This past April, Banyan lost a supporter, craftsman and long-time friend named Bob Freeman. For nearly two decades, Bob was our ‘go to’ soundman, working on most of our large video, film, and documentary projects pretty much since we formed Banyan 20 years ago. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2012, he was able to fight the good fight until finally succumbing this past spring.
I had the privilege to travel and work with Bob all over the world making documentary films and telling powerful stories.
I am a better filmmaker (and person) for knowing him.
The first time I met Bob was in Omaha, Nebraska. We were working on a documentary that focused on the devastation of the Canadian arctic being caused by burgeoning numbers of Snow Geese—a film called An Avalanche of Snows. As it turns out, the cheapest hotel rooms we could book for the crew were not actually in Omaha, but across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa in the Harrah’s Casino (where Tom Jones was playing at the time).
Now, not to promote a stereotype, but soundmen are usually not known to be the most reliable, punctual, or even social members of production crews. Find a good one and you tend to stick with him (or her) for as long as possible. So when our Director of Photography told me that, for the remainder of this project, we’d be working with a ‘new soundman,’ I wasn’t thrilled. The first shot on the first day of the shoot was planned as sunrise in a cornfield about 20 miles from Omaha—the goal being to get a shot of hundreds of thousands of nesting birds all taking flight as the sun just starts to peek over the horizon (beautiful, right?). But the reality we faced was that we would only have one chance to get the shot we needed, because by the afternoon we were scheduled to be miles away doing interviews with a group of waterfowl scientists and biologists. You can imagine everything that could go wrong with this plan: the weather, the birds not being there, or the birds taking flight too early or too late, etc. Basically, the whole thing was a little ball of stress.
So during our crew dinner in the casino’s ‘world famous’ buffet, I was first introduced to Bob. He was quiet and a bit subdued, but I wrote that off to probably him just being the newest crew member on a film we had all been working on for months—or maybe he just didn’t like the food! Toward the end of dinner, Bob asked if he could have the keys to the production van, because he wanted to get some new batteries for his recording equipment. It was late and we were all headed to bed, so with a sense of trepidation I handed over the keys. On his way out of the restaurant Bob said he’d just hold on to the keys overnight and return them in the morning when we’d all agreed to meet (called ‘wheels up’ in production) at 4:00 a.m. To be honest, I think I lay awake most of the night plagued by visions of our new soundman tearing across eastern Nebraska stopping in every bar and casino he could find, and telling anyone who would listen that he worked for Banyan!
The next morning, when I came down at 3:45 a.m. (remember, we’re all from the Midwest…where if you’re on-time, you’re late!) the first thing I noticed is that it had snowed about 10 inches overnight and the temperature had fallen to about 10 degrees—neither of which had been in the weather forecast, and both of which makes for an unhappy production day (especially when you’re planning on spending the majority of it sneaking up on flocks of sleeping geese waiting for them to take flight).
The second thing I noticed was our production van. Instead of being parked way down at the far end of the parking lot (where we had left it the night before) it was sitting, idling, under the eve of the hotel entry, with not a bit of snow on it anywhere. As I walked out to see what was up, I saw Bob sitting in the driver’s seat—along with multiple cups of steaming coffee strategically positioned in all of the cup holders throughout the van. There was also a huge bag of donuts and bagels sitting in the passenger seat. I looked at Bob with an expression that would probably be similar to someone telling me that aliens had landed on my front lawn. He smiled and said, “I thought I would come down early and get everything ready. I hope that’s okay.”
The term ‘bromance’ doesn’t begin to define what I felt at that moment. We had found our new soundman!
The day went off without a hitch. We got our geese ‘money shot’ and a new, deep and multi-decade friendship was born. Not only did Bob turn out to be an outstanding soundman, but a truly reflective, giving and nice person as well. He loved working with Banyan and he loved our work. He was one of the few sound recordists I’ve ever known who actually listened to both the questions and answers he recorded during our interviews. In fact, at the end of an interview it became a habit of mine to ask Bob if he had anything he’d like to ask, because he usually came up with something insightful or emotional that we hadn’t captured. There are many examples of Bob’s questions ending up in the final cut of the film.
I was lucky enough to be with Bob just before he died. Toward the end he was in and out of consciousness, but peaceful. His sister, Katie, had created this wonderful sanctuary in her home where friends could come by and spend time with Bob, sit and reminisce with one another as Bob slept, and even step away and privately grieve for what we all knew what was coming.
About three weeks after he passed, a few of us went out to the desert just outside Las Vegas to a place called ‘The Valley of Fire.’ Every year a bunch of us would meet up in April and take a trip out to this part of Nevada, which is surprisingly beautiful. To celebrate Bob’s life we had a stone cut that we could leave at a spot overlooking a natural sandstone arch—a place that Bob loved to come every year. It said, “We few, we happy few. We band of brothers.” It’s a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V and it references the power of lifelong bonds formed in friendship, adversity, and loyalty (which defines film production to a tee!). We left it hidden in a peaceful spot shaded from the powerful afternoon sun. Only we ‘happy few’ know its location. It’s what Bob would have wanted.
Banyan is lucky to have counted Bob as a friend and loyal supporter for so many years. He always gave 100 percent, no matter how big or small the project, and was always proud that he worked on things designed to touch and enhance people’s lives. He is a big part of what Banyan has been able to achieve in the last 20 years. We will miss him desperately with each new project we create.
So wherever you are Bob, I hope you know that there are tons of people who still think of you every day, who would give anything to be able to work with you one more time. Who are grateful for the time we had together—and especially for the coffee and donuts.
Rest well, Bobby!