Christina Clusiau was sitting at the kitchen table one day when she could see her partner in life and work, Shaul Schwarz’s face getting red. Schwarz, who has been privvy to some of the grisliest imagery the world has to offer as a photojournalist and director of the drug war doc “Narco Cultura,” had been poking about online when he came across a picture of a trophy hunter standing proudly over his kill.
“He was so upset,” Clusiau recalled recently, sitting across from Schwarz who clearly still is disturbed by what he saw. “And I’m screaming in the background, ‘It’s trophy hunting. What are you talking about? It’s legal. This is what people do.’ He was so shocked that he just couldn’t deal with it, and from there we went to the Safari Club International convention [a gathering for hunters…”
“And after that,” Schwarz interrupts, “We immediately said, “Oh my God, this is clearly a film.”
While the same surge of emotion that drove Schwarz and Clusiau to travel to Vegas to learn more about the world of big game hunting propels their latest film “Trophy,” a thoroughly engrossing, large-canvas look at the multi-million dollar industry, it comes to conclusions you wouldn’t expect, surprising audiences in its opening moments and upending commonly made assumptions at every turn to get at what a complicated issue hunting is. Respectful of the right to hunt without celebrating it, Clusiau and Schwarz go on a globe-trotting hunt themselves for those who exemplify the contradictions inherent in trophy hunting, acquainting audiences with Philip Glass, an American farmer who comes out of a tradition of hunting that he intends to pass onto his son and travels the world to attain notches on his belt; John Hume, a retired property developer who has used his considerable resources to buy up land to protect rhinos to graze on without fear; and Christo Gomes, who supervises safaris for international hunters in Africa.
Achieving a cinematic eloquence without glorifying its subject, Schwarz and Clusiau make it easy for an audience to understand the complex issues at hand – from the repercussions of killing of animals for sport to the real need to create population control in rural areas and feed families – while allowing for the recognition that there are no easy solutions. As the film begins to roll out theatrically around the country after premiering earlier this year at Sundance, Clusiau and Schwarz spoke about the delicacy required in making a film about such a gruesome subject that invites the audience in, as well as how they got past their own preconceptions and disarmed their subjects who may have had their own to push the conversation around trophy hunting to new places.
Like “Narco Cultura,” you upended any preconceptions I had about the subject within five minutes after the film started. Is that actually a way in for you as a storyteller?
Shaul Schwarz: I think it is. As a long time journalist, I’m always attracted to understanding someone who I don’t understand and I never want to give it up. It’s something that we need desperately in our society here in the U.S. today – to listen and challenge before saying why I disagree. And I like to unpack these worlds that you just can’t bear and say, “Well, why? Let’s think about it. Let’s release the emotion for a second.” On this subject, it surprised me, to be honest. I was appalled by the idea of it — if you want to trophy hunt and take enjoyment in killing a majestic animal, I think there’s something psycho about you. But who cares? That’s just what I think. And where it got interesting is when the question became can this help conserve animals because we all like animals. In the edit room, we’d always say, “Is this enough of a twist? Is this enough of a mindfuck? And will it make people comfortable to let go of their preconceived notions that they came in with? Personally, it’s an appealing form of journalism.
Christina Clusiau: Initially, the whole purpose [of the film] was this idea of wanting to shame this industry and say this is not acceptable.
Shaul Schwarz: It’s angering.
Christina Clusiau: But as we started to get in, it just started to open up. And we found very early on that it’s much more complex and there’s many more levels than just being one side or the other.
And the hunters must have preconceptions of you as filmmakers as well. Was this an easy world to break into?
Shaul Schwarz: Harder than the Sineloa Cartel. [laughs]
Christina Clusiau: It was very challenging. The hunting community at large is a very closed community and going in through [the Safari Club International Convention] initially was an easy access point as we were there as part of the event, so we were able to be introduced to hunters, but even to get to a deeper level with them, it became very challenging because we would spend time with them for a few days and they’d be interested in the film, but then they’d be, “No, no, no, this is not right for me.”
Shaul Schwarz: Or the reverse. We would see that they’re not fully open.
Christina Clusiau: Yeah, they’re not the right character for us. And there were certain things that as we started to do this film we realized we were looking for. We wanted a hunter who also had some sort of relationship to wildlife, so when Philip [Glass] came up as a potential character, we met him on a hunt in Namibia at the airport. He was introduced to us by the outfitter, so we had no contact with him whatsoever, and it was interesting to us that he is a sheep breeder because the relationship to animals is very different than to you or I.
