Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author and filmmaker Minter Dial about his love of story, the highs and lows of his career, what inspires him most, and the advice he has for aspiring filmmakers.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Brought up largely in English boarding schools, I had a thespian streak as a child, where I enjoyed playing in every school play possible. I always enjoyed literature and the art of storytelling, which ultimately attracted me to marketing. Having had a diverse career spanning nearly 30 years where I worked in investment banking, tennis, travel, luxury leather goods, a zoo, an aquarium and at the cosmetics conglomerate L’Oréal, I think of myself as someone who likes to rack up stories. For the last ten plus years, I’ve been working as a professional speaker and storyteller, elevating energies and the human spirit, focused on leadership and branding.
Meanwhile, to call me a career filmmaker is a stretch since I’ve only produced one successful documentary film. But, between my marketing time at L’Oréal and my doc, I’ve certainly had the chance to explore and practice the beautiful art of short filmmaking.
As the highlight, in 2016, I produced the award-winning WWII documentary film, The Last Ring Home, that’s been (and continues to be) shown on PBS, History Channel and HistoryHit. It is accompanied by a book of the same name, relating a story that took 25 years of research. I’ve since published three other books, including my latest, You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader (Kogan Page, 2021). In the near future, I’ll be releasing the second edition (paperback version) of The Last Ring Home.
When did you first realise you wanted to make films?
While at Yale, I studied Women’s Studies and film. In the former, I was awakened to the different forms of narrative. In the latter, I was keen to study the different genres and techniques in filmmaking. I loved evaluating the cinematography and the conversion of books into film.
Later, when I entered the workforce, while at L’Oréal, I was involved in creating many ads and films, many of which served an internal audience. It was hard work to craft stories through film for a corporate audience. I also remember overseeing the first “viral” video for Redken Canada in 2005.
What is your favourite thing about films?
The creative options in filmmaking are legion and legendary. But, ultimately, my favourite thing is witnessing the magic that happens when the entire team behind and in front of the camera are in sync.
What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?
One of my favourite film classes at university was the study of the Western genre. We spent hours analyzing each of the opening scenes. I also enjoyed studying the use of music and silence.
Tell me a favourite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.
For a film that is only a half-hour long, it’s been a perfect length to show in front of live audiences and then conduct Q&A sessions. The first such event was held at the Queens Club in London and, attended by over 100 people, it brought out some exceptional personal stories, proof that a good story begets other stories. One of the attendees, a tall debonair Dutchman, shared his emotional story, where as a child in Indonesia at the outbreak of the war, he had seen his father taken away, never to be seen again. I’ve since been able to host some 100 screening events. A short film can be a great way to broach important topics and stimulate conversation.
I’d add that another highlight experience was showing the film during the Week of Cinema in Paris in the presence of the great filmmaker, Ken Loach. We explored how in his filmmaking style, where he uses single long takes to achieve his gritty realism, it’s similar to making a documentary (i.e. with talking heads) in that you have to deal with the inability to control everything, including non actors.
What is the title of your film?
The Last Ring Home is a 27-minute documentary, directed by Josh Shelov and edited by the talented Eastwood Allen. It’s a love story as well as a tale of courage and honour, centred around a ring that traveled 40,000 miles and exchanged hands six times over a 30-year period.
What inspired you to make The Last Ring Home?
Having spent 25 years researching the story, including reading several hundred books and manuscripts, interviewing 130 veterans of the war, attending ex-POW conventions and ploughing through archives of newspapers and libraries – mostly in the pre-digital era – I had found a story that needed to be told. People kept telling me how this story had the makings of a film. It was only when I was contacted out of the blue via Skype by “Josh,” someone I’d met just once thirteen years before, that the way to create a film presented itself. At first, we only had the intention of making an heirloom film for the family, but thanks to a serendipitous set of events, the short version landed in the hands of someone important at PBS. Eventually, thanks to a crowdfunding effort, we raised the money to craft a TV-ready version.
What is the main conflict of The Last Ring Home?
How to craft a short film that does justice to the people who suffered through the events and all the while be captivating for an uninvolved audience? With a story spanning seven decades, involving several generations and families and covered many countries around the world, the challenge was to make a compact and gripping story that remained true to the facts. Another key challenge was to make sure not to overplay the pathos.
How long did you spend in production?
From the initial conversation (that Skype call) to the premier of the film on PBS (November 11 2016) took 18 months. With Josh’s vision, we booked out two days to record the talking heads portions. Then we spent a third day capturing primary accessories (for example scanning letters and details of photographs) and secondary props.
How big was your crew? Would you choose the same size again?
With the tight budget, we had to be ruthless in planning. Other than Josh, who flew in the US, everyone else was based in the UK. For the filming, we had a talented videographer, Brad Lawson, who managed the lighting too. Scott Morton managed our sound, including the more challenging shots that took place outdoors. The post-production with the brilliant editor, Eastwood Allen, was all done by distance work, using a suite of digital tools.
How did you find your locations?
Given that we had a shoestring budget, we were keen to have all the locations nearby and be free to use. We used our blacked-out home living room to record most of the seated interviews, as well as our community garden and a nearby war cemetery.
Tell me some career goals. What would you like to achieve?
My primary goal in the filmmaking space is to find a way to convert this documentary film into a full-length feature film. There are many different ways to skin this cat and given that the Greatest Generation is dying out, I’d love to have it done before they all disappear. Furthermore, if we could bring the film to a larger public, maybe we would finally find the ring, too.
Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.
As much as there’s the excitement of creating a film, there’s a heavy amount of work involved in the administration, distribution and marketing. Between doing the festival circuit (and trying to choose the right festivals), getting the film onto television and figuring out the digital channels, it’s been one heck of a learning curve. I do hope I get a chance to do another film one day to put my hard-earned lessons learned to benefit!
What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?
Be patient. And if you want to do a documentary, do it because you love filmmaking, not because you want to earn a lot of money!
Give me your social links so people can come and find you!
The main site: www.thelastringhome.com
Twitter @lastringhome @mdial