BRAD PITT AND RACHEL BOYNTON REVEAL THE BACKSTORY OF AFRICAN OIL DOC 'BIG MEN' - by Scott Feinberg
Made over seven years and in partnership with Pitt's production company Plan B,
Boynton's film tracks American oil company execs and African politicians as they
negotiate a drilling deal that could benefit everyone except the local population.
On Wednesday night, following a Los Angeles screening of Rachel Boynton's documentary
Big Men -- an edge-of-your-seat film that offers an unprecedented inside look at how
American oil companies and African governments interact when oil is discovered in
Africa -- The Hollywood Reporter met up with Boynton and one of the film's executive
producers, Brad Pitt, to discuss how the project came together and what they hope
people will take away from it.
Boynton spent seven years of her life making the film, which premiered at the Tribeca
Film Festival in April, screened theatrically last year (unfortunately rendering it
ineligible for Oscar consideration this year) and is now playing in select theaters
across the nation.
It seems to be the hope of Boynton and Pitt -- whose Plan B production company
champions films of social value, such as this year's best picture Oscar winner 12
Years a Slave -- that Big Men will raise awareness and bring about reforms that will
benefit the people of African nations who have heretofore rarely shared in the profits
of the discoveries of oil within their borders.
Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Rachel, how did you get onto this subject matter?
BOYNTON: I made a film called Our Brand is Crisis, which I finished in 2005; it
premiered in 2006. Then I stared thinking about making a film about oil because oil
was on the news every 30 seconds, and the prices were going through the roof and
everything that I was seeing about oil was very partisan and very frightened about
this crisis. But there was nothing from inside the industry. Iím always very
interested in perspectives that Iím not seeing. And I thought, ďWell, I can get access
to that. I can do that. I was very proud of my first film, but I felt I could do
better and I wanted to push myself to do something harder. And I decided that the most
difficult thing I could do would be to make a movie about the oil business. And then I
decided to do it in Nigeria. And my initial intention was to do it in Nigeria. I did
it to prove something to myself as much as anybody. And then, I also did it because,
of course, I like to work on films that I feel are emblematic of something fundamental
about the way weíre living.
How did you gain the sort of access that you did -- with the oil execs, with the
African government officials and with the resistance fighters? That's what everyone
came out of this screening asking...
PITT: I asked her that. I asked the same thing -- itís mystifying.
BOYNTON: I did a PowerPoint presentation -- I mean, thatís the very short answer. I
spent about a year pursuing Kosmos [the American oil company], managed to get them to
finally return my emails and then, ultimately, went to their office and did a
PowerPoint presentation. And they said yes to it.
PITT: And a year and a half in Nigeria before you even started filming!
BOYNTON: Yeah. I went to Lagos for the first time in August of 2006. And then I shot
the very first material in 2007, but we really started shooting in earnest in early
January 2008. Thatís when like, the serious shooting began.
And what do you feel these various parties felt they had to gain from cooperating with
BOYNTON: "Movies are good for your reputation." That was the first line of the
PowerPoint. I think, you know, they hoped that it would be a good news story about
oil. I think they knew that I was sincerely interested in their perspective and
interested in listening to them. And I think they felt like they had a story to
Do you think that being a female worked to or against your advantage in those
BOYNTON: I never think of being a woman as a disadvantage. It just wasnít based on
that. You know, I was raised by a single mother, I never had a dad around and I kind
of never really thought about it. I just donít think about it. I do what I want to
Were you pretty much out there by yourself?
BOYNTON: It was a two-person crew. I did all the sound and I shot some of it. The
great stuff was shot by other people. [laughs] But it was always a two person crew;
it wasnít just me. And I carried all the luggage.
PITT: I will say -- I didn't mean to interrupt you.
BOYNTON: No, no, donít be silly.
PITT: I just want to say this: I might easier tell you [Rachel] how I feel; Iíll
rarely tell you [Scott] how I feel. [Suggesting that men have a greater level of
comfort with women than men.]
BOYNTON: Well, I say that, too. Iím being a little tongue-in-cheek here. I mean, the
truth is, of course it makes a difference that Iím a woman. Of course it does. I donít
think of that, but of course it doesnító
PITT: Right. I just think itís wrong to characterize it in just that way because it
minimizes a year and a half of developing those relationships and knowing that youíre
in good hands. I mean, for Musselman [an American oil exec prominently featured in the
film] to be that open and that kind of candid? I mean, heís got everything to lose. I
mean, starting the film, in most of our minds, heís going to be the bad guy, you know?
But the point is is that to get that kind of trust, as you know, itís not every day,
male or female. So, yes, I agree with you.
STORY: Brad Pitt Says '12 Years a Slave' Oscar Win Significant for Making Sense of
Right. And I didnít mean toó
BOYNTON: No, no, no, everyone asks me that question, and itís a very understandable
question because the movieís called Big Men, I think there are two women in it and
Iím a woman. So, it makes sense, as a question.
So when you put in that kind of time-- You said six years?
BOYNTON: It premiered at Tribeca last year. I went the first time in August of 2006.
So however long that period wasó
PITT: She filled up two passports.
