Our recent film for Wex Photographic, telling the story of photographer and activist Giles Duley
It’s no secret that here at Forward, we’re passionate about telling stories. We’ve told many different stories over the years; from winemakers and boat builders to photographers and students. We’ve told the stories of entire cities and even the story of how we make films. But the stories we love, the ones that get us out of bed in the morning, the ones we labour over in the edit until the early hours, are the deeply personal stories of why people do what they do. Finding out what makes people tick, showing their struggles and achievements, their passion, and creating a contained piece of work that reflects them and their story as honestly as we can.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.”
– Robert McKee
Last year we told three very different stories about three photographers, Giles Duley, Hannah Laycock, and Daniel Regan for Wex Photographic. These three photographers have truly inspiring lives and each has a passion for photography that helps them overcome the giant challenges of paraplegia, multiple sclerosis and mental illness. These films proved hugely successful and engaged viewers on a very personal level.
The foundation on which these kind of films are built is trust, and that trust must be earned. When we embark on these projects, we never just turn up to an interview and start asking questions. In the weeks prior to filming we have long phone conversations, we skype, we have coffee and talk at length with our subjects before we even think about setting up a light. It’s so important to us that they feel comfortable enough to let us tell their life story.
It’s not a small or easy task for someone to allow a film crew into their home and their personal space, especially when they bring with them a whole range of bulky equipment and bright lights. Crews often spend the first hour talking technical jargon and moving the interviewee’s personal possessions around, plugging in and taping down cables, whilst that person nervously looks on wondering if anyone needs soya milk in their tea.
Throughout the filming process, the relationship between crew and interviewee needs to be maintained. As producer, it’s my job to keep the shoot running smoothly. A big part of that is making sure that the person whose life we’re disrupting is entirely comfortable at every step. I spend time with them whilst the crew set up, I talk them through the shoot schedule, address any questions or worries, and I quickly learn where they keep their teabags.
The team working on location, filming Hannah Laycock's film in Nairn, Scotland
The filming of an interview itself is an entirely surreal experience for anyone who hasn’t been in front of camera before. As filmmakers, we often forget this fact as 4 or 5 crew members stare at an interviewee, whilst they search their mind, trying to form their personal tale into a cohesive narrative; staring back like a deer in a fill light.
This is where those early conversations are vital. We build our questions around them. We can lead their answers with a simple “Tell us about that time…” or “Remember when you told us about…”. If we’ve built a successful rapport it shouldn’t take long for a conversation to flow and for the cameras, lights and fuzzy microphone to sink into the background. It’s really important not to break this flow. If there’s anything that needs to be picked up or re-done, this can always be done at the end of the interview, and it’s often said better second time around. We always give the interviewee time to get to where they need to, and ask them if there’s anything that’s been missed or they want to add. It’s their story and they’re the most important person in the room.
Once their story is captured and imported into the editing suite, the power and responsibility fall to the editor. A good editor can pretty much make an interviewee say anything they need them to. Which can be really useful when constructing a narrative and turning an hour of interview into a succinct emotional account that’s only a few minutes long. But that account, their story, must remain true to the person who told it. So, the single sentences created out of two or three statements should still reflect that person’s experiences rather than creating a falsehood or an ideal.
We often sit in the edit and discuss the ethics of the process. With the #MoreThanAnImage project for Wex, we had to tell three very personal and often dark and challenging stories within 3-5 minutes. We needed to include the darkness in these peoples’ lives, as it’s part of who they are, but to dwell on it would be exploitive and to downplay it or ignore it would be doing these people a disservice. Finding the balance here was a huge challenge which came with many questions. Questions which often don’t have right or wrong answers, but are there so you can keep the film as honest and as true to its subject as possible. Because in a world where “fake news” and “alternative facts” are increasingly being used to skew and shape reality, the responsibility of telling the truth is more important than ever.