Lockdown has brought much of our industry to a halt, but in the world of factual TV, some programmes have been able to find solutions to the challenges imposed by social distancing.
Previously, we spoke to Steve Smith and Paul Whittington about directing entertainment TV and drama under lockdown. This week we turned our eye to factual, and heard from Christian Collerton, director of the hit lockdown series Grayson’s Art Club, and Angie Mason and Nick Green, directors of the powerful Old, Alone and Stuck at Home, about the real-life stories that present themselves in these incredible circumstances — and how best to capture them.
From directing in tents to shot-gathering through windows, the conversation below shows how directors can tell important stories whilst subject to strict limitations.
Christian Collerton: I saw your programme last night, I thought it was phenomenal. I think hearing those voices which you don’t traditionally hear at 9 o’clock was really powerful and tremendously poignant. I was struck by the device that you used where you interview the contributors on the phone. That visual of being behind a screen was really distancing.
Angie Mason: Well, that was Nick’s idea, wasn’t it, Nick?
Nick Green: Yeah, because you obviously can’t get into their space. I did a film about SARS about 17 years ago and we went over to Canada to meet this woman who was suffering from it, and we ended up having to do the same trick. I remember thinking at the time that it was so weirdly effective. You’d never naturally reach for these solutions under normal circumstances, but somehow being forced to find those solutions did actually work. It’s the sort of old cliché that when you go to interview prisoners in America, and you see them through a window — it’s a shorthand for being in prison, as they almost are at this point, for their own safety of course. So, I was quite pleased with the way it worked, and everybody embraced it, though they thought it was a bit strange at first.
Christian: It’s interesting that you guys were physically filming them, where a lot of our stuff on Grayson is done through Zoom with only a little bit of single-camera filming. Were there a lot of protocols that you had to stick to?
Angie: Oh my god, yes, it was quite comprehensive. That was something that we had to work on right from the get-go. I was writing it for Nick and Charlie the cameraman, and it was so time consuming and tedious. We had to cross-check everything. They weren’t allowed to go into care homes at all. We had to have specified FFP3 face masks. It was a really comprehensive document. I thought, well, I don’t know how any filming is going to take place with this — but you got around it Nick, didn’t you?
Nick: It wasn’t a problem in the end. One of the strange things is you’re asking people to tell you their truths, let you in on their world, their intimate secrets. And the first thing you do normally is shake their hand and make that human connection, look them in the eye and try and say they can trust you with this, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to stitch you up.” And, of course, now you’re doing this through a window and the immediacy, that basic human touch that you normally rely on in an interview is instantly burst. It’s quite difficult: you’ve got to make a lot of small talk; you’ve got to spend a lot of time with them before you say, “Do you mind if we just film for a little bit?” And all that stuff is normally done through a handshake very quickly.
The other thing is these face masks are bloody awful. I don’t know how you spend a day in them. As a glasses-wearer, you’re breathing and the insides of your glasses are fogging up, and you’re trying to hold a script, you’re trying to look at your questions, you’re looking at a monitor, and the whole thing is a bloody disaster! None of it is conducive to filmmaking.
Angie: I’m just so pleased to hear that you adhered to it! I don’t know whether most people would have just thought, oh my goodness this is impossible. We are distanced, there’s a glass window between us, there’s a door, there’s bricks... is this just an impossible ask?
Nick: Well, can you imagine being responsible for going into these very lovely people’s lives and putting them at risk? It’s a terrifying prospect! So, it was a pain, I’ve got to say, and not something I’d rush to repeat — but these people are very delicate, and you’ve got to respect that.
Christian: How did you go about finding them?
Angie: Well, I had done quite a few programmes before involving social policy, so I knew the agencies to go to immediately, like Carers UK, Age Concern, Alzheimer’s UK. So that was one route. And then the other route was just the youngsters in the office putting out a couple of tweets and messages on Facebook — and the contributors started coming in! Things were still coming in up until a few weeks ago. “Do you still want some more material? Can we join your group?”
Christian: I really found that too. Traditionally making docs there’s a certain amount of tracking down and trying to fit in with other people’s busy lives. But even with the celebs everyone’s kind of available and ready to do it.
Nick: The availability is one of the real advantages of this time. With Grayson Perry, are you finding it easier to get celebrities to bring you their work? Is it an easier sell?
Christian: It is. I think obviously it’s self-selecting, in that your casting pool is limited to people who are genuinely artists, or people like Vic Reeves, who are artists on the side as well as celebrities. But it’s an eight o’clock magazine show really, so it needs to fit with that profile of having some celebs, and maybe some members of the public. But one of the things that I found is there’s now a real democratizing effect. Everyone, whether you’re Antony Gormley or Joe Lycett or members of the public, your opening question is: “How are you doing?” You’re meeting everyone on the same level, which is really lovely, actually.
I think the other thing is that the art is a bit of a Trojan horse to allow you into talking about what’s going on. I think maybe Brits aren’t always the most open about their feelings, but if you can have a proxy thing to talk about — like art and what they put into it — I think we’ve got something. I’ve been really pleased with the quality of interviews that we’ve had with people.
