Argenx's "A Mystery to Me: Vanetta" (excerpt from short film documentary series)

Ben Strang

Sarofsky

What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?
My first film was a digital series pilot called Beast that was completed in 2019. We shot the project on a remote island in the Chesapeake Bay and the story followed a teenage boy setting out to figure out what happened to his father after a mysterious disappearance at sea.

How did you get into directing?
When I was a teenager, my parents got me The Matrix Reloaded on DVD for my birthday and when I saw the making-of documentary that showed how they created the car chase where a motorcycle drives backwards through traffic, I was totally and immediately hooked on the magic of filmmaking.

What is your most recent project?
My most recent project is a docuseries called A Mystery to Me about fascinating individuals living with a rare and deeply mysterious disease. The project won a Cannes Lions in 2021 and premiered on Vimeo along with a Vimeo Staff Pick.

What is the best part of being a director?
Being in the field shooting a documentary has always been my favorite part of directing. I’ve never really been a sit behind the monitor type of filmmaker and the process of living and breathing with a subject and experiencing their life through the camera is just an absolute thrill to me--it feels like jazz improvisation whereas scripted filmmaking feels more like classical music to me.

What is the worst part of being a director?
Fundraising.

What is your current career focus: commercials and branded content, television, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre--comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?​
Right now, I’m focused on developing original documentaries and shooting commercials and branded content. Stylistically, I think I’m always developing projects that are centered around a deeply emotional human story that is somehow connected to a landscape or outdoor setting. Ocean sports like sailing and kitesurfing have always been a huge part of my life and so I’m drawn to stories that explore the emotional journeys in peoples lives that compel them to set out to do crazy things in the outdoors or tackle incredible feats. I’m currently developing two docu-series for streaming.

Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates with you?
My long time dear friend and mentor, Tony Frere is just an incredible human, let alone an amazing mentor. We’ve known each other for about 6 years and one thing that I’ve learned from him was not actually something he sat down and told me one day, but more something I’ve just learned from observing him. He’s an incredibly patient and thoughtful guy and our friendship over the years has just taught me how powerful patience and constant background support is for artists. Just him being there, in the arena with me, as I’ve navigated all the challenges of filmmaking is something that has been so powerful in my life and that I try to share with people that I’m mentoring whenever I can.

Who is your favorite director and why?
David Lean. It comes back to relationships with the environment and settings. Lean’s films are so grand in the way they photograph environments and yet they frame those settings through deeply intimate human experiences. That to me is just the pinnacle of great filmmaking.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite television/online program? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
Unsurprisingly, Lawrence of Arabia. For TV, The Wire, and for commercials--that’s hard--but I’ll have to go with the original P&G “Thank You Mom” spot.

Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland and transferred colleges a few times before winding up at USC film school. In school, I was solely focused on directing commercials, and I remember even turned down the opportunity to direct a thesis film in order to shoot a spec my last semester. The commercial class was loosely structured and we just had access to whatever we needed and complete creative control. Over the course of the shoot, we shot scuba work in the pool for one scene and then next we were filming at the Port of L.A. When I graduated, I spent several years directing/editing documentaries and a number of spec works. All that time editing docs was probably the most fundamental part of my education as a filmmaker so far - there’s really nothing that can replace learning to edit and I’m so glad I had that time to explore.

How has the pandemic impacted your career, art, craft, shaped your attitudes and reflections on life which in turn may influence your work, approach, spirit, mindset?
I was super lucky to be in pre-production working with an incredible team on my docuseries, “A Mystery To Me” when the pandemic started. Over the years prior to the pandemic, I had already shot a number of documentaries and docu-style projects but I think I hadn’t really fessed up to the fact that I am just a documentary filmmaker at my core. Right up until the lockdown, I had been focusing a good portion of my time on developing screenplays and still pursuing a career that partially involved writing but when I was basically locked in a room and forced to make a decision about how I wanted to spend my creative time, I realized that I would rather make a documentary in the hardest way possible than write a screenplay. That was pretty sobering. And the whole process helped me reframe all of my goals.

Contact

Sarofsky: Contact EP, Steven Anderson, via email 
Sarofsky Website

Personal Contact:  Contact Ben Strang via email
Personal Website