Jason Cohen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. In 2014, his film Facing Fear, a Fetzer Institute and Jason Cohen Productions project, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject. The short features Matthew Boger, a public speaker and educator at Los Angeles’s Museum of Tolerance, and Tim Zaal, a formed neo-Nazi whose physical attack on Mr. Boger more than twenty-five years ago became the basis of their current friendship and professional partnership. Jason Cohen spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the production process on Facing Fear, working with multiple partner organizations, and the results of his film’s prestigious recent Oscar nomination. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: I’d like to focus on the production and filmmaking aspects of Facing Fear in this interview because I suspect those will and have been getting ignored as you’ve done press for the film. I hope that you won’t be too bothered if I skip over some of the social questions it raises…
Jason Cohen: Actually, this will be refreshing for me – other than a question here or there, I think only two interviews have really gotten into mechanics and production. I did a very fun interview with ShootOnline awhile back about the color-correction process. So fire away.
SM: Were you pitched on the project or did you pitch it to someone?
JC: It was sort of a combination of the two. The Fetzer Institute, who [Jason Cohen Productions] made the film in conjunction with, approached my producing partner and editor Tom Christopher about a project they were doing with people all over the globe. Fetzer is a non-profit whose projects are made to promote love and forgiveness, and they sent us some of the work they were doing and asked if we’d be interested in filming it. [The subjects of Facing Fear] immediately jumped out at me as a story that had teeth, a full arc, and something that would make for a great film; and in fact, the movie ended up being part of an upcoming feature composed of it and four similar films.
SM: What was the process of titling Facing Fear, since it had potential to be its own film, or alternatively, to be part of a larger whole? And who had say on the issue of the title, given the combined genesis of the project? Was it solely up to you as the producer and director, and Mr. Christopher, to name the short?
JC: Me and my producing partner came up with a few names between us, but we bounced them off other people, too. We certainly had discussions about them with Fetzer as well as people in the film industry that we trust. I even worked with someone who’s a “Namer” – that’s how she makes her living, as someone who names products, movies, or anything that needs a good name – who took a look at our ideas. Titles can be tough because you don’t want to give too much away, but you do need to cue the viewers into what they’re going to see. You definitely don’t want anything that’s easy to forget, nor too long. We went through quite a few iterations.
SM: Once you had a few good thoughts down, when did the actual shooting start?
JC: We went into production in April or May of 2012, almost two years ago. My team shot on-and-off with Tim and Matt over time because I would have to go shoot those other stories around the world. Then we’d come back, edit what we’d gotten, jump back into the next short film…We had our first rough cut screening at a conference about six months after we shot it. That version looked a bit different than the current version, but the bones were there, and we were starting to get good feedback. We shot a little bit more after that screening, did some sporadic editing, and then started showing the film in 2013.
SM: How deep were you into the editing process on the overall feature were you when you realized that the stuff that would later become Facing Fear stood better as a documentary short?
JC: It was fairly early on. This was the second [short film] we had shot after completing one about post-war reconciliation, the LRA and forgiveness in Uganda. The other stories are noticeably different, still spiritual and uplifting but in very different ways. They focus more on profiles of people doing forgiveness work rather than on a story like in Facing Fear. When we showed versions of the full film, this footage really stood out and people were saying, “You’ve got something here that you should put out by itself.”
SM: Much of the footage in your film is live and in real-time from presentations that your subjects were giving. You’ve got students, children, and parents in the audiences who become very emotional on camera. Were those kinds of reactions common even though you had a whole crew filming these events?
JC: The crew was as minimalist as possible and our goal was to be like flies-on-the-wall. Though I’m sure there were a few people who might have held back when the camera was near them or something, we tried to keep our distance. There’s a gentleman in the film that I think you might be referring to who expresses a lot of raw emotion. I don’t think he was at all cognizant of the rolling cameras by that time. Matt and Tim get amazing reactions wherever they go, no matter whom they’re speaking with.
SM: How large were the crews that you typically had with you to shoot with the guys?
JC: As I mentioned, we tried to keep it very small so we didn’t intrude on anyone. We’d always have a main camera, sound person, a production assistant, and myself. Potentially there would sometimes be a second camera shooting as well, often by me or the P.A. while a third camera was just roaming. Lighting set-ups were minimal, so about five people typically.
SM: What were the subjects’ relationships with the camera?
JC: Both Matt and Tim are comfortable on camera because they have been doing the presentations [you see in the film] for more than six years. They have gotten some previous media coverage before on the presentations, magazines and news-type media, so they are used to it by now. That being said, they try to keep their presentations fresh because they don’t want to fall into a routine.
SM: Earlier, you mentioned that it was recommended that you, “put this film out by itself.” When you talk about putting out a short film – especially a documentary – the odds are so high against you that you’ll manage to be seen in today’s media morass. How did you navigate those waters so that this movie would find audiences?
JC: I’ve been making documentaries for a long time, and if you had made a documentary short ten or fifteen years ago, your only hopes were film festivals and the possibility that PBS might run it for a while. Now, with YouTube and other streaming sites, that’s how more people are seeing short films. We have a twenty-three minute film and, of course, we want everyone to see it in a theater. We played in theaters and played at several festivals in 2013, which had great responses. We worked so hard on how it looks, how it sounds, and how it should feel emotionally in that venue.
But – what’s the reality? The reality is that most people who see the film will watch it on their cell phones, laptops, or iPads. For us, the thing we want most is for the film and the messages in it to get “out there.” Personally, I think short filmmakers now are at a bit more of an advantage if your goal is to get people to see your work. If you can put a film up on the web, get some social media around it, and get it up on iTunes, people will watch it.
SM: And how did the film eventually wind up in the hands of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which nominated it for Best Documentary, Short Subject?
JC: The Academy has a strict set of guidelines that you have to follow to officially qualify for an Oscar nomination. One way is to play at a handful of Academy-qualifying festivals. We released Facing Fear in June 2013 after most of those festivals had already passed or it was too late to submit to them, so that wasn’t an option for us. Another way is to do a one-week theatrical run in either New York City or Los Angeles with only your film playing in those screenings. So we played for a week in August at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles, did Q&As with Matt and Tim, and filled out the necessary forms to qualify. Once the film qualified, it was just tossed in the ring with all the other amazing films.