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Originally published Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Madonna and I just hit it off": Monroe native directs documentary

When Nathan Rissman, 36, was growing up in Monroe, little did he know he'd one day be working side by side with the one of the world's biggest...

Special to The Seattle Times

When Nathan Rissman, 36, was growing up in Monroe, little did he know he'd one day be working side by side with the one of the world's biggest pop icons — Madonna.

Rissman spent most of his 20s in Seattle, working for Nordstrom and his family's electrician business before branching out into set design and art direction for fashion shows, music videos and commercials. It was through his videos that he met his future boss. "Madonna and I just hit it off," he says.

When he moved to London, Madonna's current home, Rissman became her go-to man for a gamut of jobs, from video archivist to research assistant to gardener. His can-do attitude paid off. When Madonna decided to produce a documentary about the plight of children orphaned by AIDS in Malawi, she wanted Rissman to direct. Three hundred hours of footage later, "I Am Because We Are" is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

We spoke with Rissman about his directorial debut.

Q: What kind of work did you do for Madonna before the documentary?

A: I was kind of like an assistant for a while. I never had an ego about doing something — I never felt like something was below me. I just enjoyed being in London, working with her and her family. Whatever came in front of me I would do.

Q: Were you surprised when Madonna asked you to direct?

A: I wasn't necessarily surprised, but I was really honored. We were sitting in a meeting and she said, "I really would like to explain the plight of the orphans [in Malawi], and I really want Nathan to make a film that would do that." I remember sitting there thinking, "I can't believe I'm hearing this. My life's about to change."

Q: How many trips did you make to Malawi?

A: Over the course of two years, I think I've been there eight times. It really became my second home. Africa to me was a childhood dream, almost. It seemed so far away, so opposite as a Norwegian, middle-class, small-town white boy.

Q: You interview some high-profile people, like Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu. Was it difficult to get these guys to talk to you?

A: We were able to call upon some really influential people because they knew that Madonna was serious. She has no qualms saying I have resources, I have fame, I have these things and I can use them to help other people.

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Q: There must have been so many stories that you discovered. How did you pick which children to focus on?

A: There's always a few that really stand out. There's a young boy named Fanizo, and he's just a hustler. He came up to me and said, "You look like a man who can get things, and I have an exam and I need some pencils." And I just thought, "I like this kid; there's something about him that's really genuine." Also, the Malawian culture is very closed and they don't talk about sex and HIV/AIDS, so when you find kids that let you in their lives, you've found your subjects.

Q: Madonna is such an international icon. When she went to Malawi, did she get recognized?

A: They don't know who she is over there. There's no TVs and radios — there are, but very little. Nobody would recognize her on the village level or in the slums, so we were really able to go under the radar.

Q: Do you call Madonna Madonna, or do you have a nickname?

A: No, that's her name, Madonna. ... It's hard not to be in awe when you first meet her. But after a while, the initial starstruckness goes away because she's such a human being. That's what made it so much easier for me to say, "Hi Madonna, how are you?"

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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