By Beth Kissileff/JNS.org
The career of British-Jewish film producer Simon Chinn, who has received two Academy Awards in the Best Documentary category, might have taken a very different direction if not for the death of a journalist in the line of duty.
Chinn, who won Oscars in 2009 for producing “Man on Wire” and in 2013 for “Searching for Sugar Man,” was initially interested in a career in journalism. But a sniper in El Salvador killed war correspondent David Blundy, the father of one of Chinn’s friends, in November 1989 while Blundy was working for London’s Sunday Correspondent.
Though impressed by Blundy when he met him, Chinn said in an interview with JNS.org that after reading Blundy’s obituaries, he understood that he “did not want [Blundy’s] life, a perpetually unsettled life.” It was a life Blundy “thrived on,” but Chinn realized that he could have a reasonable facsimile of the war correspondent’s experience—but with more stability and less danger—by getting involved in documentary films, where one “parachutes into situations, has adventures, and leaves.”
Chinn recalled that for years he worked on documentaries for British television—on “Zimbabwe, the Balkans, South Africa, Serbia, Iraq after Saddam was captured. ” Once he married and had children, however, Chinn said he wanted to “stop that” and “not go to hairy places.” Not that Chinn’s current line of work is risk-free. He said he has been involved in a project on the narcotics wars in Mexico through which he has been “helping a director who is putting himself at considerable risk.”
Being a producer is “sort of a black art,” Chinn told JNS.org. He explained that there are “many things involved,” but that he mainly “originates projects” and is the “person who has the first vision of the film, creative and financial.” Chinn said he must figure out “how to get the resources to make the film we want to make, how to get the work out in a way that will maximize its potential.”
As the producer, Chinn said he is “where the buck stops” because he is ultimately responsible for bringing a film in on time and on budget. But it is a fundamentally creative role, because he is also enabling the directors he works with to realize their ambitions to make the films they want to make.
How does Chinn decide which projects to take on? He said the types of movies he is interested in making are “those with bigger themes,” that are concerned with human dramas set in a human context.” He cited as an example his work on “Project Nim,” a film adaptation of a book on an experiment done in the 1970s involving having a chimpanzee raised in a human family. Chinn said this “animal biography” is something “not seen on film,” and that what appealed to him was that the story “generates huge ideas, who we are as humans, nature versus nurture in parenting, how we discharge responsibility to those more vulnerable than ourselves.”
“Project Nim” also fascinated Chinn as a “parable of parenting,” he said.
Asked about the role Judaism played in the films he has made, Chinn was temporarily flummoxed, acknowledging it was the “first time I’ve considered that question.” After pondering for a bit, he said Judaism is “culturally what I am used to, lots of discussion and debate, the Passover table, [so it is possible] that sort of discussion and debate informs the way I approach documentaries.”
Chinn said documentaries are an “opportunity to tell stories in ways that ware surprising and complex,” and that he is “drawn more to the moral gray in characters and stories than the black and white.”
Currently, Chinn is at work on “The Green Prince,” a documentary telling the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the founders of Hamas who goes on to become an informant for Israel’s Shin Bet security agency. Chinn called “The Green Prince,” directed by Nadav Schirman, an “extraordinary human story” about people “whose motivations are complex.”
“In a funny way, I have always been very wary of making a film about this, such an emotive issue,” said Chinn, who noted that he has a nephew about to serve in the Israeli army.
Winning his most recent Oscar in February 2013 felt “absolutely incredible, [it was] the best feeling in the world,” Chinn said. But staying true to his practical nature, Chinn said that after earning such accolades, it is still important to “roll your sleeves up and get back to work.”
“The glow fades, I need to make hay while the sun shines,” he said.
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