Published on 23 August 2023 in Career

“When you’re directing, your vision is like an anchor”: Rebecca Coley on documentary and Directors UK Inspire

Director Rebecca Coley sat down with us to talk about her documentary feature Point of Change and transitioning to High-end TV with our Inspire mentoring scheme.

Point of Change tells the history of Nias, an island located off the coast of Indonesia. The film uses a hybrid of Super 8 archive footage, interviews, and animation to depict interwoven narratives spanning decades. We spoke to director Rebecca Coley about the making of her feature film, and how she’s using Inspire to build on her documentary experience.

Rebecca Coley on the set of Point of Change

What was your journey to becoming a director?

I always wanted to do something creative, but I was encouraged to study law instead. I went to university in Liverpool and began working on films there. I fell in love with being on set, so I started working as a runner, then a production assistant, and then a continuity script supervisor. That was an interesting job because I could watch the director quite closely, and that’s when I decided I wanted to direct myself. I went to the Workers’ Film Association in Manchester to study a practical filmmaking course, which was the first time I used a lot of new equipment and software. This also opened my mind and changed my politics, as we were making a lot of social issue documentaries. I did a few different courses after that, and did every job on set as well as some producing. I then began to write and direct my own work, making short films and working for an agency in London.

How did the idea for Point of Change come about, and what made you want to tell this story?

I spent a lot of time traveling in Indonesia when I was young. I loved surfing there, as well as the jungle and amazing ecosystems they have. I was involved in a number of aid projects, and got to know a lot of the locals and spoke a bit of the language. Then I met Bonne Gea, a young girl from the island who got a sponsorship deal and became the first Indonesian female champion surfer. I wanted to make a short film about her and whilst I was filming and gathering interviews, I found that there was a much bigger story to tell. The feature documentary evolved from there.

Where did the funding for the film come from?

I made a Kickstarter campaign, initially for the short film, with a goal of £20,000. It was really hard work. Even though I knew a couple of people who would invest beforehand, I didn’t know if we would reach our target. But I also knew if we could do it, then I could potentially shoot for the feature. It was a long process of putting a lot of hours into the campaign, and then working intermittently so I could save up and self-fund the project as well.

Filming Point of Change

How did you approach your subjects and what was it like working with them?

I spent a lot of time in the villages meeting locals and listening to their stories, and also building trust with them so they felt comfortable doing an official interview. Everyone worries about how they’ll be contextualized, so it was a case of explaining the overall vision to them — that I wasn't trying to push my own point of view with the film, but rather present what had happened and let the audience make up their own mind. It was really important that they felt they could open up and say anything to me, and it wouldn’t be edited out of context or sensationalized. Also, you sometimes have subjects who are just really natural and are not really bothered by the camera, but then you have other people who are really affected by it. So as a director, you have to respond to that. For example, I made an effort to bring people onto set when everything was ready to go so they weren’t sat there feeling self-conscious for too long. Other times, I had to change what I had planned because it wasn’t going to work. Before I interviewed Bonne, I had an idea that she might narrate certain sections, but she’s a woman of very few words, so the interview ended up being more observational, fly-on-the-wall. With documentary, you never really know how certain moments are going to unfold, but you have to roll with it and just capture what you can in the moment.

In addition to the animation and talking heads, we see Super 8 archive footage interspersed throughout. How did you source this?

When we found the Australian surfers who had stayed in Nias in the 70s, we found out that one of them, Kevin, had a Super 8 he had used at the time. He didn’t even know where it was at first, and it took quite a long time for me to persuade him to track it down. I knew it would be great for the story, and there was also a possibility that Ingrid, the girl who went missing, would be on the footage. Up until then, it was just going to be talking heads speaking about someone, so when we finally got the footage and saw that she was on it, it was a big moment knowing that we had something of her to share with people.

Promotional still for Point of Change

How did the animation come about?

