Interview: Director Daniel Roher is trying to keep perspective

Daniel Roher directed 'Once Were Brothers,' which documents the story of The Band. (Photo via YouTube)

Daniel Roher, whose film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, is a budding superstar. This documentary was Roher’s big break, but he didn’t get there through pure luck crediting experience he gained from past filmmaking in helping create the movie, Roher attributes his success to hard work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alyson Trager: What provoked your love of nonfiction storytelling?

Daniel Roher: I always thought documentaries were sort of a complement to so many things that I was interested in. I wasn’t just interested in storytelling and filmmaking, but I was interested in traveling and politics and history and getting to know new cultures and ideas. And documentary, when I was about 18, I identified as a really good mechanism … that connected all of these things that I was really passionate about. So, I could film and edit and tell stories and learn about new cultures, and it was like passports to learn about a different issue or thing that I really cared about … I always feel that the truth is stranger than fiction, and I think that so many of my films have embodied that.

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AT: You seem like a very experience-oriented person. How do you think that has shaped your career and the stories you tell?

DR: I’ve never been a good student. I’ve always loved learning, but classroom settings and traditional education have always been difficult for me. I’ve always thrived outside of the classroom when I could be in the field, learning about issues firsthand, experiencing things firsthand and being outside of my comfort zone. 

So much of documentary filmmaking is trying to thrive and cope when you are not comfortable and you don’t know what’s going to happen — just trying to figure out what is transpiring, what the story will be. I think that’s the reason I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on lived experience … Thankfully, documentary filmmaking really rewards people who are committed … and getting out there and sort of getting dirt under your fingernails and learning about the world in a more hands-on way.

AT: How would you describe your documentary aesthetic?

DR: I like to take a very contemporary approach to my film. I like it to feel very kinetic and alive. I like to use archives and animation, and I’m always thinking about the visual identity of the film … If I can’t figure out what the visual identity of the film is, well maybe it shouldn’t be a film. Maybe it should be a podcast or something else. 

I put a lot of emphasis on the visual approach to the film, and that really inspires how I tell the story and how I construct the film. I like to use animation and archives and music to create something that is a unique, emotional cinematic experience.

AT: As an up-and-coming filmmaker working with people like Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese and Eric Clapton — and on a project of this scale — were you ever intimidated by how large of a project this was? 

DR: Yes and no. It became a large project. When I started making the movie I thought the job was a little project, and through the sheer force of will and the efforts of a couple of my collaborators who are now my dear friends, it became this much bigger thing. And so, although all these famous people with big names and more money became attached to the project, at its heart, it was still this little film that was being made by four guys in a little office in downtown Toronto, Canada, and that’s really the spirit in which we made the film. … Although I’m grateful for the support of all these wonderful legends and famous people, that didn’t necessarily translate into the day-to-day of making the movie.

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AT: How would you say your work ethic played into everything? How tough was it? How much work did you really have to put into this film?

DR: Whether you want to be a musician or a filmmaker or a writer, these spaces are incredibly competitive. I hate the anxiety of that reality … But what I came to understand and lean into is the fact that I can’t control how talented I am. And I can’t control how smart I am. But I really have agency over how hard I work and how I use my hours. And that’s something I really took to heart. I interned a number of years ago for a filmmaker called Marshall Curry, and that’s the advice he gave me.

When I made this film, I gave it everything I had to give. A year ago when we were really editing the film, I was getting into the office at 6:45, 7 in the morning and staying until dark, and it was the overwhelming focus of my life. I had to have great dedication and patience and focus to make the movie, but it was my singular ambition. 

It’s not a healthy way to do anything. I had no balance in my life, I was just focusing on the movie. And I don’t know that I could do that again, because it was just very overwhelming, but you put in all that work, especially in a creative endeavor, not knowing if anyone is going to see it, not knowing if it will be regarded or acclaimed or viewed. And you almost have to anticipate that it won’t, that it’ll get lost in the shuffle of other movies. That’s part of the anxiety of it. You have to be okay with that as you’re doing it. But then when it becomes this big success, that’s a whole other can of worms, as well … one that I’m obviously grateful for.

AT: How difficult do you think it is to stand out in today’s entertainment culture, where there’s so much stuff coming out all of the time? How does that play into how hard you want to work on these films and how difficult it is to create something unique and different?

DR: It’s just a question of what you want to accomplish, and in my career I want to make films that people will see. In order to stand out and have those opportunities, you’re really forced to work harder than anybody else. And that’s what I have come to understand. I have to outpace other people that are trying to do this, and it can be challenging at times but sort of the nature of the experience.

Yes, there’s a lot of competition, but also there are unprecedented opportunities. There are more people commissioning nonfiction films and other types of media than ever before, whether you look at the giant streaming services or traditional broadcasters. 

AT: I read that you say you want to enjoy your current success because you know it’ll be “over in a snap.” Do you really believe this will be the peak of your success, or are you just getting started?

DR: I don’t know what the future holds. It’s a challenging question because this success is unprecedented. I’m a Canadian filmmaker and no Canadian film, in certain terms, has achieved the success this one has. A Canadian documentary has never opened the Toronto Film Festival, so that’s a rare accomplishment. Am I going to throw in the towel now? No, I’m not, but what I also understand is it takes two, two-and-a-half years to make a movie … and your exciting red carpet photographers, autographer-seekers and premiere party is four or five hours.

I keep trying to keep it in perspective, and I just try to stay grounded … I can’t approach my next film with this mindset that it has to be bigger than this movie … I just want to continue making stuff that I’m intellectually and creatively stimulated by, you know? Make a living doing the work that I love to do. And if I could do that for the next 20 or 30 years, that will be a phenomenal success. That is my marker of success and I just hope that that bar remains the same.

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