When Ben Richards set out to become a successful visual effects artist and graphic designer almost two decades ago, he never could have imagined he would become a world traveling documentary filmmaker living out his dream career.
“If there is no passion in your life, then have you really lived? Find your passion, whatever it may be. Become it, and let it become you and you will find great things happen FOR you, TO you and BECAUSE of you.” –T. Alan Armstrong
Richards (@apothecaryfilms), an ILWAD member, realized his passion for storytelling and human interest while stuck behind a computer as a movie visual effects artist. After having such success on films such as Happy Feet, The Incredibles, and Avatar, Richards realized he was working in a dream world instead of living out his true life dream. The exotic fantasy world he was creating could not take the place of the real world he was missing out on and no longer connected too. In 2006, he decided to make his dream a reality and created his own independent film company, Apothecary Films. His intense love of people and hearing their stories was the focus when creating his film company.
For the past four years, Richards has been fulfilling his passion by traveling the world and creating awe-inspiring documentaries. His uplifting films often showcase people facing life altering adversity who find joy and acceptance through participation in the performing arts. Being a huge proponent of the arts, Ben is continuously inspired by the overwhelming sense of healing that the arts have on the human soul.
I caught up with Ben Richards to chat about his jet-setting career, the current films he has in the works, and more!
M: Tell me a little about Apothecary films?
B: I started Apothecary Films in 2006 because the more I traveled the world, the more I realized there were really important stories that weren’t being told. I have always been interested in the arts and the more I traveled in poor countries, the more I realized what a vital role the arts play in helping people escape the reality of their poverty or whatever situation is afflicting them. I didn’t consciously set out to make films only on these topics but I have found myself drawn most strongly to this area. The first documentary I made focused on Cambodians recovering from the scars of civil war by reconnecting with their art and culture, and more recently in Slovakia I have focused on a group of homeless and disabled people being transformed by the healing power of the performing arts.
M: You have quite an impressive background in the field of 3-D visual effects and design, consulting on popular films like The Incredibles, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Happy Feet, to name a few. What made you want to transition into the role of independent filmmaker?
B: It’s definitely not your average story, many people when they start achieving this level of success go further and further into it but I actually got quite turned off when working on such big films. It was hugely impressive what was being done from a technological point of view but if you watch the end credits for Avatar you will see that they are almost as long as the film itself and what this translates to is thousands of people sitting in front of computers for thousands of hours, about as far away from real life stories as possible. The deeper I got into the technology field, the more disconnected I felt from the real world. I love the medium of film and wanted to continue working in this field and thought documentaries were the perfect way to fulfill many of my desires; travel, immersion in other cultures, film and the arts.
M: How did you get involved in working on films about people with disabilities? Tell me about the work you are now doing in Slovakia?
B: With the advent of the internet and cheaper global travel, the world has become a really small place. I was on a business trip to Montreal via New York and spent the weekend there with an Argentinian friend I knew from Australia. I met a Czech friend of hers and told her about my film in Cambodia and how the arts can really help people in need. She told me about a Slovak friend of hers doing theatre with homeless and disabled people and a few years later when I was living in London I saw it as the perfect chance to go there and meet the team and shoot my first film. A year later, I moved to Slovakia to shoot another film that would delve deeper into these people’s lives and actually ended up becoming a member of the NGO and a part time social worker, which has been immensely satisfying for me.
M: What types of disabilities do those in the theater group have?
B: We have a broad definition of “disabled” in the theatre, and consider that everyone has some kind of disability and it is this that makes us human, that and the ability to help those around us. Some of our homeless actors have social disabilities that arose due to problems with alcohol, drugs, or mental illness, both permanent and temporary. Sadly, some disabled people have no family or support groups and end up homeless, which is the case for 3 women we work with. We also have a few actors with cerebral palsy and probably the most inspirational member of our team is Veronica, who was born with no arms, stands just over 2 feet tall, and kicks the butt of anyone who is unnecessarily down about their situation. I think one of the reasons the actors so readily accepted me into their group was that I suffer from a language disability, which is something I am overcoming as they help me learn to speak their language.
M: Do you plan to do more films on people with disabilities? Possibly in the U.S. or other countries?
B: I have a few ideas that I would like to pursue. One is with a disabled friend I met during my ‘technology years’ doing presentations in Australia. He suffers from spinal muscular dystrophy and we met when I was giving a talk in his home town of Melbourne. At the time he was studying multimedia and now holds an advanced diploma which I find incredible considering he has no use of his arms or legs and uses his chin to interface with his computer. The work that he and I both do is challenging enough even with the full use of your body so his story really inspired me. We have been friends on Facebook for about 6 years now and what I find unique about his story is his virtual personas, the way he perceives himself on the internet, in virtual worlds with a fully functioning and muscular body. It was at this point that I realized the importance of virtual worlds not just for the physically disabled, but also people suffering from social phobias that live out satisfying lives in virtual spaces.
M: What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?
B: Without a doubt being in Slovakia and working in the theatre has been the most profoundly important project for me. As I mentioned it started out as a film but the actors and everyone involved affected me so much that I became involved far beyond the film and now don’t know what I would do without it. It has opened my eyes to a new world and through it I have met so many important and wonderful people who people society, love, peace and their fellow man above our largely troubled, money driven and materialistic world.
M: Do you still do any work in graphic design or visual effects?
B: Unfortunately, making films and being a social worker doesn’t pay the bills and to date has only cost me a lot of money so to keep the bills paid and fresh tapes in my camera I do still work in the visual effects world, mostly as a supervisor and I also have the chance to work as a professional photographer which I thoroughly enjoy.
M: What do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
B: There are many rewarding aspects of my job and many more things I hope to achieve over time. If I can change people’s perceptions about what people are capable of then this is achieving a bigger goal and I do hope many people watch my film and change their attitudes towards either homeless or disabled people but the most directly rewarding aspect is empowering my subjects who at one time felt they were on the margins of society and not useful to anyone. These people entertain others in the theatre and through my films and together we change the world for the better a little bit at a time. Seeing the pride on their faces when an audience applauds their performance makes me very emotional and more than once this moment has brought tears to my eyes.
M: What current and upcoming projects do you have in the works?
B: In terms of film I have a lot of ideas but have to stay focused on my current film Haiku, you can see a trailer on my webpage, Apothecary Films, and at this stage I am trying to raise the money to complete it. So far, I have spent 2 years working on it and am unable to continue without some financial support. I am looking into funding bodies and am looking for donations of any size, which will result in special thanks in the film credits. In the theatre, however, we are producing a very special play based on a book written by one of our homeless and mentally ill women. She is in her 60s and lived an amazing life. She has been very rich, in and out of mental hospitals with all kinds of horrible experimental treatments, had and lost a family and finally 5 years ago became homeless. Her book discusses many troubling times in her life and we have spent the last few months gathering everyone’s experiences with mental institutes or the way they may have been treated because of physical disabilities and incorporating all of this into the play. We have yet to introduce the script, but even in these early days, we can see it is going to be the most powerful play we have produced.
M: What do you love about ilivewithadisability, and what drew you to the site?
B: What I love about ILWAD is the openness of the community and how welcoming everyone is. It provides a platform for self-expression and the opportunity to discuss issues that people would not feel comfortable discussing on other social network sites. It is really a special safe haven on the internet, a virtual space unlike any physical space with no illusions; we all know that our friends on ILWAD either are disabled or have someone special in their lives with a disability, so there is no shame or hiding of these facts. [ILWAD is] just people connecting and enriching each others lives through these connections.