Running to the Noise, Episode 6

The Fearlessness and Faith of Documentary Filmmaking with Shane Boris

Cover art of Running to the Noise featuring Shane Boris

Producer Shane Boris didn’t set out to make Oscar-worthy documentaries. He wanted to tell stories that moved him and helped people make sense of the world. And maybe even inspire them to change it for the better.

Soon after graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory with a degree in politics, a chance encounter on an airplane—all thanks to a sandwich—changed the trajectory of his life. Boris has built a successful career in filmmaking that has resulted in multiple Oscar nominations, including two in 2023 for the documentaries Fire of Love and Navalny. The latter—about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s fiercest critic and the country’s best hope for a democratic future—took home the award for Best Documentary. 

His films have premiered at festivals like Sundance and Venice, screened with museums including The Louvre and MOMA, received honors such as BAFTA and Peabody Awards, and were commissioned or acquired by distributors such as National Geographic, Netflix, HBO, and CNN. Recent films include: Hollywoodgate, King Coal, Stray, The Edge of Democracy, The Seer and the Unseen, and All These Sleepless Nights

In anticipation of the 2024 Academy Awards, Host and Oberlin College and Conservatory President Carmen Twillie Ambar invited Shane Boris to join her for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Navalny and Fire of Love and to talk about the importance of making political films like Navalny—a model for how to resist authoritarianism everywhere, including in our our country. 

The episode was recorded a week before the world learned Alexei Navalny had died in a remote Russian prison colony in the Arctic Circle at age 47.

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[00:00:00] Carmen: I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don't shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.

We recorded the episode you're about to hear a week before the world learned that Alexei Navalny, the charismatic and consequential Russian opposition leader, had died in a remote prison colony in the Arctic Circle at age 47. While his cause of death remains unknown, Navalny's pro-democracy allies, his friends and family, blame Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent who has ruled Russia for more than two decades. As President Joe Biden said, make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death.

I became captivated by the Navalny story when I was preparing for an interview with Shane Boris, an Oberlin graduate from 2004, and the producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Navalny. Shane's film brought us closer to Navalny, showing us the husband and father behind the freedom fighter, in a way that no news story ever could. When I learned of his passing, I thought of Navalny's daughter, Dasha, a student now at Stanford University, about the same age as the Oberlin students I see every day. As my team and I began processing Navalny's death, we couldn't help but return to Navalny's admonishment at the end of the film, when he is asked what message he would have for the Russian people, should he die. Speaking in animated Russian, Navalny said, “Listen, I've got something very obvious to tell you. You're not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

Shane Boris knows a good story when he sees it, even if it means tearing up the screenplay for the movie that he planned. While scouting the location in an Alzheimer's disease care unit in Danville, California for a fictional film about the disorder, Boris and his team were greeted at the door by a spry woman in a baby blue jogging suit. She presented herself as a staff member and started giving the visitors a tour. Soon, their friendly guide began to repeat herself and say things that didn't quite make sense. She wasn't a nurse on the unit, but a resident. And Boris knew that they had to make a movie about her. She was way more interesting than the script that they had created.

You're Looking At Me Like I Live Here and I Don't, the first documentary ever filmed exclusively in an Alzheimer's care unit, follows the daily routines of Lee Gorewitz, presenting “an unflinching view of a wandering mind,” as one admiring review put it in 2012. The experience taught Boris that the line between documentary and fiction is blurrier than he thought. The story and the best way to tell it—that's what counts.

More critically acclaimed projects followed that first documentary feature, including Elizabeth Lo's Stray, a film that tracks a trio of real-life canine outcasts through the streets of Istanbul, and Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy, a look at the events leading up to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's populist president, known as the Trump of the Tropics, the film the New York Times dubbed the scariest movie of the year, also earned Boris his first Oscar nomination in 2020.

