Before the world premiere of her new film Journey is the Destination, Canadian filmmaker Bronwen Hughes talked to the Seventh Row about why the film is a passion project, how she mimicked Dan Eldon’s journals in the film’s visual style, and Ben Schnetzer.
Canadian filmmaker Bronwen Hughes’ Journey is the Destination is one of seven films to screen in TIFF’s prestigious Gala Presentations. Part travelogue and part coming-of-ager, Bronwen Hughes’ Journey is the Destination tells the story of photojournalist Dan Eldon’s (Ben Schnetzer) treks across Africa, based on his eponymous book. Smart, charming, and attractive, Dan had already travelled the world on a wing and a prayer by the time he graduated from his Kenyan high school. Instead of continuing on to university like the rest of his peers, he decided to travel the continent, learning about the world first-hand, and taking photographs of the atrocities he uncovered.
Hughes excels at exploring the gray areas in conflict photography, but the film does occasionally spoonfeed you its themes. Despite serious and tragic subject matter, the film remains upbeat, reflecting Dan’s outlook without being disrespectful. Hughes paints the frame with Eldon’s illustrations and photos, giving us a glimpse of his travel diary as it’s being written and the action unfolds. Fortunately, it never tips into a white saviour narrative. Dan never pretends to know what he’s doing; he’s always eager to learn and lend a hand; and his unflagging passion is infectious. The victims he meets are never there merely to feed his self-discovery, ensuring the film avoids the worst cliches that often plague the genre.
Before the film’s world premiere at TIFF, I talked to Bronwen Hughes by phone about making the film, finding the right tone, and the impressive central performance from Schnetzer.We adopted his visual style into a new moving picture visual language.Click To Tweet
Seventh Row (7R): The film seems like a passion project. What was it for you that was so resonant about this story?
Bronwen Hughes (BH): Most people’s introduction to the story is to see this book, The Journey is the Destination. Actually, now there are three other books about Dan because that one sold out and was reprinted so many times — different parts of his journals. He made 17 journal books in his life, and we adopted his visual style into a new moving picture visual language for the film. It’s like he left us a visual map for how this film should look and feel.It was like looking at the amplified version of the life I wanted to live.Click To Tweet
When I saw this Journey book, it’s like going into a rabbit hole. You turn the pages, and you see this life exploding off the pages — beautiful young people and travel and wit and stories and social commentary disguised as wit. It was as if I was looking at a book of someone’s life who had done exactly all the things that I had meant to do or wanted to do in my lifetime, like travel, keep journals, change the world, make art to tell about it. But he had done it to the max. It was like looking at the amplified version of the life I wanted to live, the life I want to live still.
7R: How did you come up with the aesthetic for adapting his journals to the film?
BH: In the early days of thinking about making this movie, the technology hadn’t really caught up. It would have been incredibly expensive to do all of that stuff in an old style, mixed media, motion graphic design. But the technology has now grown up to meet Dan Eldon’s style. We could tap into these armies of artists in South Africa who loved the book and studied motion graphics.What I think was Dan’s way of moving through the world: if you're trying to change the status quo, it’s a stealth operation.Click To Tweet
It had to go beyond just sticking on screen the two-dimensional art of Dan Eldon. We had to introduce this element of motion. I’m an ex-dancer, and I think of image choreography. It was like introducing choreography into the mixed media two-dimensional art of Dan. Dan’s art is very hands-on, organic. It’s not digital. Although we were working with digital layering tools, we had to make it look very handmade.
During the editing process, I actually had my little tiny 4K camera on the patio of the editing room. While editing, I was making hand made stuff, with the help of Robert Ivison the co-editor. We’d be doing it on the patio with my 4K camera, not in a high end studio, because we couldn’t afford that, nor was it right. I would set up a copy stand, and I would start painting on glass, ripping paper, and taking photographs, and photocopying them six times so that they would break down and then scanning and rephotographing and painting and sticking.
7R: The film deals with some dark subject matter, but it’s a very bright and inspirational film. How did you think about creating the right tone so that it doesn’t become about death and despair?
BH: The biggest change in me personally through the process of making this was to realize what I think was Dan’s way of moving through the world: if you’re trying to change the status quo, it’s a stealth operation. Dan always did meaningful things, but they were disguised as a grand adventure. Everybody wants to go on a road trip. Everybody wants to have a teenage sex safari in a sexy land rover with excellent looking people. But by the end of it, they realized that they’ve been on this journey and met these refugees that they never would have met otherwise in their lifetimes, and they have been changed by it. But you join up because it’s a wicked road trip.You throw a party that everyone wants to come to, and by the end, the thinking has shifted. Click To Tweet
I’m not attracted to a bitter pill of a movie that gives you life lessons. No one will willingly pay money to go see that, to swallow this bitter pill of everything that’s shite in the world. But if you invite people to an adventure, a road movie with laughter and sexy people and music and dance and wild surges of energy, maybe if they see that in the trailer, they’re going to come. By the end of it, you realize that you might be thinking differently because of what this wild adventure has shown you. That’s a stealth operation. You throw a party that everyone wants to come to, and by the end, the thinking has shifted.
