The Film is Half the Project: 'Almost Sunrise' Filmmakers on Making an Impact

"That’s the power of documentary. You get a chance to walk in the shoes of someone you would never have access to in your daily life." 

Director Michael Collins' latest documentary, Almost Sunrise does just that—with a minivan, a Sony FS700 and two Iraq veterans who are tormented by depression and the 'moral injury' of war—as they set out to walk from Wisconsin to California on a journey for redemption. Collins and producer Marty Syjuco (who first worked with him on the Emmy-nominated Give Up Tomorrow) followed vets Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson on their quest to confront the suicide epidemic that claims the lives of 22 veterans every day, and thereby confront the very nature of war.  

No Film School sat down with Collins and Syjuco on the eve of their screening at the prestigious Human Rights Watch Film Festival to talk about making the film, gaining trust and giving space to their protagonists, and using an impact campaign alongside the film to make a difference. 

NFS: How did you get the idea for the film? Did you meet the characters first or did you start out with an interest in the subject?

Collins: The idea for the film came about because I was doing some volunteer work for a vets organization in 2012. I was flying around the country interviewing veterans because I was making a promotional video for an NGO. Though that process I was getting to hear all these stories from vets from every generation. It was such a powerful experience for me. As they were telling me these stories and opening up, I learned things, like that 22 veterans a day are taking their own lives. That was shocking to me. When someone said that casually as if I was supposed to know that, I said, "excuse me?" He repeated it. I thought I heard it wrong.

There was a moment in that process where I felt so connected to these men and women who were sharing their stories. I realized how disconnected I was from everything that they had been going through for generations. I was experiencing this divide that exists between the civilian and the military population. I think when people share their stories and you make a connection with them, you feel a responsibility to do something. That is what I felt and that’s why we made this film—we were hoping to give people that same experience, to walk in the shoes of a veteran and their family members, and want to connect with them.

A couple of months later I was looking online and came across Anthony and Tom, where they had an Indiegogo page set up to raise the money to cover their bills because they wanted to walk across the country. Anthony was someone I had interviewed on the project I mentioned. I thought, this sounds like it could be a film. We called them up and asked if Marty and I could come out to Milwaukee. We flew out there within a week and spent a few days out there and got to know each other, and decided it was a good fit. 

I could see that there was no room for bullshit in this relationship. They were straight shooters. It forced that kind of open line of communication. So the first step was earning their trust. 

NFS: Trust is an important aspect of a documentary film. How did you earn the trust of Anthony and Tom and the other subjects in the film?

Collins: With the veteran population in particular, trust is a big thing. There's a lot of distrust, honestly, between veterans and civilians. You have to work extra hard. But what I found was being sincere and open was the way to go. That’s all you can really do. When I called up Anthony to talk to him and Tom, I wanted to see if these guys would be good subjects for a film. Are they communicative? What are they like? I realized very quickly, I thought I was calling to interview them, and they were interviewing me. Then it was great, because they were asking such thoughtful, deep, and direct questions. I could see that there was no room for bullshit in this relationship. They were straight shooters. It forced that kind of open line of communication. 

The first step was earning their trust. Then I would have to do that over and over again as we shot this film over the course of a year and met many other vets. Having Anthony and Tom vouch for me was good, but there would be a version of this trust understanding with people we met. There was sort of a sniff test I had to pass before they would let me in. 

"They wanted to remove themselves from everything and everyone...So I wanted to give them space to do that. I did not want to follow them the whole time. Nor would my budget allow it!"

NFS: Once you started following Anthony and Tom on their walk from Wisconsin to California, what was your strategy in terms of filming, and how embedded you wanted to be with them?

Collins:  First, I was very conscious of the experience that they wanted to have. They wanted to remove themselves from everything and everyone. And walk. And be alone and immerse themselves in nature and in communities. Whatever the walk would present to them, they wanted to be present for it. So I wanted to give them space to do that. I did not want to follow them the whole time. Nor would my budget allow it! We made a conscious effort to come in and out strategically. We knew we wanted to represent all the seasons and the difference landscapes. America itself is a character, really, in the film. It’s an important part of the walk. We had to be flexible. They wouldn’t know a few months or a few weeks from any given moment. They knew their route, but they didn’t know, say, who on social media was going to reach out to them and invite them to stay at their homes. Who was going to put on a picnic for them.

So, we really had to plan the next production shoot while we were on the previous one. Sometimes we would kick ourselves because we wouldn’t be there when something amazing would happen. But it’s part of a process. You can’t shoot non-stop on a vérité film for five months while people are on the road.

