Behind The Scene — Filmmakers Alex Winter And EJ Enriquez On Relatively Free

Discussing the shoot and premise of Relatively Free, a new documentary on imprisoned journalist Barrett Brown from filmmaker Alex Winter and cinematographer EJ Enriquez
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Just freed from prison, journalist Barrett Brown discussed his situation with filmmaker Alex Winter on a frantic trek to a halfway house for the film Relatively Free
Just freed from prison, journalist Barrett Brown discussed his situation with filmmaker Alex Winter on a frantic trek to a halfway house for the film Relatively Free

Following months of preparation and interview refusals by the Texas penal system, director and actor Alex Winter had only a single car trip to capture the majority of needed footage for a short documentary concentrating on Barrett Brown, a journalist imprisoned thanks largely to a single URL address that he had leaked online.

Ultimately, while most charges were dropped, this led to a 63-month jail term, wherein Brown faced considerable animosity by the prison staff and administration. With Austin cinematographer EJ Enriquez in tow, Winter crammed their gear into an SUV with Brown and his parents on a madcap spree through the desert to a halfway house while discussing Brown’s situation and how indicative it is of the current hostile climate that many members of the press are facing.

Austin cinematographer EJ Enriquez
EJ Enriquez used the Canon C300 Mark II in the car, the team also employed the C100 for additional interviews

Q and A with Filmmakers Alex Winter And EJ Enriquez as they discuss their film, Relatively Free, and Barrett Brown, the film’s elusive subject.

David Alexander Willis:
What a fascinating project. I caught it over the holidays and then I just got to skim it over again right now. EJ (Enriquez), you’ve had a lot of history in short films and also documentary. Then Alex, it seems you’ve been moving from narrative into documentary lately. What is it about the documentary tradition that appeals to the both of you?

Alex Winter:
I started doing docs out of necessity! Because a story I was working on about Napster as a narrative went into turnaround at the studio where I was developing, so I wanted to make it instead. By then I had spent many years researching, and it was fairly easy to convert into a doc, and I really thought the story needed to be told. In making Downloaded, I enjoyed the process so much and also felt strongly that that was a better way to tell the story than any narrative would have been. I’m still doing a lot of narrative work, but it compelled me to really dive into the documentary platform, so that lead to doing more, to doing Deep Web and then the short form stuff like what we just did in Texas.

EJ Enriquez:
I never really was actually interested in documentaries so while I was studying at film school I kind of strayed away from them. Wanting to do the traditional stuff like narratives and storytelling, a director, a good friend of mine, kind of looked at my work and started to sway me. He said, “I think you have a really good eye for character and you can just relate to them. You are also very amenable; I think that’s a very great characteristic to have as a cinematographer for documentaries.”

So I started dabbling in them and it kind of went great. I ended up winning an IDA award (International Documentary Association) under the student category (for My Sister Sarah) and from there I just kind of fell in love with docs because we kind of pursue these stories and actually get to meet people and try and tell their story and whether that’s one way or the other. It’s just a beautiful form of story telling.. It’s both true, and kind of raw.

David Alexander Willis:
EJ I’m so impressed with your camera work. You really build character just with your camera movements. It’s wonderful. How did the two of you meet and start working together?

Alex Winter:
I work with a lot of different DPs, but I often try to find DPs that are local, especially if I’m in an area that has a vibrant film community. Otherwise, you know, if I can’t do that, it’s important that I bring people with me. In this case, before I went with one of the people that I work with all the time, I did an initial search of people in the Austin area that might be good for this. That’s when we came across EJ’s reel via other people within the industry who said his work was really great and we should check him out.

I was really impressed with his reel. There are two people that are absolutely a right and left arm in making a doc work, and on the right is whoever is shooting it, and on your left is your editor. The three of you really make it together. It’s a very collaborative relationship because you are literally crafting story out of found elements. While I go in as a writer with a basic structure, we will be finding a lot of this stuff as we go, so I felt very lucky to find EJ, and definitely intend to exploit him again. (Laughs)

EJ Enriquez:
It was an honor… I love talking with Alex and we had our initial phone call meeting and kind of talked about the project details, getting a vibe for one-another, and it felt great. I was obviously happy to jump on the project.

