Mat Hames: Life In The Lens

Mat Hames is an Emmy winning Executive Producer and Director, known for his two feature length Independent Lens documentaries What Was Ours and When I Rise (both available on Prime video), as well as award winning documentary series including Power Trip: The Story of Energy (Prime Video, PBS, AppleTV).  Mat is currently directing A State of Mind for Wyoming PBS, a series focused on mental health issues for Americans living in the mountain west. 

What Was Ours, filmed on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming over a period of several years, was recently featured on HBO’s This Week Tonight with John Oliver. Mat’s directorial debut was Last Best Hope, a nationally broadcast PBS film about the Belgian Resistance and escape lines during WWII, for which he was knighted by Belgian King Albert II. Mat’s six hour series on the history of energy Power Trip: The Story of Energy has to date been seen by more than 3 million viewers on networks in over 10 countries. . Power Trip received coveted Rockefeller Foundation and Sloan Foundation funding. Mat traveled to eight countries and interviewed 100 experts on topics concerning the history of energy. Season Two production is currently underway filming in Iceland, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Mat’s other recent films include The Art of Home (PBS Living Channel), and Fossil Country (Wyoming PBS). 

Mat is a co-founder of production studio Alpheus Media, based in Austin Texas. In addition to documentaries, with Alpheus Media, Mat has also directed short films for clients like Warner Bros, The Economist, Johns Hopkins and the Redford Center at Sundance, as well as hundreds of online video campaigns for brands such as Whole Foods, the University of Texas, Movember, Partners in Health, and LIVESTRONG.

www.mathamesfilm.com

As always leave a review if you enjoyed these stories and follow us on Instagram or visit the webpage of the Wyoming Humanities!

Sign up for the podcast newsletter using the QR code of follow this link: http://eepurl.com/igy4fH

Qr code Podcast newsletter sign up

Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why. So today we're talking to Mat Hames. He is an Emmy award-winning Texas filmmaker, known for his documentaries on PBS, Amazon Prime Video, Independent Lands, Apple TV, Sundance TV, Netflix, and many more. So we're so excited to talk to Mat today. Thank you, Mat, for joining us.

Mat Hames (00:57):

Thank you so much for having me on.

Emy DiGrappa (00:59):

I want to learn about your journey as a filmmaker because I think it's really interesting the films that you've decided were a part of your journey. Where did you grow up?

Mat Hames (01:08):

Well, I grew up in the Dallas area, Dallas, Texas, and sort of bounced around to a few different places when I was young, but in what we call the Metroplex down here in Dallas Fort Worth area. And then I moved to Austin in 1997. So I've been in Austin ever since then and seen tons of changes happening here in Austin. But that's where I am now and that's where I have a production company with my wife. We run it together and it's called Alpheus Media, so that's where we operate out of. I travel to Wyoming, though, a lot.

Emy DiGrappa (01:49):

How long Alpheus Media been in existence?

Mat Hames (01:52):

Alpheus Media has been in existence for 20 years, give or take. We started off in about 2000, maybe I think in the last month or so of 1999 we maybe did a project, but it just grew out of a need that some people had to produce some videos for some nonprofits. So we started off Alpheus Media making videos for nonprofits to document what the nonprofit was doing, to tell its story. And then we were asked by that nonprofit to create a very large archive of interviews with people that were going through cancer. And we worked with medical professionals and people that were in the healthcare space to design a whole way of interviewing people around their cancer experience. And then we did, like I said, 200 of those, or a little more than 200, and they all went up on this website.

(02:55):

And then from that... And it was sort of... If you've ever heard of the Shoah Foundation, the Shoah Project was this project to interview Holocaust survivors that was started by Steven Spielberg, and we were sort of modeling it on that. And the idea being that a person going through cancer could Google, or at that time it was probably Yahoo, could search out what their exact type of cancer and then find someone being interviewed and talking about it. And then from there we started doing... We started getting asked to do larger scope projects like documentaries. And then the first doc we did was for PBS in 2005 and it was called Last Best Hope.

