Crossing Cultural Divides To Connect with a Drug Kingpin

“My friend, I would like to ask you to take the honor of directing Team New York.”

A thrill still spreads through my chest every time I remember those words that Patrick, the Founder of Muse Storytelling, wrote to me sometime in late October 2017. I was going to direct an episode of an original web series that spoke to the very core of my humanity and creative spirit - The Remarkable Ones!

But with those words also came an immense challenge. As the director, it would be my job to lead a team of international filmmakers, and also to lead the interview with our character. 

TODAY'S STORY IS WRITTEN BY Tushar Joneja, DIRECTOR FOR TEAM New York, ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE connecting with their remarkable character to pull off THEIR INTERVIEW.

Our team had accepted the challenge of finding a remarkable character in a city that none of us had been to: New York City. We had found someone who was so amazing that I was nervous to talk to him! His name was Coss Marte, an ex-drug kingpin on a mission to give hope to ex-convicts through the one thing besides hustling drugs that he knew best - fitness. 

As the director, it would be my responsibility to connect with Coss and create a safe place for him to be comfortable enough to open up during his interview. A key part of the Muse process that we had all been learning was the importance of creating a good experience for our characters. Interviews were to feel more like a conversation and less like a Q and A. We never use terms like “rolling” or “action.” The less the character is aware of the camera and lights, the better!

But how was I supposed to have a normal conversation with a former drug lord of Dominican descent? I'm from India, what common ground could we possibly have?

My mind was racing wondering if it was even possible to cross the cultural and experiential divide that existed between us.

 Team New York in our tiny hotel room. 

Team New York in our tiny hotel room. 

When we finally all landed in New York, we knew we had arrived with a mountain of challenges to face. First, as we dropped off our bags, we found the uncomfortable reality that New York hotel rooms can often be indistinguishable from pigeonholes. This wouldn’t have been an issue except that this tiny, stuffy hotel room was going to be our interview location, hardly a place that promoted comfort and relaxation. My job to help Coss feel relaxed in the interview became that much harder!

Next, we met up with Coss to get to know him in person. It didn't take long to realize that while he was nice, he was also extremely guarded and very, very busy. We had flown thousands of miles to tell Coss’ story but were finding it clear that he didn’t have time for us. 

I was getting more and more nervous about this interview. We headed back to the hotel to face the lovely challenge of turning a tiny, old hotel room into an interview location.

In the next few hours, my teammates ran around the hallways, rooms, and lobby of the hotel generously borrowing plants and props to make the room feel homier. By the time we were done, all beds were stacked against a wall, mattresses were in the shower and our sound recordist had to sit on the toilet seat to record the interview.

With everything set up, it was time for Coss to arrive for the interview, the moment of reckoning was upon me.

 Checking our interview set up before Coss arrived. 

Checking our interview set up before Coss arrived. 

Coss entered the hotel, and I led him up to our room trying to keep a natural conversation going. I was scrambling for topics to talk about, trying to keep his attention on me. He started talking about how this hotel was the seediest establishment in the neighborhood back in the day. He laughed as I joked that it was a fitting place then to interview a former drug kingpin. OK, this was getting better. 

We walked down the tiny dim lit hallways to the interview room. I felt more relaxed around him each second, so I decided to open up a bit. I started recounting to him a time in my life when I faced a question of my own mortality, much in the way that he himself had faced in an earlier time in his life. That did it. He was intrigued in my story. We could relate through this similar conflict in both of our lives. 

He barely noticed as I motioned him to his seat in the tiny room that was packed with lights, power cables, and microphones. I took my place opposite him, inches away from the tripod, camera, and lens stretching just over my shoulder. As planned, my Director of Photography leaned in and gently squeezed my shoulder to let me know that he was recording. Coss was none the wiser; our conversation gilded effortlessly from my story into his.

Over the course of the hour-long interview, the space between Coss and me faded away as we dove deeper into his story. He shared about going to prison, about wanting to be an example for his son, and his desire to help others who have gone through similar situations as him. It felt much more like an intimate conversation with a friend than an interview. I knew he felt the same way, when, somewhere along the way, I saw a small teardrop appear in the ex-drug kingpin’s eye.

When the interview finally wrapped, the whole team was invigorated! The energy pulsed throughout the room as everyone hugged each other and Coss.

By the time we were getting ready to film the next scene, Coss was asking us how he could move his schedule around to make the most of our time in NYC to film his story.

The rest of our shoot flew by as we filmed Coss in the “crack den” we created in the hotel basement and he took us to his new gym to film him coaching a workout.

