There’s an extraordinary scene in “The Journey is the Destination” when the war photographer Dan Eldon (Ben Schnetzer) approaches his first war zone on the border of Somalia, confronted immediately with a man close to death in the truck bed in front of him. Eldon’s horrified, but still knows what he must do – what he was sent there to do – snapping the man’s picture to share with the world his pain, and with the click of the camera, the deeply dehydrated man awakens as if he’s been given new life.
“In truth, the original script had him die,” confesses Bronwen Hughes, who has spent the last 13 years trying to tell Eldon’s story. “And I said, ‘No, no, no.’ We had to launch the forward momentum.”
That wasn’t a concession to the audience, but one to its subject, a dogged and socially conscientious adventurer whose life may have been tragically cut short while covering the Somali Civil War, but whose exuberance pulses throughout “The Journey is the Destination,” which not only introduces Eldon to a new generation, but carries on his mission of exposing the Western world to the plight of the Third World without suggesting the situation is hopeless. Brimming with the kind of narrative risktaking that Eldon would surely admire, Hughes’ patience to make the film is evident in the passion and the verve that make it practically explode off the screen, bursting with vibrant animation to enliven the words Eldon jotted down in his travel journal and occasionally splitting into multiple screens to capture absolutely everything that went on as he found his calling amongst a group of student transport aides that ventured through Nairobi, Tanzania and Malawi before the photojournalist caught on as a stringer for Reuters.
A celebration of Eldon’s daring and resolve, all winningly conveyed by Ben Schnetzer, Hughes’ should also be applauded after spending far too long a time away from the big screen after last making the riveting under-the-radar bank robber saga “Stander” in 2003. Working with producer Martin Katz and Eldon’s mother Kathy over the long haul, Hughes gets at the essence of the photojournalist’s drive and his impact on others. Shortly before “The Journey is the Destination” premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, the director spoke about how Eldon’s story only became more relevant over the years, filming in South Africa where reality and art became indistinguishable at times and handcrafting the film’s distinctive visual style.
What made you stick with this thing for so long?
The crazy thing is that when people find this story, it moves them in a way that sticks to you, and when I came aboard, you could feel this energy around it. We would get letters every week from people around the world who would write – sometimes in broken English – “I’ve read about Dan’s book and I hear you’re making a film and I would do anything to be a part of it. I’ve left my dead-end job to move to the Amazon to build freshwater wells.” When you know you’re onto something like that, you can’t just lump it in with all the thrillers and horror films and [other projects] that are also out there. You have to make the story happen and it took way longer, but it’s like the universe made us wait for Ben Schnetzer.
Did this evolve much over time or was this more or less what you had in mind when you first signed on?
There are some essentials about Dan Eldon – his spirit and effect on people was evident from the beginning and very important to the first versions of the screenplay. You would want to hang around with Dan because he was so fun and so charming and would want to turn every day into an adventure, so you’d go along for that ride, except by the end, you actually have had your eyes opened to something you didn’t expect. If we’ve done a good job on the film, I’d hope we invited people on a wild ride too. And the world evolved, where you have an Obama generation and being earnest is cool again – people actually saying, “I would like to make a difference” puts you in a cool camp, so that was important. But the unfortunate thing is the story of what happened in Somalia in ’92 and ’93 is repeating itself too many places in the world again, so it amplifies its relevance. We constantly revised the screenplay as the world showed us what Dan was doing back then – finding the faces and the families behind the news headlines and putting a face on the act of occupying a country with military force. That came to the fore as we realized maybe that’s the point of making the movie apart from Dan’s [personal] story.
You carry on his mission in that respect by filming in South Africa. Had you actually kept up a relationship with the country since making “Stander” there?
I didn’t go back there in between, but South Africa is such an amazing place to make movies and it’s the African country with the most diversity and the most film infrastructure, so we were talking to South Africans about making this film for many years and it seemed like a very, very good place to center this one since it takes place over five African countries. Of course, you can’t travel to five African countries with your crew, and South Africa was super passionate about this one and offered us the world basically.
The scale of this is constantly impressive. What was it like working with those gigantic crowds?
Holy cow, if you only knew what you just asked me! The truth is we were making the film with crowds of Somali people who had never been near a movie set in their lives, but were refugees in South Africa and they lived these very years that our story portrays. In making a film lean and mean, you don’t get time to rehearse, so we basically assembled the people who had lived it, put them in a situation that was very familiar and essentially shot almost documentary style. The [cinematographer] Giulio Biccari is a genius and a saint and he’s African, so he gets the chaos, but he literally had to fight with his elbows to get into the crowd scenes because when we say action, [we’d say], “Everybody struggle for the food.” And they did! It was way too real and sometimes I would find women crying in the corner because the trauma was too much. It was so moving and so terrible and so real and so necessary at the same time. It was just like no other experience really, though in “Stander” when we reenacted those Toy Toy rides with 1500 people, they’d actually done it nine years before that, so it’s almost not like directing. It’s assembling.
