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Behind The Work: How Radke’s Ben Addelman Helped Bring Learning to Life for Apple TV+’s Groundbreaking ‘Becoming You’


The director takes LBB behind the scenes on the Olivia Colman-narrated docuseries he helped write, produce, and shoot

Behind The Work: How Radke’s Ben Addelman Helped Bring Learning to Life for Apple TV+’s Groundbreaking ‘Becoming You’

How did you become you? It’s a question that has always gripped philosophers, scientists, and artists. Apple TV+’s new docuseries ‘Becoming You’ may well bring us closer to an answer and, if not, there’s a fair chance it will warm our hearts enough that we don’t mind anyway. 

For Radke director Ben Addelman, the series has been a long time in the making. When his involvement began in the project back in 2018, he was part way through a five-year stint living in London. Today, however, he finds himself recently arrived back home in Canada. It’s fitting, perhaps, that a series analysing the events that define our early years should wrap around one of its creator’s life events in the way it has (Ben also welcomed another kid of his own during the show’s production).

There can be no doubt that the director’s heart and soul went into the project. As well as directing a part of each episode in the series, he also helped write its narrative arcs and had a hand in producing. Having added in Oscar-winning Olivia Colman’s voiceover talent, Apple TV+ subscribers can expect a treat when they stream the show.

To go behind the scenes of ‘Becoming You’, LBB caught up with Ben... 

Above: ‘Becoming You’ charts the lives of 100 children over the course of 2000 days, as we learn how their minds and personalities develop at a young age.

LBB> First things first, congratulations on such a fantastic project! Can you tell us how you become involved, and why this idea appealed to you?

Ben> Honestly, the whole thing started with one of the best emails I’ve ever received in my life. It just said ‘hey, are you interested in working on a global show with lots of travel for one of the big streaming companies? Oh and by the way the project is really well-funded’. I don’t know many directors who would reply ‘no’ to that!

So a few good meetings later, I got offered the job. And up until that point, I had no idea it was Apple TV+! It was all very secretive. 

LBB> You had a hand in writing, producing, and directing the series along with a few others. What was the process of pulling all this together? 

Ben> The way it worked was they brought in three of four of us at the start. So the base idea for the show had already been developed, but we kind of sat in a writers room to hash out the structure and narrative arcs. That was a totally new experience for me which I really enjoyed. We had to get super granular in terms of breaking down scenes and which episode a certain scene would fit into to flow along each narrative. And then we had international shoots to consider (this was pre-Covid, fortunately!). So yeah, I was very much involved in the nuts and bolts from the start which is just fantastically rewarding. 

LBB> So each episode will be one self-contained story?

Ben> Each episode is based on its own story or theme. That could be motion, emotion, how we learn to think, and how we develop a social identity. So there was this process at the start that involved a lot of big blackboards and us saying ‘okay so we need to shoot that bit in Borneo, that bit in India’, etc. Once we’d got it all lined up we broke off and wrote scripts for each episode. But as it happened, the whole thing stayed super collaborative throughout. We all leaned on each other for help when needed and it worked great. 

LBB> Why do you think now is such a good time to be telling these stories?

Ben> It does seem quite fortuitously timed, doesn’t it? That these very heartwarming stories should be coming around during quite a bleak winter for a lot of the world. One thing I would like to make clear, though, is that this show is absolutely science-based and founded on serious, quality research and insights. Yes it’s uplifting and hopeful, but it’s not whimsical or rooted in any kind of fantasy. These are real people, in the real world. Maybe that just makes it even more wonderful to see! 

Of course, one of the other great joys of watching the show back for me was how much travelling there is involved, and jumping regularly between these different locations. So if you are looking for some escapism in the time of lockdowns, I suppose there’s plenty to be found there! 

Above: A selection of behind the scenes images from ‘Becoming You’.

LBB> And from a personal perspective, did you learn anything from the process of making this? Did anything happen that challenged your own preconceptions? 

Ben> Ha, well maybe this was by design but I actually had a one year old at the time the show started, and then my wife gave birth again during its production. In fact, pretty much all of us involved in creating the show have young kids of our own, so we were very much invested on a personal level and I think you can see that shine through when you watch it. 

In terms of anything I’ve learned, I suppose one thing would be how different cultures can assign different layers of responsibility to kids. For example, there’s one scene which especially sticks out to me from Japan, where we see a five year old kid walking across roads by himself to grab dinner for his family. That’s scary to think about for me and my own kids, but there’s a cultural thing whereby it’s not an issue there. So there’s a point in there, I think, about human potential and how it can be defined and boxed in by societal norms we wouldn’t give a second thought to. 

LBB> And when it came to choosing which kids to look at, how was the casting process? Is ‘casting’ even the right word?

Ben> Casting is the right word, yeah! We were extremely keen for authenticity and so we chose not to go through any agencies or anything like that. We wanted real kids and real parents, too. I have to say, working with these kids was an absolute delight, as well. You always anticipate problems on-set especially with such young children, but we didn’t have a single incident, in my experience, where a scene didn’t work because of one of the kids. I think it’s, again, because we were looking for authenticity and they were only too willing to be authentic.

LBB> Is there anything that you hope audiences take away from watching the show?

Ben> Yeah, I hope it shows that there’s an enormous, almost bottomless, amount of good in the world. As I say, this series is framed in a positive and rosy way, but it’s not fantasy. It’s real science and real children in authentic environments. There is storytelling, but it’s woven into facts and science, so this is a window into the real world that you’re seeing on-screen. 

LBB> What was the most challenging aspect of this project, and how did you overcome it?

Ben> I would have to say it was that process of untangling the web of narrative that connects over 100 children all over the world. This is such an ambitious series in terms of the sheer scope of what we’re looking at - because it’s not just the psychology of growing up, there’s so many different cultural aspects we cover as well. So that was a challenge, but I think (and hope) the final product illustrates it was worth it.

LBB> Finally, how do you think the kids involved in this project will feel when they look back on it in 15-20 years’ time?

Ben> Ha, that’s a good question. I mean, we were almost doing small family portraits for these people, and that maybe was part of the appeal for the families which wanted to be involved. There was one particular kid, in Nepal, who became incredibly interested in the film crew and our cameras. He was around three years old and so in this kind of developmental phase where he was experiencing more intense interests, and he had his own little camera and was taking pictures of us. He was a sharp kid - some of his photos were really great, we had a hard time distinguishing which were taken by us and which were from him on a couple of occasions! So I do hope we’ve been able to provide some valuable memories from this time for these families. At least it should make for a decent page or two in the photo album!

‘Becoming You’ is now available to stream on Apple TV+. Ben Addelman is based in Toronto and is represented by Radke.


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Radke, Tue, 17 Nov 2020 17:37:43 GMT