On our last day, Coss, the most inspiring star of the New York fitness world who has been filmed on multiple occasions, told us that we were different from all the previous film crews he had encountered. He could tell by how we cared about him and his experience, in how we created our locations from scratch, and cleaned up before leaving that we were the real deal.

He could tell by how we cared about him and his experience, in how we created our locations from scratch and cleaned up before leaving that we were the real deal.

 

 

 

 

 

It was through being forced into an uncomfortable situation as director and interviewer that I realized the importance of opening up and sharing parts of my own story to create a safe space for the character to share. Being authentic myself opened the door to a deeper conversation and a better connection and friendship with Coss, which ultimately opened up the doors to film the rest of our story!

 

Tushar Joneja, Director of Team New York

 

WATCH TEAM nEW YORK'S FILM IN SEASON 2 OF THE REMARKABLE ONES! 

 

IF YOU ENJOYED OUR FILM, PLEASE HELP US MAKE THE MOST IMPACT POSSIBLE AND SHARE IT WITH SOMEBODY YOU KNOW WHO WOULD BE MOVED BY THE STORY. 

You can share it on Facebook Here. 

 

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION:

Coss Marte made $2 million per year dealing drugs – until he lost it all.

Busted by the DEA & sentenced to 7 years in prison, Coss decided to make some pretty radical changes. This is the story of how he transformed, and how he uses his experience to create opportunity for others like him.

Produced by a global team of filmmakers as part of Muse Film School  for the original web-series The Remarkable Ones (theremarkableones.org).

 

OFFICIAL CREDITS:  

A FILM BY MUSE STORYTELLING AND COSS MARTE

DIRECTOR TUSHAR JONEJA

PRODUCER SHERRONDA JOHNSON

CO-PRODUCED BY MADELINE SAPORITO

ASSOCIATE PRODUCER ALAN SARKISSIAN

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY STEVE SEPULVEDA

AUDIO NOLAN BICKNELL

EDITOR NOLAN BICKNELL

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER JAMES COOPER

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER PATRICK MOREAU

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER KATHRYN GIROUX

Chasing a fire-breathing glacier guide that almost ended in failure - Team Iceland's film

Many years ago when I was just getting my feet wet with professional photography, my long-time friend John H. told me, “Never go into the field with untested equipment.” Of course the one time I break that rule is when something goes horribly wrong.

TODAY'S STORY IS WRITTEN BY bill foster, director FOR TEAM iceLAND, ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE FINDING A REMARKABLE STORY AND learning a valuable lesson in their interview.

Our team was buzzing at the reality that we had finally made it to Iceland. We were making a film about a remarkable young mother of two who had figured out a long time ago who she is and the adventurous life she wants to lead as an example to her kids.

We had overcome a lot of hurdles to make this happen:  drastically changing weather, only 4 hours of daylight, and safety on ice glaciers, especially while carrying a very expensive camera. But we had overcome each and every obstacle  and we were finally in Sigga’s apartment conducting the interview that I had meticulously prepared for. Game on!

 Team Iceland taking on a glacier. Photo by Bruce Lomasky.

Team Iceland taking on a glacier. Photo by Bruce Lomasky.

 Making the most of the 4 hours of sunlight. Photo by Bruce Lomasky. 

Making the most of the 4 hours of sunlight. Photo by Bruce Lomasky. 

In her small, but homely decorated apartment, I sat listening to Sigga describe her adventurous life to me. The conversation was off to a great start. She was engaged, we had a great back and forth going, and I was thinking in the back of my head “Wow! This is going awesome. I’ve totally got this!”  

But as we began to dive into deeper moments of her life, something went terribly, terribly wrong.  

Now you must know, I’m not an experienced interviewer. In fact, this was my first interview using Muse’s interview process.

 Sigga, Patrick, Pedro and myself talking to Sigga in her apartment.  Photo by Bruce Lomasky.

Sigga, Patrick, Pedro and myself talking to Sigga in her apartment.  Photo by Bruce Lomasky.

Before our main character had walked into the room, as a team, we had devised an interview system to help us keep track of talking points. We were going to use a Google Doc with bullets points of what we needed Sigga to say to tell her story. The laptop would sit in front of me, slightly to the side, to give me visual cues, but Sigga wouldnt be able to see it. Maddy, sitting in another room with a monitor and the same Google doc pulled up on her phone, would listen to the interview and delete items from the doc as we hit them. She would also make notes to me to circle back on a point or to get clarification or whatever was needed in the interview. Brilliant, right?

Well it was a perfect plant until my computer's screen went black. While Sigga started talking about the deeper parts of her story, I saw out of the corner of my eye the screen on my laptop flicker, and then black. And in that half a second, my mind went totally blank.

