‘Nick was very insistent that I not shy away from asking him awkward and difficult questions. We both wanted the book to be an honest reflection of his work.’
Daniel Graham: What actually inspired you to choose Nick Broomfield and his documentaries as a subject for your book?
Jason Wood: A combination of reasons actually, though the idea first came to me whilst I was programming the OTHER Cinema in London. To coincide with the UK release of Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, I contacted Nick about hosting a major retrospective of his work and he was very agreeable, even going so far as to advise of schedules and providing screening tapes and prints of his earlier works. I had always been an admirer, and in fact put my interest in documentary filmmaking down to a formative experience I had whilst watching The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife. The film acted as something of a compass point, sending me off in all sorts of interesting documentary related directions.
Whilst re-watching all twenty-four of Nick’s films for the season, I was struck by the estimable shadow they cast over the documentary landscape. As you are probably aware, this is a fertile period for documentary filmmaking with the cinema screen, rather than television, now considered its natural habitat. Nick always conceived of his films as being seen on the cinema screen by as wide an audience as possible, hence what I feel is the one of the defining characteristics of his work: the communication of a fascination for his subject that is both enlightening, informative and entertaining. Nick has clearly done much to popularise the medium, and just as he readily acknowledges the influence of figures such as Fred Wiseman, DA Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Jean Rouch and Ross McElwee, there would clearly be no Michael Moore or Andrew Jarecki without Nick Broomfield.
It was also whilst considering Nick’s films as an entire if ongoing body of work that I noticed an evolution of his filmmaking style that demonstrated both his ability to adapt to the filming conditions and his nose for a good subject. The projects would frequently begin as one thing, but would emerge as quite another. Hence Kurt and Courtney starting out as a look at the Seattle music scene before Nick responded to the material he unearthed by steering it into an expose of corporate skulduggery and the suppression of freedom of speech; this is one of the things that most endears me to Nick’s work. Stylistically too he is very responsive to his material and is keen that the finished film reflect his experiences of making it. This is perhaps most clear in Driving Me Crazy, a hilarious documentation of his shadowing of a Broadway show from rehearsal to stage that depicts his own descent into a personal filmmaking hell. Nick has made a virtue of leaving moments in his films that other filmmakers would take out, in this instance a choreographer being hit full in the face by a microphone. Such moments take the viewer into the eye of the storm.
Finally, I was keen to try and clear up a few misconceptions. A recurring criticism is that his films become more about him than the subjects his is documenting, and this is something that I think close attention to the work shows to be entirely untrue. The notion that Broomfield is something of a foppish dilettante who makes films about celebrities is also wide of the mark. Earlier films such as Who Cares, Behind the Rent Strike and Juvenile Liaison are concerned with issues of poverty, injustice, racism and servitude and these themes have continued to recur. Tracking Down Maggie might be extremely funny but its outrage towards the greedy, selfish Thatcher-ite politics is patently clear. Similarly, if there’s a more succinctly expressed argument on film against the death penalty than his diptych of films about executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos then I’ve yet to see it.
When you first approached him about the book how did he react?
He was initially interested and I think trusting of my motives given the retrospective. He is understandably protective of his work and of his reputation and so sought assurances that it was going to be done in the right way. The other thing about Nick is that he fully throws himself into his endeavours and he made it clear that the project would have to be exhaustive, thorough and completed without delay as his time would be more in demand once he decided upon his next filmmaking project. I was happy to try and match him for effort and commitment and as it happens everything has come together quite nicely; March also sees the hosting of a Bafta tribute and the release of a Metrodome DVD box set of his films.
I must also point out that from the outset Nick was very insistent that I not shy away from asking him awkward and difficult questions. We both wanted the book to be an honest reflection of his work so I was able to voice some of the negative accusations that he attracts. His candour is perhaps most obvious in the self-deprecating chapter on Diamond Skulls, his thus far single foray into fiction filmmaking.
I think the other thing that won him over was that Faber and Faber were the publishers. The wonderful Walter Donohue is there and Nick and Walter go back to the early days of Channel Four.
Did you find that he wanted to revise his own work during the interview process and was this a means of justification or clarification?
