Filmmaker David Midell’s ‘The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain’
We can’t deny it. We already had a bit of a filmmaker crush on David Midell, even before his newest film, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain. Not only is the writer/producer/ director making impactful, beautiful films, but he’s not afraid to tackle some of the most controversial topics facing the US today. David Midell is bringing an empathetic and heart wrenching approach to his work, and we are loving every moment of it.
David Midell’s passion for storytelling has already earned him ample notice, including the Prism Award from the Entertainment Industries Council, and we have no doubt that he’s just getting started. We are racing to see his newest true crime docudrama, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. was shot in his home in White Plains, NY on November 19th, 2011. When the 68 year old black retired marine’s medical alert necklace inadvertently triggered, emergency services were dispatched to check on him.
Two hours later the police officers who were charged with ensuring Kenneth’s health and safety shot him to death. What happened in the intervening hours was a harrowing tale of fear, abuse, misunderstanding, and strength in the face of insurmountable odds.
David Midell’s precisely accurate retelling of the tragic and wholly preventable death in The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is both heartbreaking and unflinching. Midell retells the story with painstaking accuracy, using medical alert company phone calls to 911 and eyewitness reports.
The film is shot entirely in the small apartment and hallway, leaving audiences feeling as trapped as Chamberlain must have, and providing the agonizing backdrop for the veteran’s last moments. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is the movie that everyone should watch, and no one could forget.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain premiered at the Austin Film Festival where it won the Audience Award and the Narrative Jury Award, as well as the Las Cruces and Omaha (where it picked up the Audience award for best feature film) film festivals.
David Midell’s evocative film career
It should come as no surprise that David Midell has already made a name for himself by creating emotionally affecting films. He initially began his career by drawing from his work as a teacher and therapist in disadvantaged areas of Chicago.
David Midell’s first feature film is the acclaimed NightLights, released in 2014. NightLights tells the story of Erin, who cares for her non-verbal and low-functioning autistic brother Jacob. With an honest look at the hardships that Erin faces in trying to develop a life while caring for her brother, David Midell grabbed both critics and audience’s attention.
NightLights eventually made its way to the Lifetime Network in 2015, and has been widely applauded for its uncompromising look at the challenges caretakers face in the US today. Similarly, ever since its release in the Austin Film Festival, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain has provided its own steadfast spotlight into law enforcement and race relations in the US.
David Midell’s distinct voice
David Midell’s unique experiences as a therapist and teacher have developed empathy and understanding that he is bringing to the masses through film. In using his insight to bring to light some of the biggest challenges facing our nation today, he offers an opportunity for compassion and change.
We were so thrilled to have the chance to sit down with this pioneer filmmaker to learn from his experiences and his path forward.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
Who are your current influences?
I was completely enamored with film and filmmaking as a child, but I ended up spending most of my time in school studying and performing music. Once I got to college, I decided to shift gears and transferred into the film/theater department, and that’s where I rediscovered this passion that had been dormant for a long time.
After college, I ended up playing in rock bands and gigging around the city of Chicago for a while, as well as pursuing a Masters in special education after a really amazing experience I had working with kids with developmental disabilities. I taught special education for years while also pursuing film, and the experiences I had as an educator really influenced the films I was making.
Some of my biggest influences have been David Fincher, Alexander Payne, and Robert Zemeckis, but recently, and for this film, in particular, I’ve drawn most of my inspiration from docudrama filmmakers like Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
I’m going to list films instead, cause I don’t keep up with TV the way I should…
- Waves (Trey Edward Shults)
- Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
- Honey Boy (Ala Har’el)
- Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
- The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (Ali LeRoi)
Cat or dog?
Dog, I grew up with dogs and have always had a huge soft spot for them.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
Paul Greengrass’s United 93, there’s never been a film that had a more powerful impact on me.
How was working on The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain? What did you learn from the experience?
In terms of making a film that’s based on a true story, the most important thing I learned was the importance of involving the family, and how much making a film like this can impact a community.
I had the incredible experience of visiting the place where the incident portrayed in the film took place, and showing the film to the community. The reaction was so strong and it’s a reminder every day that even though I’ve put so much blood sweat and tears into the film, it’s still just a film to me. To the community and the family, it’s their lives.
Tell us about your career before you found film.
Before I went into film, I taught students with disabilities and worked as a behavior therapist for children and adults with autism. As I mentioned, this really helped shape my voice as a filmmaker and taught me a lot about working with people.
Where did the concept come from for The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain?
The concept for the film came out of research I was doing about cases of institutional discrimination and racism in our criminal justice system. After reading about what happened to Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., I felt strongly that a film about this tragedy could have an impact on audiences and help them understand what someone like Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. went through.
