Uncharted Waters

Uncharted Waters

featuring Ben Weiland

Ben Weiland is a filmmaker whose name has become synonymous with films that touch the far corners of this Earth. Stories of the human experience, through struggle and triumph, told through a cinematic lens. He recently joined his close collaborator, Brian Davis, to launch Fielder Films -- a studio dedicated to telling the types of stories that have become the bedrock of their prior collaborations. Their most recent film, Island X, is one not to be missed. We caught Ben after they just got done touring the film on the West coast to gain more insight about how the film came to be, his approach to storytelling, and where he plans on taking Fielder.

Born Rival: Let’s not waste any time and get right into it. We just watched your latest film, Island X, and were blown away by both the jaw dropping visuals you captured as well as the deeper, moving story you told. Can you tell us what the film is about and how it came to be?

Ben Weiland: Island X is about friendship, exploration, wonder, and what to do about setbacks in life. It’s based around an exploratory surf trip to a remote, obscure island in the far north near Alaska and Russia. It's a place that I personally would've never thought I'd find waves. I didn't even know it was possible to surf there, until a scientist from that island started sending me photos.

He was a surfer himself, but didn't really get to surf up there much because he was working on a government marine biology research program. He'd been following my work and just started sending me photos of these perfect waves. So I went out there to meet him and scout the area and just build relationships with the local people. So that's how the film came about. It's also about my friend Mark McInnis, whose house burned down and he lost his entire life's work during the process of making this film. It's mostly about him and his journey and how that intersects with this surf trip.

Born Rival: What's the idea behind touring the film? It wasn't just a premiere, you've screened the film at almost a dozen different locations and are looking to add more dates on the calendar. What's been the audience's reaction to the film when seeing it in person?

Ben Weiland: As a filmmaker these days it feels like it is more challenging than ever to tell stories that reach people and impact them in a meaningful way. I enjoy watching films at home on a phone or on a screen, but to be in a crowd shoulder to shoulder with people enjoying an adventure film together, it's like a whole other thing. It feels like a communal experience or a cultural experience. It's something that I've enjoyed since I was a kid. My grandpa was a mountain climber and he would have a slide show that he'd show to me and my cousins when we'd come over to visit. We'd go into his basement and we'd ask him questions, it was like doing a filmmaker Q&A essentially, you know? But it was just for us kids. I still get that same feeling of joy and excitement when we put on these films, it's really cool.

For these events, most of them were packed out. The ones that were in the smallest spaces felt like the most energy. A lot of kids showed up and people asked a lot of questions. There's just a really cool energy about it and I love that. To me that's super meaningful. If we had just released it online, it could easily get lost in the flood of things that are available, you know? I'm sure it would still have impacted people, but it doesn't feel quite the same. I met so many new people through this, making those connections is really special. I enjoy it when other films come here through Oceanside, it's a really fun time to be able to go out to those screenings. So yeah, I'm super glad that we did the tour.

Born Rival: You've also decided to create some tangible goods to pair with the film.

Ben Weiland: I really love all the different tangible things that come from a film you love, or a band you love, like the posters or the album covers. When you're a kid, there are action figures and books. I used to love the Star Wars 'making of' books where they'd have concept art from the making of the films. It just goes into detail of how the models were made and how the artists created all the concepts. To me those things are just as fun and valuable as the films themselves. That is part of what makes it super special.

I love the whole creative ecosystem that can exist around a story or a film. In the future, I'd love to have even more of an immersive physical experience when you go into a film with displays and a photo gallery and all that kind of stuff. To me, makes the whole experience really well rounded and exciting. So that's kind of what we're trying to create, a full experience around the film. It's not just the film itself, but it's all those other things that are to be enjoyed as well.

Born Rival: It seems you are definitely drawn to and dabble in different creative expressions, as I know you work across a couple different mediums in addition to filmmaking, like graphic design and illustration. What was your first interest in visual art, and what led you down that path?