"We shot on the Sony FS700 and we shot on Canon L- series lenses. We wanted the film to be beautiful. All the settings were so beautiful." 

Practically, we tried to keep our crew relatively small. We’d try to have one or two DPs with me. Sometimes Marty would come as well if we had bigger shoots that required a little more production, like the launch of the walk, or the end when the guys are coming into Los Angeles. Sometimes it would just be myself and one of our cinematographers, whether the DP Clarissa De Los Reyes or second unit DP Gideon De Villiers. We would just go out there as a two-man crew with a minivan. A minivan was my best friend. We found very quickly that having a sliding door and seats that were collapsible in the back so you could set up a tripod was key! We could then shoot out of the side for tracking shots, shoot out the back. We could drive backwards and shoot out the back. It was great. I’m obsessed now with minivans and I hope one day to own one! 

NFS: What cameras and other tools did you choose for this style of production?

Collins:  We shot on the Sony FS700 and we shot on Canon L-Series lenses. We wanted the film to be beautiful. All the settings were so beautiful. Once in a while you have to be able to go inside someone’s house and you have no idea what it’s going to look like. You literally are just following guys who are moving. So every single day the set is changing. Which is kind of difficult. My DP really had to think on her feet. She always had to be ready and mobile. We had a wide range of lenses. We had really wide all the way to really long, the whole gamut. We kept mostly to real vérité , we didn’t use a lot of lights. If the guys were set up by a campfire, we would improvise. We’d go to the local hardware store and Gideon, who was amazing, was like MacGyver! He would find the right wires and would hook up these lights to make it look natural but be visible.

"Even if Anthony and Tom had gotten used to the cameras, we were meeting new people every day. We stayed present and visible to let people behave more naturally around us." 

Our subjects spent a lot of time sleeping outside. [Gideon] showed me a trick where you could take a big jug of water and put a light, like a flashlight, behind it and it would shed all this ambient light over the whole area. We used a lot of funny little lighting tricks while we were out there in the middle of nowhere. But that was it. We would sometimes have two cameras. We had a wireless boom, which was great. We discovered how great about halfway through. I had a wireless adapter with my lab kit, and it didn’t occur to me to attach it to the boom pole. But when we did, it gave us so much more flexibility, chasing them around. That was a nice discovery!  For the most part we wanted to be intimate, so it was one or two people on crew. We would stand around, even if we weren’t shooting, because we wanted people to get used to us. Even if Anthony and Tom had gotten used to the cameras, we were meeting new people every day. We stayed present and visible to let people behave more naturally around us. 

"These wars have been represented in many films over the years, and we wanted to do something that felt more like their memories, the memories of the war inside their heads. "

NFS: A big component of the film is getting this picture of what war is. What was your strategy with how you presented the picture of what war is, and how did you collect the materials to represent that?

Collins: Emmet Cullen was Tom’s best friend who he deployed with and served with in Iraq. Emmet’s photographs are largely featured in the film. 90% of the photographs you see are his. These wars have been represented in many films over the years, and we wanted to do something that felt more like their memories, the memories of the war inside their heads. It wasn’t just about the post traumatic stress that they suffered, and the battles they were in, but something that spoke to the emotional turmoil that was stirred up from their time there. Which went beyond the battlefield.

A topic we discuss [in the film]  is ‘moral injury’ which has to do with the guilt and the shame that they feel around what they had to do while they were deployed. We wanted to really capture that through our imagery of Iraq. Whether it was just the civilians they interacted with, to see everyone as human through this footage, both the US soldiers and the Iraqi civilians. We didn’t want it to just be the experience of being in battle but being human, and young, and over there, and having to interact with families under such grave conditions.

We treated those photographs as a film reel that was flipping. That came from something that Tom said. He said that as he walked around: "My memories were like a reel that was going on in my head." That kind of circular thinking is very common for vets. Memories come back in loops and won’t stop. That inspired the animation effect of the film reel. 

NFS: When you make a documentary that has the ability inspire change, the impact campaign that comes afterwards can be a very important component of the film, which is something filmmakers don’t always realize. What are your plans for the film, and how important is it to think out the campaign that accompanies it?

SyjucoBecause of Give Up Tomorrow, we saw the potential of what a film can do with regards to making a difference. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to do it. We were hoping it could have a huge impact as well. Even while we were in production, we were already strategizing and building an impact campaign. That’s why we knew we wanted to premiere the film on Memorial Day, and screening at MountainFilm in Telluride gave us a platform to launch our impact campaign.