What music inspires you to create?
Lately, it’s been esoteric instrumental pieces from groups like Eluvium, Explosions In The Sky, and This Will Destroy You: music that really gets under your skin viscerally and opens up your imagination.
Talk us through your creative process.
I normally begin with a kernel of an idea, or an event that took place in real life. Then I dig into research and immerse myself in the world of the story, whether it’s a sequence of events and the people involved, or it’s a single person’s life and what made them who they are, etc. This is the stage that takes the longest in my process.
Once I’ve done all that research, I’m able to start writing/outlining, which flows pretty naturally from the research. Everything really comes back to authenticity and when I’m making a creative choice, I’m always asking myself which choice will be more authentic emotionally, factually, or logistically.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
The biggest tip I can give is not to write what you think other people want, write what you find interesting. People didn’t actually start responding to my writing until I completely let go of what I thought other people wanted and just wrote what I found fascinating.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
I love sound mixing/designing, partially because I’m fortunate enough to work with an incredible sound mixer/designer, but also because by then, the film is assembled and you know whether or not you have something that will affect audiences.
The sound mixing enhances everything that’s going on onscreen, supports the emotional resonance of the film, and creates an entire landscape for the audience’s ears. Sound is half of what the audience is taking in so its hugely important, and I think my musical background helps me communicate with mixers/designers, and helps develop a specific landscape for the sound to exist in.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
Difficult, but also very rewarding. I think it’s important for a filmmaker to have at least cursory knowledge of all the different disciplines required to make films, because it helps you collaborate, helps you appreciate the contributions of others, and helps you communicate a lot more effectively, and that’s something I’m not always great at.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Probably Cast Away. There are so many films that have had huge effects on me, but this is one that I appreciate more and more every time I watch it.
What’s your next project?
My producing partner Enrico Natale and I are developing a number of different projects, most of which involve true stories or stories that are inspired/based on real events. We’re putting the pieces together financially for those projects and hope to move straight from this one into the next one.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I’ve worked with many people I’ve learned a great deal from, but I wouldn’t say I’ve had one mentor. I’ve had to figure a lot of things out for myself about life and about filmmaking; my dad passed away when I was young so I took cues from men in the media, uncles/cousins, etc. about what it means to be a man in the world.
When I first moved out to LA, I didn’t know a soul and I really had to find a social group, colleagues, and people I could learn from on my own.
What has been your biggest failure?
My biggest failure as a filmmaker is that I sometimes allow things to get too heavy on set. With this film in particular, the subject matter is very dark and difficult to handle for many people. It’s a good thing we had people on set who knew how to lighten the mood, because that’s something I’m not always great at.
I took the material so seriously (which is obviously what I had to do with this type of material), but sometimes that prevented me from cracking jokes and lightening the mood when the cast and crew really could have used it. But we were fortunate to have people on set with very good senses of humor, who were able to take the subject matter seriously, but also add some levity to the set when it was needed.
What’s your filmmaking mission?
I think film is undervalued as something that can have a profound effect on people, and really open their minds to a new perspective or an issue they never would have previously considered. My mission is to make films that have that sort of effect on audiences.
Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I want viewers to experience the difficulties and struggles of people they may have never considered before. Whether it’s a man living with autism who is unable to communicate his most basic wants and needs, or an elderly African American man with bipolar disorder who is tragically misunderstood by those who are supposed to protect him, my hope is that audiences consider thoughts, ideas, and people they may never have before.
What has been your biggest success?
I feel like my biggest success with this film is that the Chamberlain family feels like we did justice to their father’s story. It’s been an incredible experience working with them, sharing in their grief about what happened to their father, and hopefully helping other people understand some of the institutional discrimination and racism that still exists in our criminal justice system.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
I would love to do an episodic and I have several ideas I’m developing. There are so many stories that could use a full episodic treatment, and I’m excited to sink my teeth into those stories as they develop.
What’s your five-year plan?
My five-year plan is to continue developing as a filmmaker, and eventually reach a point where I’m able to tell stories I’m passionate about without worrying about whether another project will come along.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
I have so many talented friends I’ve met since beginning to make films, that it would be unfair to single out any, but a few of the films and filmmakers whose work has really affected me recently are Trey Edward Shults, Jeff Nichols, and Robert Eggers.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
This is such a hard question, I have so many but one I keep coming back to is Cast Away. When I first saw it almost 20 years ago, it had an incredibly profound effect on me.
Who would compose the soundtrack of your life?
Alan Sylvestri, Thomas Newman, or Trent Reznor.
The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain will next screen at the LA Method Film Festival on March 22 at 7pm, and at the Oxford Film Festival on March 20 at 7:15 pm and March 21 at 1:00 pm.