September 26, 2016

SCA Family Stories: Ted Braun

The Joseph Campbell Endowed Chair in Cinematic Ethics Speaks about his Journey

Ted Braun


Ted Braun has worn many hats during his acclaimed career. As a documentarian, he brought the conflict in Sudan to life with the NAACP Image Award-winning film Darfur Now. As a screenwriter/director he has covered topics as diverse as the golden age of aviation to the rights of the developmentally disabled for outlets including HBO, PBS, and A&E. As an Associate Professor in the Division of Writing for Screen & Television, he has spearheaded the efforts to bring the development of imagination and personal material to the forefront .

Braun’s latest accomplishment is being installed as the Joseph Campbell Endowed Chair in Cinematic Ethics, which he will be made official with a dedication ceremony later this year. Braun sat down with SCA to discuss his new chair, his latest film Betting on Zero, and how cinematic ethics sometimes collides with the practical world in unexpected ways.

Joseph Campbell is iconic in film, academic, and general culture. How do you think of Campbell? To the world of cinema, Joseph Campbell is best known as the author of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and "The Power of Myth," two books that had a shaping influence on world culture, academics, filmmakers, and especially our School's benefactor, George Lucas.  

Campbell defined archetypal story patterns, building off the work of Carl Jung and others, and helped filmmakers see these classic patterns across cultures.  His work helped Lucas in particular understand how to make films that resonate with, well, virtually everybody on the planet.

Cinematic Ethics is the other part of that title. How do you define cinematic ethics? I think that, at its core, cinematic ethics is nothing more than ethical questions as they occur in the field of cinema, in its broadest definition.  And ethical questions ask, simply, what‘s the right thing to do.

I can tell you the first time I became aware of this as a subject was during the making of Darfur Now, where I faced the most challenging moral conundrums of my life. I remember thinking on a plane ride home from one of my trips to Sudan, “They sure don’t teach you this at film school.”

What was one example? The one that pops to mind involved a threat of violence. We were filming a group of rebels about to embark on a military exercise. Our field producer became aware that, as they headed down into a valley on their way to the target of this exercise, the rebels were going to cross paths with a group of camel-herding nomads.

These were groups that had enormous, historic antipathy.  Putting it very simply, a group of long-suffering arable farmers from Darfur rebelled against the Government of Sudan. Some nomads, not all, were then used as proxies by the government to attack the farmers, slaughter their families, and drive them from their land.  So the nomads and rebels were in profound conflict.  And there was a fairly strong likelihood that there would be bloodshed if they encountered each other. Our field producer asked me, “Do we let the rebels know they’re about to run into the nomads?”

The question was not a simple as you might think because our mission -- the reason we were in Sudan and making Darfur Now -- was to dramatize and bring to a worldwide audience the very conflict that would unfold were the rebels to encounter the nomads.

On the other hand, were we to let this military exercise proceed without sharing the information with the rebel leadership, lives would likely be lost and we would bear some responsibility for that - an enormous, significant responsibility.  A much greater responsibility than I had ever borne up to that point in my life. Here was a plain and simple ethical question: What's the right thing to do?  Do I intervene and let the rebels know about the nomads or not?

Do you remember how you came into contact with Joseph Campbell’s work?  I remember exactly.  It was in graduate school here.  One of my closest friends and classmates, a soulful, searching Croatian named Boris Papic, gave me a copy of "The Power of Myth" that I have to this day. People at the time were obsessed with the substructure of the Star Wars Trilogy and how that was enmeshed with these deeper myths. Boris was into all this and wanted to share his enthusiasm with me.

It was also right about then that Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell at the Skywalker Ranch.  Their conversations were broadcast on public television.  Campbell and Moyers had these expansive, almost hypnotic talks that seemed to take in all of life.  And they addressed each other with such familiarity - Moyers had this way of saying, “Well, Joe…” - it made you feel you were in their living room.  So Campbell’s work became impossible for me to ignore.

Part of what’s so stimulating about Campbell is the depth of insight into how human beings express themselves in stories and myths – and how these expressions vary across cultures but ultimately share certain timeless patterns.  That observation alone is a very enriching thought.

Why is Campbell’s work vital today?  I’d say it’s in connection with issues of inclusiveness, diversity, and cultural perspective that are front and center in popular discourse right now. I think his work reminds us that we are profoundly distinct but also profoundly connected. We as a planet encompass unique cultures that also share enormous common material and common ground.  And there is a way, through the stories we share with one another, to both recognize our differences and simultaneously find the things that tie us to one another.  This insight is of great relevance, especially for people in the cinematic arts.

You’re also just back from a big debut of Betting on Zero at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tell me about the film. Betting on Zero is the story of a hedge fund billionaire, Bill Ackman, and his campaign to expose Herbalife, a New York Stock Exchange-traded company, as a pyramid scheme.

The film also tells the story of a number of people who are, in different ways, caught up or participating in that basic conflict. A Latina activist, Julie Contreras; a young Oklahoma businessman, Zac Kirby, fresh out of college who's trying to get a start; and a Wall Street researcher named Christine Richard who brought the idea to Ackman. But the basic drama concerns these two surprising antagonists, Ackman and Herbalife.

What was your intention in making the film?  The usual.  Make a riveting film that keeps people in their seats.  Beyond that I had no particular agenda; I certainly had no activist or exposé agenda in making this film.