He returned to the Oscar ceremony last year as a producer of two of the five movies nominated in the documentary category, Fire of Love and Navalny. The twin nods made Boris only the second person ever to receive two documentary nominations in the same year. The other filmmaker was Walt Disney in 1943.

Boris was making a completely different film when his crew received a tip about who may have poisoned Alexei Navalny, the larger-than-life Russian opposition leader and Vladimir Putin's most potent critic. So, they scrapped their plans and made Navalny.

And the gamble paid off. The thrilling saga of courage and corruption won an Oscar for Best Documentary Film in 2023. So, it's Oscar time again, folks, the perfect opportunity to talk to Shane Boris about the fearlessness and faith required to produce films that matter.

Welcome, Shane, to Running to the Noise.

[00:05:00] Shane: Thanks so much for having me. It's an honor.

[00:05:03] Carmen: We're so glad you're here. So, it's been 20 years since you graduated from Oberlin. Does it feel that way?

[00:05:09] Shane: No, absolutely not. I talk to someone from Oberlin basically every day of my life. So, I feel like I'm still there quite often.

[00:05:16] Carmen: You are, to me, the quintessential graduate of Oberlin, right? Because when you think about what a politics major might end up doing, I don't know if the first top 10 things you would say would be producing documentary films. I mean, maybe you would get there, but I'm not sure that's the first thing you would think about.

So, tell us a little bit about your path, kind of, how you went from freshly minted Obie graduate of Oberlin College, “I have my politics degree,” to producing these incredible films.

[00:05:44] Shane: Sure, yeah. I think I took a very circuitous path that followed the flow of what was happening with and to me. Right after Oberlin, I took a year off. I spent some time… I worked in Alaska for an indigenous, like, cultural and language preservation organization. And then I went to London to learn Hindi because I was going to grad school in India. And on my flight to India, the flight got canceled. And the ticket agent was looking completely beleaguered and despondent. And I bought him a sandwich, just as, sort of, just, like, it's going to be okay. And then when I went to get my ticket, I was 23 at the time, you know, when I went to get my ticket, he gave me a business class seat.

[00:06:26] Carmen: Wow.

[00:06:26] Shane: And then the person sitting next to me was a producer from Hollywood on his way to India to make a film.

[00:06:32] Carmen: Oh, my God.

[00:06:33] Shane: Yeah, it was a really serendipitous encounter. His name is Andy Spaulding. And he just showed me the script that he was going to make. We just got to talking. And he fell asleep. We woke up in Frankfurt on our layover, and I just told him what I thought. And he said just there in the airport that I should come, shadow him on set in Tamil Nadu in southern India. So, I went to New Delhi where my university was. I registered for classes, and then I took another flight down to the south to be with him for a week. And that was my first exposure to film.

[00:07:04] Carmen: Oh, my God, that is one of the most incredible stories I've ever heard, because I think one of the things that's so powerful about it is about, you know, life sometimes meets you, but you have to be willing to go and meet it. And in that moment, you were willing to go and meet it. You said you read the script and he woke up and you gave him up your perspective. What did you say to him?

[00:07:31] Shane: Good question. What did I say? I don't remember, to be totally honest. Let me, let me think.

[00:07:39] Carmen: It changed the trajectory of your life. What were these compelling words that you said to this person?

[00:07:48] Shane: Wow. Nobody's ever asked me that, actually. What I can honestly remember is that I know that, for most producers and for most people, when they share their work, it's hard to get honest, honest feedback that's not trying to make something into something it's not.

[00:08:03] Carmen: Mm-hmm, yeah.

[00:08:04] Shane: I can imagine that what happened was I really tried to read the script, understand what it was and what it was going for, and communicate my appreciation for that and some ideas of how it could be thought of in a different way and portrayed in a new light.

[00:08:20] Carmen: Right. Because you weren't trying to accomplish any career thing when you were having that conversation. You weren't making those comments with an end in mind.