Brown was so used to prison food that his stomach let out on him during the ride
Brown was so used to prison food that his stomach let out on him after eating during the ride

David Alexander Willis:
Alex, you mentioned that you acted as a writer on this; I had thought that there wasn’t necessarily an agenda. But you do cover a lot of digital journalism stories? Do you have an agenda or are you more trying to explain these situations to yourself?

Alex Winter:
It’s not so much about agenda; it’s about structure. I come from writing classical narratives, and structure is very, very important to crafting stories that have an emotional weight, especially in an arena like technology, and journalism, which can be very dry, or very confusing. I had a very specific structure in my mind. That doesn’t mean that it’s all mapped out, but I certainly had a beginning, middle and an end.

And an idea. That idea was really what I pitched to Barrett and the family. Let’s make a movie about the drive. Let’s not do interviews outside the car. Let’s not do talking heads. Just shoot some B-roll in the car. Let’s make this movie about a guy’s travel from his release from prison to this halfway-house, and try to capture the tension of that, and of course chat along the way in the vehicle itself.

Then, I sort of mapped out from there how I wanted to create context, which was building the intro sequence, that tells us who he is, and I went to San Francisco and shot Trevor Tim, and then we shot Marlo Cadeddu, and I did an interview with Ahmed Ghappour, former legal counsel for Barret. All of that took writing. Docs are deceptive. They actually take a fair amount of writing in order to have any kind of a groundwork to go from.

To me, I have a basic idea, but that’s really more about liberating the DP and the editor by giving them enough structure to work with and also enough freedom to create. I felt like EJ had a lot of latitude to work with in terms of how to shoot the footage that he was getting, and my backside was covered because I knew what the framework is that it is all going to feed into.

Barrett Brown was imprisoned for threatening a police officer, but it was charges of leaking information simply for sharing a URL that led to his arrest
Barrett Brown was imprisoned for threatening a police officer, but it was charges of leaking information simply for sharing a URL that led to his arrest

David Alexander Willis:
What is it about digital journalism in particular that calls to you?

Alex Winter:
Well, I don’t see myself as a journalist. I see myself as a storyteller, and I don’t mean that in a pretentious way. I’m a filmmaker, and I came out of film school, and that’s what I’m trained to do, to tell stories. I’ve spent my whole life studying how to tell them in a cinematic form. I don’t really come at this using journalist practices, which I do respect, but I don’t follow. At least, I don’t adhere to them.

I follow cinematic practices, or story-telling practices, which means I’m not as interested in saying, “Well, now that we’ve got a whole lot of “A”, talking about the A-side, let’s go get a whole lot of “B” talking about B-side of the situation.” I really don’t follow those rules. I feel like the truth is fluid, and it’s very, very subjective. I’m most interested in creating an experience, so as much as I could, I was really interested in creating Barrett’s experience coming out of jail, without judgement, back out into the world.

Also, I love digital distribution. I love the speed at which you can make these things, craft them, get them a lot of attention and then get them out into the world. I’ve done viral shorts and also my docs in that way. These pieces I’ve been doing for CalTech, one of them got three million views, which we did with Paul Rudd and Steven Hawking. It’s the same idea. It’s just, “Let’s make it and let’s just get it out.” That’s a wonderful thing about the world we are in today.

David Alexander Willis:
What was it about Barrett’s situation that made you want to reach out to him?

Alex Winter:
Well, I’ve know about Barrett for many years. He’s very famous in the journalism world. He won the National Magazine Award. He’s very well known as a journalist way before he was arrested for his work in The Guardian and Vanity Fair. I was following his case for years. To me, it’s a very important first amendment case, especially going into the Trump presidency where journalists and the press are under so much threat.

I just thought it was very important to tell his story about how prosecutorial overreach can impact journalists. And it’s not to say that Barrett didn’t do anything wrong! We know what he did wrong, but the length of his sentence was directly attributable to the type of journalism he was practicing, not the threat that he made against the officer. That’s a very important story I think. I felt it needed to be told.