Emy DiGrappa (03:32):

So let me just jump back a little bit because why filmmaking? What was that journey to get into filmmaking?

Mat Hames (03:40):

It's a really good question. Why filmmaking? I grew up with parents that really encouraged me to do whatever made me happy in terms of extracurricular activities. So as a kid, I did a lot of theater. I was at a theater school called the Creative Arts Theater School in Texas that after school you would go there and you and other kids would basically put together a play. We did plays. I directed a play in high school. And we did everything, like the technical theater aspects and building and designing things and then also acting in things. And those were the things that I really put myself into and cared about. I wasn't big into academics. And unfortunately for my parents, I started to really get into wanting to just do a great job with these productions.

(04:36):

And I think I was learning from the teachers there who all had MFAs in theater or some arts background, but most of them had graduate degrees, and they treated these plays that we were doing... Like we were making Citizen Kane, or we were making a Broadway show or something like that. So they expected a lot out of us, and I had that internal voice that got imprinted on me, or I would say their voice was imprinted inside of me, and then I started to just get really invested in doing creative projects, and I wanted to eventually be in film, but at first I thought I wanted to be an actor. And then by the time I was 15, I had done some acting in some films and I had some close calls where I almost got cast in some big productions, like Terms of Endearment, if you remember that movie. I was almost in that. I was up for that part of that bratty kid that makes his mom feel bad when she can't afford to buy groceries. They didn't cast me in that.

(05:41):

And then I was in a few other things, like a movie of the week and things like that. But by the time I was like 15, I didn't want to act anymore. I wanted to have a little more control over what I was doing and not be just cast based on how I looked and things like that, my height and weight and age range that I could play. I didn't really like that, so I wanted to direct. So I directed a play at the theater. And then after high school, then I just started... I went to college for film, but I didn't really have a great experience in the film school that I was in, so I got an internship at this production company in Dallas, and then they offered me a job, and when I was done with my internship, I started working there.

(06:26):

And then I worked my way up from a animator motion graphics guy to an editor, and then after that I went freelance and started to do freelance editing and graphics, like animation. And then I moved to Austin and I took some more film school. When I came to Austin, I took a class from a professor, a UT professor named Steve Mims, who had a big influence on me. And I continued to freelance and then eventually had enough clients that were asking me to do more than animate and more than do editing, they were asking me to direct. So then I started a small production company with a friend of mine who was also a freelancer who was a cinematographer, and he would shoot everything and I would edit everything. And then my wife came on board once we had enough projects, she came on board to produce, and her name is Beth, and she started producing everything. And then we went legitimate and actually incorporated our business and divided the company up between the three of us and all that good stuff.

Emy DiGrappa (07:26):

That's a big journey, but your parents must be proud of you for having a vision and knowing that maybe you didn't follow the traditional path, but you found your way. And I think that's really cool because a lot of times I think people just get stuck on you have to do it this way and you can't do it any other way. But the people who find their creative path, I think, is really a wonderful, beautiful thing and it's very inspiring.

Mat Hames (07:55):

Thank you. Well, I definitely owe a lot of that to my parents for not having a traditional mindset about what I was doing in my spare time after school. I did play football when I was a little kid and I played soccer and I was in a form of scouts, it was called Indian Guides at the time, but otherwise they let me do what I wanted to do, and then they enrolled me in an acting class at this theater, and then it was off to the races for me and I really didn't ever look back at any of the other traditional stuff. And I think them letting me do my own thing was a blessing and a curse. I think the curse part of it was that I definitely became the type of kid that would only focus on what I was interested in, and if I was not interested in it, I would either do a horrible job or I would misbehave and I would get in trouble because it wasn't what I wanted to be doing.

(08:53):

And I think it's because I got this thing in my blood early on where I could actually be a part of something that was bigger than myself that would bring joy to a lot of people. And in plays I would see an audience react. And one of the things the theater would do is bring in special needs kids for Saturday performances. In the morning I think they would bring in busloads of special needs kids. And those moments where we would really see... I would really sense that I was a part of something that was really bringing joy to these kids, that was like... They were so happy to see us perform and then after the play we would go out and mingle with them. And that just got in my blood, but it got in my blood to the point where I started to just not really care about academics much at all.