Ben Weiland: I've always been really focused on drawing and illustrating since I was a kid. My parents would give me paper to draw on, and then I would burn through all of it and be begging them for more paper. And then eventually they'd just give me stacks of copier paper and I would just tear through all that and I could just spend hours drawing. That's kind of all I cared about as a kid and didn't mind being by myself just doing that. Or even building Legos and creating little worlds, I don't think I ever followed the plans that you get with a Lego set, I always just built my own and imagined my own worlds and stuff. I feel like I've always kind of known that I gravitated towards the creative side of things, but I didn't really think, per se, that I would get into filmmaking. I went to college for graphic design and felt as if it was semi business, semi creative... I thought it could have been a path for me realistically, but didn't really dream much beyond that. 

Then after college I started a blog in 2009 called Arctic Surf, it was just a fun little at home side project that I did just for my own creative curiosity. I was essentially looking for surf in cold remote places on Google Earth and seeing like, is there surf in Alaska? I would just post whatever I found. Someone from Surfer Magazine found that blog and eventually hit me up and asked if I wanted to help coordinate and plan some trips to these places I'd been writing about. I knew nothing about these places besides the simple Google searches or screenshots, but it forced me to actually look into what it takes to get to places like these and essentially produce these trips.

I started writing stories about those travels and bringing a camera, kind of documenting it along the way and found out like, Whoa, if I edit whatever random footage I shoot on this trip and give it to the magazine, they'll pay me like $200. That's kind of crazy. And I actually really love doing this. It feels like a childhood dream come true, so I'll just keep doing that. I had a day job, but as I did more and more video projects on the side, after maybe five or six years, eventually I was able to leave that job and just do video full time. That's kind of how that whole thing happened. I never really was looking to get into filmmaking, it just organically grew out of those weird circumstances.

Born Rival: Are there different compartments where you separate your various creative expressions? Do you feel like your filmmaking informs your illustrations, or vice versa?

Ben Weiland: I would say illustrating and design isn't something that I do very often for work, but they do inform how I think about filmmaking and creative direction for projects. In the past I have illustrated much more, but now I'm kind of more interested in the holistic project.

For Island X, we brought in an illustrator, David Alderman, to do the poster art. I didn't feel like I needed to be the one to do that as well and I think that's been part of my process more recently -- realizing I don't have to be the one with my hands on every single part of the project, but it's actually really fun to bring on a team of creative people that are really passionate about what they're focused on and combine all those skills and abilities, instead of being a one man band. I think for the longest time I've been a one man band doing everything from editing to shooting to everything in between. It's really cool to spread out the creativity and have a team to work with. So yeah, I still do illustrate occasionally, but I would say it's more of a creative influence than it is a core part of what I do for work.

Born Rival: Why did you start Fielder, who's involved, and what's your ethos or approach that you're taking with the studio?

Ben Weiland: Fielder Films is the collaboration between myself and Brian Davis and we dreamed this up together. I met Brian at a coffee shop about seven years ago and he was like, oh, I'm into filmmaking. I was like, oh, me too, let's chat, you know? So I originally brought Brian on to some of the projects I was working on because it felt really lonely being a one man band. For me, I love having a friend that you can bounce ideas off of, and it doesn't feel competitive. It doesn't feel like you're trying to jockey for who has the most say or authority, but it's more like you're with a friend in a sandbox dreaming of ideas.

So I think it really came out of friendship, just having a friend who's also creative who would want to work on projects together. Most of the work we do, we're both involved in some way. We spend a lot of time thinking about what our values are, what we want to be doing, how we want to creatively direct these projects. Everything we do is kind of layered off of each other's abilities and insight. And to me that's super gratifying, I love having a friend there to wrestle through these ideas with and bounce them off somebody else. That's been huge. I realized early on, every project that we would do together turned out much better than if it had just been myself.