[00:08:29] Shane: Exactly. I think there's a real power in not wanting things from everybody that you encounter, wanting something that improves your situation, your station in life, and rather the very difficult task of just loving everyone and telling the truth, and doing both of those things at all times and trying to make the encounter beautiful and meaningful and true for what it is.

[00:08:53] Carmen: Yeah, and it led to... I mean, it wasn't the only thing on your path, but it certainly is an important part of why you've ended up where you are—that moment, those few moments that were not planned, not structured, not designed, not even hoped for, but just happened. I love it.

[00:09:13] Shane: That's right.

[00:09:14] Carmen: So, let's go back a little bit to folks who may be not necessarily, kind of, industry people and don't necessarily understand what producers do, but people will look at your work and see you've produced many films and you've done this work for a while. Describe to our students or folks who don't know, like, what do you do as a producer? What's the work of it?

[00:09:35] Shane: Yeah, I think producer means a lot of different things. So, it's a very understandable uncertainty. I think of it, sort of, my taxonomy is that there are three parts to producing. There's, sort of, the executive function, which is you're raising money. You're liaising with the industry. You're doing strategic assessments of the market. You're, sort of, figuring out who's going to help you with sales, who's going to help you with publicity. That's one.

And then there's, sort of, the hands-on or logistical side of producing, which is the chief of staff role, where you're managing the budget, you're hiring the crew, you're making sure that just everything is on time and the creative is in coordination with the financial.

And then there's the, sort of, creative producing side of it, too, which is helping the director and the rest of the creative team understand the vision and figure out how to translate that vision into the practicality of getting the movie made. And that can take many forms. That can be sitting in the edit room and being someone that's not there every day so that you have a bigger picture and can help remind the team what it is that we set out to do and are hoping to accomplish. Or, it can be just looking at the script, the cinematography, and being a point person that can help coordinate and creatively assess and understand all of that.

And then there's the fourth, sort of, extra credit function, which, which is something that's really important to me, which is also being there to help the team remain true to its, sort of, ethical and, oftentimes, spiritual principles and being someone that can just reflect back the highest expectations we have on ourselves and making sure that we're living up to that at all times.

And I think, at its best, producing is a combination of all of these things. And it's also a coordination between multiple producers. I think any one of those tasks is a full-time job. And so, I feel really lucky to work with other extraordinary producers that we can balance each other out in the concentrations of those tasks.

[00:11:34] Carmen: Right. So, it's interesting that you describe it that way. So, I'm, oftentimes, before prospective families and folks talking about why I believe Oberlin is the best institution in the country. I say it all the time. I may be biased, but I think I'm right. And I think I'm right, in large part because of who is drawn to us is a type of student that looks at the world through a certain lens of how to change it for good, how to take whatever it is that they're doing, but with that lens on. So, the fact that you are doing that from the context of this producer, sort of, framework, feels very Obie to me, feels like… it feels like you're out doing this work. Talk a little bit about how you choose stories. So, what is it that you're looking for when you start to think about, “Oh, this story seems compelling enough for us to do more work on it?”

[00:12:24] Shane: When I first started, it was really just interpersonal connection with the filmmaker, with the rest of the film team, because what I do is unusual, because it's hard to define and it's hard to, sort of, understand its value. Sometimes, it was really just meeting creative people that could see that there was value in what I did. And sometimes, that was a revelation in itself. And I was like, “Whoever sees I have value, I want to work with them because it gives me a chance to give what I have to give.”

As my work in film continue, I continue to be really conscious and prioritizing the interpersonal relationship and the creative sort of connection with the people I was working with. But I also was really interested in the films that are engaging with political topics, and specifically anti-authoritarianism is something that I'm drawn to. And then, on another side, films that are relating to non-human nature and the sentience of life on this planet, it's very interesting for me. But then the last part of it is, does the filmmaker or the creative person that I'm working with have a singular vision and something to offer that they…

[00:13:27] Carmen: They need to say.

