Ben Niles started his path as a filmmaker with Note By Note, a documentary about the making of a Steinway piano. His interest in music continues with his latest film, The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness, and transforms a story that could’ve been given a lazy tabloid treatment. The 5 Browns are a group of pianists who are all siblings: Desirae, Deondra, Melody, Ryan and Gregory. Formed after attending Juilliard, they signed to Sony Records in 2001 and became popular in the classical music world. But they had to face the fact that their father, who home-schooled them and wanted them to stay at home while going to college, was more than just a domineering manager — all three of the women in the group were molested by him. Niles’ film alternates between exploring the family’s past and depicting a present in which they record several albums, including music by Stravinsky and Beethoven, reflecting their struggle with this legacy and their desire to do something positive with their gifts. Niles is currently in production on Still We Rise, a documentary about mental health in Liberia.
The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness opens today at the IFC Center in New York.
StudioDaily: You used to be an art director for Atlantic Records. How did that evolve into filmmaking, and what do you think you learned working there?
Ben Niles: Yes, I worked there from 1994 to 2001. I did album covers. I got to the point where I was ready to transition into something different. I was really inspired by the documentaries I’d seen. I bought a camera and started working. My background at Atlantic Records helped me with composition and working with so many photographers over the years helped me as a producer. But the storytelling part was new to me. I really had to work on that.
From some of the answers that the Brown sisters give, it seems that the film was conceived as a coming-out statement about their abuse. Did they approach you about making a film about this subject? How did the film come to be?
Let me clarify that. They had disclosed this publicly several years earlier. They had been on CNN with Piers Morgan and done a little bit of press to get it out. I approached them because I did a video shoot for Steinway & Sons and we really hit it off. When I learned that they were advocating to end the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, that was a very compelling story. It was part of the future, not just mired in their past. They were a little reticent about rehashing the past, but they wanted to get it all out and be done with it. They wanted to get on with their lives as musicians.
At the same time, your film’s website shows a real grass-roots quality to its approach to distribution. It seems conceived as an accompaniment or at least allyship to their activism.
That’s fair. One of the things they were concerned about when we started making a film is how much would be about their music and how much would be about their abuse and activism. They wanted to find a balance. I believe it does that, and so do they. There are a lot of survivors of abuse who have come to screenings. It seems to be a bit of a salve for them. There are people who are speaking out about their abuse for the very first time. With the statute-of-limitations laws in this country, a victim, especially in New York state, might only have until the age of 23 to go after her assailant. So Desirae and Deondra are working with [U.S. Senator] Kirsten Gillibrand on activism around that. It’s not an advocacy film per se, but there’s an aspect of it which can function around it. I see that as a real positive.
To me, when you depict the 5 Browns’ recording of The Rite of Spring, their music suddenly feels much more expressive. In an earlier clip, one of the sisters talks about the links between music and spirituality. How did you go about trying to find links between music and their emotions?
Niles: After they prosecuted their father and sent him to jail, they collectively, including Gregory and Ryan, felt like much stronger artists. It just happens that they were recording Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring then. That’s a very discordant, aggressive and angry piece. For my purposes, cinematically, it said so much about what they were going through. That was one of those lucky things for me as a filmmaker. They had purged so much of their sadness through The Rite of Spring. I love that part of the film.
To a large extent, the film has a narrative structure. Around the halfway mark, something major happens. How did you go about devising that structure?
The structure was complicated. I have to mention our editor, Amanda Larson, who did a brilliant job. When I was looking for an editor, I only looked for a woman to work on the film. I felt like I needed a woman’s perspective in a big way. There was a linear story of the group cutting a new record, the past and this advocacy work they were doing. But like a lot of documentaries, it became more complicated. I think the abuse you’re referring to was critical to get out early in the movie. So much is about how they dealt with it through their music. We were never planning to wait till the very end and drop this bombshell. How do we wait to tell people who they are? Juilliard, [their early appearance on] 60 Minutes. Then we tell people about the abuse, with two-thirds of the movie still to go.
You film people talking about difficult emotional experiences, especially things they’ve kept secret. The Browns have a remarkable poise and control. Did you rehearse the interviews or shoot multiple takes?
