Brad Pitt and Rachel Boynton Reveal the Backstory of African Oil Doc 'Big Men' (Q&A)
Made over seven years and in partnership with Pitt's production company Plan B, Boynton's film tracks American oil company execs and African politicians as they negotiate a drilling deal that could benefit everyone except the local population.
On Wednesday night, following a Los Angeles screening of Rachel Boynton's documentary Big Men -- an edge-of-your-seat film that offers an unprecedented inside look at how American oil companies and African governments interact when oil is discovered in Africa -- The Hollywood Reporter met up with Boynton and one of the film's executive producers, Brad Pitt, to discuss how the project came together and what they hope people will take away from it.
Boynton spent seven years of her life making the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, screened theatrically last year (unfortunately rendering it ineligible for Oscar consideration this year) and is now playing in select theaters across the nation.
It seems to be the hope of Boynton and Pitt -- whose Plan B production company champions films of social value, such as this year's best picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave -- that Big Men will raise awareness and bring about reforms that will benefit the people of African nations who have heretofore rarely shared in the profits of the discoveries of oil within their borders.
Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Rachel, how did you get onto this subject matter?
BOYNTON: I made a film called Our Brand is Crisis, which I finished in 2005; it premiered in 2006. Then I stared thinking about making a film about oil because oil was on the news every 30 seconds, and the prices were going through the roof and everything that I was seeing about oil was very partisan and very frightened about this crisis. But there was nothing from inside the industry. I’m always very interested in perspectives that I’m not seeing. And I thought, “Well, I can get access to that. I can do that. I was very proud of my first film, but I felt I could do better and I wanted to push myself to do something harder. And I decided that the most difficult thing I could do would be to make a movie about the oil business. And then I decided to do it in Nigeria. And my initial intention was to do it in Nigeria. I did it to prove something to myself as much as anybody. And then, I also did it because, of course, I like to work on films that I feel are emblematic of something fundamental about the way we’re living.
How did you gain the sort of access that you did -- with the oil execs, with the African government officials and with the resistance fighters? That's what everyone came out of this screening asking...
PITT: I asked her that. I asked the same thing -- it’s mystifying.
BOYNTON: I did a PowerPoint presentation -- I mean, that’s the very short answer. I spent about a year pursuing Kosmos [the American oil company], managed to get them to finally return my emails and then, ultimately, went to their office and did a PowerPoint presentation. And they said yes to it.
PITT: And a year and a half in Nigeria before you even started filming!
BOYNTON: Yeah. I went to Lagos for the first time in August of 2006. And then I shot the very first material in 2007, but we really started shooting in earnest in early January 2008. That’s when like, the serious shooting began.
And what do you feel these various parties felt they had to gain from cooperating with you?
BOYNTON: "Movies are good for your reputation." That was the first line of the PowerPoint. I think, you know, they hoped that it would be a good news story about oil. I think they knew that I was sincerely interested in their perspective and interested in listening to them. And I think they felt like they had a story to tell.
Do you think that being a female worked to or against your advantage in those situations?
BOYNTON: I never think of being a woman as a disadvantage. It just wasn’t based on that. You know, I was raised by a single mother, I never had a dad around and I kind of never really thought about it. I just don’t think about it. I do what I want to do.
Were you pretty much out there by yourself?
BOYNTON: It was a two-person crew. I did all the sound and I shot some of it. The great stuff was shot by other people. [laughs] But it was always a two person crew; it wasn’t just me. And I carried all the luggage.
PITT: I will say -- I didn't mean to interrupt you.
BOYNTON: No, no, don’t be silly.
PITT: I just want to say this: I might easier tell you [Rachel] how I feel; I’ll rarely tell you [Scott] how I feel. [Suggesting that men have a greater level of comfort with women than men.]
BOYNTON: Well, I say that, too. I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here. I mean, the truth is, of course it makes a difference that I’m a woman. Of course it does. I don’t think of that, but of course it doesn’t—
PITT: Right. I just think it’s wrong to characterize it in just that way because it minimizes a year and a half of developing those relationships and knowing that you’re in good hands. I mean, for Musselman [an American oil exec prominently featured in the film] to be that open and that kind of candid? I mean, he’s got everything to lose. I mean, starting the film, in most of our minds, he’s going to be the bad guy, you know? But the point is is that to get that kind of trust, as you know, it’s not every day, male or female. So, yes, I agree with you.
Right. And I didn’t mean to—
BOYNTON: No, no, no, everyone asks me that question, and it’s a very understandable question because the movie’s called Big Men, I think there are two women in it and I’m a woman. So, it makes sense, as a question.
So when you put in that kind of time-- You said six years?
BOYNTON: It premiered at Tribeca last year. I went the first time in August of 2006. So however long that period was—
PITT: She filled up two passports.
PITT: And she made two babies.
BOYNTON: That’s true.
Wow. You were certainly busy. Were your kids born there?