[00:13:28] Shane: Exactly, something they need to say. And does that offering match something that I think the world might need to hear? And do we have a chance of translating that, however big or how small that offering is?

[00:13:41] Carmen:I want to talk to you a little bit about the extraordinary Navalny. So, I was sitting there the other day watching Navalny. And I had this moment where I felt like, “Oh, my God, how is this going to end?” Even though I knew how it was going to end, it was such a riveting story that you were able to tell.

And I guess I'm wondering, were you, at the beginning, sure about him as an individual? I mean, I know when you're going into these spaces and places, it's sometimes hard to know, you know, how real is their message? Who are they? What were you concerned about as you began to think about that particular film?

[00:14:20] Shane: Yeah, I think when I first started to engage with the project, of course, there were security concerns on making a film about the opposition leader for the Russian government. And as we, sort of, show in the film, there's both a simpleness or stupidity and a great sophistication that is personified in, sort of, cyber intelligence and, and different elements. So, I was certainly aware of this. And I called many friends, most of whom told me not to do it.

[00:14:49] Carmen: What did your family think?

[00:14:51] Shane: I didn't tell my family I was working on this film until the film was publicly announced. I told almost nobody. We took it very seriously. We made the film completely under the radar and made sure that everyone that worked on it also took those same precautions.

But I think I knew the team and I helped assemble the team that made the film, the core creative team. And I was a little bit distant. I was, sort of, just like helping to bring the team together, but I wasn't quite sure. And then we had our first interview with Alexei and I helped Daniel, the director, develop the questions. And primarily, I thought those would be important for the film. And also, I was personally just curious to hear what his answers would be before signing on officially to the film. And then once I did receive the transcript back, it became clear that this was a person and this was a film that deserved the best documentary possible, and I wanted to do whatever small part I could to contribute.

[00:15:45] Carmen: So, those of you who are not politics nerds, you may remember there was this moment where he was poisoned. And he ultimately goes to Germany and recovers. But this film spends a lot of time trying to figure out who were the culprits. And it's an incredible story, but also has these real-life, kind of, spy moments. And I won't spoil it for you, but if you haven't seen it, this is like a… I would call it a page turner, but it's a documentary. So, I don't know what the phrase is for that in documentaries. But it's, certainly, you have these moments where you're tense as the watcher.

When you were observing him and watching the script from afar, were there moments where you felt like you were on the right track? Or, were there moments where you were concerned about where it was going?

[00:16:31] Shane: Absolutely. I think, in every documentary, you're, sort of you know, as the old Taoist saying, you're like crossing the river by feeling for stones. And that applies, no matter what. And there's a great thing that another documentary filmmaker, Deborah Stratman, says, where there's a model of documentary filmmaking where you're going vintage shop shopping. You don't know what clothes you're looking for but you know when you find something good.

And I think there's something like that in every documentary. But with Navalny, we knew a little bit of what was happening. We knew he was recovering from the poisoning. We knew that he wanted to find the people who attempted to murder him. And we knew that he was going to continue to fight Putin and try to resist in any way possible, which might mean staying in Germany to lead the opposition or going back to Russia.

And so, there was some configurations of the film that we knew was going to happen. But I think the big challenge was we knew we didn't want to make a hagiography, a movie about a rockstar that was a, a very simple hero story, that he was a much more complicated person. And we wanted to show that. And yet, we wanted to show in very clear, easy-to-understand terms, the significance of his fight and the significance of this moment and the need for the world to know about him and to support.

And I think the other thing, you know, it's, it's very generous of you to call it a page turner, but it's also a really important part of making films or making art, which is how do you make every moment compel the audience to want to get to the next moment.

[00:18:00] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:18:00] Shane: And there's a persistence and a discipline of that that we were very conscious of. And that’s quite difficult to do. And we weren't sure if the director's voice was going to be in the film, for instance, or if we were going to even use the master interview. And we weren't sure what the end of the film was going to be while we were making it either. So, that emerged in the process.

