How to excel in visual storytelling: A conversation with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mark Mitten

Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu remarked, “To make a film is easy. To make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle.” With so many inputs and variables, much can go wrong in the production process at any time. Since filmmaking is a team sport, successful projects must stay true to an original vision while giving each person on the production the space to do their best work—no easy task.

Mark Mitten knows these challenges well. Over the past decade, he has served such roles as producer, executive producer, and director on an impressive slate of projects. His work ranges from the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself and the Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, to the recent Showtime documentary Ringside and the soon-to-be-released Miracle on 19th Street. In the following podcast, Mitten reflects on his inspiration for visual storytelling, how he champions creativity and collaboration to get the best from his colleagues, and why his experiences from the business world are directly applicable to filmmaking.

Podcast transcript

Scott: Let’s start at the beginning. What attracted you to filmmaking as a storytelling medium?

Mark: I still remember the first movie I saw. I was in a dark theater with my dad, watching a movie called Grand Prix, and it transported me from Akron, Ohio, to the world of Formula One racing. Now, it was a soap opera set in the world of Formula One racing, but just the visual elements, the sound, the storytelling took me to a place where I otherwise wouldn’t be able to go. And I think, to me, that’s the power of any kind of thematic or cinematic story telling: I can take you into a world that you may never be able to experience otherwise, and I can provide a sensory way of showing you how you might feel about a topic that, again, you might not otherwise know about.

Scott: You’re a creative guy—you could have been a writer, you could have been involved in any range of artistic pursuits. What was it about the visual storytelling medium that you felt like “this is a place where I want to be creative and share some ideas”?

Mark: First, that’s very flattering. I’m adept at all those talents. But in some ways, I think that’s what filmmaking is. It’s a conglomeration of having a point of view, knowing what the script should be and how you want it to come across onscreen, being able to work with what the visuals will be, the effects, and to be able to tell a story.

I’m working with a director right now by the name of Justin Lin. Justin started out with a small, independent film at Sundance, back, gosh, 2000 maybe, and now is making big blockbuster pictures, like The Fast and Furious. He said to me, “You have no idea how hard it is to make a movie.” And I think I’d supplement that by saying, “You have no idea how hard it is to make a good movie that really touches people and motivates them or engages them.” So for me it was the aggregation of all the different creative skills, and frankly the challenge to try to get it right within a 90-minute or two-hour time period.

Scott: And the reason that it’s so hard to make a good film is because there are so many inputs and variables, and all of those can go wrong at any time. Is that right?

Mark: That’s true, but the core of it is it’s got to be a story that is powerfully told in a way that’s engaging to the audience. I think, really what it comes back to is: what’s your narrative, how are you trying to tell it, and can you actually bring it to life on the screen in a way that it’s going to be emotionally engaging?

Scott: Is that the through line for the movies that you’ve done so far?

Mark: It is. I think one of the key attributes of just being a good problem solver, a good communicator, a good thinker, is to have an on-going sense of curiosity. Whether you want to go deep in one topic or you want to go broad-based, it’s always learning, reading, discovering, exploring new things. When you make a film, whether it’s a documentary or a feature film or a TV series, you’re committing years of your life to that process. So, this is not “we’re going to get it done in a couple of weeks”; this is a long-term relationship. You’ve really got to ask yourself, as you explore a variety of different potential stories, “What matters to me and what do I feel passionate about?” You really have to fall in love with the story that you want to tell.

Scott: You’ve served as a producer and an executive producer on different films. Can you talk a little about what the difference is between those roles for people who don’t know?

Mark: Typically, a producer comes up with the idea, finds all the different parts of the film to make it a reality—so from funding, to a director, to a writer, to the talent. They really are the brand manager or the project manager that makes it happen.

[An] executive producer can serve different purposes. They either can be a person that brings in the funding, whether they put their funding in or they bring other people in, or they also can be someone that provides expertise above and beyond what a producer may have, and can add to the creative process as well.

Scott: In that producer or executive producer role, how do you work with the director, the production, and the talent to shepherd an idea from inception to a finished film?

Mark: Part of it is having a clear, consistent vision that everyone buys into, hiring the right people and the right talent that you know can execute that. I’m a big believer that you hire the best people you can, even people that are smarter than you to do the film, and you count on them to be able to deliver. So it really is more a management function of being able to have the right team, that has the right, clear goal. At the same time, the producer also has to be a problem solver. If there is something that’s come up that’s unexpected, you know how to handle it in a way that is efficient, something that’s not going to disrupt the flow and still get it taken care of.

Scott: So how do you know then when to insert yourself in that process? How do you know when to fall back a bit and provide some support or some gentle guidance? And, because you’re someone who’s helping to facilitate and guide this process, how do you do that and let people let their best work without getting in their way?

Mark: I’m always on point. Whatever we’re filming, I’m on set every day. In that situation what I may do is give notes to the director, but I count on the director to be my point person on set, who will talk to sound, the director of photography, the cast, or the subjects. But I may provide my insight directly to the director and then allow that person to communicate to the rest of the team. I think it’s better to have one point of contact and be very clear and get that buy in, because the director is the person on the set that everybody should be looking to for guidance.

