When I was at film school, I studied to become a documentary filmmaker, and among the many films I watched, I became a huge fan of Nick Broomfield’s. When I graduated, I took a copy of my student film and tracked him down at a film festival, asking him for a job. Six weeks later he called me and offered me the chance to shoot a making of documentary about his latest film at the time, Ghosts.
I directed and shot the making of documentary, and thus started my long lasting working relationship with Nick, who became my mentor. He knew I wanted to direct, and I was anxious to simply do what I wanted, but he stressed the importance of learning the many different aspects of filmmaking, which to be honest frustrated me at times.
The next few years under his tutelage I worked in most aspects of production, from research, to learning to shoot, editing, sound mixing, with the emphasis being to learn as much as possible about the different disciplines of making a film.
As the years went on I believed the focus on learning everything was to become technically more proficient, and besides directing my own documentaries, I regularly produced and edited Nick’s films. His particular talent, I discovered, is the ability to tell an engaging story. It sounds simple, but he can literally lay out an entire film scene by scene in his head. His understanding of narrative structure is second to none.
I realised in more recent years, that the reason I had been taught various disciplines of filmmaking by Nick was not in fact for technical prowess, which of course is important, but more to use all these disciplines as another tool to tell a story. Ultimately, making a film – whether a short, feature, or documentary, is all about getting the audience to engage with the material you are giving them. It is about getting them to react in the way you want them to. Again, this is a very obvious statement, but it is one I feel gets overlooked. Your film can be the most technically astounding film, but without good story telling, you will not hold an audience.
From 2014, for 18 months or so, I worked making short documentary style films for CNN across Africa. It was here that I was able to put a lot of these story telling methods to practice. These were weekly programs, so the turnaround was very fast. As a documentary director, you most likely will not know the ending of your film before you begin – in fact your entire narrative may change during the course of filming. Today’s technology means we can literally film hour after hour of material, which lends itself to not necessarily focusing on how to tell the story in the moment, but rather to create it in the edit.
The challenge as the director is to see how each shot will cut with another as you shoot. It is to ask questions of your subject knowing what answer you need to tell your story, and how it can work in conjunction with an interview you have already done, or to foresee how this could work with something you have in mind.
It is here where a knowledge in the various aspects of filmmaking come to hand. If you have a knowledge of how to move a camera, you are able to use it as another tool to tell the story. The movement should not be random, rather you move when you need to in order to tell the story of that moment. If you have a knowledge of editing, as you interview your subject, you are able to make mental edits of what is being said, and know what else you might need them to say to complete the interview.
Finishing making films for CNN, I worked with Nick again and we recently completed ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’, a documentary about Whitney Houston, which Nick co-directed and I edited and produced. Our aim was to make a film that while chronologically accurate, worked more on an emotional basis and created empathy for Whitney. Transitioning from director back to editor, though different on a technical level, was not such a leap – again, it is all about story telling, and you now use a different tool to achieve this. Nick and I would discuss the direction we wanted to take the film, and we both worked closely to then achieve that.
Having over the years been involved in various aspects of production with my goal always being to direct my own films, I realised that the art of story telling is the one that is most important. Having various technical knowledge in different disciplines will make you invaluable as a sort of filmmaking Swiss army knife, but if the goal is to create your own work, the focus in all these aspects should be ‘how can I tell this story?’