PITT: And she made two babies.
BOYNTON: Thatís true.
Wow. You were certainly busy. Were your kids born there?
BOYNTON: Oh no, they were born in New York. My youngest has a passport. I thought
about taking her to Ghana, but I didnít.
Rachel, how did you first hook up with Plan B? And how important was it to have
champions like that to make sure that your efforts of the past six-plus years found
PITT: I first want to say itís such a small part of the story. We were very fortunate
when Rachel called us, having been a fan of her first one. And the fact that she was
taking on this difficult subject matter, we, you know, felt fortunate to ride
piggyback on. And itís complicated material. Itís important material for our time. It
speaks to us. And we felt very lucky if we could help, you know, push a door open or
something. This is her singular endeavor, six years plus, and itís no small feat.
BOYNTON: I think having Plan Bís support early on, as I did, was really essential to
being taken seriously by a lot of people.
PITT: I don't know. People in the know certainly know that our brand is crisis. So
it wouldnít matteró
BOYNTON: I think youíre selling yourself short, Brad.
PITT: No, no, but when you get into the outer reaches andó
BOYNTON: No offense, but there are people in Nigeria who donít know who you [Brad]
are. So itís true.
PITT: No, I know that. Thatís why we love to go there. [laughs] But if they do,
theyíll know, like, Troy or something Iím least proud of. But the things that get
there, that have that reach, become a conversational point. Like guy said in the
film, ďI saw him on TV!Ē
BOYNTON: Yeah. He [Brad] is trying to sort of push me into the foreground and put
himself in the shadow, which I appreciate very much. I appreciate it. I totally
appreciate it. Itís very generous of you [Brad]. But I want to be clear about this:
having the support of somebody like Brad Pitt on a film like this makes a world of
difference, it does make a difference. It makes a difference in terms of being taken
seriously. It makes a difference in terms of people wanting to be involved in the
project. Does it give me access to things? Absolutely not, but it does help me get the
film made, and Iím incredibly grateful for their support.
PITT: And I want to be clear and say that it was just a pleasure getting the call.
It was no sweat. I did very, very little, as far as actual work -- in fact, nothing --
and it was all Rachelís heart and sort of tenacity to get the film done.
But it fits the Plan B model, right?
PITT: Yes. What I do feel very fortunate about and what Iím very proud of at this
point is being able to sit in and see where you can help nudge complicated, complex,
worthy material. I loved the story. I thought the story was worth telling. And if
Rachel calls again, itíd be a pleasure to do something again.
If you guys could have it your way, what would you like the impact of this movie to
be? What would people leave it thinking or doing differently?
PITT: Well, I mean, thereís multiple stories going on here. Thereís the oil industry
itself. Thereís our understanding of the development of the third world nation. And
thereís a bigger human story at play here, and, you know, the guy says it: ďWe need to
be more focused on what unites us than what divides us.Ē That gives me chills. Like,
thatís the summation of everything. Thatís 12 Years a Slave. Thatís it. And that
message, it just, itís the biggest thing we need to get across. Iím going to go on
further. Iíll start to go on a bit of a rant here about responsible capitalism, about,
you know-- Now, Iím really breaking out. The film also, you know, presents this idea
in what I call, for lack of a better term, responsible capitalism, where everyone can
be a winner; it doesnít have to be just, "How do I put in the smallest and make the
biggest gains?" Everyone can be responsible for each other. Everyone can live better.
And thatís where I want to see capitalism go.
BOYNTON: Well, the problem comes when we start thinking about maximum profit, which is
really one of the questions Iím asking in the film. And this notion of maximum
profits. Itís not about profits. It is a question about whatís fair.
PITT: Yeah, the question of fairness. Can there be such a thing as fair distribution
BOYNTON: It depends on what we value. I mean, for me, I have to say, going to Nigeria
and spending the time I did there really changed the way I see things. When you see
people living without drinking water-- I mean, they donít have water. And itís very
hard to understand what that means, but think about that for a second. You canít brush
your teeth without the risk of getting some disease that might kill you. Like, itís a
problem. And itís a problem that causes people to die young, that causes people to
not live. No one should be living that way. It sounds like itís unrelated, but itís
not unrelated. To me, it is a film about capitalism, and itís not a film thatís
calling one set of people good and one set of people bad, but it is looking at the
fundamental conflicts in the way things work today. Iím not really an advocacy
filmmaker. Do you know who Marcel Ophuls is?
OK. Well, Iím a big fan of his. The Sorrow and the Pity, thatís his best film. The
reason Iím a fan of his is because what he did -- what he does in all of his films,
which is really rare -- is he manages to ask these questions that are very fundamental
to how people are living in the moment. So, he makes these movies, and then you watch
them, like, 40 years later and youíre like, ďOh, my God, these films are amazing.
Theyíre like these treasure boxes that preserved a way of thinking.Ē And that was how
I was approaching this film. I was trying to look at something that I think is
fundamental about the way we live now and to preserve it. I wanted the film to get at
that. I want people to watch it in 50 years time and say, ďOh, my God. That was how we
were living.Ē And I hope it will make people think, now, about how we might change