It’s the first day of May at Hot Docs and filmmaker Steve Hoover has just relatively begun his running around for the year. Over a Starbucks breakfast sandwich he has been carrying around all morning, but he hasn’t yet eaten, Hoover is hanging out at the media centre at the University of Toronto to talk about his first feature Blood Brother (opening this Friday at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for a theatrical run).
Prior to our interview, Hoover had won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards at Sundance in January for the Best Documentary Feature for his chronicling of his Pittsburgh childhood friend Rocky Braat’s sudden departure to rural India to make a difference in the lives of young children suffering from AIDS and HIV in an orphanage. He has just arrived at Hot Docs from successful screenings in London. By the end of Hot Docs he will have picked up another audience award for his film. He would go on to make the long list of Oscar hopefuls, and also had to deal with a certain degree of controversy from film writers who would see his uplifting story of a shy man coming into his own helping others as some sort of closeted religious message. He’s also already started production on his follow up, a film about a Ukranian activist helping young drug addicts living on the streets. It’s been a busy year for him to say the least.
But on this sunny morning in spring, Hoover is as relaxed as one who has been run ragged can be, gracious, self-effacing, and moved by the response he has been getting for a film he never expected to play outside of Pittsburgh. We chatted about how his relationship with his best friend has progressed as a result of filming him, the two sides to Rocky’s personality, and the film’s gut punching opening sequence.
Dork Shelf: This film has stuck with me for quite some time, and one of the things I wanted to ask you about now that the film is done, is what your friendship is like with Rocky now? He’s been through quite the experience already, but through making the film you’ve had your own experience, as well. Have you moved together a bit more now as opposed to before you made the film?
Steve Hoover: It’s interesting because Rocky always said that he was always going to be there and stay there. When this whole thing blows over we had no idea while we were making it that the film would receive any kind of exposure. When it was all said and done he was always going to stay there and there would be no flexibility on that. He’s not the kind of guy that could get caught up in hype or anything like that. He’s pretty level headed about everything in that sense.
But our friendship definitely strengthened and has been a lot better since the film was made. It helped me engage and connect better with what he was doing. Before making the film I just didn’t get it. I have a lot more concern and empathy for all of what he does. The difficult thing for me has been having to go around and travel to different countries and places where I can’t connect with him. He can’t always use his phone, and in some cases and places neither can I. So staying connected is a struggle that hasn’t changed very much. We still text and talk every week. We’re fully engaged with each other, though.
I think the concern now is that there might be another film that I’ll be working on, and he expressed some concern that I might not be as attached to this if I’m off working on another project. But I don’t see how that’s even possible, because our friendship is deep. I’m actually seeing him this Friday. We’re going to this global summit run by the organization that runs the orphanage. They’re bringing him in and we’re doing a private screening for them.
DS: That connection that you talk about is very interesting because you’re setting up a film that finds you learning about something you can’t fully comprehend or understand, and prior to this you hadn’t made many films before this. What’s it like going in as blind as possible with someone that you know you have a personal attachment to and the other person knows more about the situation than you could hope to immediately understand?
SH: I think there’s a really good side to that. I felt honoured at that I got to see this whole new side of a great friend that I had never known about. There’s something really kind of magical about that for me. Seeing these things and realizing these things helped to give me the passion to tell the story beyond just documenting everything that happened. I think the hard part was not having a solid direction going in. I tried to have ideas about what I wanted to do, but that was kind of limited.
I didn’t realize at first what I wanted to talk about. I knew I wanted to talk about my friendship with Rocky in the film, but I didn’t realize that it would be as present in the film as it is. That was just one of those things I couldn’t predict as being as profound for me. I thought I was going to go and just say “Oh, this is really interesting” and “Oh, so that’s what he does for a living.” But I didn’t expect to be as emotionally impacted as I was.
DS: In the film you describe Rocky growing up as being really shy, closed off, and socially awkward. How did you think that was going to translate to film when you knew very little about his new life? Because you can see a night and day difference in his moods in the film. The scenes where he’s in Pittsburgh again look like he’s the man you grew up with, but in India he’s like a whole other person.
SH: I always actually felt, and this is something that we don’t go into a ton in the film, is that I always thought I was always the more introverted one and that Rocky was always the more outgoing one. He made a lot of outreach to become friends with me in the first place. He was very open to being filmed, and I wouldn’t say he was surprised by what I was filming, because back in the US I was filming him every chance I could. He would get a lot more bothered about it when we were in the US. He would always say “Can we just talk? Does the camera have to be here? I don’t feel like I’m talking to a person, but to a camera.” If he was in a harder emotional place, like when he’s with his family, he would get bothered by it. He would just want to talk. But when he was in his own element, he would just go off and he wouldn’t care as much. Especially when he’s back there and he was with these kids who look up to him like he was a rock star, and he was happy for us to film that. He would always ask me if there was anything I needed or if there was anything I might like to shoot. “Oh, there’s this great temple just down the road, would you maybe want to go film it?” He was always offering ideas to help stuff, so obviously he was cool with it then.
But it was really something special to just capture that reception that he gets when he comes back. It really is a rock star thing with him there. Kids were just running out from everywhere yelling “Rocky!” And that’s not something that he ever told me about or bragged about. It wasn’t like he said “Oh, man, you gotta come see me when I roll into the village and all the kids run out.” (laughs) So seeing it, I was, like, “Wow. This is nuts!”
DS: Do you think he might have ever been afraid that making the film in the first place might be seen as exploiting the kids in some way? Was there ever that discussion?
SH: He would be concerned, because this was his life and these were the lives of other people that he held very dear to him. Especially after I had a rough cut together he was very adamant about protecting it. He just wanted me to be careful with what I did and who I partnered with. He was very much of the mindset that this depicted their lives and he didn’t want anyone to ever take advantage of that. There was definitely that protection.
It’s interesting because during the time we were making it and even after, I think he just really trusted me to not exploit things and people. When I got really close to him while he was in the hospital in the scene were (a child) is dying in the film, he never said “Get out of here,” he just let me film it. That just comes from trust, and that really is the benefit of filming my friend as opposed to a complete stranger. That was really helpful.
DS: I have to ask you about the opening of the film, because that’s a very gutsy way to open the film. What was it like watching Rocky racing around and trying to get this young girl to a hospital before its too late?
SH: It’s a detail that doesn’t really come across in the film, and we were all at the temple and we stumbled upon it, and it was one of those thing where it took us at least 90 minutes for us to even convince the people there to even get (this girl) onto a bike and bring her to a hospital. When we did that you saw Rocky and the girl and her father all on this one bike, and we only had one other bike to follow them. So it was actually the DP who went because he was already out searching for a guy to grab us another lens so we could shoot at night. He came back with a smaller bike that could just barely keep up with Rocky as it was. I never actually even went on that trip, to be honest. I had to stay at the temple. When they went, you might be able to faintly hear me talking to the DP telling him what to do, but most of the audio is gone from the film. I thought this girl was going to live. I thought she was going to be fine. There were some kids that I saw Rocky tending to at the orphanage that I thought weren’t going to live. I just thought we were going to just shoot all this, get her to the hospital and everything was going to be fine. And I got back to the orphanage to hang out with the kids and what was shocking to me was when they all came back and they said she didn’t make it. I didn’t have a phone and we were all having a good time. I really thought we were doing something good and that we might have saved this kid’s life and that would have been fantastic. In my Western mind I just thought, “Oh, hey, go to the hospital and it will be fine.” But that was one of those moments where I got to see what Rocky was dealing with on a regular basis. They came back just crushed.