Former Polymathlete Stephen McCaskell recently directed a spectacular documentary about the historic reformer Martin Luther.
We sat down with McCaskell to talk about the techniques, trials, and achievements of telling the story of the man who sparked a 500-year schism in the global church.
Polymath (PM): Stephen, can you share a bit about how and why you decided to make a living behind a camera?
Stephen McCaskell (SM): I always enjoyed messing around with video, creating little short stories since I was a kid. So, it was a natural love for me. Way back when Polymath was barely getting off the ground, I was really pushed to sharpen my skills professionally. We were already working for internationally-recognized brands and organizations, and I really wanted to deliver my best work. That led to other opportunities and personal projects such as Luther.
PM: Plenty of people have written about Martin Luther. What was missing about his story that you felt needed to be told?
SM: We wanted to really dig into the man himself, not just Martin Luther the legend, or the historical figure. We thought some great perspectives needed to be explored about his convictions, fears, and even weaknesses. The result is a much greater contextual understanding. We actually dedicate a good amount of time in the film to the controversies surrounding Luther.
PM:What was the most surprising thing you uncovered?
SM: It was super interesting to learn about Luther’s internal battles. He was going against the church—the only Christian church of his time—essentially saying, “You guys all have it wrong, you’ve had it wrong for centuries, and my interpretation demands sweeping change.” Though he was more humble than that paraphrase gives him credit for, in fact, it was this juxtaposition of humility and incredible courage that I found so fascinating.
“We wanted to really dig into the man himself, not just Martin Luther the legend, or the historical figure.”
PM: Covering a historic figure of such prominence must be daunting, especially when there are different sources and interpretations.
SM: You can’t make everyone happy. But, one of the unique things about this documentary (compared with previous ones about Luther), is that we speak to some of the world’s top scholars on Martin Luther, gather a diversity of viewpoints, and try to stitch together a picture that reflects who he was and what happened. No one will agree 100%, but everyone should be able to learn something.
PM: Tell us about the visual approach you took, and some of the techniques and challenges in filming.
SM: We had these incredible RED Dragon cameras, which capture a ton of detail, and we also used some DJI drones to get some beautiful scenes. I always try to think, as a director, what do I want the audience to feel? You might be able to get a really cool shot, but if it doesn’t feel right, and doesn’t capture the real story, it’s useless. I wanted this story to feel grand and reflective, with the kind of timeless beauty you get from landscapes and centuries-old church buildings.
PM: You travelled a lot for this. What issues did you encounter shooting on location?
SM: Our schedule was insane. We really had to get what we needed and keep moving, but a lot of our shoots were outside, and the October weather in Germany wasn’t always kind to us.
PM: The idea for the documentary really came about while you were at Polymath, and some of the Polymath team were involved early on. Can you say more about how this went from idea to reality?
SM: Yeah, I pitched the concept to Tim [Polymath’s CEO], and he thought it had a lot of potential. The Polymath team helped pull together ideas about the storyline and branding into a lookbook that cast the whole vision for what we were going to do. That allowed me to go to investors and Kickstarter supporters with something really compelling. Ultimately, a lot evolved from those early stages, but that initial lookbook was critical to the success of the whole project.
“I always try to think, as a director, what do I want the audience to feel?”
PM: What’s the next McCaskell production on the horizon?
SM: Good question. I’m spending some time with my wife and three boys and still doing a lot of travel for the film as well. Once this settles down, I’ve got a few stories in mind. Luther was my second documentary about a spiritual figure…maybe that’ll be my niche, or maybe I’ll surprise everyone. Whatever is next, I’ll be updating folks at StephenMcCaskell.com and on my Facebook and Instagram (@stephenmccaskell).
PM: What are the chances that you team up again with Polymath on some future project?
SM: I think I’m still an honorary member of the team, right?? [laughs] At least you haven’t kicked me off of Slack. Seriously…when I left the team to pursue this project, it was truly bittersweet. I do hope there are plenty of opportunities to work on some exciting things together.