Interview: John Beck, Documentary Filmmaker
John Beck likes to tell stories.
Real-life stories about women who pick wine grapes in the middle of the night, or the Elvis impersonator who had plastic surgery to look more like The King. Interviews with musicians like Lyle Lovett or Esperanza Spalding. More poignant pieces that look at the lives of children whose parents are in prison.
A “wannabe novelist” in grad school, John became a print journalist when he moved to California. He branched out to short videos while at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. He now makes documentaries along with writing for newspapers and magazines.
His 20-minute documentary, “Wind, Water, Land,” will be shown this month at the Benicia Film Festival. The film is about the city’s first sustainable piece of public art, which has the same name as the film. The mixed-media artwork is displayed at the Community Center.
John, 44, spent more than a year on the project, periodically recording six Benicia artists at work and in conversation. “I have about 50 hours of video for those 20 minutes,” he says with a wry smile.
John collaborated with Petaluma film maker Don R. Lewis on documentaries before undertaking solo work. In addition to “Wind, Water, Land,” his completed solo projects include two films about distinct aspects of winemaking and a 30-minute video about restorative justice.
A Benicia resident since 2007, John’s enthusiastic nature is evident as he tells stories about making documentaries, his love of soccer and his family. He and his wife, Patty Hayes, have two preschoolers.
How did you get started in films? I was a film minor in undergrad, but I really started working with video right at the beginning of You Tube. I used to do a weekend series, “60-Second Weekend,” for The Press Democrat. … I one time rode backwards on a motorcycle filming Lyle Lovett, and another time we did a Big Wheel race down Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Then I worked with Don Lewis from Petaluma on “Stringers.” It’s about these guys with police scanners and video cameras who would hear something and sometimes reach a scene before the police. One was a Vietnam vet, one guy was in a wheelchair. It won the Audience Award for best short documentary at the Austin Film Festival. Then we did “Drag King.” It was shot in Lake County where they drag boats around without wheels, trying to crash into each other. From there, we did “Worst in Show” about the Ugliest Dog Contest in Petaluma. These were all done on a micro budget.
What’s the difference between telling a story in print and on video? I grapple with that all the time. In film, you have to get over lots of hurdles. You have to get people used to the camera being there—you want them to forget it’s there and just talk.
But you’re still trying to tell a story in the best way you can. There’s a reason UC Berkeley and Stanford have their documentary film programs in their journalism departments—you learn to tell the story.
How do you make people at ease on camera? I shoot with DSLR cameras (showing a small camera). The women in “Harvest” said they never felt uncomfortable.
With the monks—that was a tricky dynamic to get them to open up and agree to be in a film. I’m very into them being as natural as possible. If you spend a lot of time with them, they forget there’s a camera around.
Does reality TV affect you when you’re making a documentary? Reality TV has screwed up documentary film making.
There was a film maker who wanted to audition kids for a reality TV show about kids with fathers in jail. Audition—that’s not a word in the documentary lexicography.
Whatever the hot topic is, reality shows start coming around. Right now it’s mass incarceration. There are stories about it everywhere, and Obama just visited a prison in Oklahoma. So there’s interest in this, and I’m already working on a film for Project Avary about the cycle of incarceration. You call someone for an interview, and people think you are part of reality TV and they think you’re going to be out to get them. I think they’re expecting you to set things up. I don’t put people in a situation. I try to be as much a fly on the wall as possible.
What projects are you working on now? The Project Avary film (in Marin County)—I’m following the kids of prisoners. Two have been in juvie, so they are already in the pipeline. Not having a father present has a huge impact on their lives. That one should be done next year.
I’m also working on a documentary for Wine Road, a group of about 180 wineries in Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys. I’m documenting how wine marketing has changed over the past 40 years. That will be done next spring.
I’m also working on a long-term project about the artist Julius Hatofsky. He made enormous paintings. At one time, a New York Times art critic called him one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. He told his wife to burn all these things when he died. Instead, his widow, Linda, is trying to find homes for them. I want to tell a little bit about him, but I really want to tell the story of a widow who is left with this treasure trove of paintings and has to figure out what to do with them.
What have you learned since becoming a filmmaker? I’ve learned a lot of technical stuff, and all the tech has become so accessible.
I’ve also learned that it requires a lot of patience. The logging takes so much time. I’m meticulous about logging clips by category. I have everything compartmentalized so I can drop it into the story, capturing just the pieces I want.
I’d never spent more than a few weeks on a story for print. “Harvest” had a defined time period: from the time harvest began until it ended. But it was a much longer process for “Wind, Water, Land,” and for the Hatofsky project.
How did the filming process work for “Wind, Water, Land”? Brian (Giambastiani, lead artist) would call and say, “Hey, I’m cutting metal tomorrow,” and I’d go over and shoot. … For this project, the collaboration between the artists was impressive.
But it was tough to get them to talk about their art. Artists in general are not that interested in sitting down and talking about art.
To be around artists is so invigorating to me. My favorite thing about doing this is meeting people and learning things. I followed them over the course of more than a year. There’s movement to the work they do. It’s like dancing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers? Story first. You don’t get into this just to make a film. You get into this to tell a story.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? I’d be writing that novel (laughs heartily). I would love to coach soccer.