Big Trouble in Big Oil: An Interview with ‘Big Men’ Director Rachel Boynton

Both uniquely time-appropriate and timeless, director Rachel Boynton gives the viewer access to worlds rarely seen on screen.

Upon the discovery of the Jubilee oil field in the year 2007, just off the coast of Ghana, it was believed that the country would enter a period of economic rejuvenation… on the other side chances were that the country could also fall into an abyss of corruption and greed, which had happened to the neighboring Nigeria. Fascinated with the unexplored world of the oil business, filmmaker Rachel Boynton set out to make Big Men, an immersive non-fiction account that goes deep into a universe in which the actions of a few men in Texas, can alter the course of entire societies across the Atlantic.

Already being compared to such classics as There Will Be Blood and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for its unique dissection of greed and power, Big Men is one of those rare films that’s both uniquely time appropriate and timeless. Boynton worked on the film for more than six years (she took seven trips to Nigeria before even starting to shoot!) and got Brad Pitt to sign up as executive producer (she has explained “he read the pitch and liked it”).

We talked to Boynton on the eve of the film’s release in New York at the IFC Center (the film will continue to expand in the coming weeks). She explained how she came up with the visual style, how she gained access inside oil company Kosmos and her take on why even outlaws want to be in the movies.

You worked on this project for seven years, time during which many events you couldn’t have predicted unfolded, like the recession for example, so what kind of movie did you set out to do originally?

I finished my last film in 2005, when it premiered in the festival circuit I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. At the time, the price of oil was in the news constantly, everyone was talking about oil, but no one had made a film from inside the industry. I got married in 2006, people were liking my film…so I was at a point in my personal life where I decided I wanted to do something crazy, that was the initial idea. So I thought about what would be the hardest thing I could do and it turned out the hardest thing I could think of was to make a film about an oil company in West Africa. Research showed that West Africa was a new frontier in oil. I learned about these people who were bruning pipes, kidnapping and doing more things in order to obtain oil. So, I bought a ticket to Africa. The original concept was to get there and get access to American corporations in Africa.

Did you at any point think of quitting the project?

Never. I don’t know what possessed me but I knew doing this film was possible. I never thought about quitting, I felt depressed about how long it was taking but never wanted to quit it. We obviously had some problems, one day for example our camera broke down in the middle of nowhere, we needed to come up with a camera in the middle of Ghana! There were also problems getting money to finish the film. Getting the initial money wasn’t difficult, but then the stock market crashed, the world was short on cash. I also worried about getting arrested and deported, because it had happened to other filmmakers. So yeah, those things caused stress…

Why were the people of Kosmos so willing to allow cameras inside their corporation to chronicle this story?

I liked them and they liked me. I did a presentation for them and one of the points was “movies are good for your reputation”. They had a lot to be proud of, they were good at finding oil and contrary to what many believe, finding oil isn’t easy. In the late 90s they became known as guys who came places and found oil. Then they went and discovered the Jubilee, off the coast of Ghana, which was just this massive discovery for the country. The people at Kosmos felt like there was a potential “good news” story to be told. They were hoping we could tell a good story. As a filmmaker I’m not trying to make people look bad, or paint them in a negative way, I’m there to listen, to try and understand their world. I will ask hard questions, but I’ll listen.

Something struck me as quite peculiar during the sequence where you interview members of the The Deadly Underdogs in Nigeria and it is that they seem thrilled about the idea of being in a movie. Several recent documentaries (like The Act of Killing and Narco Cultura for example) have been showing that these people living outside the law, are fascinated by the concept of being in the movies or in the media. I would assume that if you’re acting against the law, the last thing you want is for people to recognize you. Can you comment on this?

A lot of people can get excited about being in a movie! Besides I think everyone who wants to be in a film wants to be recognized, why be in a film unless you want people to listen to you? They do want to be seen and to tell their story. If a filmmaker tells them “I’ll listen to what you have to say”, it’s a gift, an opportunity for them to reveal who they are. The guy in the movie who says he wants people in the streets to recognize him actually passed away. This has not been verified, it was just something that was told to me, it could not be true. That makes me sad, but there’s also something about the fact that he’s in the film, that lasts. Not a lot of people have that opportunity.

Can you discuss about your process working with cinematographer Jonathan Furmanski? Did you establish specific ways in which you wanted to shoot? I’m thinking specifically about that opening shot with the insects in particular, which pretty much sums up the essence of the film.

Working with your cinematographer is very personal and fortunately John is great. The process of starting together was we decided what camera to use, what kind of style we wanted to use. We watched movies, to be able to go “hey I want that shot to look like this and that movie”. I think cinematographers like like working with someone with a set vision, because then it’s a completely collaborative process. That image you mention is funny, he shot it, I didn’t tell him to shoot it and after I saw it I said to him I’m going to need that. I love that shot, when he saw it was the shot I used to open the film he laughed.

What movies did you guys watch?

We wanted to see films that would allow us to think cinematically. We looked at lots of different things, I can’t remember which ones…it was mostly docs and a few feature references. I remember watching a Werner Herzog film and how it had the notion of the size of the image and the scale of what we wanted to capture. We wanted the images to be big, so we asked ourselves how are we going to go about having these big images, images where you feel the size of the endeavor.

What about the editing process? You must’ve had hours of footage, was it easy to find exactly what you wanted in the film?

I didn’t come back with as much as footage as you might think, but after a certain point I also really knew what I was going after. The edit took a long time including a few months by myself figuring out the basic structure. The biggest challenge was how to make Ghana and Nigeria feel connected…but then the editor came on and saved me (laughs).

One of the most surprising things in the film is realizing that indeed we live in a very small world and that the actions of a group of people in Texas can have life changing repercussions for people thousands of miles away and, like the film suggests, everything is moved by money. Did any of your own perceptions change while you were making the film?

The way these people are connected is interesting, because yes, they are all connected in small and big ways. how small actions have larger repercussions. I always had this attitude that everyone was connected to everyone else. In Nigeria for instance I discovered people were extremely connected. I got access to the militants because I befriended a politician who had access to them. There were connections we might be surprised by but made sense there within the context.

Watching the film you also realize that none of these people are heroes and villains in a conventional sense. All of them seem to think they’re doing the right thing, which somehow makes the ending all the more frustrating. How were you able to prevent yourself from passing judgment on these people?

The film is very unsettling, it’s asking unsettling questions. But it’s also an exciting ride because you get into these rooms and eavesdrop and ask big questions, some of which I don’t have the answer to…like the nature of greed, what inspires the human heart…

Your previous film Our Brand is Crisis is being developed as a fiction remake with George Clooney attached. Are you involved in this process as well?

No, they take the movie and do their own thing.

What are you working on now?

A few things, I’m not exactly sure which one I’ll do first but I promise they will take a lot less time. One of the things is idea of making a film about my husband (filmmaker Steven Shainberg) making a film, something more intimate, basically about love.

With the film about to be released commercially, what kind of audiences do you think should go watch it?

Everyone should watch the film! It’s a very cinematic documentary and a very exciting ride. I think the secret pleasure of the film is eavesdropping but it also asks philosophical questions and establishes connections between people. Anyone willing to go into a movie and really pay attention, to really engage with what they’re watching, is the right audience for this film.

Big Men opens in limited on March 14.