Nick Broomfield – A Life in Documentary Filmmaking

June 6, 2017

Studying on our TV Production Technology and Film Production Technology courses you’ll not only have access to industry-connected tutors, but also get to learn from and meet some of the biggest names in the Film and TV industry. During Industry Week our students met legendary filmmaker Nick Broomfield and they were the first audience in the world to see an exclusive trailer for his new film Whitney: Can I be me? premiering this month.

Before heading into his workshops, Nick took the time to talk to us about his career, future projects and what advice he has for our students.

How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
I was always curious. When I was young I had a little camera – like a stills camera – and I remember being an exchange student in France with not much to do, so I just went around taking lots of pictures. I saw that I was enjoying it and was actually really good at it. I also really enjoyed chatting to the people I was photographing and finding out who they were.

What is the first documentary-style film you remember doing?
I did a film called Who Careswith a friend of mine in Liverpool, which actually turned out pretty good. We used a little wind-up camera – a little Berlex – I think I was like 19 and it took a little while to shoot. We were shooting for three months and it turned into an 18-minute film which took me a year and a half to cut, so that should be an encouragement to students – films tend to take a long time.

What is key to conducting a good interview?
Interviews are more like conversations and if they feel like interviews then that’s already a problem. More than anything you want to make the person you are interviewing feel relaxed – unless you’re doing a very aggressive kind of thing with them. You just want them to feel like you are very interested in them, that you are listening to what they are saying and that you are just having a conversation.

Often in conversation people open up and you can get into their thought process, so that you don’t ask a question that’s completely irrelevant to what they’ve been saying – your interview questions need to come out of what they’re saying.

So who was the most difficult person you ever had to interview?
Oh my goodness, I interview a lot of difficult people. Sometimes the scene is actually about how difficult the interview and conversation process was. I think the art in filmmaking is to use whatever is there, not want something that isn’t there and go in with a thesis. Sometimes I think that’s the hardest thing – learning to be flexible and receptive and genuinely interested, because your function as a storyteller is to follow the story and not to prove an idea.

So when you’re planning an interview how do you go about it?
Well it depends, I’ll always read as much as I can about that person – often not enough, but that’s cause I’m lazy. If they’ve done other interviews, then you should watch those as well and get clues as to what works with them. Sometimes people are triggered by a word – it’s very odd – you can notice a word in another interview that makes someone really react, so obviously you want to use those words too.

You have been described as fearless, but have any of your documentary subjects really intimidated you?
Well I think they are all intimidating – I made about 40 films and I don’t really think in terms of ones anymore. I think the whole process is intimidating and that’s a good thing because you’re always trying to think “How am I going to tell this story and how am I going to make other people interested in the story that I am interested in telling?”. I think it’s like sitting around the fire and telling a story to people – you don’t want everyone to go and take a toilet break in the middle of it, so how do you keep them there? That’s what storytelling is all about – how to keep the audience really fascinated.

What was the hardest/strangest documentary you’ve made?
Well they’re all so strange – they’re all just completely wacky. I don’t normally watch my films, but the last couple of months I’ve been redigitising all my films from negatives and you sit in front of these films that you haven’t seen for ages and think:“WOW these are so mad, these people are so crazy and the situations are so unique you could never write them – how on earth did I get through this?!”

They’re all an adventure into the absurd. I’m a big believer that the gods are either with you or against you, and sometimes they’re really against you and it doesn’t matter what youdo, you just don’t make such a good film and those are the hardest ones. I think all my films have been pretty extreme, but more than anything you just have to stay with an idea. They’re all really hard and you always think about giving up many times in the middle and the secret is to just stay with it.

What has been your favourite documentary that you haven’t been involved with?
There are a lot of films I like – some really early films like Run for the Hillsand Private Place and more recently a great film about the immigrants coming here from Syria called Into The Sea and also The White Helmets, which won the Oscar.

So do you have such a thing as a favourite film?
You see so much stuff and you like different things about different movies. They’re all stories and you’re moved by different aspects every time. I would rather say I like different filmmakers and I like their way of telling stories – I like early Alex Gibney or early Fred Wiseman. More recently I quite liked the Nina Simone film that Liz Garbus did and I also liked Amy and Senna.

What is your creative process?
I’m not one of these brainy filmmakers who has a list of films that they are going to do. I never really know what I’m going to do next after a particular film until I finish the last film and then you have to think ‘Oh what am I interested in now?’. Every time you make a film you learn something and you change.

I just finished this film about Whitney Houston and I’m thinking about what I want to do next – do I want to do another music film or would I rather do a drama. It’s a nice period where you read lots of newspapers and books, because often when you’re making films you get quite cut-off and get very focused on your film. In between films it’s a great opportunity to just look around you and go to exhibitions or go out to dinner (which I don’t do hardly at all when I’m making a film) and an idea comes along really quickly.

Have you watched or read something recently you’d recommend to our students?
I’m really interested in architecture and I also read a lot of funny things about architecture which aren’t really relevant, but made me think of making a series about buildings. I think when you have a big structure it often represents the politics of the area and I was thinking of doing a film around some colonial buildings around the world and telling the story behind the politics of the area and the period of time through the building.

That’s a fun non-commercial idea for BBC 4 (or 2 if you’re lucky) and probably an idea that’s hard to sell – probably not relevant for all countries – whereas with films like Whitney there’s a massive market.

Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
I don’t really know what I’m going to do next – currently I’m just getting the Whitney Houston film out. When you make bigger films and lots of people put a lot of money behind them it becomes much more bureaucratic – dealing with a lot of legal issues and very boring things that take your time up.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
I think the actual process of making a film is incredibly simple – and the simpler you make it, the better. If you need to, you can literally wear the same clothes everyday – buy 5 pairs of underpants and 5 t-shirts, so that all you need to do is focus on that film. Maybe work with one other person and keep a teeny tiny crew and just focus on the idea – become obsessed with it and don’t think about other things – this is if you want to make a good film. And just stay with it – there’s going to be lots of problems and the difference between a good filmmaker and someone who doesn’t get there is really just persistence.

Generally, ideas don’t go very well and there’s lots of problems and sometimes it’s a question of how you integrate the problems into the story – so you make it a part of the story. You have to be mastering the story, rather than the story mastering you. I always think the best thing to do is find your closest friend to work with and then the two of you go on an adventure.

The Broadway are holding a screening for Whitney: Can I Be Me? on Sunday 11 June which will also include a live Q&A with Nick Broomfield via sattelite. Tickets can be bought here.

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