Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Eli LaBan
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Filmmaker Eli LaBan has worked primarily in documentaries, but ventured into the world of narrative film as Director of Photography and co-editor of The Art of Being Izzy. Made as a capstone project for the Media Studies and Production Major at Temple University, the film follows a Chinese-American college student as she struggles to come to terms with her cultural identity.
PFS: How did you get involved with The Art of Being Izzy?
EL: This project was a senior capstone at Temple University for the Media Studies and Production. That’s what brought us together as a crew. In the capstone class, you pick a script that was written by another student in the scriptwriting class. You basically vote on which one you want to devote your semester to making a reality. All the people that wound up working on this project saw a lot of similar potential in the story, because it’s a story about a Chinese-American college student who has a lot of issues trying to accept and embrace her culture. Although it’s very specific and obviously not everybody is going to share that culture, we were also all able to relate to this story because of the universal way it taps into cultural struggles that a lot of people in this country and all over the world are dealing with. So we came together and chose to devote ourselves to making this script a reality because we all felt that we could identify with this universal story and felt strongly that it was an important story people outside of our group could relate to.
PFS: Did you know that you were going to be involved as a DP from the get-go?
EL: No, it was about a six-person group, and we were all coming into this massive project with very different levels of experience. It was a big learning experience for everybody. We were learning how to navigate our different experience levels, learning what works best for us as a group, and finding ways to collaborate. I had pretty substantial experience with shooting and editing from all of the nonfiction work I had done before. For our first shoot, we decided what each of our roles would be, and said, “Let’s see how this goes and have a reflection afterward. Maybe we’ll switch off later, or if somebody wants to do something different next time we can figure that out.” But the first shoot is always really hard and it was a bumpy road. We had an eight-hour shoot or something. A lot of things went wrong. Basically, after that we had a group reflection. I was DP for that, and we kind of decided it was best to have certain people in certain roles because they were more experienced. And when you’re dealing with actors and stuff on set, sometimes it’s better to just leave that to somebody who can do it. It was a natural process of finding roles for people, and then we kind of stuck to them as the process went on.
PFS: Was there anything that surprised you about working in narrative film after previously having worked in nonfiction?
EL: You know, it’s just a completely different mindset for me personally. I’m very used to the adrenaline rush of being in the middle of a situation with a camera in my hand and having to react. With nonfiction, my mentality is that I need to capture something, and I can’t miss it because there’s only one chance. Having that adrenaline rush and then making a story out of it in the post-production stage is how I’ve always approached projects. So the amount of pre-production that goes into making a narrative piece is something that was very new to me, and not along the lines of how I normally think about things. The idea of building a world and manufacturing a situation so that by the time you’re shooting you know exactly what you want is kind of topsy-turvy compared to the way I usually go about things.
PFS: Was there anything that was particularly challenging about the shoot, or any days that had more complications than usual?
EL: Well, the whole thing was very challenging. Again, I think it was just challenging to learn how to navigate. For example, we had a system where the director would be the one who was really talking to the actors and giving them prompts, focusing on the performance. As Director of Photography I was focusing on the frame and the technical aspects of shooting. It was difficult at first to decide those roles and what the boundaries of those roles would be. Because if I start shouting at the actors to do something and the director’s saying something different, it gets chaotic really fast. It’s challenging to figure out how to lock into your thing and just let other people do what they’re doing. It’s about finding a system so that everybody can support each other in their respective roles, as opposed to stepping on each other’s toes.
PFS: What was your role in editing the film?
EL: I was the only person with substantial editing experience, and a lot of people in our group were just learning how to edit for the first time, so I was kind of the master editor. I was really busy and just couldn’t edit the whole thing, so we came up with this system where we would divide up scenes and send people home with hard drives so they could take a crack at it. And then the director and me would find time to sit down and have a real editing session. Everyone would come back with their hard drives, and I would basically fit it all together and iron it out.
PFS: After working in nonfiction, was it a challenge editing scenes with dialogue and everything else that comes along with narrative filmmaking?
EL: Actually, it was a lot easier. When I’m doing nonfiction stuff, probably around 70% of the time is spent in post-production, because you’re literally making the story. I was kind of dreading the post-production stage on this, because I knew that a lot of it would fall on my shoulders as the one in the group with editing experience. And obviously it’s a massive project. But when you’ve shot according to the script and you’ve kept to your production plan, when the editing comes all you’re doing is fitting pieces together. There’s not a lot of creative decision making pertaining to the narrative at that point. So I was surprised by how streamlined it was. Especially considering that we had like six different people all trying to edit. We did have some bumps in the road, and we had to come up with systems that would get everyone on the same page in terms of files and management and all that. It takes time.
PFS: That sounds like a great way to get hands-on experience, more so than sitting in a classroom. What was the experience like of seeing the finished product after having been working on it at different stages?
EL: We’ve had the opportunity to show it in front of all different types of audiences. Everybody involved in this project dedicated a significant amount of time to it on the assumption that it would impact people. It’s a story about culture and identity, and taps into a universal struggle that’s really coming to a head, especially now. When we have Q&As, people from all different cultures and backgrounds say things like, “You know, when Izzy did this thing, or when she had this struggle, I really felt that. I don’t necessarily share that same background but I deal with the exact same things.” That’s been really awesome to hear. I think we’re lucky that people have really related to it.
PFS: What have you been working on since you graduated, and what are you working on now?
EL: Right after I graduated I lived in Nicaragua for six months. I was doing a video project collaborating with indigenous communities to help save endangered languages down there. I got a grant for that. So I was doing that for six months and I got back in February. And next year in August I’ll actually be moving to Rwanda for a year, where I’ll be producing videos and multimedia for a nonprofit organization called Gardens for Health, which deals with trying to eliminate malnutrition. And we’re also finishing up this web series about Cuban hip-hop that we’ve been working on over the last year. That’s really exciting, and should come out in the summer.
PFS: Where do you think your desire to travel and tell stories about people in far-flung places came from?
EL: That’s a big question. It’s been a gradual thing. I’d never made a video before sophomore year of college. And then from video I was sort of drawn to nonfiction. And then from doing nonfiction I took the opportunity to study abroad. When I was doing projects abroad I just thought that it was the most amazing thing and that if there were a way to keep doing it I want to do that. Also, I think that even though Izzy is fiction, it still taps into a lot of the things that excite me about the other projects I do internationally. It’s all about using media as a tool to not just connect people but facilitate an interest in and enthusiasm for finding the common threads that connect everybody, even though there are barriers of language, or culture, or background. When I was a little kid, that’s how I experienced the world beyond my neighborhood: through TV. I think people should be more interested in the world outside their own lives. So, if I could find a way to use media as a tool to facilitate that, then that’s really exciting to me.
PFS: Do you see yourself continuing to travel and make nonfiction work in the future?
EL: Well, in my ideal world that would be amazing. That’s kind of living the dream. Right now I’m prioritizing keeping up the momentum, continuing producing, making projects, and trying to build one success off the last one in hopes that it will lead somewhere. And so far it has.
The Art of Being Izzy will screen on Friday, May 11 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.