him from reaching his goal. He couldn’t catch that illusive white stag: a full-length film.

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He felt cornered, but came back to the states to make a two short videos that experimented with an editing style he picked up from Ridley Scott’s editor, Pietro Scalia. “I started to think more in shots, in edits. Editing was a huge key that, stylistically, I was missing.”

Another of his short films told a story “completely visually. No dialog. It helped me think about the musical connectedness of imagery.” For twelve hours straight he edited that thing, missing out on hanging out with friends.”Then I pressed play and watched those thirty seconds. Those edits – it just sung.”

Was it worth it?

That remains his recurring question: was missing out on twenty hours of rich life worth this gratifying, thirty-second end product? He had entered a growing labyrinth inside his soul. This labyrinth has only way out for Derek: a worthy cause, well-filmed. “I edit for twelve hours a day and don’t leave the house for five days. If I’m going to do that, I’m only gonna work on stuff that when it’s done, I can go ‘Yes. That was worth it.’”

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After graduating, he interned at a church in North Carolina because he assumed his Biblical Literature degree only applied to church work. Halfway through that internship CIY offered him a job and the church gave their permission for him to leave.

At CIY, he spent his first day on the job in Cambodia filming what became Baht. They shot for four days and he edited for three months to create “the biggest story I had told.” Finally he expressed himself closely to the way he’d envisioned while in D.R. Congo. But for Baht, they would need a composer.

“When I was in the dorms, I knew Tony Anderson. He had been doing techno music and I told him I had been praying. ‘Dude,’ I was like, ‘it would be so cool if you could do film music some day.’ From the moment I heard The Rock theme, that’s all I’ve listened to: film scores. Whenever this guy shows up at Ozark and I room with him, he’s doing incredible music that he doesn’t think is great, but I thought, ‘Man this is great. I can hear quality.’ When we got back from the Baht trip, my boss was talking about what we’d do with music. I was like, ‘We gotta talk with Tony.’” Who got the job.

“As I listened to Tony’s score for Baht, I’d say, ‘No,’ you know, ‘Like this piece. And let’s just tweak this one a little bit.’ It was hard for me because I’d never had anything scored. All other music that I had thrown under the film wasn’t legally mine. I put temp music under Baht and I started battling the temp-music love, hearing Tony’s music. And listening more, I realized: He did get this right. I was just stuck on the way I was doing it and the quality of Hollywood music. Not that he wasn’t honestly almost there, because the score to Baht was great, I just was so hyper-critical because of how much I listened to scores. I could tell. ‘Why does it not sound like there’s fifty string players playing right now?’ Well it’s not going to – Tony’s great, but how is he supposed to do that? I still love that score.”

As Tony has said elsewhere, awareness alone isn’t enough. When Baht was finished, conference attendees across the nation received it very well. People started conversations about sex-trafficking and “when the dollars started to come in and Rapha House was able to build two more safe houses because of the money, that’s when I really knew, ‘Wow. Film can actually make change in this world.’ That’s why all of those hours are worth it. To see something shot in four days, edited in three months that goes that far was huge.”

After another year and a half, Derek experienced nothing similar to his Baht experience. He worked on “a lot of valuable short videos,” but he kept remembering Southeast Asia and the issue of trafficking.

That was 2009, at the bottom of the market crash.

And Derek quit his job.

“I did nothing for three months except learn Adobe Illustrator.”

“And eat hot dogs,” I said.

“And eat hot dogs.”

Eventually he created a short film and multiple promo videos with Rapha House again in Cambodia.

Patching together the footage from all of his Cambodia trips stretched over the winding course of his career, Derek felt like the possibility of a full-length was present in the footage.

He and Stephanie Freed planned out a film in May 2012, and he traveled back to Cambodia that summer, launching a Kickstarter while in Asia. They asked for thirty thousand – which included the absolute minimum for Derek to work full-time on the film, for Tony’s music offered at “an amazing deal,” and for festival entry fees. Between the little bit they raised on Kickstarter and some donations, they had a bare bones budget. For the fourth time in his life, Derek had carved out enough financial space to create.

Three of the girls they interviewed stood out. “Two said, ‘yes,’ the other one was not reachable.” When they did catch up with the third, she gave her permission.

For three months, Derek shot everything he could. During the fourteen-month edit, they ran out of room in the forty-thousand budget, but didn’t want to skimp on the film. Derek has yet to develop into a sound-mixer, so they tacked that on. The extra production ran up their overall bill alongside other hurdles, but the mix made the final product even better.