David Alexander Willis:
It’s almost Orwellian what he was arrested for, right? It’s almost like a thought-crime, but then they threw this other stuff at him as charges.

Alex Winter:
Yeah, completely. We are seeing a lot of that at the moment so it’s chilling.

David Alexander Willis:
Then, I’m fascinated at how much trouble he had just as a journalist. I mean there are murderers in there, and then, the prison guards are giving Brown all this poor treatment for doing nothing violent. You mentioned you were turned down frequently for interviews. What were some of the excuses they were throwing at you?

Alex Winter:
They were giving me a different excuse every time. “We don’t do that.” Then I went over there head, to the Washington Bureau, and they said, “Well, of course we do that. It’s the law to let media in.” I went back and they said, “Oh, the timing isn’t right because he’s in the SHU. The SHU people can’t.” That’s basically solitary confinement. It’s the special housing unit that they stick people in usually when they are in trouble. But it was just one excuse after the other.

Then, towards the end, I think eventually they just said they didn’t want to. They just didn’t want to do it. I think I pushed them up against the walls to the point where they said, “Look, we just don’t want to do this, so stop asking.” I realized it wasn’t going to go anywhere from there.

EJ Enriquez used the Canon C300 Mark II in the car, the team also employed the C100 for additional interviews
Austin cinematographer EJ Enriquez

David Alexander Willis:
What do you think the real reasons were?

Alex Winter:
I think it’s evident. I think that this is a guy who won the National Magazine Award while in jail writing about his experience of these people within the prison system that were acting inappropriately. They didn’t want him to have more of a megaphone while he was in the prison. I think they wanted to get him the hell out of there as quickly as possible and they knew that if they kept me away and other “news” away, he wouldn’t be their problem anymore. They’re very mercenary that way. And it’s true! By the time we made our piece about him, he was out of that prison and not their problem.”

David Alexander Willis:
Let’s jump to tech. You did 340 miles in seven hours. How did that even happen without a film crew?

Alex Winter:
We took two very quick breaks, but they were not long. The guys, EJ and Sam (*who was doing audio) were in the car the whole time, we were making it in real time.

David Alexander Willis:
EJ were you worried at all? What were some of your concerns from shooting from a car for seven hours and you had to get everything in that timeframe?

EJ Enriquez:
The circumstances from the get-go had us all talking and trying to plan everything out to a tee, because the fact that they only gave us a short window was surprising, first off. I think, what they were trying to do was strong arm a lot his actions. So trying to make the entire story in such a confined space really had us thinking about, “Okay, where should we place him? Where should we have our different camera angles?”

For most of the shoot, we had one camera body, but with the fact that we were going to be in a car for so long, especially with potential dialogue between his parents and Barrett, we planted a GoPro, as well, to have a simple, easy, two-camera setup to cut between if a dialogue were to occur. It was very difficult to try and think about the shoot, “as a long car ride”, to try and grasp this complex story with limited angles, but maintain fluidity and utilize different shots to show that they are actually traveling and journeying somewhere else.

David Alexander Willis:
What was your lensing and the camera?

EJ Enriquez:
We mainly stuck with the Canon 24-70mm. Our A-camera was the C300 Mark II and we mainly shot 1080 in 12-bit at 444, which is one of my favorite formats, just because you get the full color sampling out of the camera and it just looks great. We had a B-camera, the C100, the mark one. That was mainly just for Marlowe’s interview and the GoPro Hero Five Black for the car mount.

David Alexander Willis:
Then, what was the audio? You guys laved, right, you used lavalieres? What was the audio situation because there was a sound person as well, right?

Alex Winter:
We were moving so laving everything. Parents were laved, I was laved, and obviously Barrett was laved. Then, we had a boom as well. There were times that I was using the Boom for sound and there were times when I’m using the lav. Normally, I shoot a lot of verité, and there’s nothing worse than not getting that one really important moment that you need, so I just think having a lav is really important to make sure you are covered.

David Alexander Willis:
And the peripheral interviews?

