Photo Credit: Warner Bros Entertainment
I have spent a lot of my career asking people about their work. It’s a part of the job I love the most — because when you cut out the fat, the routine and the politics, everyone’s faced some amazing challenges, and made unexpected breakthroughs. And the access to those stories is for me a precious thing.
My job is usually to listen carefully, ask leading questions — and then extract the gold dust, framing it in a way that people can relate to. In the best cases, sometimes you can make the person themselves see their daily grind in a whole different light.
I’ve been asked who the most interesting people I’ve interviewed have been. Really it depends who’s asking. For my kids, that’s easy: it’s either Rihanna or Han Solo. At their age, the fact that I was once granted 10 to 15 minutes on the phone or in a “media huddle” with someone they’ve seen on The Voice or The Tonight Show is total proof of concept. When you’re eight years old, famous is famous: there’s no second prize.
And while I’ve enjoyed the occasional freelance celebrity interview, the reality is that these days, the most interesting folks I chat to are not the ones you pass on the street and go, “he does look a lot smaller without the wookie.”
People with job descriptions like visual FX artist, human rights campaigner or biology researcher won’t usually get mobbed by paparazzi waiting at their doorstep. But in the case of these three interviewees, each for stories in Discovery Channel Magazine (DCM), a few choice questions gave me access to some unforgettable stories.
Repainting Your Nightmares
He may be an Oscar winner, but if you were to walk past Paul Franklin in the street, you might not even bat an eyelid.
But remember the incredible scene in the science fiction movie Inception where Joseph Gordon Levitt fought the bad guy in that zero-gravity hotel room? Or how about in The Dark Night Rises, when that entire football field imploded behind the linebacker sprinting for his life? Well, for Franklin and his team, scenes like those became their day job for days and weeks. Talk about lucky.
And yet, as he described over the phone, the true art in director Christopher Nolan’s films often lay in make the unreal look entirely everyday. Nolan is well known for wanting to create as much as possible on the set itself — and not leaning so heavily on computer graphics to fill the gaps.
For someone like Franklin, this could be both a thrill and a challenge. Over the phone from London, he described to me one of his more recent challenges on Dark Knight Rises — making scenes terrifying, in broad daylight.
“Unlike the other Batman films, a lot of it takes place in the daytime — so a lot of the things we had been able to get away with hiding in the darkness or in the shadows in the earlier films, we weren’t going to be able to do,” said Franklin. “We had to raise the level of our ability to create photo-realistic architectural environments that would look natural in daylight, and would then sit comfortably next to the live action.”
Quite often, not surprisingly, the films we love most are produced by those who truly embrace the art and process of making them. Franklin described working with Chris Nolan: ““What was fantastic for people like me, particularly working on something like Inception, was that you are brought into this process.”
“He is looking for collaborators to work with him, rather than just telling us exactly what he wants to do all the time,” he enthused. “He is very much involved in every single aspect of his film, more so than any other filmmaker I’ve ever worked with. He wants you to be part of the life of the film.”
Q: Inception takes place within people’s dreams. Did your own dreams change as you worked on it?
A: Paul Franklin: [Laughs] The process of making a film is completely full on. You are working very long hours, six to seven days a week, for about 18 months. So the dreams that I have that are generated by working on films tend to be those very familiar, anxiety-based dreams. Like, are we going to finish this thing on time, to do what we need to do? You are always trying to push the envelope, always trying to get more out of your resources than you might think you are necessarily able to do at the start of the process.”
The Slave Hunter
There is absolutely nothing glamorous about the work that Benjamin Skinner embarked on to write his book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face With Modern Slavery. And yet his story remains one of the most memorable I’ve written about, not to mention at times one of the hardest to confront.
There are few times when the darkness of life threatens to enfold you more than when you are interviewing someone who has spent an entire book pretending to be seeking to buy human beings.
Starting from 2002, the Wisconsin-born writer travelled the world, tracking slaves and slave networks. As he took pains to point out to me, Skinner’s persona as a “buyer” was an elaborate trick. He had set out to demonstrate, in many different countries around the world, that it was indeed still possible in our modern world to purchase a person. And then in each case, having forged an agreement, he would promptly flee the transaction and the country — later to document the events in his award-winning book.
