3 Oscar Nominations in 4 Years? That’s Short Work for Ben Proudfoot

TheWrap magazine: “The Last Repair Shop,” which the filmmaker made with Kris Bowers, is his third documentary short nom

The Last Repair Shop
"The Last Repair Shop" (Credit: Disney+)

Over the 80-year history of the Oscars Best Documentary Short category, only 17 people have received as many as three nominations. And of those 17, only four have clustered those three noms in four years: Charles Guggenheim with two in 1964 and one in 1967; Dick Young with noms in 1979, 1980 and 1981; Bill Guttentag with nods in ’88, ’89 and ’90 — and now Ben Proudfoot, who was nominated for 2020’s “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” then won for 2021’s “The Queen of Basketball,” then completed his trifecta with his 2023 short “The Last Repair Shop.”

“All I can say is that all three films have a lot of love in them, and they all cover stories and people that I felt deserved more attention,” Proudfoot, who collaborated with composer and filmmaker Kris Bowers on “Concerto” and “Repair Shop,” told TheWrap. “I do not deserve more attention, but these stories do.”

“The Last Repair Shop” is the story of a facility in downtown Los Angeles that repairs musical instruments that are loaned out without charge to students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Ben asked me, ‘You went to LAUSD schools — do you know this place?’” said Bowers, who was unaware of the people who tuned the piano and fixed the saxophone he played when he was in school. “I had never heard of it. Literally, Steve Bagmanyan [one of the film’s subjects] tuned the pianos at my elementary school and middle school. And I just never thought about it.

“I was kind of disappointed in my young self that I never thought, ‘Why is this piano always in tune?’ I just enjoyed the privileges of being young and having things taken care of.”

Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon (Getty Images)

Even before he met anyone at the repair shop, Proudfoot was convinced there could be a good film in the people who worked there. “There’s a little voice that I have learned to protect and listen to,” he said. “And that voice was  very strong and consistent early on.”

He also found the shop visually interesting when they first visited it – but most of the employees felt burned by a past newspaper article about the large backlog of repairs the shop once had. Initially, not one of them wanted to participate in the film.

“The supervisor said, ‘Look, the best I can do is give you a few minutes to talk to the whole group,’” Proudfoot said. “So on their break, everybody came around in a semicircle and I gave my song and dance about short documentaries and what we wanted to do and what films I had made before. And at the end I had my ‘Jerry Maguire’ moment and said, ‘Who’s with me?’ Four people raised their hands, and those are the four people in the movie.”

If that was an inauspicious start, those four volunteers told fascinating and moving stories in their interviews with Proudfoot: There was the stringed- instrument repairman who had to face coming out as gay at a time when it wasn’t accepted; the Mexican immigrant saved from a life of poverty when she landed a job in the formerly all-male shop; the former country musician whose band had once been advised by no less than Colonel Tom Parker; the Armenian refugee whose American sponsor taught him piano tuning.

“At that point, it was just like, ‘Man, we better not screw this up,’” Proudfoot said. “This is a gift from the documentary gods.”

Bowers added interviews with some of the LAUSD student musicians. “They were so amazing, full of light and beauty,” he said. “They had such clarity talking about their connections with their instruments. I definitely saw myself in every one of them, which was a big reason why I really wanted them in the film.”

The film went through a number of iterations over a period of four years. When it was accepted by the Telluride Film Festival, the directors decided they had to add the finale of their dreams and pulled together students, alumni and repair technicians in a makeshift orchestra to play a new composition of Bowers’ over the end credits.

“A lot of the composition and arranging and orchestrating of it came from our conversations about how it would be filmed,” Bowers said. “It was a lot of fun, and it was something that connected Ben and I early on – this fascination with whether music can be that integral to the filmmaking process.”

Bowers has a flourishing career writing film music, including the scores to “Green Book,” “Origin” and “The Color Purple,” and Proudfoot makes his living with brand-sponsored short films – but both said they’re committed to the short-documentary format.

“What I like about these films that we self-finance and make on our own is that they’re noncommercial,” Proudfoot said. “Never once do we stop and say, ‘Are we going to be able to sell this?’ It doesn’t even enter the conversation, and the people that are supporting it financially are not assessing whether it can recoup its investment. Everybody is aligned in a very human mission to create a beautiful story that will inspire people.

“I feel like the short documentary is this secret corner of cinema that has the whole world of craft, of cinematography and music and editing and filmmaking.

“It’s hard to beat that. I think we’re in a renaissance of short documentaries, mainly driven by the internet, and I think it’s going to keep going and going and going.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap

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