You have to anticipate in advance what’s going to happen, where the best place to be with the camera is and how to best capture it’s not going to happen the same twice. We just were among the crowd, super nimble in our technical approach, which meant really transporting in your mind what might be going to happen that day and making sure that you’ve made a good plan with the camera operators, so no there weren’t so many cameras capturing that multiple stuff. We only worked with the usual two cameras, but on the biggest crowd days, we would have a third, which is regular, and there were almost no lights or dollies or things like that. [For a mountain scene, for instance], we thought “Okay, on the way up the hill, we’ll get one angle and on the way down the hill, we’re going to get this angle.” You made every minute count in the shoot day.
Over the end credits, you just show Ben as Dan visiting different places, including a marketplace. Did you really immerse your cast in the environment throughout the shoot, perhaps in between more formal scenes?
We definitely threw the cast in the middle of things. The first half of the shoot was the first half of the movie, which was all these student transport aids on safari with Dan — and when the cast finally assembled right before the shoot, rather than do rehearsals like you normally do, sitting in a board room or hotel room with the script in front of you discussing [scenes] we just went on safari and camped out and had elephants walk by.
What you saw in the end credits was originally designed to be the head credits, but it changed over the course of making it because people liked the opening. After I left main unit photography, I went on an around the world tour with Ben, the main actor, with a tiny camera on my hip that looks like a tourist camera that shoots 4K. We infiltrated the real world and waited for a frame in which no one had a cell phone to their ear – because it’s supposed to be the mid-‘90s and shot it real – Piccadilly London, the Souks of Marrakech, La Sagrade Familia in Barcelona. That’s Ben in the Palais Jad Mahal in Marrakech with a snake around his neck. We had other destinations in mind, but we ran out of time. We got thousands of free extras.
If the opening was supposed to be Dan in the market, was his journal, which becomes a throughline for the film, still as prominent?
From the very start of doing this, I thought if we’re trying to make the film the way Dan sees the world, it has to be through the pages of the journal because Dan left us 17 journals found in people’s closets all over the world where he traveled and filled each book and left it behind. It was like he left us a visual map on a new language, so we actually took the journal’s mixed media style, like his cut-outs and witty phrases and paintings and drawings and things stuck on the pages – each one a different kind of thing – and we made that the visual style of the movie. Of course, you need to make that as a moving picture style, so that’s where the best, most wildly enthusiastic motion graphics people would write to me saying, “I found this book, I heard you’re making a movie, this is everything I’ve trained for! Let me at it!” We also made the movie in those sections as handmade as Dan made his books, which is ultra-time consuming, but necessary. You can’t really fake it, so although you’re using digital tools, we actually spent many, many weeks – first in the editing room, then in post-production facility – cutting things out, sticking them with glue, hand-painting glass, erasing it, doing it again, photocopying, re-photocopying – that Dan style. Dan leaving those books was like he was telling us, “This is through my eyes, guys,” and I wanted to respect that.
Really intricate sound design continues to be a signature of your work and the music really keeps the energy high – how did you create the soundscape for this?
I come from post-production, so I don’t think of sound or music as something you add later. I’m thinking about that from the very, very beginning and as far as music, there’s no orchestral score in this. I wanted it to sound like the world that I live in, which is not me sitting down to listen to classical music every day. Why does a movie have to sound like that? I don’t really believe it. So the score was made by collections of musicians who should never be in the same room together by all rights, but somehow as this global view of Dan Eldon was transferred to a movie, it seemed the way to go. If you look at our amazing composer Duncan Bridgeman, he himself is a filmmaker who has made films literally all over the world where he would do tracks in his bedroom in London and go sit cross-legged in a village in West Africa and make additions. For [the sound design], I often think what you take away is more important than what you add, so if we do something strange like have you only hear the sound of scratching the pencil on the page [when Dan writes], even though there’s traffic in the street right beside him, that draws your attention to something less than usual.
What is it like to complete this film after living with it for so long? This seems like a chapter of your life.
I haven’t really absorbed it yet. There’s a whole journey ahead with trying to get the movie out into the world, and I hope people see it. But I will tell you the very last day of post-production when we shipped the finished film from the facility in Johannesburg was like the last day at college where you wake up and you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself. It’s like…oh. Now what? [laughs] I’m super-excited because I’m now going to fill my days with so many other things I have on my plate, starting immediately by the way, so it’s not sad. It’s just like a shock. Nobody’s telling you where to be that day [after college]. You have to figure out the next step.
“The Journey is the Destination” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14th at 6:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall and play twice more on September 15th at 10:15 pm at the Isabel Bader Theater and September 16th at 3:30 pm at the Scotiabank 3.