Chris Baron is passionate about visual storytelling. Over the past 15 years, he's worked as director and cinematographer on many television and documentary productions, including the Emmy-winning documentary series Intervention and the Oscar-nominated documentary Food Inc.

Chris is uniquely adept at storytelling thanks to years of experience collaborating with some of the best storytellers in the business, including Oscar-winning directors Jessica Yu and Jessica Sanders, as well as Oscar-nominated director Robert Kenner. Chris also directed the acclaimed documentary short The Time to Heal for SPU recently.

Amanda Stubbert: Let me let everyone know though Chris did not attend SPU, he is one of those SPU families, are you not?

Chris Barron: That is true. My dad graduated from SPU and my sister.

Amanda: Before we get to our film that you and I had the privilege of making together, let’s talk about why you became a filmmaker in the first place. What led you to professional storytelling?

Chris: I think there were a couple things. One thing for sure was, I wanted an electric guitar when I was a teenager and I begged my parents for one and then my dad bought me a camera instead. I decided I better at least give that a shot. I think he must have seen something. It was a good choice. I don’t think I would have been a very good rock star.

I started shooting photos when I was a teenager and quickly got frustrated with it. It was a hard to kind of learn and as a teenager does, I got kind of bored with things pretty quickly. Before that I remember looking at old Time magazines that my Dad had lying around in his office and seeing this photo in one of them of a Syrian woman, I believe she was crying over her child who had been injured in an attack of some sort. I remember being absolutely just overcome with emotions and the power of that one image stuck with me realizing like, photography, the visual arts, it’s such an amazing tool to create empathy and compassion. That’s something that’s stuck with me throughout my career now.

Amanda: The storytelling nature of the photo is what got you. I think you could say every good photograph tells a story, but sometimes the story is just how beautiful a flower is. Our place in the universe versus something like you were describing, that really there’s so much behind that one image.

Chris: That led me to photography. I started taking photographs in high school and was terrible at it. I think technically I didn’t understand it. I ended up going to school over in England after high school and took a camera and just kind of fell in love with, everything was new and exciting and just taking photos of everything. That was back in the day of film. I didn’t have any money. I would just ship the film reels back, the little rolls of film back to my parents and they would pay to get it developed. They were like, “Whoa, these are really amazing.” I couldn’t see what they were seeing, but through that, my dad started showing some of these photos around that I was taking.

When I got back home, I was 19 years old and I got asked to go and film in Romania at an orphanage because the dictatorship had just fallen and there were all these stories coming out about these kids in state-run orphanages and they had nowhere to go. There was an organization in Lynden at the time, and they had started an orphanage and they wanted to capture their story.

“I was 19 years old and I got asked to go and film in Romania at an orphanage.”

That was my first filming experience, being asked to go travel to Romania. Of course, I said yes. I had never filmed with a video camera or anything like that outside of just messing around in high school. Then I called my grandfather because I knew he had a newer video camera. He let me take it; I borrowed it. I read the manual on the flight over there. I just shot.

Amanda: Way to be prepared!

Chris: I just filmed with it. I filmed with it like a still camera. This is kind of funny looking at it now, but it turned out great and it really opened my eyes to the power of filmmaking. I remember being there and with these kids and just horrible situations and being frustrated about, why am I just filming this? This feels sort of voyeuristic and I’m not helping in any way, I should be doing more with my hands.

Coming back and the piece was edited and then they showed it at this event, and just seeing how these images and these moments moved people and a number of the children were adopted because of that. That was it for me, just realizing like, “Oh, this is a really powerful tool to create positive changes in the world.” Then after that, I was all in.

Amanda: You were all hooked on documentaries. I was just going to ask you that question, because even just in a small way, we’ll talk about The Time to Heal in a moment.

You and I in a hospital during the height of COVID, trying to get what you need and yet many times press yourself up against the wall, trying to be as small as possible and not possibly be in someone’s way. It’s a very strange position to be in, to be there, but not be there in a way. I would just wonder if this is something that you’re used to over and over again, seeing what’s happening and frankly seeing the pain of humanity over and over again, from the sidelines. How do you get through that? How do you take it all in and then be able to deal with it all?