(09:41):

I was a big reader, so I continued to read about things a lot more than probably a lot of average kids, but it was only the stuff that I cared about and was interested in. So that was the downside of it. And my parents were pretty understanding, I would say, and pretty understanding, of course, they're still parents, so they definitely wanted to make sure that I had some sort of a future, but they let me do my thing. And then I think that what happened there for me, I bring that... With every film I do or with every TV series that I produce, I bring that same intensity that I had had when I was doing these plays as a kid to each thing. I'm trying to just always bring the audience something and have this maybe a cathartic experience as... Maybe cathartic is a pretentious word, but it was cathartic for me to do those things. So each project that I do, I try to go through that same emotional intensity and that same kind of catharsis when I interview people and go out and travel and film people.

Emy DiGrappa (10:51):

Is one of the reasons that you do documentaries is because it can be more of a creative process versus doing other kind of filming? I mean, why did you choose docu-series and documentaries as your path?

Mat Hames (11:06):

I had wanted to make narrative films and I did make some short films, and the way that I got into documentaries was luck and happenstance. There was a producer that I worked with, and I was working with her in the capacity as an editor and a person that did motion graphics. And she had this idea about doing a World War II documentary about a pilot that had... An American pilot who had crashed behind enemy lines during World War II, and he crashed in Belgium, and she did all this work of raising money to try to get these interviews shot, and she had all this footage, she and her partner David were these two producers, and they brought it to us to edit, they brought it to me to edit and Alpheus. This was pretty early on, this was like 2004, maybe 2003.

(12:01):

And I started to edit it and put it together, and I was wishing that I had footage that I didn't have, and I could picture things that needed to have been shot that just weren't because there wasn't... They had had a director, but I think he came and went, and there wasn't one particular hand guiding the whole creative process. So anyway, that was a moment when I decided that it was worth my time, even without getting compensated, that I wanted to go out and try to shoot some stuff and develop additional material that I could use to tell the story that I wanted to tell as an editor. So I went from being an editor to being a director. It was gradual, but for that particular project, it was overnight because it was like, "Well, I guess I'm directing this."

(12:52):

And I think that in terms of filmmaking and how you get into a situation where you're doing the projects that you want to be doing, I wouldn't recommend what I did to really everyone. But what I did was I decided to find windows of opportunity where there was a project that was attractive to me where it was like, "I want to be doing more projects like that, and if I could do everything I can to make this amazing, then maybe it will lead me to another thing like that." Whereas there are other projects where you're like, "That isn't really where I want to be, and so I'm going to do," not the bare minimum, but you're going to do what you need to do to get it done to the best of your ability, but you don't pour your blood, sweat, and tears into it.

(13:40):

But with Last Best Hope, I really did put blood, sweat, and tears into it. I would stay at the office editing until four or five o'clock in the morning. I really thought it was something that was special, but I owed that to Ramona and David for bringing me that project initially and then believing in me to let me take over as a director. And then when that project was... When we had that edited, we were able to do a screening in Belgium, and we were invited actually by the Belgium government to screen it for the Prince of Belgium. And this was just mind blowing that we could actually take this over there and do that, and it was at the Imperial War Museum. So we did this screening there with the Prince, and it was a rough cut of the film, but it was like it had all these dignitaries and then eventually the American embassy came and I think someone from the Russian embassy was there.

(14:31):

And out of that screening, I knew that that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a filmmaker and I wanted to do documentaries because the reason for documentaries in that particular instance was we had all these interviews with people in the Belgian Resistance who had been very young at the time, and I had all this archival of footage and photos of them when they were in their early 20s, like women who would be guides for airmen who had crashed, and they would take them from safe house to safe house. And I'd spent a year or more editing to all this footage, and then suddenly I get to see these people who are now in their 90s there.

