Doug Menuez has often said that what guides his work is the desire for his documentary projects to have a positive impact on the world. There has never been a better time for the world to hear messages of positivity and calm, delivered by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine Monk speaking with grace and wisdom. In a short film that he directed for A Network for Grateful Living, Doug captured Brother David’s essence in this film project called Blessings. We couldn’t wait to share more about it with you. Here is our conversation with Doug.
Brother David Steindl-Rast is a 93-year-old Benedictine monk, bestselling author, TED speaker (7 million saw his talk), interfaith scholar, and is recognized worldwide as a leader of the gratefulness movement. Tell us about your emotional journey as a result of working with him.
Ha! Well, it was interesting because there’s a lot of cross-currents and conflicts in my life around religion and faith. I would say I’m a spiritual person, especially as I’ve gotten older, but not religious. I believe more and more that there is some higher power we can’t explain. I also have had bad experiences personally with organized religion, so I have avoided participating in that. And yet I’ve always been very interested in cultures, and part of every culture is usually some religious belief system. In my work, I’m very interested in how others experience faith, and I am respectful of their beliefs. I’ve documented some destructive cults with extremely manipulative leaders, so I also bring a healthy skepticism to encounters with famous religious figures.
We love to see when an artist such as yourself, partners with organizations that share the same values as you. How did you connect with A Network for Grateful Living (ANGL)? Were you a member of their network before directing films for them?
I was not a member and first heard about them from ANGL board member Pear Urushima, a former marketing executive at Apple. We worked together on some shoots for Apple and she recommended me for this project. They were pretty far down the road with another production company, but the board decided I had the right approach and background and switched to my team. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to document some truly astonishing human beings – rare people whose deeds and words have powerfully influenced our world. So I was deeply honored to be given the opportunity and trust to direct this short. This is the first of two films we did to be released.
When you think about Benedictine Monks, you think about traditional, conservative Catholicism and the history of the Catholic Church and it’s powerful ritualized structure. So I was happily surprised to meet this open-minded, incredibly humble, charming, and sharply funny man who made me and everyone who met him that day feel that he had some extra special energy. What you saw was what you got, and yet what you got was a truly extraordinary human being.
He was so comfortable as himself and so generous with his attention and utterly focused on sharing his wisdom about life. Drawn to Zen Buddhism myself, I learned that Brother David had spent considerable time, with the Pope’s permission, studying Zen Buddhism himself. I felt Zen influences in his thinking. In the end, it was very moving for me to meet and hear him speak, and all of us, even my pretty jaded crew were deeply touched. After all, this is a man whose teachings have helped millions to navigate the uncertainty and suffering bound up with being alive.
Blessings is a film with Brother David reading verses from his bestselling book. Talk to us about how you went about creating a visual metaphor for the poetry in Blessings?
I intended to amplify his blessings with imagery that could evoke archetypal themes. So for each invocation, I tried to create visual metaphors for these themes. For example, with his blessing about change, I thought of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s quote: “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” Essentially change is constant in our lives. Water, too, is in continuous motion, so it was a perfect symbol for his blessing about change. At times I got more directly illustrative, or less so, but mostly just tried to keep the imagery as poetic and lyrical as his words.
To me, this piece takes you out of your mood, giving you a break, to reframe, and reboot your day. I can’t underestimate the importance of the score we commissioned by Peter Wetzler, which is so spare and haunting in achieving that.
Any challenges to share?
Everything about this was challenging except directing Brother David. He’s like a show biz super pro at this point. Luckily, I had a terrific, veteran Film Editor in Chad Smith. Our Executive Producer, Pear Urushima, was crucial in shaping the edit as well. Our Producer, Jonathan Burhart, put together a killer crew that went above and beyond. It’s always a challenge in the creative process to meet the expectations of the client, but in this case, we had the most incredible collaboration with gratefulness.org. I would say the key to partnership is always about trust – both sides have to take risks and have faith – and we had that in abundance on this project.
You had the chance to get to know Brother David, how did you ensure you infused his personality into Blessings?
That was not hard because his voice is so uniquely his that if you know him, you will recognize him immediately. If you don’t know him, I expect you will lean in and pay attention because he is so compelling, hypnotic, and quite comforting. Brother David is so creative in the way he gets you to think about the blessings he presents. He’s asking us to be grateful for unexpected ideas such as “imprecision” and “all that is vague, close but not quite, all that leaves room for the more specific, the more precise, and with room for imagination…” These quotes are brief examples of what is just beautiful poetry. The man is an artist.
When we spoke, you shared that you have a spiritual connection with Brother David. Can you share what that is?
After we finished filming an interview for a different film we are working on with him, he was talking about death and how it can make us feel more alive. I agreed with that. And I told him that I have a different philosophy about death than most people, in that when someone close to me dies, I never feel it’s a permanent thing. I can’t explain it exactly. I’m sad, but I don’t despair because in my heart I’m convinced I’m going to see them again down the line – Later at the bar or something. It’s like these people are on an extended journey. He looked me in the eye and said he feels exactly the same way. I was completely blown away by that.
Tell us about the next project you have in store with Brother David. Can you give a brief statement about what to expect?
We are working on a project for gratefulness.org that includes a significant, in-depth interview with Brother David. I expect it will be released later this year. That’s really all I can say other than I can’t wait to share that one. We have a few other projects we are discussing, but nothing is concrete yet.
Fingers crossed we get through this terrible pandemic and back to work soon.
To find out more about Brother David and the gratefulness movement, visit gratefulness.org.
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