After its brilliant success at Los Angeles Lift-Off earlier this year, we are honoured to be screening feature documentary “Right Between Your Ears” once more at Sydney Lift-Off! We interviewed director producer Sheila Marshall and neuroscientist producer Kris De Meyer, for some behind-the-scenes details on this not-to-be-missed film…
Interview by Claire Richardson and Natalie Daniels
How did you get into film Sheila, can you tell us a bit about your career route?
S – I went to uni and thought I’d be a journalist or civil servant. I always loved film but didn’t think about it seriously as a career. An opportunity to get onto a film and television scheme (called FT2) came up. It was a 2 year programme. I got onto that and then I started out as a script supervisor. I’ve had a lot of production experience in film, comedy, drama, documentary… also development for the UK film council and Film4’s Cinema Extreme scheme and, later, at Baby Cow Productions (Steve Coogan’s company).
What made you choose this subject area to make a doc about?
S – Kris (a neuroscientist from King’s College London) and I have been friends for a long time. I’m always looking for ideas and inspiration for stories. And Kris was always very much interested in social psychology. We started to look at the possibility of bringing some interesting science to life through stories and documentaries.
For a long time Kris has been interested in how people talk about important issues, like climate change – anything that can be contentious. Just that observation that people don’t tend to talk to one another but past each other. How people relate to “truth” and their convictions. There was an article about a group in America who had come to the conviction that they had a date for the end of the world. Kris was curious about their experience and wondered what would go through their minds. He sent an email to me and another colleague and I said, “Why don’t we make a film about it?” We contacted them and went to America… And that’s how it all began.
K – The reason I was interested in them as a group is because in all the debates, for example back in 2010 there was Obamacare, climate change, the refugee crisis, the economic crisis etc… Those issues were very polarised, but what you have in those big debates is opposing groups of people who believe that they have the right view, and you never have any resolution of those debates. So groups of people, very convinced that they are right, will continue to fight with each other. However, with the May 21 believers, they were in a unique situation in that they had this date by which they would find out if they were right or not. And that’s not because somebody would convince them, but because they would find out according to their own beliefs. They would show us something very unique. The flipside of the idea that our convictions are the right ones, they would have to deal with the opposite, which is finding out that our beliefs are wrong. That’s what set their story apart to us, because it tells something about that bigger question – of why is it that we are fighting so much with each other over our convictions.
What were your thoughts on the topic before going into the process and holding all of the interviews?
K – Obviously we thought that it wouldn’t happen. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have gone out there! But importantly we knew very little about the reasons that they had for believing this. I suspected they would have some reasons, but didn’t know what they were.
As I would expect, but how did those opinions change throughout the process of filming?
K – At the beginning we couldn’t understand it, their reasons sounded as unintelligible to us as quantum mechanics, that’s how remote it sounded. It was only months later that we started to understand why they had come to this belief, but what we did see, was that they had a big set of reasons for why this was going to happen.
Also, they were very nice people, very kind, and you develop (as a filmmaker probably always does) a connection with the people that you are with for several weeks. They had lots of TV teams coming to them, but these would usually only stay one or two days, get in everybody’s face and then they’d be gone again. With us staying there weeks, driving up every day to the Family Radio compound in Oakland, we became very familiar faces. And so they started to ask why we were there, and would say “You’re here for this film, but maybe you’re also here to hear this message.” That social connection means they spoke to us with concern.
Another reason why we did form a bond was because we were asking different questions than the other teams. They were always being asked “What is it that you believe?” and if they started to explain it that was very alienating. But we were always asking questions like “How does it feel to believe this?” and then you get an answer that you can identity with much more strongly.
S – To go back to your question, we didn’t believe that it was going to happen before, and that didn’t change after, but as Kris says, the interactions with them mean that you’re in a place where you’re really listening to them and where they are coming from. Being a presence there, and we weren’t there to make a mockery of them, meant they shared a bit more. And hopefully the result of that, according to people who watch the film and reflect on it is, as one person said, “halfway through watching the film I realised that it wasn’t a film about them, but a film about me.” All kinds of viewers are able to relate to the idea of being convicted of something, even though you could be wrong.
How did you feel during the filming on the “day of judgement”?
S – It was intense. We were chatting to a lady who mentioned they would be meeting at this house, and offered for us to come along. We turned up at the house, we were a little bit apprehensive because you simply don’t know how people are going to respond, even though we had actually spoken to social psychologists to see if there was something we could do to help people not respond in a bad way. But they said in this situation, probably no one would do anything crazy.
K – As Sheila says it was a very intense situation. We were there with about 10 people, and I was just trying to blend in with the furniture. Not give any offense. Sheila had the wits about her to get out the camera and start filming. By myself, I don’t think I would have dared to do it! To our amazement they allowed it, and that scene is a powerful turning point in the film. I don’t think any other filmmakers before have been present with end time believers, at the moment it is supposed to start happening.
How have you found the film’s reception so far?
K – We are very pleased that Lift-Off has accepted our film, it will actually be our US premiere!
S – The reception has been positive. We did a screening at a school, to a group of 14-19 year olds. They had some great questions and thoughts. The Q and A was longer than the film.They were late to supper (which teenagers don’t do!) and they were talking about the film three days after the event. The Q and As after screenings always seem to be rich. The response is what we wished for. It’s a great encouragement, and so any opportunity to get Right Between Your Ears it in front of more audiences is a privilege.
K – One other thing is that what’s happening now (with Trump in the US) we didn’t know when we started making the film in 2011 that it was going to become more relevant and more needed than it was then. The polarisation, for example what’s happened in Charlottesville, is even worse now. And we feel that our film is actually the first film that looks at the origins of that polarisation, and tells us something about this post-truth climate where people believe things very fervently, even when other parts of society don’t believe it at all. It’s a film that has really grown into what happens in the world, and has become more relevant, even since its release a year ago.
How did it feel when you realised Louis Theroux had seen and appreciated your film?!
K – We were very happy with that! We had sent him a link to the film, because as you may have noticed he is in the film for 5 seconds, because he had visited Harold Camping in the 1990s. We didn’t really expect a response, but I was sitting in the car and an email came in… and it was from Louis Theroux! He really appreciated the film.
S – And then, we saw him again at Doc Fest a few months after that…
K – He said that he had been thinking about it a lot since watching it. For someone like Louis, who has been making lots of films about people with extraordinary beliefs for twenty years, that he still got something from our film he hadn’t perhaps seen before, was amazing for us to hear.
Right Between Your Ears will be screening as part of the Sydney Lift-Off Film Festival at Dendy Newtown on Tuesday 21st November at 7:45pm.
View the full programme here: http://liftoffnet.wpengine.com/sydney-lift-off-film-festival-2017/
Tickets available on Eventbrite: http://bit.ly/2zlkSvM
You can follow Right Between Your Ears on Social media