‘Conrad and the Steamplant’ dir. Dustin Cohen

Conrad Milster, Pratt Institute’s chief engineer, has worked in the Brooklyn power plant nearly his entire adult life. Starting as a mechanic in 1958, he later became one of only four chief engineers in the plant’s 127-year history, taking over the official duties in 1965. He’s been there ever since.

Director-Producer: Dustin Cohen
Editor: Saela Davis
DOPs: Autumn Eakin, Christine Ng, Dustin Cohen
Key Cast: Conrad Milster

C8: Where did you come across Conrad Milster and what made you want to tell his story?

DC: I find subjects so many different ways. I’ve spent hours and hours scouring the Internet for interesting characters, reading articles and stories until I stumble upon something. Sometimes it’s a little easier than that. After I released my short film, ‘The Shoemaker’, I got an email from a great guy named Aaron Miller along the lines of, “Hey, I’ve got this family friend I think you should meet…” So, Aaron and I planned a day to visit Conrad at the plant and immediately I knew this was a story that needed to be told. It was almost too good to be true, the steam engines, his workspace, the stories he shared were all amazing.

C8: How did you develop the visual aesthetic of the film?

DC: There is so much texture and history and character all around Conrad. Almost like this slightly organized chaos that he moves in and out of and I really wanted that to come across. We held shots a little longer than normal, kept the pacing very calm and let all the spaces and details speak for themselves. One decision early on was making sure we differentiated the cool, grittiness of the steam plant versus the warmth of Conrad’s home. We shot everything with all of this in mind and then I worked with an incredibly talented colorist, Daniel Silverman, to accentuate that even further.

C8: What was your biggest obstacle during filming and how did you overcome it?

DC: Conrad is old school in every way and scheduling shoot days was not easy. He doesn’t have a cell phone and refuses to use email, so I would have to catch him during the rare times he was sitting at his desk at the steam plant. Some days I would show up to a scheduled shoot day and he was nowhere to be found. So, I’d track him down eventually and make the most of it. Conrad was a bit hesitant at first, but by the end of our first few meetings, we really got to know one another and he warmed up to us being around. By the end of the project he was calling me with ideas asking when I’d be back to film.

C8: If you could repeat the process again is there anything you would want to do differently?

DC: For a lot of my personal projects, it’s critical that the crews are small. It keeps things familiar and intimate and that’s really important to me. That said, there were a few days in there were I chose to do sound recording myself and that probably wasn’t the best idea. Recording clean audio inside of a functioning steam plant was no easy task.

C8: What camera did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?

DC: We shot everything on Canon 5D’s. Often times it was myself and maybe 1-2 other people. It worked well because we moved around quite a bit between the plant and Conrad’s home and both spaces are pretty tight. 5D’s are so versatile for things like this and already having two cameras and a bunch of lenses in my kit made it a no-brainer.

C8: Youre both a portrait photographer and a film director. How do you think your photography influences your filmmaking?

DC: First and foremost I love telling stories. Trying to connect with people and capture an intimate moment. I also think my photography background greatly influences the composition and framing throughout my films. Shots are very thoughtfully composed. I like to think of it like watching a film without the sound. If it’s intriguing and engaging on mute you’re on the right track. Shots should be able to stand on their own as well as work in a sequence.

C8: Theres an interesting link between portraiture and documentary filmmaking as theyre both attempting to uncover something about particular individuals. Were you aware of this link while shooting?

DC: I think inherently the two are very similar in the sense that they are about trust. Look and feel are important, but what makes a project a success is the feeling that there was a deeper trust there. It’s having a genuine interest in people and their well being, nothing exploitive, just telling an honest story about an interesting person.

C8: What advice would you give to emerging creatives who are both interested in photography and filmmaking?

DC: When you’re on the outside looking in, this industry can seem very playful and glamorous, but there’s real heart to this. And if you don’t have that heart and you don’t have that passion, move on and try something else. There’s no “fake it ’til you make it.” Know what you’re doing. And then do it. And don’t stop. Be passionate.  Always be creating new content. Put yourself out there. And don’t make excuses. If you want something, put yourself in a position to get it, don’t just sit back and wait. And most importantly, be humble. It’s much easier for people to get behind you and believe in what you’re doing if you’re just out there trying your best and letting the people around you know how much you appreciate them

C8: What, in your opinion, makes for a good collaboration?

DC: Trust and openness. Let the cinematographer do their job, let the grips and gaffers do theirs, the sound person, etc. You have to surround yourself with people you trust and want to work with and then trust them to do their jobs.

C8: What is next for Dustin Cohen?

DC: Always a great question. I have a couple commercial projects in the works that will pick back up a little later in the summer and I’m always looking for interesting people with interesting stories. And the quirkier the better. So, if any of you out there have any ideas for me, please send me an email.