I didn’t shoot multiple takes of the interviews, but they were long. They were also intimate. There was no crew around. It was just me and the Browns. For the rehearsals, they were performing multiple takes of the music anyway. We would just move the cameras around. As a filmmaker, you have to build trust. It’s a lot to ask certain questions. I was reluctant to ask some things till eight or nine months into the shoot.
In the music scenes, you shoot long takes and close-ups. Some of them are very distant and some are handheld. How were you able to get such a variety of camera angles, and how could the camerapeople walk around without disturbing the musicians as they played and making them feel self-conscious?
The 5 Browns were great about this. They really don’t care where we positioned the camera. Sometimes we practically had the camera under their hands as they were playing. They would stop as we moved to another set-up. I often had three or four cameras rolling at once. In some of the concert scenes, we had five cameras, obviously in a static position. When they were recording, there were so many microphones that we couldn’t move an inch without the floor creaking. Once when Melody was playing, someone on the crew came through a door, didn’t realize she was recording, and blew her take. That was the only time something like that happened. They were good sports about it.
The subject of sexual abuse will interest a lot of people and maybe draw more attention than if the film had just been about a group of classical musicians. But it really does take their music seriously. Did you find it hard to balance those two themes?
I didn’t want to tell some salacious story. They really have been healing through the bond they have with one another through their music. In the film, we see them recording a new album that is all music they played as children. That dovetailed really beautifully in my opinion. When I’ve screened the film, every so often I’ll get someone who asks “Why didn’t you tell us more about the abuse? What actually went down?” I felt the film pretty clearly states a lot, especially in the news reports we’re given. Deondra Brown said to me when I talked about this thing with her after the film was finished, “Even our brothers never asked for specific details,” and I thought, “Far be it for me to ask.” It’s interesting how today, with all the crime shows that are on TV, there’s definitely an audience that wants more dirt. I feel very good about the balance we struck. The audience I’ve encountered feels the same.
How many camerapeople worked on the film?
At its peak production, when they were making a record, there was me and three other cameras rolling. During the concert footage, we would have at least five cameras, sometimes six: one trained on each person, and one as a wide shot.
How long did the shoot last?
I worked on it for about a year, and it took a year to edit.
All three of the films you’ve finished are about music. Do you see a connection between the two art forms?
For me, there is. I do love all kinds of music, and I also like to see the process of music-making, instrument-making or, in this case, healing. I’d like to think I’m more into process than just music. I’m now working on a film about mental health in Liberia. If I was only ever able to make films about music and musicians, that wouldn’t turn me off. It’s not something I’m dead set on doing. I’m also working on a food series. As a filmmaker, I’m always looking for interesting stories, but I’m also looking for stories where I might get funding. Sadly, that’s a part of it.
Your first film was about the making of a Steinway piano. Was that your connection to the 5 Browns, or at least to the world of classical music?
The film you’re talking about, Note By Note, came about because I read an article in The New York Times by James Baron about the making of a Steinway. It was a nine- or 12-part series. It occurred to me that I didn’t even know where Steinways were made. It wasn’t so much about classical music as about the loss of a dying breed of craftsmanship. That’s rare in a world of technology. I didn’t encounter the Browns directly then, but the people at Steinway said, “Oh, you should put the 5 Browns in your film.” I thought about it for a second and, then 12 years later, we met each other. They had seen Note By Note and liked it. I suppose technically, it took 14 years to make the movie!
I know you’ve been working on Still We Rise for several years now, with a co-director. How has that been a different experience?
Still We Rise is a film about three mental health clinicians in Liberia in West Africa. I’ve been working with Molly Raskin. She’s a terrific writer and filmmaker. I’m used to working with other people when I get into post-production. She started this project, and I’ve been working with her from the get-go. It’s been refreshing to bounce ideas off each other and travel with her. We’re a lean operation. Just the two of us would go to Liberia and shoot for 10 or 12 days. It was great to have each other. I’m definitely interested in collaborating with other directors or producers on other projects. Wearing many hats is a lot of work.
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