7R: It must be a balancing act though to make sure it doesn’t turn into misery tourism, that they’re on an adventure while bad things are happening.
BH: There are so many things to balance when telling a story like this. You’re already lined up for people to judge you before they’ve even seen a frame of the film. I think what’s impressive about Dan and why he inspires people is not that he single-handedly saved Somalia — the white man came and saved Africa sort of thing.
Rather, he was a person who moved through the world with no sense of “the other”: if you were a stranger to Dan, he would march right up, find out what you’re about, and you’d end up sharing drinks in the bar or doing crazy things together. He was a builder of bridges and would find common ground with everybody he encountered. I think he was race and colour-blind. I didn’t realize until years into making the movie that his girlfriend was black, and then I realized, “Oh yeah, that’s different, isn’t it?” It was an insatiable curiosity that kept him likable.
7R: What was your collaboration with your cinematographer like to create that beautiful visual style?
BH: Giulio Biccari was a gift. I’d never worked with him before, and we had to make this movie on such a lean schedule and budget, as movies are made now. Nobody gives you extra. This meant giving up control. Money means control: you build things from the ground up and you have them constructed your way or your order a truck full of lights so it’s lit your way, or if things aren’t going perfectly, you take time to regroup and redo the scene properly. None of that’s possible on a lean and mean budget.
What that means is you end up assembling the world, and in this case, we were working with people like the Somalis and the refugees who had lived the very aspects of the story we were attempting to recreate. We staged the scenes, and then we’d throw Giulio and the other camera operator literally right into the middle of a rioting crowd to shoot it. We’d do no rehearsals, give no marks, sometimes only do one take, three takes max. Julio literally had to elbow his way into crowds to get the shots.
That’s really difficult, and some DPs would run screaming to the trailer and say “I’m not doing this. Let me out of here.” But Giulio fully embraced the visceral nature of being in the fray. He has a beautiful eye, and I tried to choose locations and stagings that would facilitate a beautiful eye. We just jived completely. There was nobody better to shoot the movie: he’s African, and he embraced the chaos.I think that the universe made us wait to start the movie until I found Ben Schnetzer. Click To Tweet
7R: Because the film is really centered around this one character, what was your process for collaborating with the lead, Ben Schnetzer, and directing him?
BH: I think that the universe made us wait to start the movie until I found Ben Schnetzer. When I met Ben, he’s not famous — he’s still not famous, although I think he’s about to be. Dan was an incredibly charming, incredibly good looking, charismatic real life person. So I needed that plus the ability to act and carry the entire weight of the movie on his shoulders. We needed a real actor’s actor with that much charm, wit, and lightness. Without that, we have no movie.
I met Ben, and he looked nothing like Dan during his audition. He’d come from doing other roles and playing an Irish guy and playing a Polish refugee. But when I turned the camera on, he transformed into Dan Eldon with his chameleon-like abilities, his perfection with accents, and this untamable charm. You can’t direct that out of somebody. They just have to have it. The biggest part is to pick the right person in the first place, and Ben is the right person. We didn’t really have the movie until we had him.
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7R: What was the balancing act in the editing room?
BH: The hard part with Dan Eldon’s real story is that in his short time on the planet, he crammed in a life of crowded hours. It was very hard because cramming everything cool that Dan Eldon ever did into a movie doesn’t make a great movie; it makes a terrible movie. A really hard part about making this into a crafted, dramatic movie experience was to judiciously choose what aspects of Dan’s life we would include. And more importantly, and this is where the screenwriting process and editing process came together, was to make sure that everything in the movie hangs on the spine of its ultimate meaning.
It’s a mosaic of a life, not a plot-driven movie, so that’s not obvious. But I was very determined. By the end, we realised, that Dan was witnessing things in the world going awry, but was still building these connections with people. So I was interested in making a movie about people, the real people behind the headlines.
Journey is the Destination is a Gala Presentation at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film screens Wed. Sept. 14 at 6:30 p.m. (RTH, Premium), Thurs. Sept. 15 at 10:15 p.m. (Isabel Bader), and Fri. Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m. (Scotiabank). The film is an acquisition title seeking North American distribution. It is a UK/South Africa/Canada co-production.