Scott: Prior to getting into filmmaking, you were in marketing for a number of years, you worked for a large consulting firm, you did other kinds of production. What did you take from those previous experiences that helped from that problem-solving aspect and from understanding how to collaborate in the creative process?

Mark: Again, another great question. Looking back now what I understand is the principles are the same whether you’re producing a film, you’re launching a new product, you’re providing strategic growth advice to a client. It’s really all about having a clear, consistent vision that matches up with either what you believe in, or, in a marketing standpoint, who the audience might be for the product or service you’re offering.

There’s one very different thing about creative expression versus the corporate expression. With corporate expression, you’re looking at the corporate bottom line and you’re looking at a target need that you’re serving. In a creative endeavor, you basically are looking at what you feel and how you want to express it, with the hope that an audience will engage and be excited about that and want to watch the film, or read the book, or listen to the music you’ve made. I do think this is an important point. All these skills are the right ones: How can you be a good problem solver? How can you be a good communicator? How can you read people to understand the situation so that you’re not overbearing, and you actually are complementing and moving things forward, rather than causing a rift? So the skills are very similar. Anybody that’s in marketing and wants to make a movie, I think, “Yeah.” When I was in those endeavors, I was thinking that that was something that I wanted to do. And I was shocked at how applicable my skill set was.

Scott: We regularly work with teams on projects that include distilling large amounts of information, analysis, and ideas into a compelling narrative that is going to connect with an audience. When you think about the documentary projects you’ve been involved in—sometimes you’re shooting for months or years, you end up with tens or hundreds of hours of footage that you’re sifting through, trying to boil that down to 90 or 100 minutes for a film. Talk about what that process is like and the things you’ve learned along the way.

Mark: I think it really gets back to what’s the essence of the idea or the thought that you’re trying to communicate. You can never edit it enough. There’s an old adage in filmmaking, which I think is true, which is you always cut out your favorite scene. Often times that’s the case. You may be in love with it, but it doesn’t move the story forward. I think that’s great advice for anyone in business. You may think that what you know is right, but when you hear feedback, you’ve got to be able to be both resilient but also be able to evolve that idea and be able to take feedback. It ultimately comes back to what’s the most effective way of communicating the message, or in our case the story line? A great editor is worth their weight in gold, platinum, diamonds—all combined—because I can go out and shoot something, I may think it’s OK, but when I come back and they’ve worked on it, there may be real magic that I may have missed.

Scott: You worked with Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, on a couple of films, Life Itself, the Roger Ebert documentary, and Abacus, Small Enough to Jail. With an established director, if you have a difference of opinion, how do you resolve it, and how do you defer to his vision while still ensuring that your initial idea is served?

Mark: Again, this is about a relationship of trust, that you trust the director. Steve has done it for 30 years; I certainly don’t have his track record, so I want to be thoughtful, respectful, and open minded to the point of view that he will bring. When he and I shoot, typically what happens is we will meet with the subject, we will interview the subject, we’ll talk about it ahead of time, so we would have prepped, and he leads the interviews. But at the end of the interview, I will then ask a few questions, either ones that he may have missed or ones that have emerged as part of the process, so we basically are working together as a tag team.

Now, at the same time, I trust Steve’s vision for the editing of the story line. In Abacus, one of the last scenes, there’s a guy walking across the street and he was carrying a chair—it’s at the vindication party, after the bank has been found not guilty of all charges and they’re having a party with the employees. We’re sitting in the editing room. I said, “Eh, I don’t really like it.” And he says, “I really like it.” And you know what, we’re going to go with what he says. Because I need to build that relationship. I trust him. And it’s not a major plot point. So, I think part of it is teamwork, trust, and understanding what my skill set is, and how Steve’s skill set is different but maybe more beneficial to serving the greater cause, or greater good, than mine.

Scott: So, another question, and this has to do with what success affords you: after you released Abacus and it was nominated for an Oscar, I would imagine some doors were opened to you, and you may have been able to pitch some ideas in different ways to different people than you had before. Could you talk a little bit about how it liberated you in a way, and then what the impact was?

Mark: Yeah, in a crowded marketplace where there’s numerous films released every year—even numerous good films, although that’s more the minority than majority—to be recognized with an Academy Award nomination…we always said that “being nominated is a win.” I don’t care if I go to a small village in Africa, I go to Stockholm, or I go to Akron, Ohio, if I say there, “I was an Academy Award nominee,” they understand what that means. So it provides a level of confidence that you must be moderately talented or really lucky, or both.

For me, it had always been an unspoken goal for me that I really wanted to gain that recognition for my director, who is Steve, the family, and for myself. It suddenly means there’s no higher honor, other than winning, that I’m going to achieve in this category. There are, I think, a total of 300 documentaries that have ever been nominated for an Academy Award. That’s pretty good.

So, you asked, “How does that help?” If something makes me more adventurous, I can take bigger swings. They may be bigger misses or bigger risks, but I now have the ability to go out and pitch projects I may not have been able to before to an audience that may be more receptive because I have that stamp of approval.

