Conversation with Nathaniel Brown ’13, freelance filmmaker and photographer

Nathaniel Brown ’13 majored in international politics and economics with a focus on East Asia and is now a freelance filmmaker and photographer. He received a Fulbright scholarship after college. He has since traveled the world to make documentaries with subcultural communities, including the United States, Siberia, Indonesia and China. You can listen to the podcast here.

Q: Please introduce some of your current projects and describe a typical working day as an independent filmmaker.

A: I mainly work in the documentary field. As a freelance artist, my time is evenly divided between filming, editing and developing new work. Currently, I am working on a few projects. One is a performance piece in Indonesia and a documentary piece that deals a bit with climate change, and then [I’m] working on a piece in New York with a dancer dancing in a ballroom. And then we have a few tracks coming out: one, a documentary made on spirituality in Siberia, and then another track on garment workers in New York.

Q: What projects do you usually shoot and how do you choose them?

A: The majority of projects, and ideally, would be all the projects that I develop and choose from topics that interest me. In reality, I think a lot of documentaries or any kind of creative work is a balancing act. you are commissioned. And, a lot of supporting work in financial terms often comes from commissioned work, where you may have less creative say – I probably work as a cinematographer [in these pieces]. I try to make it a 50-50 balance between my own personal projects and the projects that other people have brought to me. And I think that drew me to cinema in the first place because. I really enjoy the collaborative nature of working on films.

Q: You have worked in Indonesia, Siberia and different provinces of China. Did you plan to travel, or did it happen? What’s the best part about it? The most regrettable?

A: So, I don’t necessarily know if I had planned to travel to the places I did in particular, but sometimes what surprises me in cinema and documentaries in particular is that I like travel and love to talk to people about their experiences, but you often feel like you don’t have the legitimacy or excuse to do so. You can go to a place and you can really say, Oh, hey, I’m doing this documentary; do you have two hours to sit me down? or a day? or a week? I want to learn things I don’t know, or [things] that I know maybe tangentially, or I’ve done some research, but I want to know them in the flesh, and… real lived experiences. In terms of regret, it’s hard to structure and it’s hard to self-motivate, and it’s hard to get funding. I think it’s the necessary evil in the whole process.

Q: Is your current job what you imagined when you were in college?

A: It’s not at all what I imagined myself doing when I was younger, or when I was at Middlebury, for that matter. I took a gap year before Middlebury which really got me excited about traveling and it’s not like I thought it was going to be something I would enjoy but I didn’t not even necessarily considered a possibility, frankly. I got a Fulbright scholarship after Middlebury and it’s so open. The subject I was talking about, young ceramic artists in China, was so visual, and I had a camera that had very basic video recording capabilities. And from that experience, I realize that it’s actually very interesting, and actually viable as an itinerary.

Q: What is Fulbright? How is it beneficial for you? Did the Fulbright scholarship encourage you to become a filmmaker?

A: The Fulbright is a scholarship or grant from the United States Department of State that sponsors students or some kind of teaching assistants who go abroad to work in a school or do a research project that is in some way kind self-motivated. And I was an academic researcher. I chose a subject while working with young ceramists from this city of Jingdezhen, which is famous for porcelain in China and is the cradle of porcelain in the world. It really is a monumental and totally life-changing program in so many ways, because I feel like there are very few times, especially when you’ve just graduated, that you’re given almost free rein and a monthly salary to say: hey, are you interested in this thing? Why not take a little more time with this? The Fulbright kind of gave me a blank slate and said, hey, you know, you’re good enough to try anything you want in this time frame, and we trust you, and we know that you care. So give it a try. I think [that] is almost even more valuable than any directed encouragement I could have received at the time. Coming out of Fulbright, and even doing documentaries, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I did a bunch of different freelance work… and a bunch of different things simultaneously, until film and photography took over as the predominant priority of all that other stuff.

Q: From a Middlebury student to a Fulbright Scholar, and now an independent filmmaker, what supports you along the way and motivates you to become who you are today?

A: The main motivator or deciding factor, interestingly enough, in terms of career decision, was how I felt when I was doing this thing. In the beginning, during some of the early documentaries – and in particular a documentary that I mentioned, that we did in Siberia – the feeling that I had when I was doing this documentary… I had never experienced anything like that . And it was so energizing and invigorating, I just felt like, wow, this is what I have to spend my time doing. And I just let that guide me and I said, okay, well, you know, if life is about using some time to do something, might as well use my time to do it.

Q: Would you say that becoming an independent filmmaker straight out of college was a brave decision for you? How did you prepare for this?

A: Freelance is an absolutely difficult balance, honestly. It is not impossible. How I first tried it, basically, [is] I gave myself an ultimatum: for example, you have one year and you can try it as a freelancer. What if I fail and don’t have enough money to pay my bills or [it’s] just enough so I can get a full time job. What is quite possible is to earn a living sustainably; it is totally doable. I think the hardest thing about freelancing, if you’re creative, isn’t necessarily making a living, but doing the kind of work you want, or having the life you want.

Q: Finally, please share some of the most memorable moments as a student at Middlebury. A: I always love the very early fall when you first arrive on campus and the very early spring at the end of each year when everyone would be outside and have a chance to explore. I think I really enjoyed the quiet times with a lot of people that I really cared about. And what I will say is that my favorite part about Middlebury was probably just the conversations I had with my peers and friends.

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Colleen D. Ervin