Saturday, January 26, 2013

Road to Sundance 2013: Google and the World Brain, directed by Ben Lewis

Ben Lewis 

Tell us about your film. What inspired you to make it? My film is called "Google and the World Brain" and it is in the World Documentary competition in Sundance 2013. I was really looking for a subject through which I could explore the dreams, dangers and dilemmas of the internet. The various projects to create a universal digital library, of which Google Books is the biggest, just struck me as such a fantastic story - it was at once an ancient dream, to create a universal library with every book ever written by man, and a very contemporary technological story - it was only now that it could be done thanks to the internet. Google had scanned ten to twenty million books, but six million of them had been in copyright - here we had something which juxtaposed the themes of the common good against the rights of the individual. And it was a totally international story.  
What do you love about your film?
I love the way I was able to realise the film visually by shooting in some of the world's most futuristic libraries, places which few people really know much about like the National Library of China, which looks like a massive circuit board, and the Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City, where the book shelves seem to float in the air, as if they were in a zero-gravity spaceship. I love the fact that this is a story which brings together one of the world's most ancient technologies of knowledge, the library and book, with the world's lastest, the internet and scanner. I love the fact that this is a story not many people know about. I love the fact that it is a totally international story and I switch locations as fast as in a James Bond movie, from a Spanish monastery to a Chinese book scanning factory to a panorama of Silicon Valley. And I just love libraries.
How long did it take you to make your film?
It took three years to make this film. Two years to develop the idea and raise finance from many TV channels in Europe, and then a little less than a year in production. 
How did you finance your film?
In Europe, there are all these amazing TV channels like BBC4 in Britain and Arte in France/Germany, DR in Denmark and VPRO in Holland and they invest money in documentaries. What one does is one goes round pitching the film at documentary festival pitching forums, trying to persuade these TV channels to invest in ones film proposal.  Then one gets an additional grant from the European Union media fund, which is a complete lifesaver! That way we raised half a million dollars, €400k, and then we made the film. 
What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process and how did you overcome it?
There were so many challenges - one of the greatest is how to make a film about the internet visually interesting - that was why I chose a story about libraries and scanning, because I immediately had unusual images to play with. Another big challenge, as usual, was persuading people to take part in the film, especially the internet thinkers like Lanier and Kelly. These people are soooooo busy and get so many requests for media stuff, and at first they didn't reply to me - only when I wrote that I had read their book 3 times and that I would happily exchange any body part of which I owned two for an interview, did I catch their attention! 
Tell us about your experience getting into Sundance
Well that was a huge deal. We were sitting in IDFA, the A'dam documentary festival in November and we knew they had rejected our film. And we were sitting around thinking our film willl be a flop, we haven't heard from Sundance, we're not going to get anywhere - and the invitations to Sundance were already in the spam folder of one of our producers. We just leapt for joy when I started getting emails and text messages from the programmers of Sundance asking us why we hadn't replied to them 
If you had to make the film all over again, would you do anything different?
No. If I could do it all again, I would do it all again. I got everything I wanted into this film. I crossed and recrossed the globe on cheap flights, shooting some interviews myself, when we ran short of money. I had an amazing DOP for the libraries and many interviews - Frank Peter Lehmann. I had producers who placed an enormous amount of trust in me, when I went over-budget, and supported every decision I made. I couldn't have done this film better or done it with better people. 
What’s next for your film? Do you have distribution? If so, when and how can people see it and if not, what are your hopes for the film?
Well, our film will be shown in around 40 festivals and on TV channels all over Europe. Film Transit are handling the distribution and we are looking for a fantastic US broadcaster to pick up the film and for theatrical release in America and elsewhere if possible.
Can you provide any advice to other filmmakers who dream of getting their films made and into Sundance?
Plenty of advice - no room to put it here. Do half an hour of yoga everyday, because this is a very stressful way to live, earn money and make art. Make sure you have a good story. Remember you are story-teller. Tell new stories in interesting ways. Film-making is not about guesswork and genius - it is about structure and hard work.

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