[00:18:21] Carmen: So, Shane, I want to talk to you a little bit about the extraordinary scene where… so, Navalny's been poisoned. He's been in Germany. He stays there for, I guess, several months, and then makes the decision to go back to Russia. He lands and he's immediately arrested, separated from his wife. It's a compelling story, in my mind, of these opposition figures that happen all throughout history who choose to martyr themselves for the cause, essentially. What do you think the impact of the film has been?

[00:18:53] Shane: I think one of the most important messages Alexei has for all of us is to be the change in a way. We've heard this before, but he has embodied that. You know, he has literally put his body, his life on the line to resist what he feels is a brutal dictator that is harming and seeking to destroy everything that he cares about. And what he cares about is a country rooted in rule of law, democratic principles, freedom of expression, freedom of thought. And this is not something that he uses as simply a rallying cry. These are things that he believes in and things that the people who work with him and support him believe in as well.

He's in prison right now in a punishment cell in the far-flung regions of Siberia on the Yamal Peninsula. And he, even from his punishment cell, continues to communicate to the outside world in whatever way he can, stressing the importance of resistance against Russia and their war in Ukraine, resistance against Putin. And it's a model for all of us to resist authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies in our own countries, which are very, as we all know, extremely present right now and require all of us to look within to understand what we can do to fight in our own way.

[00:20:13] Carmen: You know, I said to some people that it reminded me of these martyr figures, you know, Martin Luther King and others, you know, the famous… I may not get to the mountaintop with you, right?

[00:20:23] Shane: Mm-hmm.

[00:20:23] Carmen: I may not be there at the end of this, but the fight is worth it, no matter whether I'm there or not. And they're using their own body, mind, and spirit, and, sort of, sacrificing it for the cause that they think is so important. And that's what Navalny reminded me of when I was watching him.

And I couldn't help but take my mind to the families of these individuals who are putting themselves out there in this way. And yes, they're making a sacrifice, but so is their family in huge ways—his daughter, his son, his wife. That was a powerful part of what we saw in the film.

[00:21:01] Shane: Absolutely. I mean with his eldest daughter, Dasha, and his wife, Yulia, in particular, they're as committed to the fight. And they support him. And they are inspired by him, and inspire him to do what he does, too. And I think that support that we have from our loved ones becomes an essential ingredient in our capacity to do what we feel we were meant to do.

[00:21:23] Carmen: One of the things that I was interested in talking to you about since, you know, you've made some comments about that film and many others that you've created, but you talked a little bit about the kind of… “frustration” might not be the right word, but your sense that the streaming services have started to steer away from political documentaries. Why is that happening?

[00:21:43] Shane: People are talking about this all the time right now, and I don't know the answer. I know one element of it has to do with risk and risk profile. You know, when a producer comes onto a project, they're taking an enormous amount of risk. They have no idea if the film's going to sell or if it's going to work or what the story is actually going to become.

[00:22:01] Carmen: So, are you saying to me that the risk is really about the kind of divisive nature of our politics in a way that they feel like there may not be a fulsome audience for it, or it may create so much controversy? Is that the risk that they're concerned about?

[00:22:14] Shane: I think it's really just, are people going to watch it? A lot of documentaries are critical. They're critical of the system. They're critical of our economic, our political system, but sometimes critical in unusual ways that can be divisive. The distributors, maybe I can't speak for all of them, but might feel that we're just not, as an audience, as a population, not interested in these stories anymore, that we're fed up, we hear too much of it in the news, and we have no more tolerance. But I think, for me, that really misses the point of what we do as filmmakers, as storytellers, which is, we think long and hard, not just about what issue is important, but how to tell the story of an important issue so that we can care about it.