He was certainly interested in returning to it in for the purposes of scrutiny and re-appraisal. I think Nick was also keen to try to set a number of the films in context so as to enable the viewer to gain a better understanding as to why they were made the way they were. It’s interesting to note for example that he never intended to appear in Fetishes, his sustained peep into the goings on inside an upscale S&M parlour in Manhattan, and did so only at the behest of the film’s financial backers.
So yes, there was certainly a good deal of clarification and justification, particularly regarding the more controversial moments of his career such as Juvenile Liaison, a film so powerful in its portrayal of the methods with which juvenile offenders were dealt that it was effectively banned for thirteen years when the British Film Institute withdrew it from distribution. The consensus at the time was that the police objected to the possible consequences the young children in the film might have faced, should it have been released. They also claimed that the proper consent forms had not been signed by the offenders and their families. What actually happened was that the police realised that their methods were inappropriate and feared coming under heavy scrutiny. The alternative was to brush it under the carpet in order that they could look at putting their house in order.
As I alluded earlier he was also refreshingly candid, and often used his discussions of the films as a means of expressing regret at the ways in which the lives of those he filmed went into decline. This is especially true of Sergeant Ray in Juvenile Liaison and Sergeant Abing in Soldier Girls. He has described shadowing subjects for the purposes of a film as resembling a hostage situation and was genuinely very respectful of them. Thatcher, Lily Tomlin and Eugene Terre’Blanche are honourable exceptions. Conversely, some lasting friendships also came out of the films and Nick has continued to converse with the likes of Ethel Singleton and Voletta Wallace. This is because he genuinely cares about his work and the subjects with which it deals. He understands that there are repercussions to his work and to documentary features in general; as such he is a very responsive and responsible filmmaker.
You’ve interviewed a number of directors over the years – Kieslowski, Hartley, Egoyan, and Soderbergh. What research do you undertake and what do you see as the ultimate goal of the interview process?
It was actually my filmmaking colleague Eileen Anipare who interviewed Kieslowski. It was for a film we were making and as she is Polish it made sense to speak in the mother tongue. I operated the camera and I guarantee that you’ll not see a more technically incompetent film. The framing is all over the place, a shame as the material is very good. But al the other directors you mention above, and Nick also falls into this category, I was interviewing either for the purposes of a book or a documentary.
The starting point for me is to amass every single piece of film the director has shot. This includes features, commercials, experimental shorts etc. I prefer to then work chronologically, viewing the films over a series of weeks and making copious, film notes as I go. I then begin to discern my own idea of consistent thematic preoccupations and stylistic motifs and consider these over the development of the director’s career. Once I have fully formed my own perceptions and ideas I proceed to read all critical analysis of the director’s work, both to find a common critical consensus and to look at frequently repeated pervading opinions with which to agree, disagree or deviate from. Part of the accumulation of this written material will also include reading as many previous interviews as possible to get a sense of the director’s own powers of self-analysis. It is essential to accord the filmmaker the respect of doing your homework.
I guess that the ultimate goal of the interview process is to gain a better understanding of the filmmaker’s approach to the work and to communicate to the reader/viewer why the director and his work may be considered worthy of such close critical scrutiny in the first instance. I also remember very clearly Kieslowski stating his belief that a good critic, and he didn’t think there was many of them, always reflected the concerns of an audience rather than just wilfully expressing their own and I think that anything that employs the interview format should certainly do that.
I think the thing that comes through is that Broomfield is genuinely concerned about social, economic and racial injustice. Did you sense this when interviewing him?
Most certainly, but given that it is clearly at the forefront of his films I was not surprised to discover this. It is worth taking his background into consideration in this regard. He studied first Law and then Political Science so such issues were ingrained at a pretty early juncture in his life. Broomfield’s father was also a photographer – and a very good one at that – who specialised in taking pictures in industrial situations. Accompanying Maurice Broomfield on numerous shoots, Nick experienced first hand the drudgery that the working classes had to endure and their daily sufferings, injustices and hardships obviously stirred something deep within him. The topics you mention continue to drive him, and hopefully I’m not giving too much away in revealing that in the near future Broomfield intends to turn his attentions to the fate of immigrant underclass workers in the UK and the horrific events at Abu Ghraib.