Shaul Schwarz: Or a trophy hunter who banks for a living.
Christina Clusiau: So that was interesting. And then about a year and a half in when Cecil [the Lion] happened, the global outrage really pushed again against our access. Some of the contacts we made were like, “No, no, no, we’re not interested anymore,” [saying] “We’re going to get shamed – look, [Walter Palmer, the hunter] got thrown under the bus. We’re going to do the same.” So it was always this push and pull of [being] very forward, saying “This is what we’re doing. We’re not going to cheapen you. We’re not going to take words out of your mouth. But we’re also not going to just praise you and write a blank check for trophy hunting.” There are going to be some challenges there.
Shaul Schwarz: Ironically, when Cecil happened and a lot of people got scared, Philip called and said, “You see? It’s really important that we make this movie now.” And we’re like, “Oh, thank God.” [laughs]
You must’ve been pretty deep into filming by that point. Did the level of consciousness being raised around trophy hunting affect how you might’ve ultimately shaped the story?
Shaul Schwarz: The vision was very much kind of in place when Cecil happened. It just made things harder, for the most part. There was one character that we really liked, a lion breeder, that actually trusted us, and she just said, “I can’t do it.” So we had to sub that and for the most part, it was a headache, but we were reinforced by this idea that in general, the way we in the West treat [an issue like this], it’s all emotional and less educated thinking and at the end of the day, this film asks you to put that aside and think. I don’t want you to choose if you’re for or against on any of these issues. I do want you to judge it in a thinking way, so [Cecil] did reinforce [that what we were making was] a very good film and the idea is good. Unfortunately, it made it a little harder to make. [laughs]
Christina Clusiau: And indirectly, a lot of times we referred to [Cecil] as a time stamp in a sense that there is the world before Cecil and the world after and how policy started to shift as a result of this global outrage – that a lot of people that were aiming against trophy hunting really had the power in order to make substantial change that was detrimental. So as we edited the film, we used that as a point to to lead you through, but not so as a direct event.
Shaul Schwarz: We made sure to mention in the film, but keep it pretty small. We didn’t want to use the Trump kids in the movie, because again, our thing is to make everybody talk to each other, rather than create controversy for the sake of creating controversy, so we understood the phenomenon and thought about it, but tried to not use it hands on very heavily.
Another way in which you allow for that conversation to happen is how you treat violence in the film – like “Narco Cultura,” it’s shocking, but limited so you don’t prevent it from overwhelming the substance of the film. Is it difficult to achieve that balance?
Shaul Schwarz: Yeah, there’s a balance and if you completely shy away [from violence] when [depicting] subjects like this, it doesn’t work. You didn’t get in. You didn’t have the access or if you did, why aren’t you showing it? And it’s a very narrow tipping point we had in “Narco” and we had here of when is enough enough and when are you desensitizing a viewer that he stops thinking and stops feeling? In “Narco,” it took a little bit to find that balance, and “Trophy,” it was the same, but what was different — and this sounds strange, but that’s what I feel — is that people are more sensitive to animals dying than to people dying. So in the early edits of “Trophy,” there was a little bit more stuff that hit you harder right off the beginning and it made for a very compelling cinematic start, but we understood that the viewer is just going to get shut out. We’re not going to be able to take them through this journey, and we eventually chose to open with the tradition of a son and father [hunting] and move to the philosophy of putting commercial value on an animal without the more cinematic, hard-hitting, violent [content], which is woven into the film [more] naturally, I’d say.
But our biggest challenge [isn’t that] everybody who sees the film doesn’t walk out and say, “Oh my God, I had to see an elephant die.” They walk out thinking about a subject and hopefully challenge and question stuff. In all honesty, it’s to get people in the seats [in the first place]. And it saddens me because I think all people care about wildlife and we get this all the time – “We love wildlife, and I’m sorry I can’t watch your movie.” What?!?! Because you love it, get your shit together and go through this. We’re not using violence to push it down your throat. We’re using it in a realistic way of what’s happening out there and it matters.
