Filmmaker Paul Lazarus uses his talents and notoriety to achieve a new level of success—highlighting a mind-bendingly brilliant invention that could save the lives of millions of kids every year.
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By any definition of the term, Paul Lazarus is a successful storyteller. For over thirty years, he’s had an award-winning career working in film, television, and theatre—his resume spans from apprenticing with the Royal Shakespeare Company to helming feature films to directing episodes of such recent TV hits as Pretty Little Liars and The Middle.
Now, Paul Lazarus is after an entirely different type of success – one that will make all of those earlier hits pale in comparison. His most recent project, the documentary SlingShot, not only utilizes his decades of experience to tell a compelling (and true) story, but also tells a story that might have the power to inspire significant, positive change in the world. Specifically, it hopes to draw attention to the growing global safe water crisis, an epidemic that has left more than 1 billion people without access to clean, safe water.
Lazarus’ documentary follows the “SlingShot” project founded by Dean Kamen, the passionate inventor best known as the creator of Segway Personal Transporter. For over fifteen years, Kamen has been developing his groundbreaking SlingShot, an energy-efficient machine that turns any unfit water (seawater, poisoned wells, river sludge) into pure, safe water—no chemicals or filters needed.
Lazarus’ cameras track Kamen as he attempts to tackle one of the world’s largest problems through aspirational innovation. Throughout the film, we watch as Kamen’s idea goes from concept to reality, and we follow the SlingShot machine as it goes through trials in rural Ghana. While Kamen’s SlingShot actually produces clean water, Lazarus’ SlingShot gives his audience a firsthand look at how valuable clean water is and how easy it can be for people in first-world countries to sometimes ignore that value.
SlingShot, the documentary, has already begun screening at film festivals across North America. In this interview, The Good Men Project talks with Paul Lazarus about his introduction to the SlingShot machine, his personal goals for the project, and his hopes that SlingShot might ignite a change in how we think about the importance of clean, safe water.
When you first embarked on this project, were you specifically interested in the story of the SlingShot project or were you primarily interested in following Kamen develop a new idea?
I’ve known Dean a long time and we’ve done many shorter documentary projects together. When he told me about his work on water and the SlingShot device, it was way back in 2006. And I just thought that if we had the ability to keep a camera on the story and talk to him over a lengthy period of time, we could possibly uncover what it’s like for him to take an idea from his head to reality. I thought if I could persuade him to really dig into a topic like this on film that we might be able to get at what innovation is really about and, particularly, how difficult it really is to take a technology like this from dream to practicality. Luckily, he said yes. Cut to almost eight years later now.
From the very beginning, when Dean started talking about water, I realized that this was a project that could affect billions of people, not just millions. The world’s water crisis is such a large, pressing issue for all of us that I think I was always aware of how big this was. I think what happened for me was that I was very naïve about water in the beginning. I didn’t really understand all the ramifications of what’s going on about clean, safe water in the world. I think, over time, I’ve learned more and more and come to understand more and more, and the more you learn, the more frightening the larger situation gets for you. You realize it’s everywhere—it’s America, it’s the developing world, it’s the Western world. It’s a planetary issue.
Was it hard to find a way to tell this story? To balance the facts and the messages at the core of Kamen’s work with the elements needed to construct a compelling 90-minute feature?
It was virtually impossibly difficult, which is why it’s taken us seven years. It was a very difficult challenge. I didn’t want to do it traditionally. I don’t think Dean is a traditional man. I was hoping the movie would reflect him. And so it took an awfully long time to figure out how to do that. It’s also such a complex story to whittle down to 90 minutes. We shot for 23 days in Ghana alone. I could make a whole movie about our trip to Ghana. So, to get 23 days of shooting down to 5 minutes, that was just a mind-blowing task and every aspect of the movie was like that.
One of the interesting things about the creation of this documentary is that it isn’t the story of a filmmaker throwing a chunk of money or their name at a social problem. But rather it is the story of a filmmaker saying, “I’m going to use my talent, my ability to tell stories, to chronicle this important project and help drive awareness of the cause.” Was that something you were really aware of when you started this project?
The knowledge of what I was doing evolved as I did it. I think we set out to make a movie about a problem and a solution. I think that was the goal. But, as we shot and as we learned what we had and as we kept having time with Dean Kamen, it became very clear to me that the movie was not about a box. The movie was bigger than that.
We taped up three goals, up over our editing system, because we needed something to guide us. #1). Help spread use of the technology all over the world and help people have clean water and save lives. 2). Inspire people about science and technology, particularly kids. And, 3). Change attitudes about water in general for anyone who sees the movie.
The first goal was the obvious one. But the latter two became apparent as we filmed. Because, as you encounter Dean Kamen, you can’t help but have renewed faith in the ability of human beings to affect change and help people, mostly through science and technology. When you encounter Dean Kamen, you get hope and inspiration, and we realized that the movie could do that. You could walk out of the movie hopeful. And, I don’t know about you, but often, I go to documentaries and I walk out hopeless. I walk out informed, but kind of frightened and numb. We started to realize that we wanted people to walk out of our documentary energized and charged up about making change. And hopeful that they can have an impact.