Nick: It’s a little bit like Desert Island Discs, isn’t it? You found that Trojan horse that will allow a deeper understanding of people’s lives.
Christian: Exactly. There was a woman who sent in a picture of an emu, or was it an ostrich. But she basically just put all her feelings of fear, anxiety, defiance and not wanting to stick her head in the sand into that painting. So, she could then talk about what was going on, and it helped her give a kind of rationale to how she was feeling.
Angie: Did your contributors put any limits on what they would show and what they would talk about?
Christian: Not really. There were people that we spoke to who are on the shielded list, where we had to be careful not to give away any medical conditions, but as a rule people have been really open. That’s been one of the joys of it.
Angie: Yeah, our folk didn’t hide anything, really. I think one was a little bit coy about her age and specifics about her medical condition, but all the others were very forthcoming.
Christian: I think maybe in years to come, we’ll look back on this time as a real shock to collective psyche, and I think everyone is trying to rationalize it and try and make sense of it. I personally have been trying to work out what’s going on, and it’s been lovely listening to Grayson try to work out what’s going on. The kind of people you were dealing with are by almost by their nature isolated, did you find that that made them want to talk?
Angie: Oh, there was no stopping some of them! I mean the material was just flowing in. We got nightly dispatches. There was probably material that we haven’t seen because there was a limit to how much we could process it.
Christian: Did you give them shot lists or filming plans?
Angie: Well, we just we drew up kind of an Idiot’s Guide to filming, with the false assumption that because they were elderly they wouldn’t really be able to cope with filmmaking. So: “Hold your camera landscape, don’t hold it portrait. Don’t do too many whip-pans. Give the editor time to get into the shots. We don’t mind you stepping forward to press the stop button. Keep it natural.” And some of them went way beyond what we ever thought that they would do!
Nick: I think one of the interesting things about this is clearly everybody watches TV, but very few people actually really watch TV. Very few people understand how TV is put together. Some people get it and some people really don’t. So, with the simple grammar of harvesting shots, some people were absolutely fantastic at it and some other times it was a little bit frustrating. But we had this character called Pete, who has Alzheimer’s, and he was extraordinary. I mean, the best cover jobs. If you followed him around with a shooting director getting material it wouldn’t be any better. It certainly would be a lot less intimate. So, it worked pretty well I think.
Angie: There was an intimacy to some of the filming that they did that you would never, ever, get with a professional team with a camera director. I mean, there was one particular contributor who used to record in the dead of night because she was a carer for somebody, so this was her time. She held her phone very close to her, and it was a confessional: “Oh my God, my day’s over. He’s in bed. I’ve got time to myself. What a day. It’s just terrible. My world is closing down.” You would never have got that intimacy, that personal detail, by sitting in a living room. Well, first of all, you wouldn’t have been there at the dead of night! So, you’ve got that very intimate, confessional feel from some people that was extraordinary — and we didn’t ask for it. That was what she wanted to do for her story.
Nick: And sometimes you do feel like you’re going in mob-handed with a cameraman and sound recordist and a research AP. It can be the worst way of making documentaries sometimes, if you’re looking for truths.
Christian: Yeah, you want to have a light footprint, don’t you? The more people you have with you the more they can affect the environment and the reality of what you’re shooting. And it sounds like your contributors are going to put us out of a job!
Angie: I think you’re right about that! Because don’t forget, we were working with people in their 70s and their 80s. This is not something that is their niche. It’s not their job, but they’ve turned up trumps. Now look at the younger generation, for whom this is their life. They’re never off their selfie sticks, they’re never off social media. So we, the high priests of documentary filmmaking, are going to be hard pressed by the generation coming up below us, you know!
Christian: And it’s not really about the aesthetics, although that’s important. It’s about the honesty of what you’re portraying.
Nick: I wonder whether there’s something about this particular time as well. One of the things that we found when I was going to these people’s homes is that we were the only people who entered their lives, apart from the Sainsbury’s delivery driver. So, for us to turn up and take an interest in their life, it was absolutely fantastic. “Oh my god, it’s a break in the monotony. What are we going to talk about? Don’t go! We’ve got some more stuff to talk about.” I think the uniqueness of this time means that people are very keen to talk. When you take an interest in people’s lives, under these very strange circumstances, I think you get quite surprising results.
Christian: Obviously there’s all the restrictions, but in a way it’s an easy time to make films because you’re not trying to eke out a story. It’s happening! It’s happening all around us and all you’ve got to do is ask the questions, because everybody’s got a story at the moment. We have 10,000 people submitting a week!
Angie: What was a privilege for us was that we had seven weeks of filming. So, we could film longitudinally. We could film stories as they unravelled, and developments in their life and things that occurred we could never have known if it was a one-hit filming opportunity. Things were developing in their lives that they filmed in real time: frustration setting in, or tears because their operation was cancelled. That was quite powerful.
Nick: I think that’s one of the great things about Zoom. I mean, I hate Zoom, a technophobe like me, but I think one of the great things about it is it’s very cheap to go back and just say: “Can you just tell us about that again? How are you this morning? How are you this evening?” You can just keep that rolling in a very cheap, very accessible way. And I guess you must feel that way a little bit, doing so much of your stuff on Zoom?