Born Rival: Are there particular types of films or genres that you guys are trying to focus on through Fielder?

Ben Weiland: I definitely think there's a strong influence for me coming out of surfing and adventure films, doc style, exploratory films, that's a huge part of it. Brian kind of comes from a broader creative perspective, he loves more off the cuff storytelling and keeping it more loose and open. I think we want to essentially combine these adventurous stories with deeper, more meaningful stories about people, about humans that are going through something in life or learning something or going through a character arc of sorts. So combining the love of outdoor sports in nature & travel with a deeper story that resonates with people that maybe don't participate in those sports, that's kind of like the ethos of what we're doing right now.

We want to expand that into broader areas and just have more of that deeper human connection. A lot of what we've done in the past has been more on the serious side, but we are also really excited about bringing more humor and lightness into the films we make and not feeling like everything has to be super dramatically over the top, but just keeping it light and fun has been kind of what we've been really stoked on in the last year or two.

Born Rival: I want to talk about how you go about discovering interesting topics that you want to explore through films. What's your process like?

Ben Weiland: Project by project, these independent stories have very much been step by step, let's see where this goes, and if we hit a dead end, let's figure out a work-around. Maybe this is meant to be a different story entirely. With Island X, we went in 2019 and got great footage, but I didn't really know what the story was. After that, Covid happened. Then one of the guys on the trip, Mark McInnis, his house burned down and he lost all the photos from that first trip. Then the airlines we had used to fly to the island were going out of business. It felt like, what's happening with this film, you know?

So at that point I realized I think the film just needs to be about the struggle of making this film and decided to shift the whole focus. And because of that, a deeper, richer story came out of it. I think there's definitely something to be said about preplanning, figuring out what you want to shoot, but then being able to adapt to the changes and circumstances that come along and being willing to shift the focus and realizing that that's probably going to happen. That's a part of documentary filmmaking, I have just learned to embrace that process.

Born Rival: You've traveled to the far corners of the world, often to very remote places, observing how other people might live or how their culture may be vastly different than your own. How have those experiences shaped your perspective and outlook after you travel back home?

Ben Weiland: I think the biggest influence of it all is creativity, of seeing how other people live their life and build things, make things, seeing what they eat. I was born and grew up in Germany, so I feel like I've always felt a little out of place in America in some ways, like culturally. I've had different perspectives on the way everything is different between both countries. So when I travel, I feel like it's that feeling of going into a new place and seeing how they live their life. I love incorporating those little things that I learn or observe into my own life. It can be such small things, the way somebody prepares a meal or the way they decorate their home, those things get me really excited for when I come home. If I go on a trip to, say, Iceland and I had a certain meal, I come home and I try to make that meal every day for the next month because I'm just so psyched on it, you know? It sounds like a little thing but I think creatively, those influences get me really excited.

Another thing that comes to mind is the surf scene in Denmark, there's some really cool talented craftsmen there that make their own surfboards. They have a really interesting perspective on architecture, so they'll combine that whole Scandinavian approach with surfing, which is really cool. I love those influences and I feel like it really changes me as a person. Also, after having traveled to a lot of these places over and over again, whether it's Iceland or New Zealand or Hawaii, you start to make friends in those places that become really meaningful. It's hard to feel like you're far away from them, but it's also so special to have people around the world that you can go visit and connect with. That's been the biggest treasure of all of it.

Born Rival: What's next man? Do you have any other projects that you've got on the horizon?

Ben Weiland: There's a few ideas that have been floating around, I just don't know which is going to pop up as the one that I pursue. There are a few other remote places I'd love to go to and explore for waves. I would love to do another film, like of the length of Island X and do a tour again. I've also thought about making a fictional adventure film that's more about characters and story arc, just as much as it is about adventure. So yeah, there's a bunch of ideas pinging around, but we'll have to see where it all lands.

Must Watch: Island X

Check out more of Ben's work through fielder.studio