[00:22:53] Carmen: Right. One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you about it is because I want to make sure that more people look at your work and look at documentaries because it does help us understand the world, right? And I think when we all understand the world better, I hope the world is a better place by our thinking about it.

I want to talk a little bit about Fire of Love. What about that particular story… I understand what drew you to Navalny. What was the moving force when you were thinking about that particular film?

[00:23:22] Shane: I had worked with the director, Sara Dosa, on several films before. And so, we had just recently finished making a film called The Seer and the Unseen about elves and capitalism and invisible systems of meaning in Iceland. And in that film, we, we opened the film with a myth, where there's volcano footage in that.

We started to think about our next project. And we were long down the road of pursuing it, and then COVID hit. And it was a film that was going to take place in Siberia, actually, in the Yamal Peninsula, but that film was rendered impossible. And we started thinking about what we could make. And we remembered that extraordinary volcano footage, and then we started to research it and realized that it was the footage of Katia and Maurice Krafft, just two of the most extraordinary volcanologists ever. And we learned more about their life and their pursuit of the experience of being as close as humanly possible to volcanoes.

And we started to conceptualize or understand that there was really this profound love story to tell, not just between Katia and Maurice, but also between Katia and Maurice and the volcano. And that love triangle felt really beautiful and relevant to make a story about, because we also saw that, that through their love with each other and love with the Earth, we could tell a story about our relationship to non-human nature and the living, breathing planet. That's so a part of everything that we as humans are.

And once we started to talk about that and understand what the story possibly could be, it felt deeply important to not do a more traditional documentary that's about politics or social issues, but to tell a love story, which felt also very spiritually important, but also politically important in this moment, too.

[00:25:01] Carmen: Yeah, I have to say, though, that I feel like, in Navalny, there's this undercurrent of the love story between he and his wife and their children. That's a piece that's sitting there. I actually think that, when you look at a lot of your work, you can see love stories through them in interesting ways.

And so, to me, it is a, kind of, a function of your work that, underneath, there's this, whether it's love of nature or love of the mind. I mean, you can see love coming through in these really interesting ways that I would say is a feature of your work.

So, Shane, we've been talking about Fire of Love, and the extraordinary documentary but, also, the footage that you got from the Kraffts. I'm wondering, you know, you can see in the film that they are getting dangerously close to active volcanoes. How did you gain access to that archive of materials?

[00:25:50] Shane: We were able to contact an archive house in France, a small archive house that housed the materials. And we, through Sara, the director, she became friends with Bertrand Krafft, Maurice's brother, who is a world-renowned expert—spider expert, actually.

[00:26:07] Carmen: Oh, really?

[00:26:07] Shane: And very charismatic, like his brother. But yeah, but we, we were able to secure their rights to that footage and also through our other producer, Ina Fichman, once we had the footage, we then ingested it into our systems, our incredible editors, Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, which our team were able to turn that into the film.

But one interesting thing about the archive is that, when we received it, it was all without what's called sync sound. There was no sound in the archive. So, we had to build the entire soundscape from scratch. And so, we, we used libraries of volcano sounds, but we were also creative about the sound choices that we made.

For instance, we did think of the movie in some ways as, you know, Katia and Maurice went as close to the volcano as possible because they felt a really profound relationship of staring into the abyss, but also there's this incredible force and power. You know, volcanic eruptions are more powerful than atomic explosions. And the volcano, also, it's creative. It creates new land, but it's also very destructive. And there was a sense of a little bit of a feel of like a monster, a monster there, sometimes.

[00:27:17] Carmen: An uncontrollable monster.

[00:27:18] Shane: Exactly. So, we did use, sort of, creative sound libraries to, for instance, of a dinosaur sound that someone had constructed and integrated that into the soundscape of an otherwise as realistic a soundscape as possible. You know, we, for instance, like, we would even go to the exact make and model of a car that was, like, portrayed, that was shot by Maurice in order to make sure that it was an accurate, like, sound environment.

