Interviews

Filmmakers and Their Global Lens: Kate Chevigny & Ross Kauffman

In this series NYC film-journalist, Dana Knight speaks with filmmakers about their work in the context of the wider world

For this edition of Filmmakers and Their Global Lens, The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with the filmmaking duo behind E-Team. Knight initially spoke with Kate Chevigny and Ross Kauffman in New York City at the end of October.

Dana Knight (DK): How did this project come about and who initiated it?

Katy Chevigny: Ross and I were looking for a project to work on together, trying to find the right project. At that point we knew a little bit about the work of Human Rights Watch, we knew it was important but we didn’t know a lot about it. And it wasn’t until we had dinner with the members of the E-Team, Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter, and were introduced to them, that we decided to make this documentary. This was many years ago…

DK: How long ago was it?

Chevigny: Seven, approximately. And over the course of that dinner we joked around, got a sense of seeing them together, how they interact with each other, talking about all kinds of things. At the end of that dinner, Ross and I felt that these are really amazing characters who you could imagine seeing in a movie. Our filmmaker brains were saying “I could see Anna, smoking and so impassioned”[…]. We saw their different personalities at work and the contrast between them. So that was the inspiration, what made us want to start.

DK:  And when did you start filming?

Ross Kauffman: Well, we got some funding, which took a long time and we started shooting two days before my son was born on January 11, 2011. And we were in NY shooting a meeting, that was a planning meeting. And they have these planning meetings where they plan for emergencies that happen. You can’t really plan for emergencies but you try to figure out what’s happening in the broad sense and that whole meeting was about Pakistan. Little did we know a week later the Arab Spring would be born. So it was really pretty incredible. So we started at that point and our first mission was Libya. But Katy and I went to Paris before that.

Chevigny: When I was 6 and a half months pregnant and I knew I was going to be out of commission for a little while, we did a trip to Paris and Geneva and to Peter’s farm in the countryside to spend some time at home with them. And at that point Ross had filmed one mission in Libya that fall but we hadn’t filmed in Syria yet because they couldn’t get in. But we knew from the beginning, from planning the project, that we wanted to film a lot with them at home and get to know them as people. Which was interesting, trying to convince them of that, as they understood we wanted to film with them in the field. They were a little taken aback initially: “Are you filming us having dinner again?”. That kind of thing. “And how much of this do you need, of us going to the store? Why do you need to film this?” But we felt strongly that we wanted to show them as people, and the way to do that is to show them not at work as well.

DK:  I suppose you wanted to make a human rightsfilm that is also a human intereststory.

Kauffman: We had great characters, we wanted to make a film about people. People that we could all relate to. So that was really important for us from the moment of inception of this film. So Katy and I knew that filming at home with them is going to be an integral part of it.

DK:  This is very interesting because theres been a trend in documentary filmmaking over the years where filmmakers choose ordinary lives and stress the extraordinary element about them – whereas here, Im not saying the reverse applies, but you definitely picked extraordinary lives and managed to familiarize us with them in a way that makes us feel that they are so much like the rest of us.

Kauffman: I love that you said that. I’ve been trying to figure out how to form that thought and you did it perfectly. They are not ordinary people, yet they are very relatable …

Chevigny: That’s a great insight and it’s hard for us to analyse what the film does because we are involved in it, so that’s really your job in a certain way. We’re trying to have some distance and ask ourselves why we tried to do it this way but we kind of found our way as we went and we don’t have much of that distant view. I will say though that the way we were thinking of it is: we didn’t want to make a piece that was like putting them on a pedestal. And that was in fact what many people thought we were doing at the beginning. “Oh, this is going to be like a hero-worship piece”. And Ross and I wanted it to be a million miles away from that kind of movie. There are some documentaries like that, you’re right, there are documentaries about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and there’s another kind of documentary which is like “let’s look at a hero being a hero”. And we find that, from a creative standpoint, boring. It may be worthwhile, but it is not interesting for us and from a storytelling standpoint, to be like “here’s a hero being a hero, and now is a hero and now is a hero again…”. So we didn’t want to make that. On the other hand these people are kind of heroic, so how do you deal with that? So the way we dealt with that was to say “Let’s have them be as real as possible”. So if you’re someone who doesn’t think completely differently, you can still encounter these people and feel some connection. Even if you don’t go half way around the world to fight for human rights, there’s still a point of connection. So that’s our approach.