Alex Winter:
We lit very naturalistic. Then, I have a pretty specific interview style which I use most of the time if it fits, which is having two cameras off-axis, so the eye lines don’t match, one wide, and one tight. I think that’s what helped sew all of the interview stuff together. Those two interviews are shot the same way. They are shot by different people on different gear (*the C100), but it was very similar.

EJ Enriquez:
I remember in my initial research with watching Alex’s previous stuff, one thing that kind of jumped out at me at first was the crossing of the eye lines in his interviews. I remember making a big note of that, and being like, “Would that a maxim, Alex, did you do that to kind of disrupt the audience?” That’s a great technique that I’ve used before. I loved Alex’s style and that way of shooting kind of gives people a different idea of what they are going to see. Maybe it jumps out at them in a subtly jarring way.

David Alexander Willis:
Alex, you’ve been under these time constraints before, but two weeks turnaround from shoot to release is insane. What’s the system you’ve built for yourself to be able to turn around films like this so quickly?

Alex Winter:
I have a really well-oiled machine for post. We built that over time. I make commercials and all different kinds of stuff, and I’m often using the same editorial team. I have the same producer and production coordinator and I have my gang, but I also use Stitch Editorial and Dan Sweetlick who cut An Inconvenient Truth. He’s a really brilliant, nominated editor. He cut Deep Web.

And I just know their set up really well, so we were able to build a very fluid pipeline for post. The only thing that was tricky was that I had never really worked with Field of Vision before, and I didn’t know their notes process, so I had to allow time to really be prepared to dive back in make adjustments on the fly.

Deep Web was so hair-raisingly immediate, because I was making the doc before the news even came out. Stuff would come out after we shot, or a huge change in a case or a piece of news would happen in the middle of shooting, so we got used to moving really fast and trying to get very high quality work done very quickly. It became a matter of necessity in getting Deep Web done, so we applied that to this. I’m actually working on another short at the moment for Field of Vision.

David Alexander Willis:
How did you become familiar with those guys and what they are doing?

Alex Winter:
Huge respect for Laura Poitras, and I really love Citizenfour (*a film on Edward Snowden). The other two founders at Field of Vision are AJ Schnack, who is a great filmmaker and Charlotte Cook. Charlotte was the the head of a documentary festival in Canada called Hot Docs, which is probably the preeminent documentary film festival. They played both Deep Web and Downloaded there. I’ve gotten to know Charlotte pretty well.

Field of Vision immediately hit my radar because they are doing the kind of work that I love and it’s about hard charged, topical issues. I basically pitched them. I said, “Look, I’ve got access to Barrett. I’m going to go film him anyway, in Texas, and I would really love to do it for you guys.” Thankfully they went for it.

David Alexander Willis:
What does “Relatively Free” mean to you in this case? What does the title represent?

Alex Winter:
It just means that our rights are in question in this day and age. The things that citizens take for granted, the freedoms they take for granted, are up in the air. In some cases, they are already gone, and people don’t even realize it. The thing that I love about Barrett is that he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s very erudite. He’s got a great command of language. Relatively free was pulled out of a line he said to me from prison. He expected to come out from prison a relatively free person. I just loved the nuance of that statement. I think it really speaks to basically everyone in today’s world. Not just America, not just journalists, but everyone, period.

David Alexander Willis:
Alex, I know you have the Frank Zappa documentary coming up. EJ, what are you working on next?

EJ Enriquez:
I’m currently slated to start teaching at a local film school here in Austin, Texas. Some commercial stuff… I would like to back up Alex’s comment about the trio of roles with the director, DP and editor. With documentary work, it is such a sensitive topic, potentially, that you don’t want to interrupt as a camera person at all. The director has often established the foundation of the story during communication with the subjects, or potentially other people, like the government, for example, in this case. The name of the game with documentaries is that things unravel, and things can happen, so be very careful and tread on thin ice. It’s great to know that Dan is such a great editor and could put together everything. It really helps a DP be confident when you have that follow-up footing in a director, and then in an editor as well.

David Alexander Willis:
I’m going to guess he feels the same way about you because your camera work is just masterful, EJ. The subtle nuances really sell character, and you have such little time to do that within a short documentary like this. It’s a tremendous project. Thanks to you both for discussing with me!

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