SO HERE I WAS, SITTING IN THE MIDDLE OF A DEEP MOMENT IN SIGGA'S STORY AND THE COMPUTER WAS ASLEEP AND MY BRAIN WAS EMPTY! 

All I could focus on was not having my notes, my guidelines to the story! The irony was that I knew this story backward and forwards. I had already talked with Sigga on 4 separate occasions for a total of 6 hours. But in that moment, my thoughts were just as blank as the computer screen!

I knew what the problem was. My Mac had fallen asleep. But out of concern for Sigga’s experience, I didn’t want to tell her to pause while I entered the password on my laptop.

I decided to press on with the conversation. But my mind was drained of every last detail. What have I already asked her? What do I still need to ask her? What did she just say? My stomach started churning in knots knowing that I needed to focus on her, but I couldn't.

 I was interviewed before Sigga as a practice round. We should have tested our Google Docs idea THEN! 

I was interviewed before Sigga as a practice round. We should have tested our Google Docs idea THEN! 

After bumbling through questions for what seemed like an eternity, I managed to hit all the major points we needed for the story, except two. These were darker points in her life and I had been talking all along about the fun, happy and uplifting parts. I had no idea how to naturally shift gears. Maddy had sensed a while ago that something wasn’t right had come into the room and stood near me, hidden from Sigga’s view by one of our lights. A quick glance in her direction with a panicked look gave her the cue to step in and take over.

Maddy casually walked into the room and joined our conversation. I moved from the chair, and very naturally backed out of the room as Maddy took over. Sigga never skipped a beat.

I went into the bedroom across the hall where our crew and Patrick were holed up listening to the interview through a monitor. I might have said a few bad words, frustrated at myself. Then I whispered to Patrick what the problem had been and that I had totally failed at the interview. I blamed the laptop, but inside I knew what the real failure was.

But Patrick looked at me and said, “I thought it went fine. It wasn’t nearly as bad as you think. Cut yourself some slack.” It took a few minutes to get my head back in place and listen as Maddy finished up the interview. In fact, Maddy eventually called in Patrick, and they did the same casual switch so that he could take a deeper dive into the really hard stuff in Sigga’s story. At that point, I started to feel better.

Our interview ended, and we all came back into the room to hug each other and thank Sigga for sharing with us her beautiful story.

Sigga_2.jpg

The result was still a remarkable interview with an incredible woman who I believe will inspire many. But while interviewing someone else, I gained perspective on my own work and self thought.

First, don’t ever ignore John’s sage advice: always check your gear before you use it or ensure that a system works. These days my team has the Google Doc system dialed in and I have an iPad with the Google Doc open and it is set to never sleep.

More than anything else, I learned the incredible value of every team member having a true understanding of the story. We were able to, as a group, listen to the interview and point out inconsistencies or holes based on the story we were trying to tell. We were able to have three different people conduct the interview, switch with us while maintaining an exceptional experience for Sigga, and work as a team to create a remarkable story.

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, I LEARNED THE INCREDIBLE VALUE OF EVERY MEMBER HAVING A TRUE UNDERSTANDING OF THE STORY.

 

 

 

 

Had I been the holder of the story, and everybody else had a very basic understanding, they wouldn’t have been able to critically analyze as it was happening in the moment and be able to contribute when things went wrong.

In the end, that made all the difference.

Bill Foster, Director Team Iceland
www.recountfilms.com

WATCH bILL AND TEAM ICELAND'S FILM IN SEASON 2 OF THE REMARKABLE ONES! 

 

 

IF YOU ENJOYED OUR FILM, PLEASE HELP US MAKE THE MOST IMPACT POSSIBLE AND SHARE IT WITH SOMEBODY YOU KNOW WHO WOULD BE MOVED BY THE STORY. 

You Can Share It On Facebook Here

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION: 

Sigga felt stuck.

Her whole life, she’d followed the same well-worn path most women in Iceland do – settle down, have a family, live a predictable routine. But the well-worn path wasn’t taking Sigga where she wanted to go.

This is the story of how Sigga found herself – a journey that took her all the way from the circus tent to the top of a glacier.

Produced by a global team of filmmakers as part of Muse Film School (musefilmschool.org) for the original web-series The Remarkable Ones (theremarkableones.org).

OFFICIAL CREDITS:

A Film by Muse Storytelling and Sigriaur Yr Unnarsdottir

Directed by Bill Foster

Produced by Madeline Saporito

Director of Photography: Braden Dragomir

Second Camera: Josh Merritt

Gaffer/Audio: Bruce Lomasky

Editor: Pedro Da Silva

Executive Producer: Kaleb Kohart

Executive Producer: Patrick Moreau

Executive Producer: Kathryn Giroux