Chris: Oh boy, Amanda. That is a great question. Well, first of all, being an observer to some really emotional, painful things, I don’t know why, I’ve always just kind of gravitated towards that side of life. The things that we don’t typically want to look at, I want to kind of look at and show people, whether that’s working on intervention with drug addiction and very difficult things that go around that. I worked on Hoarders, too, and a bunch of other shows where it highlights some of the parts of life we don’t want to really look at, but I think it’s important for us to look at. I don’t really like the spotlight, so it’s a fine place for me to be behind the camera.

But dealing with that, I never thought about it for years. “Oh, I’m storing up some emotional baggage and things like that, that I’m not processing.” It wasn’t honestly until a couple years ago that I realized I need to unpack a bunch of this stuff because it started to manifest in anxiety and depression and something.

That’s an ongoing question in my head. How do you take on the trauma of the stories and process that properly? Yeah, you can move on and share that because I think we need to feel some of that so we can empathize and be compassionate.

“That’s an ongoing question in my head. How do you take on the trauma of the stories and process that properly?”

Amanda: Especially right now in time when there’s sort of no one that’s just skipping along, having a great time. We’re all dealing with so much that I think it’s all the more important that we look to people like therapists and documentary filmmakers that have spent a lifetime having to witness things and process it for your own self and your own body. I just thought, I need to ask that question because I think there’s a lot of us going, “I can’t watch the news and go to bed. I need to figure out how do I see what I need to see, learn what I need to learn, so that I can do what I need to do and yet not carry it around with you all day, every day.”

Chris: Yeah, and I don’t have a great answer to that because it’s something that’s ongoing in my life, learning how to deal with that. I enjoy getting outside a lot. I enjoy spending time alone. I try to go on regular runs. That helps a lot. There’s a lot I’m still learning in that area, for sure.

Amanda: Yeah, thank you, thank you for sharing that. If I may, and maybe you’ll say no, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but somehow to me, completing the story, you were saying, telling a story in a way that you feel good about that, that actually changes hearts and minds of those who witnessed that story, really can be a piece of the healing, as well. You said, doing your part in this process of helping.

I would love to talk about that process because I know there’s a lot of stories. People say, “They’re such a great person, we should tell their story.” Like working on intervention. Addiction is such a deep ocean of need. We should tell that story, but within those things, there are so many stories you could tell. Any individual, any biography, there’s a myriad of stories you could tell about those people. How do you decide, what is the story you’re going to tell for each subject? I’m sure that’s what you do. People come to you and say, “I want to make this film, I want you to tell the story,” but then what story are you going to tell?

Chris: Yeah, that’s a great question. A friend of mine who’s a director always told me, there’s three main things, which are character, access, and story. If you prioritize those, story’s actually the last in terms of documentary filmmaking and what I gravitate toward.

Chris BaronCharacter is always number one, and then access. Can you see things and get access to them emotionally? Can you get access to a part of the world that not many people get to have a chance to look at? Usually when I’m looking at a subject to create a story around or tell their story, it’s those two things pop up first. Then the story itself, how are we going to structure this, and what we’re going to share and what we’re not going to share. That is secondary. That comes out throughout the whole process of pre-production where we’re talking to the people involved in the story, and we’re then filming and something new comes to light. Crafting that story, that arc, that beginning, middle and end is an ever-changing process. It’s not completely decided until you hit export on your editing software, and that makes it fun, too.

Amanda: I know the times you and I have worked together that, if you’re able to leave that space to not know exactly what story you’re telling until later in the process, these amazing things come to light, that I feel like you and I’ve looked at each other many times when something happens, where you catch something on film and you think, “Boy, if we had this storyboarded from start to finish, we would have missed that.” It’s so amazing. Can you think of an example of a project where you thought you knew what story you were telling and then it went a whole new direction?

Chris: I’ve started working on a personal project that takes place in a small town. It just started out of this idea. We’ve heard about this small conservative town is having a March for Black Lives rally. They didn’t call it Black Lives Matter because that would spark some negative reactions that they didn’t want.

But anyway, these kids got together and had this March for Black Lives and we just went there to film it, thinking this might be interesting. Don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have access. We didn’t even have any characters; we had nothing. We were just going to film this day, and then it turns out like it was a much bigger thing. The event scared a bunch of people in town that are very conservative and a lot of people showed up with guns to protect their town because they had been watching some news where things were burning in cities, and they thought this might come to their small town.