BOYNTON: Oh no, they were born in New York. My youngest has a passport. I thought about taking her to Ghana, but I didn’t.
Rachel, how did you first hook up with Plan B? And how important was it to have champions like that to make sure that your efforts of the past six-plus years found an audience?
PITT: I first want to say it’s such a small part of the story. We were very fortunate when Rachel called us, having been a fan of her first one. And the fact that she was taking on this difficult subject matter, we, you know, felt fortunate to ride piggyback on. And it’s complicated material. It’s important material for our time. It speaks to us. And we felt very lucky if we could help, you know, push a door open or something. This is her singular endeavor, six years plus, and it’s no small feat.
BOYNTON: I think having Plan B’s support early on, as I did, was really essential to being taken seriously by a lot of people.
PITT: I don't know. People in the know certainly know that our brand is crisis. So it wouldn’t matter—
BOYNTON: I think you’re selling yourself short, Brad.
PITT: No, no, but when you get into the outer reaches and—
BOYNTON: No offense, but there are people in Nigeria who don’t know who you [Brad] are. So it’s true.
PITT: No, I know that. That’s why we love to go there. [laughs] But if they do, they’ll know, like, Troy or something I’m least proud of. But the things that get there, that have that reach, become a conversational point. Like guy said in the film, “I saw him on TV!”
BOYNTON: Yeah. He [Brad] is trying to sort of push me into the foreground and put himself in the shadow, which I appreciate very much. I appreciate it. I totally appreciate it. It’s very generous of you [Brad]. But I want to be clear about this: having the support of somebody like Brad Pitt on a film like this makes a world of difference, it does make a difference. It makes a difference in terms of being taken seriously. It makes a difference in terms of people wanting to be involved in the project. Does it give me access to things? Absolutely not, but it does help me get the film made, and I’m incredibly grateful for their support.
PITT: And I want to be clear and say that it was just a pleasure getting the call. It was no sweat. I did very, very little, as far as actual work -- in fact, nothing -- and it was all Rachel’s heart and sort of tenacity to get the film done.
But it fits the Plan B model, right?
PITT: Yes. What I do feel very fortunate about and what I’m very proud of at this point is being able to sit in and see where you can help nudge complicated, complex, worthy material. I loved the story. I thought the story was worth telling. And if Rachel calls again, it’d be a pleasure to do something again.
If you guys could have it your way, what would you like the impact of this movie to be? What would people leave it thinking or doing differently?
PITT: Well, I mean, there’s multiple stories going on here. There’s the oil industry itself. There’s our understanding of the development of the third world nation. And there’s a bigger human story at play here, and, you know, the guy says it: “We need to be more focused on what unites us than what divides us.” That gives me chills. Like, that’s the summation of everything. That’s 12 Years a Slave. That’s it. And that message, it just, it’s the biggest thing we need to get across. I’m going to go on further. I’ll start to go on a bit of a rant here about responsible capitalism, about, you know-- Now, I’m really breaking out. The film also, you know, presents this idea in what I call, for lack of a better term, responsible capitalism, where everyone can be a winner; it doesn’t have to be just, "How do I put in the smallest and make the biggest gains?" Everyone can be responsible for each other. Everyone can live better. And that’s where I want to see capitalism go.
BOYNTON: Well, the problem comes when we start thinking about maximum profit, which is really one of the questions I’m asking in the film. And this notion of maximum profits. It’s not about profits. It is a question about what’s fair.
PITT: Yeah, the question of fairness. Can there be such a thing as fair distribution and profit?
BOYNTON: It depends on what we value. I mean, for me, I have to say, going to Nigeria and spending the time I did there really changed the way I see things. When you see people living without drinking water-- I mean, they don’t have water. And it’s very hard to understand what that means, but think about that for a second. You can’t brush your teeth without the risk of getting some disease that might kill you. Like, it’s a problem. And it’s a problem that causes people to die young, that causes people to not live. No one should be living that way. It sounds like it’s unrelated, but it’s not unrelated. To me, it is a film about capitalism, and it’s not a film that’s calling one set of people good and one set of people bad, but it is looking at the fundamental conflicts in the way things work today. I’m not really an advocacy filmmaker. Do you know who Marcel Ophuls is?
OK. Well, I’m a big fan of his. The Sorrow and the Pity, that’s his best film. The reason I’m a fan of his is because what he did -- what he does in all of his films, which is really rare -- is he manages to ask these questions that are very fundamental to how people are living in the moment. So, he makes these movies, and then you watch them, like, 40 years later and you’re like, “Oh, my God, these films are amazing. They’re like these treasure boxes that preserved a way of thinking.” And that was how I was approaching this film. I was trying to look at something that I think is fundamental about the way we live now and to preserve it. I wanted the film to get at that. I want people to watch it in 50 years time and say, “Oh, my God. That was how we were living.” And I hope it will make people think, now, about how we might change it.