Ben was raised in California, but for more than 20 years has made his home in Nashville, TN, a place he describes as a "big, small town, where people are very friendly." His first major film was The Second Chance, with Steve Taylor, and Ben served as Associate Producer, Writer, and Cinematographer. Kabul 24, about the kidnapping of Western aid workers by the Taliban, is Ben's second film. (Ben and Steve are also working with author Donald Miller to produce Blue Like Jazz, based on the bestselling book)
From the moment we began talking, I felt an immediate affinity for Ben Pearson. Besides being a good filmmaker, he's a good sport. We talked on a day filled with phone interviews for him, so when he asked me where he was calling, I told him the first thing that popped into my head: a radio station in the Marianas Islands. (the South Pacific)
The Documentary Process
Make Documentaries to Make a Difference
Nothing Like a Good Story Told Well
Ben: The Second Chance was our first film, and we learned a lot with it.
That film came out about three years before Kabul 24, and those two films are pretty far apart in terms of subject matter and genre. How did you go from the one to the other?
Ben: We were in the midst of writing The Second Chance, in November of 2002, when I was approached by Dr. Stephen Mansfield, a friend of mine who's an author. He said, "Hey Ben, you remember the story of the Western aid workers who were captured last year before 9/11?" I remember the two American girls, but there were also four Germans and two Australians.
He started telling me the specifics of this story and what happened, and after about 10 minutes, my jaw was on the floor. He said they had been approached by various companies from Hollywood to tell their story, but they weren't very comfortable with what they were hearing about what people wanted to do with their story. He asked if I was willing to meet with them because he told them they could trust me.
So that November, Steve Taylor, who's an associate producer on Kabul 24, and I met with them. They felt really good about it, and we started off thinking we'd do a dramatic treatment of the story, kind of like Black Hawk Down, and they still said, "We just feel better with a documentary."
I started working on this film while we finished up writing The Second Chance. The people who funded The Second Chance were interested in funding this one, and two weeks before we started principal photography on The Second Chance, they informed me they couldn't follow through with funding on Kabul 24.
Of course, I had already gone to Kabul and did that thing you're not supposed to do with credit cards, so it was quite an interesting time for me. But it all worked out, because during the shooting of The Second Chance, Michael W. Smith, who's a dear friend of mine, said, "Hey bro, I heard you lost funding on the doc." What's funny about that is when I first got the story translated from German into English (the Germans had written a little book about their experience), called Escape from Kabul, is that Michael and I had just finished shooting This Is Your Time. We had always talked about doing a full-length project together.
Michael had just formed a small production company called Seaborne Pictures (C2 videos), and he told me after we finished The Second Chance he wanted to see what we had and talk about it. We did. He saw the teaser trailer I had made to try to raise funds, and called me back after the weekend. He said, "Hey man, let's make history." That's how it all kind of came about.
It was one of those docs too that was fairly small budget but was one of those stories I knew you couldn't just kick it out the door within in a year. I staggered the interviews. I went to Kabul in August-September of 2003 and got the German interviews, some B-roll, and a lot of the Muslim employees who were also taken hostage.
I talked with the two American girls about a year and a half after that, then talked with the Australian girls last. I had two pages of single-line questions so I could get their input on every aspect of the story. It's not your typical A&E documentary because it was kind of slow going over time.
At times, I questioned it, and people would ask me if the story wasn't dead because it had been so long. My response was that I don't know if the prisoner archetype will ever be a dead story for any of us because we all kind of identify that.
So here we are, six years later, and it's finally dropped. It's crazy because it seems Afghanistan is almost more in the news now that it was then. It's a little surreal.
I think it's a very current story, and any time people make it out alive, that's refreshing.
The documentary process is fascinating because it's somewhat backward of the feature film. With a feature film, you plan out the story and shooting schedule ahead of time. With a documentary, you're kind of discovering the story as you go along.
Ben: Unless you're A&E, then you hire a bunch of writers and throw a bunch of money at it. Steve Taylor, who's been a great encouragement through all of this, would tell me more than once, "Buddy, what you're doing with Kabul 24 is a lot harder than what we did with The Second Chance."
I kind of felt like I was in prison for six years, because a lot of the time I felt like I was really on to something, then I'd wonder if I was getting anywhere, and maybe was being tricked by God. I wondered if it was ever going to get done!
But as I did it, each interview would provide a new twist, and then I'd find another tributary to chase. Then it would come back to the main story – it was amazing.
So you're really playing detective as you conduct these interviews. When you think about your completed project compared to what you thought you might find as you began it, how different is the finished film from what you first imagined?