Christian: Well, we record an episode over three days. So, the filming schedule’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and that gets fed into the edits. We’ll picture-lock on Saturday, post on Sunday. So, we’ve really got a very limited time and we we’ve only gone back once to do pickups on Zoom.
We’ll record the Zoom calls remotely, so either one of our producers will set the call up, then record the screen so we’ve got that as a full frame. The only time I’ve ever needed to do a pickup was when, for whatever reason, the recording didn’t work. But everything else has been quite straightforward really. Interviews generally last maybe 15 minutes, so it’s a very economical way of making television. Obviously, it doesn’t look the greatest and I’ll be very happy if I never see a Zoom call again after this...
Angie: How did you cope with the editing? Tell us a little bit about that.
Christian: So, we’ve got two edits running. We’ve got two editors, Ian Pettifer and Rupert Houseman. At the end of each day I’ll send the rushes back and they’ll be delivered to those guys 6am the next morning. Ian will package it and do pulls, and Rupert will craft the final film. And then we’ll have viewings. The first viewing of this week’s episode has just come through now — so I’m going to have a look at that after this — then goes up to Channel 4. Then it’s final cut Saturday, post Sunday, deliver Monday, and then we’re recording on Monday again. So, it’s quite relentless, and it’s not a very big team! There’s myself, Neil Crombie and Joe Evans.
For Grayson, we rigged up his studio a week in advance of anyone going in there. The idea was that if anything was contaminated, it would die — and nobody’s gone in or out since. We wiped clean a lot of radio mics and batteries, so Grayson and Philippa have a bunch of them in there. We’ve never crossed the threshold into the studio: it’s a bit like E.T., when we turn up with our hazmat suits, and they’re on the inside! Then we’ve got three set tents, set up next to each other. We initially started conversing via walkie talkies, but then we realized we could actually just talk through the fabric! So we’re there shouting to other — and then you’d think it was quite high tech the way we would be chatting to Grayson, but really, it’s just myself or Neil running up and shouting through the window at him. So, there’s a real sort of DIY ethos to the whole thing, and I think it’s actually part of the point of the series really! Everyone’s got this time on the hands, let’s use it for something creative. We’ve taken that and put it into the production as well. It’s a little bit make-do, but I quite like that really.
Nick: Yeah, it’s got unbelievable charm.
Christian: Yeah, and I think Grayson’s great.
Angie: What a privilege working with him!
Christian: It really is. I think he’s got a real ability to turn the small, insignificant things into big truths. One of the joys for us has been going from six weeks ago wondering if this was even going to work, to getting thousands and thousands of art submissions each week. Everybody knows the show, and it does feel like an actual club. People have actually bought into it, which is lovely.
Angie: So who selected contributors? Did you put out a callout? Did you have a hit list of people that you approached?
Christian: So, each episode we’ll have one A-lister from the world of British art. So, we’ve had Antony Gormley, we’ve got Martin Parr coming on, Maggie Hambling. And the user-generated footage has been really great, because we’ll ask them to send us a video and of course they’re amazing because they’re visual artists. So well shot and well covered and interestingly composed. Then we’ll have a celebrity artist, who would be the spine of the film. We’ve got two really good producers who are looking after everyone, Joe Fell, who’s amazing, is looking after the artists, and we’ve got Adam Simons who’s got the job of going through all the publicly submitted art, and finding and selecting stories.
Angie: It’s great that you got to work with people who are visually literate. For us, one or two were very good at being able to compose a shot and could think about cutaways. But for the others you’re hand-holding them a lot of the time with just the basics of telly and how to compose a nice image.
Christian: Definitely. There’s such a shorthand that we just take for granted. All these things that are second nature to us, you have to explain and give a crash course in.
Angie: But I do hope that after our film the production companies will have more of the voice of ordinary people, on their own cameras. Especially the older age group, because it has been such a neglected voice. I think it would be sad if we forgot what they can contribute, in their own voice and in their own style.
Christian: What are your contributors doing now?
Angie: I think some of them are missing us. We were in touch with them daily, asking them about the latest news items, anything that was happening politically. It was an important part of their life. It added a focus on something out of the ordinary.
Christian: I bet they loved having you to talk to. A way of articulating what’s going on, I suppose.
Nick: Spot on! I think these are tough times for everybody, and I think we’re all missing casual conversations with people. Your friends, people who you work with, or bump into in the street. I don’t know whether this film would be quite so easy to make under different circumstances, really, where people weren’t quite so starved of company.
Angie: You know, if somebody had said to me a year ago, you’ll be making a film with a director you’ve never met before, an editor who you don’t see 120 miles away with a dodgy internet connection — because don’t forget, we were all working off domestic servers — I would have never believed it, but it happened didn’t it? We got through it. It was difficult, but I think we’ve got to be dead grateful that we’re working because I’ve got lots of friends in the business who have lost commissions and are just not earning anything. I count myself lucky to have had at least seven weeks, eight, nine weeks, of paid work.
Christian: 100 percent.
Nick: Hear, hear to that!