Through that, I just found these interesting characters. That story has been kind of developing as we follow some of these characters that stood out just on that first day. Walked into that story, not knowing at all what we were going to get, and it’s just been ever evolving. Still working on it.

Amanda: Like you said, that story hasn’t ended yet. Whatever story you’re telling, the end probably hasn’t actually happened.

Chris: Yeah, and that’s the hardest part. We need to end this at some point. What is the end?

Amanda: I think of that a lot when I see very timely documentaries that come out and then you realize, they started filming eight, 10 years prior and you think, “What made them think this was going to be a thing?” Then I start thinking about all the documentary filmmakers that have years’ worth of footage on something, sitting in a drawer somewhere that never really did become a story they wanted to tell.

Chris: That’s the beauty and the frustration of documentary film. A lot of times you don’t know where it’s going to go. There’s a lot of projects that I have that just have never gone anywhere. They just didn’t have the ending that it needed to make a strong enough story or something fell apart in the middle of it, but it’s not scripted. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. These are real people with real lives, and things come up and things change quickly.

Amanda: Just like life.

Chris: It can be very frustrating and very exciting.

“That’s the beauty and the frustration of documentary film. A lot of times you don’t know where it’s going to go.”

Amanda: Absolutely. Well, let’s circle back to The Time to Heal. For those who haven’t heard of the film, instead of giving our normal SPU alumni awards during 2020 (our Alum of the Year, Young Alum of the Year, and then two Medallion Awards), it just seemed impossible to pick four individuals at a time when the world was shut down and everything was changing so quickly and so much was going on. It felt silly almost to pick four individuals.

We decided to honor all of our first responder alumni, all of our medical professionals out there on the front lines, keeping us all safe and healthy. It was an idea that was embraced by the school and the administration. Everyone was so happy to tell that story. Then I got to sit down with you Chris and say, OK, but now how are we going to tell that story? That’s a huge story, right?

We’re talking thousands of individuals and very different timelines for each of them and storylines. I believe it was your suggestion, to focus on Harborview. We have any number of alums, I think at last count it was about 50 alums, working at Harborview. How were we going to find our characters, to use your words? Then how were we going to get accessibility? How are we going to get into the hospital to film?

It seemed impossible, but we got there. Do you want to talk to us about how we even got into the hospital begin with? That’s the first question everybody asks me, is how you even got us into the hospital during COVID?

Chris: Wait, how did we get in the hospital?

Amanda: By the grace of God, we got into the hospital.

Chris: When you came to me with this idea, I was very excited. About breaking the mold of doing what we did traditionally with these short profile films, which are always fun. I think we both recognized the unique opportunity to honor the people that are just putting up with so much. They’ve taken care of us.

Especially when we were doing that, was really in the heart of it. It was a lot of unknowns. The opportunity to film at Harborview was huge because that is number one trauma center in our region. People from Alaska to Montana to Idaho and Oregon come up to the hospital when they need good care. How did we get access to that? We made a connection somehow.

Amanda: We made a few connections and then I was able to use your expertise because I know you’ve filmed other things within hospitals quite a few times so you understood the regulations. Honestly when it comes down to it, I think by the grace of God is actually the true answer to that question.

How we found the doctor and the nurses that were willing to bare their hearts and souls and jobs to us. Physically getting in the hospital itself was pretty amazing. It’s scary to think that when we started the process, more than one person said to me, “Aren’t you afraid that by the time the film is ready, we’ll be out of COVID and no one will want to talk about it anymore?” Now you look around and it’s like, well, unfortunately …

Chris: I wish that was true.

Amanda: Exactly. I wish that was true. That was my concern. I hope that’s the case.

Chris: Unfortunately, yeah. We could make this film again with the same relevance.

Amanda: Yes. In fact, I would love to do a follow-up with Dr. Mitchell and our two RNs, Rocky Dixon and Bethany Houston. They’re just amazing individuals that were so gracious to let us into their lives at a time when we were all being very private.

I love them all, and I’m glad that they allowed us to tell their stories, especially because back to our conversation on story, we really didn’t have an ending. We thought we were going to be able to show, this is what it’s like now that we’re out of COVID, and we don’t have the ability to show that, even now.

Chris: Going through that process with you in my head, I remember, it’s a good idea. Can we follow three people and find people that represent the wider whole of SPU nursing alumni, health care alumni?

