Ben Powell’s career in filmmaking, whether as a director, producer, or cinematographer, has taken him to some interesting places and certainly introduced him to some interesting people. His latest project, though, which has Powell behind the camera as director of photography, may be his most powerful and far-reaching. “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story,” directed by Sara Bordo, is a documentary that puts a human face to the topic of bullying. But beyond that, it’s a film about a remarkable woman who has faced every challenge that life has thrown at her with grace and humor while giving a voice to the voiceless in the Internet Age.
Velasquez was born with an unnamed medical condition which makes it extremely difficult for her to put on weight. Her condition has also led to numerous medical problems and surgeries, and once she started school the differences in her appearance led to some anxiety for Velasquez and her family. But as the outgoing Velasquez grew up, it became apparent that she was determined to live a normal life. She took part in school activities and made friends. But it wasn’t until she clicked on a YouTube video—in which she was called “The World’s Ugliest Woman”–that she began her fight against bullying. “A Brave Heart” follows her journey around the globe as she makes appearances, gives speeches, and signs a ton of autographs—all in the name of making the world a better place.
Powell was born in Cleveland, Mississippi, and while growing up, always had a camera in his hand—even if he didn’t know at first that it could lead to a career. After high school, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and in 2008, landed an internship at the Austin Film Society, where he began to make contacts in the local scene, and as he says, “get the lay of the land.” He has made Austin his home for the past seven years.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Powell during the run-up to the world premiere of “A Brave Heart,” and picked his brain about narrative films versus documentaries and trying to shoot a film inside a social phenomenon.
Film Slate Magazine: How did you get you get hooked up with Sara, and how did she come across Lizzie’s story and want to make this film?
Ben Powell: Sara was looking around in Austin for a cinematographer and I think she got my name through word of mouth and contacted me last summer. I think it was important for her to work with people locally in Austin just because we were doing the majority of shooting here and it just made sense for her.
She was producing a TED Talk that was here in Austin and Lizzie was a part of that so they met during the TED Talk, I think it was TED Women in Austin if I’m not mistaken.
FSM: When she asked you to come aboard, did she outline what the story was—did you know what the project was all about or did you go into it blind? What were those conversations like when you first started making the film?
BP: I would say it was very collaborative from the first meeting onward. She had a writer on board (Michael Campo) and us three did a lot of preproduction before we began and we met with Lizzie and talked about what shoots and what events they had coming up. And from there we just started shooting and whenever we would get footage we would certainly get together and talk about what we had and figure out how to approach the next shoot based on what we already had in the can.
FSM: And early on, did you decide how you were going to shoot this? Because documentaries, especially now, take a lot of forms. Was there a consensus—we’re going to shoot this, the interstitials, the interviews, the footage? Or did that develop with the things that you started to shoot?
BP: That’s an interesting question. I think Sara in her mind thought, you know, ‘We’re making a documentary so let’s get a bunch of interviews lined up.’ Which I think was a great way for us to start, because we were really able to learn from everybody’s stories about Lizzie and whatever condition we were discussing, and from that I think we were able to approach the ‘verite’ footage in a specific way. We already had some sound bites ready that could complement what we were doing.
FSM: The opening is very powerful with Lizzie at the school. Was that decided beforehand or was that decided after you put everything together and you said, ‘Okay, we need something good’ and did you go back and shoot that? Or was that in the beginning?
BP: That was pretty early on. We went into it completely blind. Lizzie had obviously talked about that being an important time for her and she held onto those memories, so going in we didn’t really know what was going to happen, and I would say it was definitely an organic experience. It wasn’t anything that anybody could predict or write.
FSM: As you were shooting this and following her around, being inside it, did you get a sense of the scope of what she was doing? As filmmakers, did you keep the proper distance? How does that work, following her around and shooting her, that sort of thing?
BP: The first shoot we were at the capital in Austin, Texas, and we were surrounded by hundreds of fans of Lizzie. So right from that moment I knew that, okay, I have to be rolling the whole time because there are so many interactions with people that happened throughout the shooting process that were just so amazing—we’d be walking through an airport or something and some random person would just walk up to Lizzie and start talking. So for me it was we have to get all of that. It’s all great.
FSM: Did that surprise you? Someone comes up to her and says, ‘You inspire me,’ or ‘You’re this and this,’ did that take you off guard for a little bit?
BP: I think that’s an exciting benefit to being a cinematographer. Having that sort of access and being able to understand my place—and everybody’s place—in the ‘set’ which is a moving thing. It helps a lot when people already know her. It creates scenes.
FSM: As a cinematographer, do you feel that your role is any different making narratives versus documentaries? Or do you just have to execute things in a different way? Are you closer to the director–is shooting a documentary fairly close to shooting narrative in that regard?
BP: It’s very close. Sara would definitely be in communication at all times as we’re shooting because she’s seeing things that I might not be able to see because of the little loophole or whatever. There’s so much else going on, so I think it was really great to have that open communication throughout the film. I think it really helped because I could go off and cover something that I wouldn’t know was going on unless Sara or Jessica [Chou, associate/line producer on the project] or anybody else who was on set knew what was happening.
FSM: Do you prefer documentaries over narrative?
BP: It’s all the same to me. It’s filmmaking; it’s storytelling; it’s taking pictures. It’s all the same. Every project is different and every project has its challenges. And ones like this have amazing benefits as well. It really just depends on the project. I wouldn’t say I like narrative more than documentaries at all.
FSM: What were some of the challenges with this shoot?
BP: Sometimes the crowds would be a little overwhelming. When I’m supposed to be covering Lizzie I might be overtaken by people who want to get their picture taken with her or something! Being able to fight for a camera angle or a shot that was sometimes a challenge but that’s about it.
FSM: What did you use–the Canon C300?
BP: Yeah, I used a C300.
FSM: Pretty straight forward rig, or did you use anything special?
BP: No, not really. That camera is great without any shoulder mount or anything. The whole time we were shooting handheld, literally in my hand like an old 16mm camera. I didn’t have an elaborate rig or anything like that. Pretty straight forward–mainly because we were traveling so much. We needed a lighter, go to, run and gun kind of set up.
FSM: That has to give you some freedom as a cameraman, because you’re not necessarily worried about the lighting and the staging; you’re able to grab and go and shoot. Do you find that you enjoy that freedom, or do you say, ‘Well, if we could have lit this, or done this differently,’ does that enter your mind at all?
BP: Certainly sometimes (laughs), but that camera is really flexible with different lighting conditions. It’s really easy to switch if you’re going from inside a room that’s lit by lamps to outside where there’s just tons of daylight. It’s easy to go from one to the other. A couple of switches and you’re ready to go.
FSM: And finally, were there any surprises about this project, something that you didn’t necessarily think about going in and at the end, whether it was technical, or maybe even Lizzie’s message, something that surprised you?
BP: I didn’t know much about Lizzie going in, but just coming from Austin, it’s pretty amazing to see this kind of story. It’s a local story but it has such a global appeal and so everybody can connect with Lizzie and with her family and how she’s been able to overcome everything. I think that’s just kind of amazing and really the heart of the film.