He said to me, “So the film – you’ve seen it.”

“And loved it,” I said.

Baht told one girls story, but Finding Home‘s different. In my opinion, Finding Home ranks above every other trafficking documentary out there, and the reason why shows up when Derek compares it to his earlier work, Baht“Baht’s story was tragic,” he said. “The one criticism of Baht: it ended like a smack in the face and people said, ‘Oh. Well now what? Now what do we do?’ It didn’t seem hopeful.”

Derek left the hopeful side of Baht’s message up to the moderators at each showing, but a full-length works differently – a theatre screening is not the same as a conference showing. Many sex trafficking films deal with the broad issue, the stats, depressing people much like Baht, waiting for commentary by the moderators, but Derek found no “up-close-and-personal films focused on a few cases.” He wants the audience of Finding Home to live life with these girls.”People cry when a when a friend gets cancer. They know them. They know them as closely as possible. When something terrible happens, you care. If we have a film with these broad stats on trafficking but no face, then you might walk away and be like, ‘I care, but why don’t I care like I want to care?’ Well, let’s make you friends with these girls. You can only do that if you have characters willing to open up. Stephanie found three girls that really wanted to share their stories, which was very strange for Cambodian culture. Anything like this is extremely shameful there.”

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Their willingness to have a camera follow them amazed everyone involved, but would three stories give Derek enough footage? Three autobiographies made for forty-five minutes of screen time, but “as time went on over the three-months, I’m like, ‘Holy cow. There are tons of scenes for after their trafficking,’ which is what I wanted.”

“A holistic view,” I said.

“Yeah. How can we show how these girls have walked through their trafficking events after their trafficking events?”

The remainder follows their journey towards healing at Rapha House. Getting out’s just the start. “Three years, we follow these girls, and that’s why Finding Home’s an hour and fifty-five minutes. It’s an extensive look. A lot of what happened to these girls directly effects the next years of their life.”

Often people see brothel raids as the quick fix, like with the film Taken. “The end. Happily ever after. No, it’s gonna take years before they can even get close to stable and I feel like the film subtly, not overtly, states that God’s the way they can come close to their happily ever after in this lifetime.”

I asked, “Looking back with our hero so far, how close are you to fulfilling that epiphany moment you had riding up the escalator as an eighth grader? Are you closer?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “But I don’t know if I’ve ever even thought of it like that. Some of the opening shots of the film… you know, they’re…”

“From the helicopter?” I asked.

“Yeah. They’re as close as it’s been for me. To reach that. And I don’t know if I’ll ever reach it because those are the dreams of a boy. You know? Working on this project by myself was very enriching and also an absolute mistake. It’s done now and we’ve made a big festival and I’m so happy for that, there’s a lot in me that can say, ‘Wow. I did it and I did it all by myself,’ which is not really true, Stephanie and Rapha House have been there to help with so many things and this wouldn’t happen without them, but on the filmmaking side – the cameras, the technology, the story, everything was me. So when I look at it, I feel like, ‘Yeah I did it. I did it.’ But who cares? I’m never doing this to say that, like other people. The only point of going it alone was that we didn’t have the money, for one, and because I had this singular vision. But then through the whole process, all it did was isolate me. Even to have one other person to work on it with me would have changed the whole process.”

“B–camera or something,” I said.

“Yeah, or an assistant. It would have made me a lot healthier in the process. For an artistic person, an introvert that likes to socialize, especially considering the subject matter… now that the film’s done, I feel exhausted. I feel beat-up. I feel a very big sense of accomplishment too, though.”

“Next time with teams.”

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“And it’ll be hard because I don’t want to compromise that quality. Either I’ll have to learn how to do compromise or learn to work with people who can get it right. I see other people who act like that and on the outside when I see that, I’m like, ‘I wouldn’t want to work with them.’ And then I’m like, ‘Well, that sounds like me. Why would somebody want to work with me?’ It’s probably an area that I need to grow in and figure out.”

“So in some way,” I said, “your filmmaking journey is finding home.”

“Yeah. If I ever feel like I obtain that, then I’ll have to be done. And if I obtain that, then I don’t think… then I think I’m looking at things wrong. Or whatever is in me will have said, ‘Now it’s time to do something else.’”

Finding Home site :: http://www.findinghomefilm.com/
Facebook :: https://www.facebook.com/findinghomefilm


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