Christina Clusiau: And there was an aim to create some scenes within the film that spoke to the metaphor of these issues [to give space to the reality of the situation]. One was when the elephant was killed, and here was a point where we wanted to make this metaphor about this animal being lifted into the heavens, [so you see] the dust and cleaning it off [after it’s been killed], and it’s as if we wanted to say this animal is being prepared for burial, so you get this sense of that and you can get over the shock of what just happened for a second and you can breathe for a moment. And then we’re going to flip it. We’re going to bring in the villagers that are so joyful and so happy because their relationship to the animal is that it is a piece of meat [and now they will be able to feed themselves]. So there were a lot of transitions [where], without having to continue to show the hardcore violence, [we could] give you the same effect by doing things more simple and cinematic.
Shaul Schwarz: Because we both come from a very visual background, this is not something that was just happening on the fly. This was endless [consideration] of how to create [those spaces]. The elephant’s a great example, but we would generally look at how hunters are very aware of shooting and it could get bloody and messy, but when they want to take their picture, everything’s clean. There’s no blood. They put the camera down [to the ground to take a picture], so the animal looks big. They smile. They make sure that their shirt’s right. And we didn’t want to say that. We wanted to visually, quietly make you understand that. So it’s things like that when you’re the DP and the director you just try and work into a film [visually].
Throughout the camerawork is so fluid and it was just the two of you for much of it – were you working with really light equipment?
Shaul Schwarz: No, the trick is how to stay a small team and [the equipment is] actually very heavy, to some degree. Some of what you’re referring to are moves [we did with] different gimbals we were using to smooth the camera.
Christina Clusiau: They were pretty heavy.
Shaul Schwarz: So our whole challenge was, “Okay, we can bring a room full of toys that will make this look Hollywood-y. But if we bring six people to the shoot and a lot of toys, we’re not going to be able to go hunting or we’re going to break intimacy.” And as filmmakers, what we are looking for is to make very visual, very fluid, almost fiction-looking films without losing that intimacy. The middle ground is hard because if I have two more people, building, carrying and switching cameras like I would on a fiction set, I would be able to do it, but again, it’s going to break that [intimacy].
Christina Clusiau: Yeah, we learned a lot, trying to balance that out – like when’s the point that the beauty of the footage doesn’t really matter? When is it about the moment? And when do you take the time to create the visual language that you want to create? Through this whole process, the biggest thing for us was to keep it a small, intimate team.
Because you cover so much ground physically as well as substantively, is this a case where you’re jumping on a plane at the drop of a hat?
Shaul Shwarz: Our life is generally…
Christina Clusiau: Jumping on planes. [laughs]
Shaul Schwarz: Unfortunately. We’d love to have a dog, but we can’t because we can always leave in two minutes.
Christina Clusiau: There was a lot of [shoots] that were planned. There were a few where it was like literally, “Cristina, you need to go tomorrow.”
Shaul Schwarz: Also, you can go on a safari and you don’t know if the elephant’s going to happen or if it’s going to take three days or 20, so you need some flexibility in that sense. But most subjects that I’m interested in, you’ve just got to put the time in and be flexible because the good stuff happens that way, especially when you’re not doing a talking head film. I could’ve done “Narco” in six months, but it took three years because there were certain things that you can’t plan for, and “Trophy” was the same. It was hard to get that look and that feeling and the intimacy, but we did really spend a lot of time.
What’s it been like traveling with this?
Christina Clusiau: It’s great. Initially, when it first launched at Sundance, we had this feeling like, have we totally missed the mark or is this something that people are going to be enticed by and interested in? It ended up being the latter, and the hardest challenge is to get people in the seats, but once they’re there, it’s always really gratifying to have conversations because every time I’m standing there doing the Q & A, it’s like the questions [remind us], “Wow, this is why this subject is so interesting.”
Shaul Schwarz: And people call us a week or a month after [seeing it]…
Christina Clusiau: And [say], “I’m still thinking about it. I’m still thinking about your film.” It’s pretty amazing.
Shaul Schwarz: Yeah, it really is that. We both trust the film 110% by now and our only thing is [to get people to] come see it because we’ve have cinema chains, we’ve have reviewers – journalists – say “No, I won’t participate. Animals die.” And I’m saying to myself, “Are you crazy? They’re going to die whether you see this movie or not. Care enough to look at the truth.” I’m very proud that we didn’t make an easy, marketable documentary and we made [something where it says] let’s talk about this issue seriously. If you care about wildlife, you need to see it. And that’s our only challenge because when you see it, that’s all we’re asking for — a dialogue — and without seeing it, it’s very hard.