I was intrigued by a member of the one percent of the one percent - a billionaire Wall Street hedge fund manager - putting on a white hat and saying, “I’m on a moral crusade.” And doing so by shorting a company’s stock to the tune of a billion dollars. That was surprising to me. That interested me.

The company that he was going after was interesting as well because Herbalife prided itself on its values - nutrition, health and a chance for people to realize the American dream. Values I share.  And yet it was accused of being a pyramid scheme.  A fraud. That was surprising.  That was interesting.

Herbalife had a strong reaction to the film. Can you tell me about that? The morning after our premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, I woke up to a text from Glen Zipper, one of the film’s producers.  Herbalife had a website up attacking the film. The company reacted without having seen the film. With a lot of insinuating questions about who was behind it and why it was made. All of which were untrue.

Did you prepare for this reaction when you set off? We knew going into production that both of the principals in this conflict were litigious and well heeled. They could support litigation and were not shy about taking opponents into court. So, yes, we prepared as best we could.  And we engaged all of the possible participants directly, in a way that was as open and transparent as possible.  

I wanted to tell an exciting story that brought to life as many sides as I could.  So I approached them both.  I wanted them to participate and was committed to bringing their perspective to life.  Ackman agreed on our first meeting.  In the case of Herbalife, I met with the CEO of the company within two weeks of getting greenlit. We tried to find a way to satisfy all their concerns that also allowed us to make a film.

They had questions about the financing. They thought Ackman was behind the film. I was explicit, and as clear with them as I could be, that he wasn’t. Then somewhere late in 2014, after talking with them for the better part of a year, Herbalife said, “You know, all the publicity surrounding this battle – it’s just too much of a circus for us to get involved for now. But stay in touch.” In essence they closed the door, but didn’t lock it. And so I continued to talk to them – trying to find a way to bring them into the film -- right up until we locked picture.  But the company and the distributors declined every invitation.

You’re both an alum and a professor here so, as an alum, what’s something you learned as a film student that you found yourself going back to on the set of Betting on Zero? “Somebody wants something badly, but is having difficulty getting it.” That’s a story. Whether you’re trying to communicate to a financier, a potential subject, writing a scene, or talking with the crew on a shoot, or in the editing room – no matter what stage of the process you’re in, this concept is lesson one. It always comes back to somebody wants something badly, but is having difficulty getting it. That’s it. You have to know who your somebody is. You have to know that they want something badly. And you have to be damn sure that there is a difficulty.  If there isn’t difficulty, in the case of verité documentary filmmaking, then why are you there? Why is the camera on?

As a professor, can you tell me about your philosophy that you try to impart?  Cinematic storytelling is a marriage of two elements, technique and imagination. What I try to do, in every course I teach, is develop both. We’ve reshaped the curriculum in the Writing Division – and this approach is now spreading to our work with the other Divisions -- so that incoming students initially approach technique and imagination as sort of separate endeavors, then they weave them together.  Bring the elements together in some new way.  A synthesis. The result is meaningful original work.  To me that is the core.

Technique - for screenwriters, directors, or whatever discipline you're in - encompasses an understanding of how your craft actually works. The lessons of your predecessors that you bring to bear on your own stuff.  It enables you to express yourself clearly and makes you more efficient.

The imaginative part is, for writers especially, finding material that is yours and yours alone. Which means coming to some recognition of who you are and where your memory, your experience, and your observations lead you. The development of these capacities is something that has largely been neglected, at least in a lot of formal film education.

I believe imagination can be developed in a deliberate way. Recognizing and becoming aware of the aptitudes of memory, experience, and observation enables you to identify the raw materials of your work as a writer – it’s where your characters, the worlds of your stories, and the conflicts that move you come from.  Exercising these imaginative aptitudes, in much of the same way that an athlete or musician would exercise a comparable set of facilities, ultimately helps writers develop confidence in their imagination, and confidence that they’ll be able to bring material that’s emotional and unforgettable to the page.  And do this again and again. Which you have to be able to do over the course of a career.  It’s the foundation.

Would that be the term “voice?” You don’t care for that term, if I recall. I always trip over the term “voice” because everybody has a voice. When I was making Darfur Now, people would say, “Oh, it’s wonderful, you’re giving voice to the voiceless” and I’m like, “Hell no, they have a voice, just listen to them!” The term I like is “finding your material.” Identifying work that’s yours alone. It’s comparable to “finding your voice,” but feels to me more accurate.

If you and I both turn to the big 64-color Crayola crayon box of human experience, you’re going to pick three or four different crayons to work with than I will.  Or you might say, to hell with crayons, my experience of life is charcoal.  Or stone.

I would call what we’re after a unique expression of human individuality that has universal resonance. The universal resonance part is technique; the unique expression part is imagination.

How do you teach that?  You start by steering the conversation in the right direction.  What are we after as filmmakers? We’re after delivering an emotional and unforgettable experience to an audience. How? Through cinematic means. That’s it. That’s our mission.  We are first and foremost an emotional medium, we want to leave people moved.

The School’s first Dean, Frank Daniel, once said, “We’re in the shake-before-using business.”  I love that.  We invite people to sit before a screen in order to stir their emotions – drive them to laughter, tears, make them jump with fright, tremble with rage.  Then off they go, out into the world, to put their lives to whatever use they wish.  But if we’ve done our job, they’ve been shaken. Their consciousness, their spirit, has, in some way, been transformed.  Emotional and unforgettable. That’s really what it is, isn’t it?

We are teaching an art form here, this is art.