Amanda Lahr

Behind the Stories, Part V: A Conversation with Dave Baker

In this series, we interview some of Bittersweet’s long-standing and talented contributors about the art of storytelling. Bittersweet stories are only as good as the people who tell them, so in this series, we go behind the scenes to capture a glimpse of the faces behind the faces of our stories. From what sparked their interest in the craft to what makes a good story to why they contribute, these interviews delve into the personal, the professional and the transformative. 

"Collaboration keeps us true to the story." - Dave Baker

Part V of this series features Bittersweet's very own Managing Director and contributing filmmaker Dave Baker. As a creative professional, Dave has a variety of skills, ranging from video producer, director and editor to media communications, branding, digital advertising and web design, but his true love is documentary filmmaking. Before becoming Managing Director, Dave started out as a Bittersweet story contributor. In addition to his creative work, Dave loves a good slice of pizza, a well designed bag, his moleskine journals and beautiful wife and adorable son, Coen. Read his full interview below.

What first sparked your interest in film?

DB / I sort of fell into it. I had always been inspired by the big animation studios. I loved the idea of bringing a character to life from the imagination and creating a limitless universe where toys could come to life or elephants could fly. The possibilities were endless.

As I entered university, I didn’t quite know where to start, and ‘media’ sounded like the right direction. Little did I know, media was more like ‘news media’ and I found myself in journalism classes instead of anything having to do with animation. In these classes, I learned about the power of storytelling to affect change, and I quickly I fell in love with telling stories about real people doing purposeful work in the world. The same principles of storytelling I saw over and over in movies by Pixar were transferable to the human-driven, live action pieces I now wanted to create – just a different way of looking at it. And so, documentary filmmaking became my focus. 

"We need to challenge ourselves to become better at seeing, waiting and listening for moments."

What is your greatest challenge in storytelling through film?

DB / I think there is always pressure to do something new or use the latest techniques or tools to make the most amazing images. I don’t think that pressure is bad per se, but when we’re inundated by the curated perfection of the Instagram world, it often feels like the bar is set at an unattainable level – and the “do something new” challenge becomes crippling. Instead, I think we need to challenge ourselves to become better at seeing, waiting and listening for moments – moments that make us and our audience feel and think deeper and longer – that challenge our perspectives and maybe even shift our thinking.

What is your favorite aspect of filmmaking? 

DB / My favorite aspect of capturing a new story is getting to meet new people. With the type of video work I like to do, I get to spend a considerable amount of time with the people I’m documenting. It builds a strong bond and friendship that will last a lifetime. There’s nothing more gratifying than sharing their story. 

"I get to play a part in telling these stories and, hopefully, bring a little inspiration to the lives of the Bittersweet audience." - Dave Baker

What inspires and motivates you? 

DB / We live in an age of information overload, and it’s not lost on me that I add to the menu of media consumption. That said, at the end of the day, the stories I am privileged to work on are changing lives. Whether it’s creating economic opportunity for recently settled refugees in Rhode Island or mending baby’s hearts in China – I get to play a part in telling these stories and, hopefully, bring a little inspiration to the lives of the Bittersweet audience. They may share the story with a friend, and that friend shares it with someone else – until maybe, just maybe, the right person experiences the story and gifts that organization a million dollars. Impossible? Maybe you can be that person. 

Why do you contribute to Bittersweet projects?

DB / Everyone says (and I agree), you need to be doing more personal work. It’s life-giving. It pushes us to try new things. But often, we lack the discipline or structure to complete our projects. Bittersweet Monthly offers a platform, with structure (read: editorial calendar) that challenges us to deliver on our personal work. Yes, there is some story guidance from the team about themes or topics to explore, but for the most part, there is freedom to approach each story however we see fit. Knowing I have the support and accountability of the Bittersweet team energizes and motivates me to spend 100s of hours on a piece I’m really proud of, that will benefit the Bittersweet audience and featured organization. 

How do you approach a story?

DB / I approach each story by listening first – ideally without a camera. This builds a level of trust and report with the subject(s). Allowing someone you don’t know to follow you with a camera for a few days can be pretty intimidating. It’s a lot to ask of someone. Whether or not your subject trusts you will determine if they’ll let down their guard and share some of those perspective changing moments I mentioned above. 

Can you describe a time when you have creatively pushed yourself through a Bittersweet project?

DB / There are times when we make really big asks of the organizations we’re working with – sometime it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In one particular case, we needed to create a brothel scene in Spain (the next day) – our contacts on the ground we able to clear a small room in a church that had been completely filled to the brim – refrigerators, cabinets, tables and more, and then stage it with each of the furniture items required of a brothel room. Someone in the church knew of a friend who had a warehouse full of props. Somehow the stars aligned, and we pulled off the scene, all while church was happening in the next room. 

How does collaboration affect your creative process? 

DB / Collaboration keeps us true to the story – keeping our assumptions and bias in check. When you have a few sets of eyes watching and listening and then acting as a sounding board, you have a better chance for success. There is a lot going on when you have a small team on a production – a lot of details to keep track of – story, context, crew, gear, travel logistics, meals, relationships, cross-cultural sensitivities, etc. Collaboration keeps us on the right track. Much of the creative process is internal, where we often get stuck in our own heads. Collaboration draws us out of isolation and enriches the end product.

Is there an example of how collaboration has pushed you to approach a story in a different way? 

DB / The Bittersweet story team for Morning Star Foundation consisted of a writer, photographer and filmmaker (myself). Each of us had distinct roles and content we were capturing. Before the trip, I had assumed the story should be about Meredith Toering, international director of Morning Star Foundation. She was an interesting character, having transplanted herself to China to help these children with broken hearts. Once we arrived and started to see the activity in the home, I knew I needed to abandon that idea. As I listened to an interview conducted by our writer, Jessica Mancari, it became apparent that the video needed to focus on the relationship between a nanny and one of her babies – and the context would be given by Meredith. This realization was pivotal to the footage that was captured throughout the three-day period. And as the story was being assembled, the video component fit perfectly into the narrative. 

Morning Star 506

Morning Star Foundation / The Strongest Little Beats in Beijing