(15:12):

One of them was this incredible woman named Dede De Jongh, and she was brought in in a wheelchair. I got to see her and connect with her. And then after the film, one of the people in the resistance came up to me and grabbed my hand, and with her tiny little hand, she squeezed my hand really hard and she just kept saying, "Verite, verite." It means truth in French. So I got just really emotional that she said that because it was something that I had really tried hard to do it. I had tried hard to make it true, and then her reaction to that was more important to me than anything else. So for better or worse, I've continued making documentaries like that where the reaction of the people that's involved is more important in some ways than the success or the distribution or the awards or anything like that. And it's a formula that my wife and I keep trying to replicate on films.

Emy DiGrappa (16:08):

Well, I think it's interesting that you had your directorial debut with Last Best Hope, and that film was about the Belgian Resistance and escape lines during World War II. And then I thought it was really beautiful too that you did a film called When I Rise, and how did that film come about?

Mat Hames (16:30):

One of the funders of Last Best Hope was a man named Don Carlton, and he runs the Briscoe Center for American History, which is at UT Austin, and it's a repository of documents, historical documents. There's a lot of famous people that have given their papers and their archives to the Center for American History at UT Austin. And Don had put a little bit of money into Last Best Hope, and then he had the papers of this woman named Barbara Smith Conrad, an African American opera singer, mezzo soprano, who had sung with the Met and had gone to UT, she was a UT alum. He had all of her papers. And he was beginning this spirituals initiative where he was going to collect things around Black spirituals and churches in the south and in Texas. And Barbara was going to be the ambassador for his collection, and he had the idea to make a documentary about her life.

(17:30):

So invited me in to meet with her and Barbara and I hit it off, and then within a few months, the Center for American History had raised just enough money for me to be able to go out and film Barbara in a tiny East Texas church singing some opera for some of the people that she grew up with, and that was the first shoot. And then that began a three year process of making When I Rise. And When I Rise, we filmed in New York and we filmed in Texas and all over the place and in the US because Barbara had a really big career, but the whole film became about her arc of forgiveness, of forgiving what had happened to her in Austin in the '50s. And then we finished that film up and then it premiered at South by Southwest and Barbara got to see that and be with me and go up on stage during that premiere. So that's how that film happened.

Emy DiGrappa (18:26):

So far, your journey has been about telling real people's stories, and that seems like that's your passion, is to expose something or shine a light on something. In doing that, is it tough to make a living, because you work for a lot of nonprofits it seems like?

Mat Hames (18:46):

It's a balancing act to earn a living and do projects that have integrity, and definitely the balancing act is always ongoing. I mean, the short answer is that my wife and I have a production company, and we take on lots of projects. I think at the moment we're probably producing 14 projects. Two of those projects are series, docu-series. One of them is a feature doc. The rest of them are shorter projects, they're shorter turnaround projects so that we maybe will be done with it in six weeks. And we have a staff, we have a core staff of 10 people at Alpheus Media, and that's always in flux. As of the time of this recording, in February, 2023, we have 10 people core, and then we scale up to like 25 people depending on the projects that come in and if we need freelancers.

(19:41):

But Austin has a tremendous market for freelancers and independent editors and cinematographers, musicians, audio mixers, graphic designers. So we draw on a lot of talent in Austin. And then, like I said, we have a staff also. So how we manage that is that I tend to focus on the documentaries, and I tend to focus on developing new projects, and Beth does too. And then we have a group of people that help us to get the other stuff done. And yet we still do some non-profit films. There's some non-profits and educational institutional type of work that we do that we just are passionate about.

(20:21):

We do occasionally do some commercials, TV commercials, things like that, that I direct. And we do projects that are... Sometimes, honestly, we need a break from such heavy material. So it's fun to do things like we collaborate or have collaborated with this online company called Rooster Teeth to make documentaries about internet culture and memes and the history of the internet and things like that. So that stuff is fun as a way to divert ourselves, but you have to make a living, so that's what we've... We've tried to make a living, but also still leave room to do projects that we care about.

Emy DiGrappa (20:58):

I see how it's a juggling act between spending the time doing docu-series, which like you said, they're serious and you're telling a story and you have to be out in the field and get all the footage and the viewpoints and hear people's voices so that you can use them in the documentary and all that is probably a lot of heavy lifting. Do people come to you or do you go to them, or do you have a big idea or do people come to you and you pick and choose the stories you want to tell?

