In his short film Waterlog (2018) 27-year-old film-maker Ben Cox explores with a telling sensitivity Joe Minihane’s journey to overcome anxiety. Avoiding by and large the negative perceptions of mental health, self-taught film-maker Ben Cox draws us in to focus on the remedy. For Joe Minihane (our narrator) he finds relief through the simple process of outdoor swimming. Ben Cox subsequently takes this seemingly simple story as the platform for a powerful and emotive visual.
Framed (ostensibly) within the waters where Joe finds solace, Ben Cox invites and positively encourages us to swim with Joe. Surrounded by nature beautifully captured in skillful cinematography we experience the cold sting of the water and then the calm as we too regulate our breathing. The anxiety in turn subsides to leave a potent intoxicating sense of freedom that has become Joe Minihane’s addictive antidote.
You seem drawn to documentary films, what is the appeal?
I have never been a huge film buff and am terrible at remembering films. However, I’ve always been a fan of documentary films with amazing characters. I try to find that in my personal work. Some of my favourite docs are probably American Movie (1999) directed by Chris Smith and Cutie and the Boxer (2013) directed Zachary Heinxerling. They are fantastic character pieces with complex, compelling and emotive subjects. I would be happy if one day I was able to capture a feature documentary with a subject anywhere close to these films.
You are self-taught-a hard and brave decision.
By self-taught I mean that I had no formal film school education. I have learnt everything either on the job or from online resources. I think it’s great that many people coming into the industry over the past few years have had a similar experience to me. Advances in technology have made cheap good quality equipment available to a larger number of people. It brings new talent and fresh ideas into filmmaking and democratises it to some extent.
I have been very inspired by a whole host of online filmmakers who have come up this way. It has been a benefit to me in terms of finding this new direction. Of course, there are pros and cons to both paths. One thing I would say is that coming out of film school gives you a great network of filmmaking friends which can be a real advantage. Having said that if you’re self-taught these connections are out there you just must network more.
For me a great film must have a great story at the heart of it.
Can you just talk about being “broke and frustrated” as a person involved in film?
Making short form documentaries can be (and often is) the most rewarding and interesting thing in the world, but there’s one thing you can be sure of, it doesn’t pay. If you have an amazing subject and a great vision, it’s more than likely that you are going to need money to reach your end goal. Whether you’re self-funding or applying for funding, you’re constantly looking for the next bit of cash that’s going to pay for the next scene for your film. Waterlog was a self-funded. Getting funding of this type of project is difficult but personally I never regret spending money on my own projects.
Much of your work considers people and their lives. We were particularly taken by your films about Benky and the amazing artist Alan Williams.
For me a great film must have a great story at the heart of it. I wouldn’t say I have a particularly emotional reaction to stories from the outset, that comes later. Having said that I definitely know straight away when I hear something that it’s a story I want to tell, it’s a kind of “oh shit that’s cool” moment, and then I’m just hooked. This is something that happened with Benky, Alan and Joe. From the outset I like to think about stories structurally. I want to create a story arc and narrative structure that gives my films power and purpose. This is something I’m always building on and developing, and this really came together in my development of Waterlog. With a clear structure in mind I can focus on creating a strong relationship with the subject, capturing emotive content in both the interviews and cinematography.
Waterlog of course delves into Joe Minihane’s battle with anxiety. How did you come across his battle and what specifically intrigued you about his story?
A friend of mine put me onto Joe as she had heard him speaking on 6 Music about his book Floating (2016), which the film is loosely based around. After listening to the program I just had this vision in my head of making a connection between remote, beautiful swims and a gripping human story focusing on men’s mental health. I got in contact with Joe there and then. By some massive coincidence Joe also lived in Brighton and so we went for a few coffees and swam in the sea in Brighton and talked it all over. I think what really caught me about Joe’s story was just the enormity of his journey. Although the story changed over the year that we were producing the film, developing a sense of the amazing scale of Joe’s commitment to conquering his mental health was always at the heart of the piece.
How important was it for you to bring an element of normalisation regarding mental health?
Normalising mental health was central to the structure and development of the film. We took the utmost care not to create a film that would seem inaccessible or unattainable to those watching it. Joe’s story is incredibly inspiring. I was aware however that the means he used for tackling his mental health issues was potentially quite removed from other’s experiences. As he says in the film “not everyone wants to jump into a lake or a river”. Despite his amazing journey, knowing Joe I think his experience of mental health is incredibly like other people’s and it was important to get this across.
In the edit I virtually always chose the in water footage as it felt more personal and immersive.
Talk about the interview process with Joe.
For these pieces produced over a longer period of time with no real time constraints I enjoy the luxury of being able to conduct the interviews towards the end of production. They are greatly improved by having a stronger relationship with the subject. You are able to get better responses and more emotive responses through greater friendship and trust. With Joe, by the time this came around we knew each other pretty well. We worked together to create an emotive and inclusive narrative using Joe’s own experience, talking it out over several hours. In this way we could be both very specific about Joe’s own experience whilst still being careful not to prescribe anything or exclude anyone. The narrative focused on the importance of being open and honest about mental health.
Tell us about the look of the short. What did you want to create?
Creating a strong visual style for a piece is very important to me. I have focused a lot on improving my own cinematography over the past few years. Waterlog was no exception. I had a pretty clear vision from the start about how I wanted the film to look and feel. Central to this was the use of 16mm film stock emulation to create abstract, visceral and emotive sequences of Joe swimming that felt really authentic and nostalgic. I remember swimming in the river Tavy in Devon as a kid, these moments are faded and imperfect but magical, this is exactly the kind of viewing experience I wanted to create in Waterlog.
We love how the film brings the viewer right there with Joe when he is swimming.
Absolutely. I wanted the viewer to feel as if they were in the water with Joe feeling his connection with the water. When shooting I was always in the water with Joe and often had a second shooter capturing footage from the bank. In the edit I virtually always chose the in water footage as it felt more personal and immersive. I would build scenes using a combination of this very personal footage of Joe cut against epic wide shots that would make him feel small against the landscape. It allowed me to capture the feeling of contented insignificance you get when you’re out in nature. It’s a feeling that can be quite humbling.
It looks like you would have had amazing time creating Waterlog, tell us a little bit about the production process?
For me filmmaking is almost more about the process than it is about the finished product. Waterlog was no different. It’s been an incredible journey getting to know Joe and exploring new places and experiences together. From diving too deep to get the perfect shot in the Lake District to swimming under the starlings in wintery Brighton it’s been an amazing journey. I think we’ve learnt a lot from each other. Filmmaking gives the filmmaker an amazing window into someone’s life. It allows you to ask more interesting questions while getting to know someone in a different way. I always feel lucky when I make films about amazing people. Joe has been no exception.