What is your ideal impact on an audience member after they see this documentary? In the best case scenario, what kind of change do you hope it inspires?
When they see the shot of the golf course being watered—which is intentional—I want them to feel queasy. I want people to look at it and go “Wow, are we really watering golf courses with water that can save lives? Might we want to rethink that?”
I think I want to get inside people and affect change by changing the dialogue about water. In order to affect change, I believe you have to change the dialogue. That’s a really ambitious goal. I hope that we succeed at that. As the movie gets out in a large way, I’m really hoping that we drive people to a place, probably a website, where they’re given all sorts of tools to actively get involved. And, by “actively get involved,” I mean, go to rally.org and help raise the money to place a SlingShot in whatever city in the world you want to.
We have this modest beginning goal of 10,000 machines—that helps a million people. I hope that people that see the movie will put pressure on all of the corporations that are getting involved to actively get this machine out into the world in a big, big, enormous way.
This seems like it’s been a major time investment for you, and certainly an emotional one. Is this the longest you’ve ever worked on a single creative project?
By such a large factor I can’t even compare it to anything else. I’m not quite certain what has driven me to do that, other than, perhaps, the feedback I keep getting about the importance of the project. The truth of the seven to eight years that I’ve worked on this is that the first four or five years were very sporadic. The last three, though, and I don’t say that lightly, it has been an every day task. So the idea that I’ve done ANYTHING for three years without stopping blows my mind.
And I have to continue to do it. The movie is relatively finished, but I’m looking at a board that shows 40 film festivals coming up through December. This isn’t a film to me, it’s a cause. I’d never been to any third world country before I went to Ghana and, when I saw those kids get clean water for the first time, the excitement of running up to those taps… it’s something we do every day. We take it for granted. We get up in the morning, brush our teeth, take our shower.
It never occurs to us that isn’t the case for everybody else on the planet. And we’re the lucky ones. We have that as an assumption. And I’ve been to places now where it not only isn’t an assumption, it doesn’t exist. That same ease of dealing with drinking water, cleaning water, cooking water that we have, it just doesn’t exist there.
And that’s about “over there,” but there are a lot of problems right here about water too. And they’re prominent now. Look at Detroit and Toledo. We’re in the midst of starting to deal with this crisis in North America, possibly the richest part of the world. So just imagine this problem in developing countries without our resources. With SlingShot, I’ve made a tool that luckily seems to entertain people at the same time as informing and driving awareness and creating change. It was intentional and that was the goal, but it seems to be working. And that makes you want to do it even more.
Do you think the entertainment industry should do more to call attention to these looming global crises that seem to so often fall off the radar of the general public?
Without a doubt. Some of my friends are doing just that. I think it’s a cliché, but, at the risk of generality, with documentaries, the trend is to be bleak. And that’s as guilty as being a cliché as Pollyanna optimism. When you start being bleak for the sake of being bleak, or you start not offering hope or stop showing solutions, it’s just about “I’m going to rub your nose in this problem until you can’t stand it anymore. Until you’re going to be forced to do something.”
I’m not so sure that’s a way to get people to change. I’m not sure how rewarding or creative it is to just present the problem. I like to think of SlingShot as really being disruptive and different and kind of fearless. There’s a great part of this world that wants to take the easy route of saying “All corporations are bad, everything corporate is bad and evil.” I don’t see it that way. I see a lot of corporations doing a lot of bad things and they need to be called out for that. But I also see a lot of good coming out of both corporate motives and even the profit motive. Profit is not a bad word. Profit has been abused. A lot of the charitable models of the past have failed. And there’s a lot of giving away for free and not causing any change, real change.
I’ve seen the boreholes all over Africa that are no longer working and the billions that were spent, because there was no model that gave it value. It was simply given as charity. It doesn’t always work. And, not only does it not always work, but it can actually be counterproductive. I think people need to be given ways to take charge of their lives and possibly create business models that they can inhabit and sustain themselves, not just be given things.
Do you think there is value in making Dean Kamen the hero of the film, in that he is such a powerful agent for change and innovation? Do you think the film can help create an aspiration within others to use their talents and notoriety to help change the world?
Dean lives every waking moment of his life trying to affect change for the good. I don’t know that there’s anybody better than him, because he lives his whole life, every waking minute, devoted to doing that. On top of that, he happens to be funny, interesting, completely out of the box—there’s just nobody like him.
To me, that’s a really compelling character study. And then you get along with him everything that he’s doing—whether it’s making robotic arms for veterans coming back as amputees or trying to help people use wheelchairs in a better, more modern way or helping people with kidney dialysis or getting clean water—every second of this guy’s life is devoted to helping people. So, if you want to make a movie that inspires change and positive attitudes, I don’t know if there’s anybody I’d rather be filming.