Mat Hames (21:33):

It has evolved over the last 20 years. There are times when we originate a project and we go out and put our own resources into starting the project, and then we try to then raise money to fund the budgets. So we did that with a film called What Was Ours that evolved from a project that we had been doing with Wyoming PBS, and then we finished that project, but we had this momentum with another story, so we started doing that on our own and raised the money and actually did grant writing, worked with a grant writer to try to raise funds for that.

(22:13):

And there are other projects that are like that where we've initiated it first. But lately in the last probably five years or so, a lot of the projects come to us and then we choose what we want to do. So we do turn to down a lot of projects, but we're fortunate to be in that position at this point. But also it's like we can't do everything. There's lots of amazing projects that I wish we could do all of them for the most part, but we have to turn down some stuff.

Emy DiGrappa (22:42):

Well, you'd have to clone yourself for one thing to do everything you want to do. And I was thinking, just the intricacy of making documentaries and a docu-series and thinking to myself... I don't know, I was reading something the other day, and it's like everybody's a photographer. If you have an iPhone, you're a photographer. Or you can make video on your iPhone, so everybody's a videographer, whatever. How do you feel about what is the difference between the professional and the amateur and how does it get just misrepresented for people on social media?

Mat Hames (23:26):

I would say that you can be a filmmaker or a storyteller whether or not you have an iPhone or you have a production company and expensive equipment. You can really be a filmmaker and a storyteller and you can call yourself that and it's valid. I can't speak for other people that do documentary films or narrative films, but for me, I think what separates what I do versus someone making TikTok videos or whatever is I tend to, in a year, an average year, I'll interview between 200 and 250 people, and those people are all from different places in the world, like backgrounds, and I have to do a lot of research before I go out and interview those people to know what to ask them.

(24:19):

And then once I do the interviews with those people, then I have to work with editors to weave all of those voices into something that resembles a coherent statement or coherent hole, but that still retains those points of view, but also synthesizes it in some way, or at least attempts to get at the truth of something because not everybody agrees, of course, and I'm bringing my own perspective to it as well. So I think what I do versus just picking up a phone, I mean, definitely... It would be a lot easier, I think, if I just scaled it down and went around with a small camera and did that. But the world moves really fast right now and doing 200, 250 interviews and then putting them all together into one coherent series or film is a lot of work, and that's where you need a team. It's not just one person that can do all of that. You need a team. So part of the other thing I think that I do is I put together teams of people to help me in that endeavor.

(25:25):

But yeah, I mean, I think you can be a storyteller and make TikTok videos too, but that's not really what I do. What I'm trying to do is tackle really the complex subjects and talk to all of these amazing people to help an audience understand a topic that's really complicated and weave it all together into a series of, say, one hour episode, six part series. I'm doing one on energy right now, the history of energy, everything from coal and natural gas and nuclear and entertainment and culture, and how energy has affected our culture and our entertainment, and it's a very big undertaking, but it's something that I rely on a lot of other people to do.

Emy DiGrappa (26:05):

So I think that you just named it, that's the difference is that, yes, everybody can tell their story and their perspective and do an Instagram or TikTok video or whatever, but it's really just one perspective, and what you're providing is the whole view, the whole series of different voices and coming to a place where you can tell this really well-rounded story about a subject. And I wanted to ask you more about your film What Was Ours, and what set you down that path, and what was that film about, first of all?

Mat Hames (26:44):

What Was Ours was on Independent Lens, and it was at a lot of film festivals, and you can watch it on Prime Video now. So it's out there, it's included with Prime. But the beginning of that story was actually... It was a project that was working with Wyoming PBS, and there's a writer in Wyoming, a really, a great writer named Jeff O'Gara, and he'd had this idea to do a virtual museum to take... Essentially to do three dimensional video of artifacts that had once belonged to the Arapaho and the Shoshone people and create a digital repository of this because these artifacts were in museums far, far away from the people that could appreciate them the best. So in a lot of cases they're in museums like the Smithsonian and the Field Museum and places in Europe. So it was a great idea.