[00:27:44] Carmen: Oh, wow. What an interesting sort of behind-the-scenes view. Because I can't imagine looking at all of those images and film with no sound. So, we're hearing through the grapevine that, that you're developing Fire of Love into a fiction film. And so, I'm wondering why that choice?

[00:28:02] Shane: Yeah. We never thought of it as a fiction film. You know, I've produced fiction films in the past. And for me, I thought that the documentary was the most natural expression of their story because of the incredible footage, but producers and Searchlight Films, you know, approached us and were interested in making this, turning this into a fiction. And that seemed really exciting for us because the Krafft story is… cannot be contained in 90 minutes. There are many more versions of the story that I think can be and ought to be told.

And so, Sara and I were really excited about producing and being a part of this next, next iteration of their story. And so much of their love story wasn't caught on camera. They were much more interested in shooting volcanoes. So, I think there will be different elements, different tributaries of their story that a fictional modality will be able to present and enhance our understanding of who they were and what they cared about.

[00:28:56] Carmen: I did want to ask you a little bit about, you know, these filmmaking opportunities that come to you. Are there times where you just say, “That's not what we're about”? Like, have you had, too, in moments… you know, I think, a lot of times, students will ask me about these testing moments in your career where you have to make choices about what you believe in and what you value and what you think is important.

And I think, oftentimes, students are asking that question because they're trying to figure out early on, you know, where their character line is, like, and what's important to me. And they also know that, sometimes, those choices come with consequences. And I'm wondering what that moment has been for you, if any, about this, kind of, “I'm going to make this choice. The consequences are difficult. But I think it's the right thing because of my value system or my views on the world.”

[00:29:47] Shane: Yeah. I mean, I think I was inspired by, you know, when I was at college, the book by Andy Warhol, where he suggested to say yes to everything, to, like, pick a day and say yes to absolutely everything that happens. And I think for a lot of life and in certain moments, of course, being safe and making sure that you, you have security, but saying yes is powerful because it's humbling. And you're, you're, sort of, surrendering to the uncertainty and just saying, like, “I will say yes to what comes.”

And then there's the other side, too, which a rabbi once told me about Judaism, which is that it was, like, a religion of no. Like, “We don't eat pork. We don't work on the Sabbath. We don't do this,” and that there was a deep, a profound meaning in saying no to things that you could perceive to be unhelpful or just harmful to you.

And I think there's, there's a middle way between those two, which is surrendering to the uncertainty and being open to the world and also being true to your, your values and what you hold dear. And it's become increasingly easier for me to say no to things that don't resonate or that I think might not produce the effect or the impact that the people making it want to, and at the same time also doing that with humility, knowing that you don't really know what's going to happen and things can always change.

And so, even when I say no to a project or say no to something inside of a project, wanting to listen to it as deeply as possible and help it be what it wants to be, even if I'm not going to be formally engaged in it. But it's really important, I think, for younger people, people of any age, really, to work with people that are good people that they want to work with and work on projects that they believe in.

And there's this one story that I always really liked from… I think it's Jim Carrey, actually. He told it on some late-night show, where he talks about his father, who was the funniest person he'd ever met, but who took the safe job and became, like, a refrigerator repairman or something. And then he got fired when he was in his 50s. And the lesson that Jim Carrey learned was that you can fail at doing the thing that you didn't even want to do, the safe thing that you didn't want to do. So, you also might as well try to do the thing that you believe in and care about. And that always resonated for me, and to let go a little bit of the fear of failing and the sort of, you know, Ralph-Ellison-like deep optimism in the thing that I really believe in.

[00:32:09] Carmen: Right. Because I think that, if you can let go of the fear of failing, then there's a tremendous freedom in that, right?

[00:32:17] Shane: Yeah, exactly.

[00:32:18] Carmen: I just love that story that, you know, so you can fail at this thing you didn't love. Who wants to do that, right?

[00:32:25] Shane: Yeah.