Ben: Truth is stranger than fiction in a bigger way. I thought I had a pretty exciting but pretty straight up story. The nuances started to become the major things. Under the repressive regime of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, humanity was starting to bubble to the surface because of the injustice that was being done to these people.
You had the former prosecutor for the Taliban who had been forced into service for them switching coats and providing information for the U.S. military. He told them where not to bomb because that's where Western hostages were being held. You have Muslim jailers passing notes between the women and men so they can communicate with one another. They realized it was totally wrong and not what their religion was supposed to be about.
I knew people had helped because they saw the injustice done to these Western aid workers, but I didn't know the extent of it. Under this oppressive regime, Muslims were actually risking their lives to help these Christians because of the incredible injustice being done. Even the Muslim lawyer stepped up and proved that these Westerners were totally innocent and that they couldn't be put to death.
So really your story grew beyond the aid workers to the Muslims in Afghanistan who provided aid when they saw injustice.
Ben: It's one of those things that you think is going to be very black and white and turns out to have way more nuances than you could have imagined. You do documentaries, someone once said, to make a difference, and I'm hoping there will be a perceived difference when people watch this.
Maybe it will be that they have less of a knee-jerk reaction and will appreciate that so much more goes on behind the scenes (in countries suffering under a regime).
Were there other projects you were working on during this time?
Ben: I've been co-writing the screen adaptation of Blue Like Jazz with Donald Miller and Steve Taylor. We are just waiting for funding to come through. We'll probably shoot it with the classic indie budget, and are hoping to do it later this year.
That would be pretty challenging, because it's a collection of essays.
Ben: Essentially, yes. His later book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, has a subplot of us coming to Portland and asking Don for his permission to make a movie from Blue Like Jazz, and him asking how we're going to do that.
After we started working on it, he wrote that we told him his life was basically boring. We didn't tell him that, but there were certain things we needed to write into the script that couldn't follow the reality of his life.
He liked our story points better, and it made him think if you're unhappy with your life, why not be a part of changing your story? What story do you want to emulate, to inspire you, and what do you need to do to bring that about? So he wrote that into his book. It's very weird to read about yourself as a character in someone's book.
Anyway, we had to put a structure around the character, so in our screenplay, Don makes the decision to go to Reed College and actually finish his college education there. It's a coming of age story, and he's working through his faith while there. He meets Penny, who he runs from, but her character introduces him to Christianity in a new and challenging way.
So in the screenplay he has more of a romantic interest in Penny than in the book. I think it will be a lot of fun, and I hope we find the funds to do the film.
I think it's interesting that you do both documentaries and feature films. Most filmmakers I've met tend to do one or the other.
Ben: My philosophy is kind of like what Robert McKee says: "There's nothing like a good story well told." It comes down to story. Everything for me revolves around story.
I love great cinematography and the way things are puzzled together in edit. But if there's not a great story, then it's all meaningless to me. So it doesn't matter if it's a doc or a total fantasy, as long as it's a good story. Plus I feel a certain calling in the things I do.
I was telling my wife Elaine recently, "Either I see a little mailbox money from this [Kabul 24], or I just tithed six years to the forces of good in this world."
I was part of a discussion recently about story, and one of the people I was talking with wondered if there are any new stories, or do we keep hearing the same stories with different twists, different tributaries?
Ben: Aristotle embraced the 14 points of drama, and I kind of agree. There are distinct genres, but those dramatic storypoints need to be there for people to leave feeling satisfied and changed from what they were when they came.
Robert McKee talks about what he calls the moviegoer's prayer: "Oh Lord, please let it be good and not suck." We want to go down that road. We want to be around the campfire and be satisfied at the end of the night. But I don't know if there can really be any brand new stories.
How were you changed by telling this story, and how do you hope others are changed after seeing it?
Ben: Personally, I was changed in the sense that I have been guilty of over-categorizing and stereotyping different groups. I was kind of plowed up by meeting the Afghan workers for Shelter Now and how much they love Georg Taubman, the German director of the organization. One of the workers said, "I'd lay my life down for him," and the worker is a devout Muslim. They had incredible friendships that blew me out of the water.
As a Westerner, you're looking at this thinking, "Surely it can't be this deep," but after a month, I realized it is. They have worked together side by side to help the widows and orphans and poor in Afghanistan. That really plowed me up in a new way.
I hope people would look at this and say, "Instead of rushing to judgment, I'm going to take a deep breath and not let the media tell me what to think." I hope they're plowed up.
That's a very scriptural perspective. When ground is plowed up, it's more fruitful and increases the yield.