I always knew that I didn’t want it to be a traditional talking head documentary, and that was another reason why it was such a long process. I could have probably locked it earlier, but I was determined to have animation to make it more creatively interesting. I wanted it to act as the subconscious of the film, because there’s a lot that you can’t really say with talking heads alone. I knew about Maxime Bruneel, the animation director, at the beginning of the project because I’d seen some of his work that I really liked, and I’d met him in London. We just kept talking and sharing ideas. Then eventually, his production house in Paris came on board as co-producers. We came up with the concepts together, and then he would hand draw them and direct the animation.

Tell me about the music used in the film.

Stephen Warbeck is the composer for the majority of the music. He worked with Lewis Morrison on the score, and it was amazing to work with them and go to a recording in London. The score was always going to weave throughout the film, but we also incorporated music tracks that we loved and thought would work. Obviously, being quite a low-budget documentary, there was a lot of classic 70s music that was too expensive to use, so we had to find solutions for that. Sometimes it was a case of reaching out to artists and simply asking if we could use their music, or using cover versions, such as War by The Temptations. We felt like the music should travel through time and fit each era, but also the themes of the film. My Beach, for example, is a classic used in a lot of surf films, but really portrays the territorial feeling of the locals.

Filming Point of Change

What was your involvement in the edit and creating the structure?

I had an editor early on who helped me make the bones of the structure, and we had planned it to be chronological. We were open to changing it if it worked for the story, and we played around with a different structure, but I wanted to look at the bigger picture of what had happened in Nias over time, so it just made more sense to do it chronologically. It also allowed us to have lighter and darker moments next to each other and take the audience on a journey through different emotions as well as time. We had multiple different editors throughout the whole process, partly because it took a long time and partly because it was a low-budget project. I was very lucky to work with some great editors who really helped bring all the different narrative strands together. I was also heavily involved in the edit, contributing to the overall structure as well as small edits to make sure it was getting across the feeling that I was aiming for at each stage.

Have you screened the film publicly?

I’ve only had one public screening so far, which was at the Portuguese Surf Film Festival, but the feedback was amazing. It’s really nice to be finally sharing the project with audiences. People waited until the end to discuss the film, and it was clear they really understood the themes that I tried to get across. It was also a global audience, so it was really interesting to hear different perspectives from people worldwide. I’m trying to enjoy this stage, but I’m always thinking about what the next project is!

Filming Point of Change

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this project?

There have been lots, from gaining people’s trust to getting funding. But also, staying true to my vision could be quite challenging at times. I got feedback from fellow filmmakers and executives suggesting I should have taken a tougher line and forced my opinion across. But I feel that we increasingly live in a world of polarities and black-and-white thinking, when actually there’s a big grey area in the middle of everything, and there are positives and negatives with a lot of things in life because they’re complicated. I wanted the documentary to portray that, so I stuck to my guns and got other people on board who felt the same. I think holding true to the reason why you started to make the film is sometimes quite hard to do, but your vision as a director is like an anchor that you can keep coming back to.

What made you apply to Directors UK Inspire?

I applied to Inspire to transition to High-end TV because I’ve written a TV series called Mermaid set in the surfing world. So I’ve teamed up with Katie Churcher, who has directed several documentaries and is now working in TV. I’m going to start shadowing her soon on Grantchester. She’s sent me the scripts, and I’ve already prepared how I would direct them so I can watch Katie and compare her approach with my own. It’s a very different world, but it’s going to be a great experience for me to be on a TV set again and get familiar with the pace. I’m really looking forward to it.

How has your documentary experienced prepared you for your transition to TV?

I think my hybrid approach to this project has helped me to develop a varied skill set. The way that we filmed some scenes for Point of Change helped me to prepare for what it would be like to shoot a narrative project, and I really like the documentary style of shooting even when working with actors. I also know the world of surfing and the people in it really well, so it will help me to bring out realistic performances from actors and make the fictional world believable and compelling.

Rebecca Coley on the set of Point of Change

What's next for you?

We have a few more screenings of Point of Change at various festivals, and then the plan is to release it officially next Spring. I’m also developing another film, but the main thing I’d love to do is bring Mermaid to life.

Find out more about Point of Change here and meet our current Inspire cohort.

Find Rebecca Coley on Instagram @beckicoley and Twitter @beckycoley.

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