[00:32:26] Carmen: So, Shane, what new films are up next for you?

[00:32:29] Shane: I produced recently another film called Hollywood Gate, which premiered at Venice, the Venice Film Festival, and then shortly after that, the Telluride Film Festival. And that's a film about the director, Ibrahim Nash'at, goes to Kabul just days after the U.S. withdrawal. And he embeds with the head of the Taliban Air Force. And he's there as the Taliban finds, fixes, and threatens to use the over $7 billion of weapons the U.S. left behind.

[00:32:56] Carmen: Right. Oh, my goodness.

[00:32:58] Shane: Yeah. So, that, that film will come out later this year.

[00:33:01] Carmen: As we're in our Oscar season, I didn't want to miss out on the moment to just ask, what would you want the audience to know about the Oscar experience?

[00:33:11] Shane: I mean, the first and most important thing, I think, is, even when you're at the Oscars, in that moment, like, making sure to remind yourself not to do things for awards. That's not why we do this at all. And to enjoy and to appreciate any validation or appreciation of what you do, because it's a beautiful thing.

And then as far as the being in it, you know, it's a long process. It's not just one night. You're… there's a campaign, and they literally call it a campaign, where you're meeting voters and you're making sure that everyone possible can see your film. And it's exhausting, but it's also really beautiful because you're interacting with unbelievable artists and executives and creators and people who care about the issues that you care about and getting to talk about it. And it's a very fulfilling and inspiring process, as well. And I met, you know, friends that will be lifelong friends and now new collaborators that I'm working with who I met who were, who are also presenting their films during the awards.

[00:34:09] Carmen: That's excellent. Well, I, I am wishing for, I think you're right to caution us to not be in pursuit of that as the goal. Obviously, we all love it when we're validated. But that's not the goal, necessarily, but it's a by-product of the good work.

[00:34:25] Shane: Exactly. And I think it's, like, remembering that, not to be attached to the fruits of our labor, you know, a very ancient lesson from the Bhagavad Gita and every tradition.

[00:34:35] Carmen: Yes, but I was going to say that that's worthy of repeating, not to be attached to the fruit of our labors.

You know, one of the great things about doing this podcast has been these moments of discovery that I get a chance to have, because we have these incredible accomplished alums. They're out doing these wonderful things. And I get a chance to do a deep dive, right? Go into someone's work and listen to it and think about it.

And I guess the only last question I would have for you is, you know, when you think about how you felt when you graduated, that, sort of, next moment, if you could, kind of, go back to that younger Shane and give him a little bit of advice, what would you say to that young person that you think might be helpful to them?

[00:35:17] Shane: I mean, I think, putting myself back in that moment, the first thing that occurs to me is how profound my friendships were. I just had a reunion with my quad mates from my first year at South, John, Jeremy, and my dear friend, Naomi Sable. We just got back together in L.A.

And I think one of the things is finding the people that can help be a partner with you on the path and be on that path with them and stay true to them and be open to what they have to teach and share with you.

So, I guess, to answer the question in another way, just stepping back to that moment, it's an endless process of learning from the important people in your life and expanding that scope of learning to not just people, but to nature as well. And it's easier to say than do, but it's something I feel deeply committed to. And it's something that informs all of the work that I try to do.

[00:36:12] Carmen: I love it that you just got together with your quad mates. You know, we talk a lot, when we have students come on our campus, about these people may end up being your best friends, they may not, but a lot of times, these people are your, kind of, partners in life in all these interesting ways because they’re your friends and they're the people that you begin dreaming with and imagining with.

So, I'm so glad I had a chance to talk to you. You enriched me today in thinking about my own way of how I connect with people and build those relationships and having some sense of how valuable those are. I think sometimes we forget that. Thanks so much!

[00:36:49] Shane: Thanks so much. I feel fulfilled and inspired, too.

[00:36:59] Carmen: Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.

If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I'll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.

Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.