The pieces started to come together really nicely. I remember after we did that first pre-interview Zoom call with Rocky, and we’re like, “Oh yes, she’s amazing.”

Amanda: This is going to work.

Chris: Yeah, it’s going to work. I think we still had the question, we didn’t have access to Harborview, but that came again through them. The pieces kind of fell together.

We actually shot that in a very short time span. I think it was just a couple of days.

Amanda: Whereas normally we would have followed each individual minimally one entire day. One 10-, 12-hour shift and we got maybe two hours a person, maybe.

I just remember, myself, going in knowing basically the story you want to tell, maybe big and out of focus, but zooming in as we met these individuals and followed them around that really the story we ended up telling was these are such holistic people. They’re the doctors and nurses that you want on your team that bring their heart, soul, spirit, and faith with them to work every single day. Then how difficult this has been, even on the best of the best of these medical professionals. Quite a privilege to be able to work on this.

Chris: Absolutely. Talk about taking emotional baggage home and having to process that. We’re seeing the ramifications of health care workers and staff leaving now because it’s just been such an incredibly tough time through COVID.

Amanda: I was just going to say, to anyone who hasn’t seen the film and wants to … even if it’s only emotionally, support all of our first responders out there. You can go to spu.edu/timetoheal to watch the film.

Before we let you go, Chris, I want to hear about some of the other fun projects that you’re working on. I know you do some really fun things with your sister who is a famous blogger and cookbook author. You want to talk about that?

Chris: My sister, who is an SPU alum, and I believe you’ve talked to her.

Amanda: Go Ashley, yes.

Chris: Ashley Rodriguez. A few years ago, we started an outdoor wild food sort of cooking series where she is in front of camera, I’m behind camera. We connect with foragers and hunters and fisherpeople and they guide us around in the wild and she uses her culinary skills to cook a feast over the fire with the ingredients that we found. We’ve done a couple episodes and a podcast. We were nominated for a James Beard award, which I always say it’s like the Oscars of the food world.

“We were nominated for a James Beard award, which I always say it’s like the Oscars of the food world.”

Amanda: The Oscars of the food world.

Chris: That was super fun.

Amanda: If anyone watches that show and wonders if that’s just a gimmick or something that you and Ashley came up with for her … just today, I was on the phone with her talking about a completely different project and mid-sentence she goes, “Ooh, yay.” Then I thought she’d come up with a good idea about what we were discussing. And she goes, “Sorry, found a wild mushroom.”

Chris: That’s hilarious.

Amanda: Then she starts telling me all about the mushroom she found. That’s real, people. Ashley’s desire for wild food is real.

Chris: She’s got the mushroom craze right now. She’s very excited about the rain. That all came from this show and connecting with people that we wouldn’t normally connect with and just being inspired by them to get outside. Now it’s spreading to our kids. My kids are really excited about mushroom hunting and fishing and all this other stuff. So it’s pretty cool.

Amanda: That’s awesome. Well, we’ll be keeping an eye on that.

I’d love to end with the same question that we ask everybody who comes on the show because everybody’s perspective is different and so useful. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Chris: Be kind. Do something kind for some stranger.

Amanda: Because we all have a story.

Chris: We do.

Amanda: We all have a story. Just a little side note, because I thought of it and we’re talking about story and strangers and things like that … any time that someone crosses my path or I see someone who’s doing something or acting in a way that I don’t particularly enjoy … and it’s so easy to just judge people. It’s so easy to just make assumptions and be angry and make judgments. If I can find a story to tell myself, even if there’s a 0.1% chance, it’s true, if there’s a story I can tell myself that lets them off the hook, that allows me not to judge them, then I’m going to go with that until I hear different. It’s something that a drama teacher taught me in high school, and I do it literally every day. I feel it has helped me not carry that stuff around.

You see someone who seems to be gruff or they weren’t very nice to you, even as you just passed on the sidewalk. If you just think, you know what, they came out of that big high-rise building. Literally, maybe this was their last day at work. Maybe they’d got fired. You’re like, you would feel sorry for them versus feeling why were they rude to me? It’s something that helps me. Storytelling gets me there.

All right. Well, thank you, Chris. I look forward to lots of great storytelling projects with you in the days to come.

Chris: Thank you. I do, too.

 

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