“When presented with the opportunity to actually buy people, I didn’t do that,” he elaborates, even though this might have offered the person a better life. “What I was told again and again by people that actually work in the field, running shelters and interfacing with people, was that to pay for human life would be to give rise to a trade in human misery, to incentivise trafficking,” he explained. “And I couldn’t justify that.”
But what did it feel like, even briefly, to adopt the identity of a slave trader?
“It was very uncomfortable for a whole range of reasons,” he recalled. “Although usually when I was in those situations, I was so focused first and foremost on making sure that the most vulnerable people were kept safe. In other words, the victims, my translators, my drivers, my fixers. And I’d rehearsed it with the team over and over again. So by the time I got in there, it was — I don’t want to say second nature — but I’d sort of gotten into character,” he explained.
It was often once out of character again that Skinner realised the insanity of where he’d been and what he’d witnessed. “It only kind of struck me afterwards listening to the tapes, just how bizarre the tone of the whole thing was in many of these exchanges,” he recalls. “Take the exchange in Haiti. I mean, it was like negotiating for a used piece of stereo equipment — it was almost mundane. And that’s, you know, just terrifying.”
Q: What was the idea behind documenting the story behind each of these people?
A: Ben Skinner: If you get to really know one person, then what happens to them matters a whole lot more than if you hear these categorical figures, like “there are 21 to 29 million slaves in the world today”. That’s a shocking, staggering number, but it doesn’t mean very much — unless you understand what one person’s slavery means.”
Romancing the Jellyfish
As we often documented in DCM, scientists are not always perceived as having amazing lives. And yet many of them frequently go way out on a limb in the interests of sheer curiosity, as Dr Angel Yanagihara told us about her experience studying jellyfish — a career that was launched when one of them nearly killed her.
Yanagihara believes that from the point of view of biochemistry, jellyfish remain an “under-studied organism”, due to their perceived distance from the human species. “Almost everything that one looks at in this very ancient life form has yet to be described,” she notes. Yet what initially appealed to the Hawaii-based scientist about cnidarians wasn’t their distance — but their sheer deadliness.
Yanagihara recalled for us her ordeal being stung by a Hawaiian box jellyfish. “I like to swim, but I’m fair-skinned and can’t be in the sun. When I got to the beach at about 6am, there were clear blobs on the beach. An old woman told me not to swim because there were jellies,” she recalls. “And I really thought that was kind of silly.”
Yet on the way back to shore, she was swimming through a break in the coral, when the pain hit her hard.
“I was horribly stung on my neck. I went down and came back up again and again was horribly stung on my arms and neck,” she says. “It was excruciating. Immediately I started to wheeze… it was a fiery pain in my neck, and I felt like I was being strangled.”
The pain was intensifying the risk of drowning — yet luckily she recalled her prenatal experience of pain management. “I went into Lamaze breathing from childbirth exercises, into that sort of counting to try to calm myself,” she notes. “I just kept counting strokes, and stopped paying attention to the shore.” Fortunately, she did make it to the beach finally, where she collapsed from exhaustion and pain: later regaining consciousness in an ambulance.
Then most inspiring to me was how Angel then made peace with her tormentor. “I have a philosophy that there are no accidents, and there is something to learn from everything,” she says.
Bedridden and in agony for three days, she tried to focus on the deeper meaning of the experience. “I thought, well there must be something to learn here,” she recalls. From her hospital bed, she then wrote her very first research grant application, initially almost as a joke.
“I wrote the proposal just to vent my own frustration at being stung — and how the medical community had nothing to offer in terms of relief. So I was surprised when it was awarded.”
Q: Do you think that box jellyfish may in fact be misunderstood?
A: Angel Yanagihara: “There are many examples around the world where mismanagement of coastal waters has led to the same sort of science fiction ‘rise of the jellies,’” she says. “So I think they are greatly typecast as a sinister nuisance,” she adds, with a hint of laughter. “Where in actual fact, we may be the more sinister nuisance on the planet.”
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