(27:36):

So we worked on this project together. I worked on it with Wyoming PBS. And when that project was finished, there were a lot of unanswered questions about the artifacts and who owned the artifacts and how the tribe was reconnecting with these pieces that brought up a lot of emotions with certain people. And there was an elder, Shoshone elder named Filbert McLeod, who's passed away now but he really... I mean, in a way, he wanted to keep going. He wanted to keep talking to me about this topic. So I started to film more interviews with Filbert after the project for Wyoming PBS was done, and that scope was finished. I started to interview Filbert. And then Filbert began to tell me about his experience in Vietnam, and he had been a soldier in Vietnam who had been in combat. He was a helicopter... Or he actually was a gunner in a helicopter, and he had crashed at one point, and he was in the jungle.

(28:37):

And he had this item that had been given to him by his mother that was important to him, and it was sacred to him, and he believes that it kept him safe. And him telling me that story, and then he shared with me some footage that he had filmed, he was a photographer and he'd actually had a super eight camera and filmed some things in Vietnam, and I basically couldn't stop filming. So at that point I went and raised some money from ITVS and a few other grant entities like Vision Maker Media and continued to film with Filbert. But then more things started happening too with Jordan Dresser who went off to work on get a master's in museum studies.

(29:22):

And then Michaela Sun Rhodes, who was in Arapaho Woman who was also working through finding her identity and working on powwows and things like that, she was Miss Denver March. So I had these three people that essentially were participants that I couldn't stop filming, I didn't want it ended, essentially. So we just spun that off into a whole new film, and that took about two and a half more years, I think. And then we finished that film, and then we premiered it at the Big Sky Documentary Festival, and then it went to the Independent Lens as well on PBS. It's got a national broadcast and now it's on Prime.

Emy DiGrappa (30:03):

I am so jealous of you because I love hearing people's stories, and I do this all the time as a podcaster, but you do it in a bigger way where you're going out and being in place with someone and going deeper, and then you're following a trail, following a story, and then it takes you someplace else, and then it's like it's unending, but it's so magical, I think. I can see why you love it so much.

Mat Hames (30:33):

I guess it's a little bit what could get in your blood as a journalist or as a detective, almost. I've become addicted to doing research and finding out stories, and then trying to understand people's lives and how they relate to the past, and history is something that has always excited me, but I didn't really know that what would really get me going is when I can make history particular. If I can make history crystallize in a person and their individual experiences, then I feel like I can bring history to life in a way that everyone can understand it and relate to it, and that's important to me because I think history is important. I think if you don't know where you've come from, then you don't know where you're going. And I think especially with the way how fast the world is moving now and with digital tools and social media that a lot of times we're cut off from history.

(31:32):

There's like the Super Bowl commercial about the new camera where you can take a picture and then you can easily remove people from the picture. And it's a cool technology, but it also is... It's one of those things where it's like, "Really? Do we really want to just give people the tools to be able to erase history?" I have pictures in my closet that maybe have people that I no longer am friends with or something, and it's uncomfortable to have that, but I still feel like that's important to have, to have a record of that. So sorry, I'm rambling now, but just I think history is important, is the bottom line, but I think it's not really... You can't really make history relatable unless you can crystallize it with a particular person.

Emy DiGrappa (32:13):

I like what you said about that. I'm going to use that quote for you, because the fact that you use that word crystallized, that you really take people in a place and a time where they can relate or they can learn, and maybe that in that moment their own experience is crystallized, and that is a really beautiful way of thinking about it because you can't... I know what Super Bowl commercial you're talking about. I saw that one too. And I thought, "Wow, that's pretty cool." But I like what you said. You can't really throw away people, which I feel like is sometimes what happens in our new technology. You can just throw away things, throw away people. I mean, we're huge consumers, we throw away everything. So it just makes you think about the whole picture of that, and I really appreciate that you just made that come to life for me. So Mat, I really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for talking to me.

Mat Hames (33:12):

Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Emy DiGrappa (33:30):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe, and never miss a show.