At MountainFilm, we piloted a few programs in addition to the screening. We had a panel on the topic of 'moral injury' because we knew it was a new concept in the mental health community. We were hoping people would want to learn more, and sure enough, it was a fantastic experience. We also did a meditation session which Tom led, because he's now become a meditation teacher. It was 8am on Sunday, and we weren’t even sure if anyone would show up. It was incredible because there was so much overwhelming interest that we had to turn people away! People filled up the room, sat on the floor. Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad came and had to sit on the floor! We’re realizing that there is incredible interest from people after seeing the film. 

These activities were such a success that we’re planning on doing them in NYC when we come over for Human Rights Watch. We have an Urban Hike planned in Central Park led by Tom and Anthony, and we have another session led by Tom. So we’re excited about the impact campaign activities, and working them into a national screening plan if we can get some sponsors attached. We’d love to do a medical screening tour at the VA hospitals and military bases, for example. We have an impact producer helping us as well. Impact is first and foremost in our mind.

Collins:  When we set out to make the film, the film was just half of the overall project. Having a big impact campaign is always a part of the plan, right from the first conception of the film. We started to form partnerships on the road, and brought on an impact producer before we wrapped the film. We wanted to stay ahead of it. With Give Up Tomorrow, it was more reactive, because it was our first time. This time, we wanted to have everything in place so that we could hit the ground running when we finished the film. 

"I think storytelling in our culture, all cultures, has that element of a lesson to learn. You go on a journey and come out the other side with something. "

NFS: What are your thoughts on the power of film and documentary? We always have debate on how effective a documentary can be within the filmmaking community, and we’d love to hear your philosophy.

Collins: We believe in the power of film to have a positive impact in the world. That’s why we make films! I think storytelling in our culture, all cultures, has that element of a lesson to learn. You go on a journey and come out the other side with something. With a new understanding or a new perspective. That’s the power of documentary in particular, you get a chance to walk in the shoes of someone you would never have access to in your daily life. For us, at the core of it all, it’s about human connection. Through these stories, and great documentaries, you feel connected to someone who you otherwise would have viewed as ‘other.’ In that process, the world gets a little smaller, it gets more compassionate. We take on responsibility for those we traditionally saw as being outside of our community. Impact is at the core of all of our projects.

Syjuco: Personally, from first hand experience, I can see how documentaries have changed my life. After Supersize Me, I stopped eating meat! Or at least beef and pork. After Food, Inc. I stopped eating all meat. I’ve been a vegetarian for about 8 years now! That would not have happened if I hadn’t see those films. 

"We spent six years making Give Up Tomorrow. After that, I wondered, 'How am I ever going to find another project that I care this much about?'"

NFS: This is your second film. What would be your advice for other filmmakers?

Collins: We spent six years making Give Up Tomorrow. After that, I wondered, "How am I ever going to find another project that I care this much about?" Especially in documentary, for filmmakers, our life becomes whatever project we’re working on to a certain extent. It’s important to have that clarity when you enter a new project, to know that you are going to be immersing yourself in that process for years. So you need to feel 100% connected to it and really feel passionate that this is a story that you need to tell the world. It’s going to be difficult, it’s not an easy process, it’s not a fun process. It’s nice now after we premiere to the world and are celebrating, but the years of wondering if you’re going to raise the money for the next shoot, or if you’re ever going to finish the edit...there’s always so much uncertainty around the whole process. I think that faith in yourself and the subject of the film keeps you going. For me, I always go back to that place. Why did I set out to make this film? That’s where I draw my strength from when I’m in the hardest times. 

Syjuco: After we did Give Up Tomorrow, which was a tragic and sad topic that left you angry, we wanted to make a film that ended a little more hopeful and uplifting. We wanted to leave audiences with something positive. We realized that the stories about the veteran experience always left you in a dark place. They didn’t offer light or solutions. So as Michael mentioned earlier, when this opportunity came around, we were just so excited that these guys were doing something positive. We were hoping that they would find a transformation and find a way to heal. We put that intention out there, and the gods were smiling down at us because it happened beyond our wildest dreams and we were able to capture it on camera.     

You can see Almost Sunrise at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in NYC this week, and join along with impact activities like a hike through Central Park. Not in New York? Use their official site and social media to keep tabs on when and where you can see the film!

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