Cause Driven Film : An Interview with Juan Carlos

As many of you know I’ve had a long history of championing (and making) cause driven film through my work at the American Cancer Society and as the founder of Lights. Camera. Help. And although we aren’t doing our film festival this year, I was able to watch this great hybrid documentary from filmmaker Juan Carlos. It’s called KNOW HOW. Here’s more with this great filmmaker.
How long have you been making cause driven films?
I started a documentary production company back in 2005 that was driven by a mission to create social conscious films. For the most part we worked with small non-profits to create short form content about their projects and people. That led to making my first feature documentary which dove into the topic of virtual worlds, and those folks who have one foot planted here and another in that other space. I’m not sure I can claim that was cause driven filmmaking.

At that time my life was out of balance, and an experience mentoring young adults to better prepare them for successful careers had helped me cast a completely different light on how to be happy. It led me to rethink my motivations, and I started looking at the potential to do good, be good, and letting the rest follow as the only real goals that were worthwhile. So in June 2010 we sat down to discuss what a movie written and starring foster care youth might look like.

The project was uniquely powerful in that if we were successful it could give a platform for the foster care youth themselves to speak truth to power, and actually affect change in the system nationally. Most importantly for me at the time though was having the opportunity to work with the youth to tell their true stories for the screen, and empower them to create change in their own lives.

Where did you find the story and script for this film?
Each year a group of foster care youth discover a non-profit called the Possibility Project. These teenagers are chosen to participate in the program based on their desire to create a better world. They come together for one year to create change for themselves and their communities, and in the process create an original musical from the stories of their lives.
I actually went to one of their first shows when I was in high school, and after college volunteered to shoot some of their productions in NYC. Years later, having recently finished my first feature film, I received a call from the founder, Paul Griffin — they wanted to make a movie.
When the foster care youth enter the program each has a platform to chat about their life stories — successes, failures, hardships, triumphs — and this leads to them dividing up in smaller groups. They get into teams and bring to life a scene from each of their lives. They do not perform as themselves in these re-enactments, instead they have others inhabit the role. These scenes provide a framework for what eventually becomes the storylines, and often two or three youth’s scenes become one longer story arc.
When I first sat down with them at a roundtable, I listened, I asked questions and more questions, and I listened. It was immersive storytelling to help transpose and transform their world into a film. We rehearsed as we re-imagined the script, the whole process was uniquely collaborative. The film took shape through their stories, and scenes were ripped directly from their memories. A multi-protagonist plot line formed that weaved in and out of each other’s lives. Sometimes they were deeply involved in one another’s world, and sometimes they just glanced off for a moment. Somehow we ended up with a 124-page foster care epic.
If these were first time actors, how did you pull such great performances out them?
Know How allowed me to straddle the line between documentary and narrative direction in an interesting way. I could at once rely on my experiences making Second Skin while concurrently teaching them how to act. A major choice early on was using the Meisner technique as our primary acting method. We worked and studied for months, building that ethos of “being in the moment” and improvising through reaction to find a truth as raw as their own. Over time a level of spontaneity from that work filled the script,  it helped give honest voice to their universe, and we were able to find explore performances in rehearsal and while shooting as a result.
Early on I knew the picture would need to have a documentary sensibility. Nearly all the camerawork was handheld to have that feeling of verité, and to give the youth more freedom on set, rather than having to hit too many marks. I chose long lenses to crush the space between them and us; their beautifully young faces were full of wisdom and sensibilities that felt like that of much older people, and I wanted people to see that age.
The very best moments were when a scene suddenly came together, the youth were in the zone, and all the drama off screen gave into these beautiful performances. When we were most successful it was an unstoppable feeling of purpose.
Making Know How was the most challenging, heart wrenching, and life-affirming experience I’ve ever had. Sometimes we’d be shooting in the projects, and something would happen on the street that imitated the scene we were capturing. It was art imitating life and life imitating art.
Why is music such an important part of this film?
The musical elements are a part of the fabric of each off-broadway musical The Possibility Project puts on stage. It was important to keep that construct for a number of reasons, but I found it most important in using it as a way to express the inner life of each character. One thing plays afford is the ability to have a soliloquy or an aside, but in films there’s much less of it. In shaping the intros and outros to each of those elements it was with a sensibility that the audience would be transported to a place that didn’t exist in the reality of a character’s world, instead it was like being in their mind with them. They also allowed for a thematic unity between storylines, and I think help evoke a universal commonality between where each of them is in the world. Even though their stories are not always intertwined, this was a vehicle that allowed them to come together in another way.
What’s the call to action for this film? What should viewers do after watching it?
I see Know How as a focal point for dialogue and action. I see the film inspiring and educating audiences through the movie’s powerful stories; driving them online to get more involved in the lives of foster care youth. I want communities to be empowered to host screenings and discussions, become involved with foster care youth in their state, advocate for legislation, donate to organizations like the Possibility Project, and even become foster parents themselves.

But if I had to focus on just one thing, there is state-level legislation across the country that aims to provide better outcomes for foster care youth by ending the use of group homes and supporting foster parents. We’re specifically working in California around the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR). If enacted, the CCR would provide an integrated, comprehensive set of services, including mental health services, which will contribute to enhancing well-being, permanency and safety for foster children.

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