What it also allowed me to do was—as I’ve said I’m always curious and I’m always looking for other challenges, and I had never directed. I decided that there was a certain story I wanted to tell that I could tell in a way that only I could direct. Now, that may be a little bit of hubris; but, I think I really felt that this was such a personal story, I wanted to tell it.

At the same time, I wanted to put on the shoes of a director and understand how the whole process works. The outcome of that was I gained a much greater respect for what a director does and how they do it. I surrounded myself with a team that was phenomenally talented, much more talented than I ever was. They had just worked on a film called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which was an excellent documentary about Mr. Rogers that came out last year; it was the best doc of last year.

I would explain my ideas, they would agree or they would suggest something else. And it was a great evolution for me to understand being in the director’s chair, how I need to work with a team, how I needed to be open-minded to new ideas, and, at the same time, have a point of view that I wanted to push on them to see what they thought and if they would get excited about it.

Scott: And having directed that movie, did that whet your appetite for doing more of that or will you be fine starting as a producer or executive producer on the next film?

Mark: My goal is really to tell as many great stories that have social impact as I possibly can. If it means directing more, great—not sure it does, by the way. But to me it’s much more: there’s a greater opportunity to be able to produce and executive produce those kinds of stories. If another one comes along that really cries out to me that I should do it, then, you know, I’ll consider it. But this was such a personal passion project.

Scott: So, speaking of films with social impact, your latest film is Ringside. Tell us a little bit about that story and how you came to it.

Mark: Sure. Ringside is a story of two young boys on the hardships, hardscrabble south side of Chicago, and their fathers starting them on a journey to find a better life. For them, that was thinking about boxing as their means of becoming something more than just being stuck in the south side of Chicago. It’s a great father and son story in a community where fathers often are absent or neglectful. These two fathers mentor their sons through their journey and stick with them through the good times, through the bad times. Both of these kids had phenomenal natural ability.

The story was shot over seven years by a German director and a German cinematographer; they were pals in Berlin. They read a book by a Chicago author who claimed that boxing for kids was the best way to teach values. They flew from Berlin, they came to Chicago, they found two sets of subjects, and they moved here and started to film. That’s commitment. But they believed in that story, and the subjects they found were remarkable.

This is a situation where it’s kind of small world in that I actually knew one of the boxers. When I worked on the Olympic bid, I was doing films for the Olympic bid to help communicate our value proposition to the International Olympic Committee and to Chicagoans to get them excited. One of the first films that we did [was] about young Olympic hopefuls in Chicago, and one happened to be a boxer named Destyne Butler. Destyne turns out to be one of the subjects of this long-form documentary, Ringside.

The producer on it called me and said, “I understand you have footage of young Destyne.” Didn’t know her at the time, and I said, “Yeah, I do. Would you like it?” And we gave her the footage. It just so happened she was based in New York and when we shot AbacusAbacus is a story that’s set in New York. I’m based in Chicago; I needed a New York production crew. I called her and I said, “Hey, could you help out?” The person that she brought to be our director of photography happens to be the director of photography for Ringside. So I just started to talk to them, and I ultimately met the director. I said, “Well, why am I not involved? You guys don’t live in Chicago anymore.” They’d moved to New York and L.A. respectively, the director and the DP [director of photography], and I knew Destyne and Destyne’s dad. So, it was one of those small-world situations.

It’s kind of poetic, poetic justice in that when we had started the bid, we had hoped that these kids would become Olympians at the 2016 Olympics, that’s what Destyne wanted to do. So I really was happy to tell his story because it doesn’t turn out the way you may think, but he’s a tough kid that really has made the most of his life, as has his dad, and as has the other subject.

Scott: A question to follow on from that. A couple of your projects have had longer gestation periods, where maybe the ideas started out in one place, you thought about it for a long time, and then you picked it up in another place. How does living with a project for a long time, churning on it, and refining it elevate the end result?

Mark: If you’re passionate about an idea that you feel has merit and can have the kind of impact you that hope it will, you’ve really got to be persistent. In today’s world it’s never been easier to have access, via social media or any other of the different channels that can allow you to blast an idea out, but it’s never been harder to break through with something that is meaningful. There are so many dime-a-dozen TikTok videos that are out there that may have 2, 3, 4 million hits, but after today do I care about that video after I’ve watched it?

So, a lot of great ideas take time, energy, nurturing, and a little bit of luck, but a lot of is timing. A lot of it is really: When is the right time to bring that idea forward? And I think you have to have that kind of passion, commitment.

I keep a list of ideas. I probably have 40, 50 different projects that I’m intrigued by. Some will fade, some will go forward, and some I’ll just continue to work on and they’ll never go anywhere. To me, it’s always trying to do something that nobody has ever done before, and that’s really an incredible thing, to be distinctive and relevant in a marketplace that has just gotten more saturated. I think that’s a real prize.

Scott: Well, that’s great. I want to thank you for coming by and sharing your insights, and I wish you continued success and all the best for the future.

Mark: Scott, thank you. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with you, and I’m glad you’re doing this series.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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