While two Best Short Subject Documentary Oscar nominations--in 2006 for The Death of Kevin Carter and in 2017 for Extremis--put him in rarefied industry air, Dan Krauss this year scored another two-pronged career accomplishment that is rarer still, if not unprecedented. That feat is having a branded feature documentary, 5B, debut at the Cannes Film Festival as part of its Special Screenings lineup this past May only a month later to have that film for Johnson & Johnson make an indelible mark at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity where it won the Entertainment Lions Grand Prix.
Named after San Francisco General Hospital’s ward 5B which opened in 1983 as the first full-fledged hospital unit dedicated to treating people with AIDS, the documentary was helmed by Krauss via Saville Productions. The moving film shows the positive power of nursing, continuing a theme which Johnson & Johnson has championed over the years.
Entertainment Lions jury president Scott Donaton, global chief creative & content officer of Digitas, global, said, “5B is a brave idea and a beautiful story that’s brilliantly crafted. It can--and will--stand as a piece of great entertainment as well as an example of bold marketing.”
5B tells the stories of caretakers, patients and others impacted by the pioneering hospital ward, introducing us to the likes of Mary Magee, a nurse who came out from New York with the hope of landing a job at 5B so that she could care for, comfort and protect AIDS patients who at that time were given a death sentence. Then there was Dr. Paul Volberding, an oncologist who committed to patient care at 5B even though he acknowledged fear for his health and that of his family since the extent of AIDS’ contagious nature wasn’t known at the time. He related that he and his wife had a hard time talking about the potential perils.
Saville worked with agency UM on 5B which was acquired by Verizon Media for distribution, including a theatrical run.
“The project started off with quite a different ambition,” recalled Krauss. “We were researching stories relative to urgent care and frontline rescue in more contemporary times, following nurses and first responders working in Haiti or other global hotspots. Along the way my research team came to me with some newspaper articles from the 1980s about 5B. I grew up in Berkeley, 10 miles away across the bridge but had no idea about the first AIDS ward which took root in San Francisco General Hospital. I wasn’t aware of the tremendous battle waged in the halls of that hospital to create that ward, with debate raging over not just about how to treat this disease but how to handle patients with compassion and dignity in the face of bigotry.
“It was a theme with a lot of resonance in today’s world,” continued Krauss. “I immediately thought this could be really special. It was like an insect trapped in amber. I felt we had found a moment in time that hadn’t been discovered. I was tremendously excited that we came across this chapter in the AIDS epidemic, a chapter yet to be told.”
Krauss observed that the approach to the film was key to its success. “I don’t think of the film as branded content. We were allowed to make the film we wanted to make. We had the final cut. When it came to making this film, we used the same process I would with any other independent film. I was proud to have Johnson & Johnson as a supporter. To have a giant corporation willing to put real muscle behind storytelling is something I had never experienced before. To see this film gain a legitimate theatrical release in over 100 markets and now live on streaming platforms has been gratifying.”
Roots in journalism
Krauss started out his professional life as a photojournalist, shooting for the likes of Associated Press, the San Francisco Examiner and the Oakland Tribune for more than a decade. Wanting to spend more time with a story, he studied documentary filmmaking at UC Berkeley where he connected with “a cadre of mentors.” Over the ensuing 10 years, Krauss was a gun for hire, serving as a DP for select directors.
The Death of Kevin Carter was director Krauss’ first film. Beyond that short, 5B and the aforementioned Extremis, Krauss’ body of notable directorial work includes the feature The Kill Team which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Truer than Fiction Independent Spirit Award. The Kill Team also garnered nominations from the Directors Guild and Emmy Awards, and has been adapted for an upcoming narrative feature directed by Krauss and starring Alexander Skarsgård and Nat Wolff.
In the new iteration of The Kill Team, Wolff portrays a young soldier named Andrew who during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan witnesses other recruits killing innocent civilians under the direction of a sadistic leader (Skarsgård). Andrew considers reporting what he’s seen to higher-ups--but the increasingly violent platoon becomes suspicious that someone in their ranks has turned on them, and Andrew begins to fear that he’ll be the next target.
This will mark Krauss’ narrative feature directorial debut, making for a most eventful 2019--with two films hitting theaters--5B and The Kill Team (A24), which is slated for release this month.
While Krauss has to wait to see how The Kill Team will be received, he’s most grateful for the response thus far elicited by 5B, which imparted an important lesson to him.
“There’s no such thing as an old story if the story is powerful,” he affirmed. “Maybe that sounds trite but this story about 5B is almost 35 years old. The way I’ve seen audiences--even young audiences--respond to this story is really astonishing. Sometimes as a filmmaker you fear that a story you take on will only appeal to people who saw and experienced it through their own lives. You run the risk of not connecting with those people who didn’t have it as part of their experience. But I’ve found young people stunned to learn of this story, the depth and degree of fear and devastation, showing us the ways in which history can repeat itself. There’s an eerie resonance to what happened 35 years ago and what’s happening in their world today that film can uniquely capture.”