Kauffman: It’s like Fred in the airport taking his time and getting massages, that’s human and there’s humor too. And a big part of the film for us was showing the humor, showing the personalities. We kept on saying: “Let’s put more funny moments in the film”! Because that’s what life is. And they have a great sense of humor, they are wonderful people, they are really a lot of fun to hang out with.

DK: Were they at ease with being filmed from the very beginning or did you have to work on that?

Chevigny: It’s always a process of getting them to feel familiar. When you look at the early footage of them there’s a little bit of guardedness, but over time, the difference between filming them at the beginning of 2011 and filming them in 2013, their guard comes down. And that’s the advantage of spending a lot of time with them without the cameras rolling, which we also did. After a while it’s like “Oh, Katy and Ross are here”, it’s not such a big deal.

Kauffman: At a certain point, they said this to me, they sort of forgot that we were making a film: “Oh, Ross and Katy are here because they probably want a break from their families and are hanging out in Paris with us!!”. Their idea of what we were doing sort of dissolved because we became part of their lives.

DK: Theres actually a line in the film that goes: You get used to anything in the end. So they ended up getting used to being filmed.

Kauffman: That’s right. A war documentary being made about you!

Chevigny: And the great thing about the E-Team is that they really got their priorities in order. And their priorities are their work and doing it well, and their families and those obligations. And if there happens to be a film crew there, that’s kind of annoying and in the way but it’s not a big deal for them. People who have more vanity would probably focus more on the film crew, but they were like “I’d like to focus on the film crew but I really got to finish this report about abuses in Syria so I’m just not going to worry that much about those guys”.

DK:  How did you decide on what footage to include in the film and what to leave out? I imagine you accumulated a lot of footage. How many hours?

Chevigny: Good question. 350 hours.

DK:  Thats a lot of sifting through and decisions to be made

Kauffman: We had a wonderful editor, David Teague, he did a film called Cutie and the Boxer that was nominated for an Academy Award. And another film called Freeheld, which won an Academy Award. But we all looked at the footage, we sifted through it for months, to break it down, it’s almost like a piece of marble, chipping away at it…

Chevigny: And it’s definitely a daunting task when there is that amount of footage. And certainly our producer Marilyn Ness was amazing. She was also very good about saying to us: “Guys, we already have hundreds of hours, let’s get started on trying to separate the wheat from the chaff”. Let’s find the good stuff and work with that. […] So part of our process was that Ross and I would screen the footage together, sometimes via Skype, and we would share with each other when the footage moved us. And then we’d make a note of that and share that with David. And David’s job was to pull together what we thought was our strongest material that resonated with us emotionally and to try to make a story out of that material.

DK:  Did you have to kill many of your darlings?

Kauffman: You always have to. There were some great scenes that fell by the wayside but Katy and I were pretty good at saying “We’re telling a story and we want to be very clear and tell the most efficient and effective story”.

Chevigny: Yes, and I also think this may be the advantage of this not being our first film. We’ve seen a lot of films that are too long, we made films that are too long probably over the years. And at this point, we were like “There’s not going to be any extras”. It’s going to be a film that people want to watch first and foremost and if there’s something we love that has to go… This is also the benefit of having a good team, we got co-directors, an editor and a producer and people saying “It’s got to go, it’s got to go”.

Kauffman: I remember there’s one time in particular when I loved this one little scene and pretty much everyone else was “No, Ross!”

DK:  Which scene was this?

Kauffman: It was Peter and the press, he was talking to the media and doesn’t have much patience with them, put it that way.

DK:  Peter is a very candid character.

Kauffman: He is extremely candid, always candid and there was just this moment that I really liked but we sort of hit that beat already. And even though I liked it, Katy and David were very clear: “Ross, no!”

