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Magician-turned-film director Ben Proudfoot uses cameras to create illusions with powerful and emotional narratives on the big screen. And the Academy Awards has given its stamp of approval.
The Canadian filmmaker just earned his third Oscar nomination in four years for The Last Repair Shop, his latest film set to compete in the best documentary short category. That’s after Proudfoot in 2020 nabbed his first Oscar nomination for the short doc A Concerto Is a Conversation, executive produced by Ava DuVernay, and became an Oscar winner in 2021 for the documentary short The Queen of Basketball, about the late basketball pioneer Lusia “Lucy” Harris.
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That gives Proudfoot among the best batting averages of late for Oscar contenders in Hollywood.
“It’s hard for me to deal with that. It’s an extraordinary honor. And I just feel if there’s a secret ingredient, it’s just the love we put into our films,” he told The Hollywood Reporter after he and co-director and in-demand composer Kris Bowers were nominated for their short doc about a Los Angeles Unified School District’s musical instrument repair shop, and which features four devoted craftsmen who work there.
In part, it’s Proudfoot’s laser-like attention to detail in The Last Repair Shop, caring deeply for the sound and music to color and editing choices in the 39-minute film, that explains his ability to engage and dazzle movie audiences and Academy voters with immersive storytelling.
But you need to go back to the hidden card and coin tricks a teenage Proudfoot perfected as an award-winning and hustling magician in Canada, and as a regular at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, to understand the L.A.-based director’s obsession with pleasing an audience with cinematic poetry and craft.
The result is Proudfoot, a graduate from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, being able to entrance movie audiences with intimate stories of ordinary people who never dreamt the Oscar spotlight one day would swing in their direction.
Proudfoot sees the process of making short documentaries, as opposed to feature-length movies, as taking glitzy stage magic shows and bringing them down to the level of close-up sleight-of-hand tricks.
“[Magic] trained my brain to be oriented around the audience’s experience first. All of your other decisions are subordinate to that. It doesn’t matter how you make the coin float, but the audience has to experience the coin floating. And if you can tell a story that enhances that moment, it becomes really special,” he explains.
That same showmanship and illusion applies to Oscar-worthy short documentary filmmaking. “You take something that seems ordinary and you show how extraordinary it is, you enhance the wonder and the awe and the emotion and the humanity of it using your craft,” Proudfoot adds.
To find and instill the humanity in his documentary subjects, the filmmaker goes looking for what he calls the “sweep” of the lives of people interviewed in his films more as conversations. Proudfoot may start asking someone for their first memory, then about growing up and their earliest desires and ambitions and how they got from where they were to where they are now.
More poignantly, Proudfoot looks to discover the personal challenges people face and how they overcame them, and all the while uses movie magic to entwine human emotions and values of hard work and perseverance around what people say on screen.
Proudfoot also doesn’t believe in using reality TV archetypes to identify believable characters after holding casting calls and auditions for his short docs. Instead, he’s patient enough to wait for someone’s life story to reveal itself on camera.
Proudfoot is so sure of his interviewing technique, he insists anyone can be asked for the sweep of their life and “I can guarantee we’d both be in tears” from the answers to his questions.
In The Last Repair Shop, Proudfoot interviews four devoted craftspeople in a Los Angeles warehouse who keep the musical instruments of local high school students in good working order — Dana Atkinson, in the strings division, who grew up gay in the 1970s; Paty Moreno, a single mother who fixes brass instruments and left Mexico to chase the American dream; Duane Michaels, a quirky musician who toured with Elvis playing a $20 fiddle he bought at a flea market; and Steve Bagmanyan, who learned to tune pianos in America after escaping after surviving ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan.
He engages in a conversation about their lives, with surprising intimacy and storytelling and an inspiring musical underscore by co-director Bowers. “You don’t expect these repair people to be able to weave and spin a beautiful story that surprises you and haunts you and you relate to — but they do,” the director insists.
Proudfoot has other tricks in his directorial bag, including the direct facial close-up of his short doc subjects. For that, the filmmaker reveals he uses the Interrotron, a variation of the teleprompter invented by fellow Oscar-winning documentary master Errol Morris.
The result is a complicated cinematography illusion that allows The Last Repair Shop audience to see into the faces and eyes and expressions — and seemingly the soul of the four doc subjects profiled — as part of heartfelt conversations.
As if breaking a magicians’ code by revealing the trade secrets of The Fog of War director to the world, Proudfoot recalled being terrified to bump into Morris at the Telluride Film Festival and confess he owed his own Oscar-winning career to the Interrotron. “I went up to [Morris] and I told him and there was a long moment — a moment I’d been dreading for years — and he finally said, ‘Have at it!” he recounts.
But it’s not ripping off Morris, rather making a movie in The Last Repair Shop about people fixing what’s broken for young students for whom their musical instruments are a lifeline that’s allowed Proudfoot to earn a third Oscar nomination.
“We all have broken relationships, broken promises. The world in many ways is broken and not everything can be repaired. But if you have the belief and the will to try, some things can be repaired. And we need to keep that hope alive,” Proudfoot, ever the optimist, argues.
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