Chevigny: But that said, we did one other thing which I feel is kind of interesting. I feel maybe we shouldn’t even be admitting this because everybody says “you have to kill your darlings”. But at the very end, we had a little stage where Ross and I were like: “We’re gonna put some darlings back in”. And we found some “character moments” , some quiet moments…

DK: And humorous moments probably

Chevigny: Especially humorous moments, and we re-inserted them back in the story because sometimes when you cut down, you lose some of the nuance. That’s another common casualty of the editing process, you lose some of the sweet, off-kilter moments…

Kauffman: Because you’re so busy trying to tell the story, the narrative and you get so streamlined, there’s no flavor. And one example of that is the scene in Syria when they see the strawberry cart and Katy and I said “Let’s put the strawberries back in”. And everybody felt we were nuts in the editing room. But we wanted to do it. And it worked, you get a sense of Anna and her character.

DK:  A scene that really surprised me is when Anna is doing her make-up in the mirror while planning her next incursion into the war zone. Was that scene kind of directedor was it an innocent thing she did

Kauffman: Nothing is directed. That’s the kind of rules we make. And we never ask people to do something again. Our job is just to be open and to just let things happen in front of the camera. That’s the way that best things happen.

Chevigny: And most of the scenes you see in the movie, there are multiple scenes just like that. We included one. We have Anna putting on her make-up 25-40 times!

Kauffman: Not that many!

Chevigny: At least 10. Because Rachel filmed her every morning.

DK:  It just seemed a bit unusual that Anna would do that, were you surprised by that?

Chevigny: Yeah. Our choice to include it in the film had to do with showing Anna as she really is. That she is a woman of contradictions. We would challenge you to find somebody who’s tougher than her. And at the same time she takes a few minutes every morning to apply her make-up. So that’s an interesting scene to include because it’s surprising to the viewer. That’s what makes documentaries interesting. There’s some things that happen that are unexpected. And instead of white-washing them out, you include them, and allow the viewer to feel the realness of that.

DK:  When I saw that scene, I asked myself whether there were some thoughts behind it, in the sense of showing Annas feminine side.

Chevigny: Sure.

Kauffman: That’s great that you took that in that moment. Everyone is going to take something different as well. We just put it out there and let people take what they want.

DK:  Another thing I noticed is the difference in the amount of screen time you give to Anna and Ole, I had the impression that Anna was given more screen time. Is that correct, was that a conscious choice?

Kauffman: Once again we sort of followed the story. Anna is in a way the more dominant character, is that fair to say?

Chevigny: She’s the dominant personality, yes. […] We hope we did them justice as the sort of “great man behind the great woman”…

Kauffman: But we didn’t set out to say “We want a strong female character in the lead”. Our job is to film whatever is in front of us and then get into the editing room and listen to the footage. And to feel out the footage and to hopefully express what that footage is telling us in a way that’s really entertaining and works as a movie.

DK: How did your film festival strategy differ for this one compared to your previous films. I noticed you picked up a lot of awards everywhere you went with it.

Kauffman: It’s hard to say. We had the platform of Sundance to launch the film  and that’s always an incredible honor and gives the film some legs.

Chevigny: As a result of being in Sundance we had a lot of festivals from which to choose. So we really selected festivals that we were able to participate in based on our schedule and also ones that we thought would be a good fit for the kind of film it was, that audiences would respond to it. And with the knowledge that we were going to release it this fall in theatres and on Netflix and trying to build some attention for the film along the way. Because we love festival audiences, their experience of the film is always really great.

DK: I did a bit of research on what projects you’re working on next and  I noticed you’re doing a comedy, Ross. Do you feel the need for something more light-hearted?

Kauffman: Well, it’s funny, because with E-team we tried to inject as much humor as we could. That’s part of life. I would love to make a funny and fun documentary one of these days.

Chevigny: We always joke about that: our next movie is going to be a comedy.

Kauffman: But yes, I’ve been writing this film for five years with my wife and it’s a narrative film, a scripted film and it’s just about being moved by whatever story moves you and going forward if it’s a serious film, if it’s a comedy, whatever it is. It’s really about listening to your intuition and going forward hopefully. And Ii’s hard because we throw ten balls in the air and we hope one or two will land. It’s always a challenge.

DK: And what is next for you, Katy?

Chevigny: I’m working on a series with Kartemquin Films, they are based in Chicago, they have made Life Itself. So I’m working on a multi-part series that Steve James is executive-producing right now and also developing new long-form docs. But it’s going to take a while for the next thing to come to life.

The war documentary E-Team opened in select theaters and on Netflix on October 24th 2014.

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