Before Amazon Prime Video’s All Or Nothing, the Lions Tour documentary pioneered the behind-the-scenes technique.
On Friday, Amazon Prime Video revealed that the next subject of its All Or Nothing documentary series will be Arsenal.
However, long before the OTT streamer took fans behind-the-scenes of clubs such as Manchester City and Tottenham, rugby documentary Living With Lions became iconic for its portrayal of the 1997 Lions Tour of South Africa.
With unprecedented access to players and the backroom team, Living With Lions inspired a generation of rugby fans by taking a closer look at what happens on tour outside of the matches.
Speaking on the Inside The Tour podcast this week, Fred Rees and Duncan Humphreys - the pair who financed and produced the film - were joined by Fran Cotton, John Bentley, Austin Healey, Keith Wood and Brian O’Driscoll to give a view into how Living With Lions was made.
You can read selected quotes of their insights below, from getting players and coaches to help with the filming, to having to deal with Keith Woods’ 34 ‘F bombs’ in 30 seconds.
On how the Living with Lions idea was born:
Fred Rees: “We just thought wouldn’t it be brilliant to be able to make a documentary about the upcoming Lions tour, that was about four pints in, and, in a fit of drunken enthusiasm, we decided we would actually pursue it. I was also one of the cameramen, and I was responsible for editing the whole thing and putting it all together, which was quite a challenge.
“Duncan and I used to meet up fairly regularly and go down the pub to talk about rugby endlessly. We just sit there drinking beer talking about rugby and films and this idea came up after about four pints and the following day, after that session in the pub, Dunc got on the phone and called Fran Cotton. It transpired that Fran was thinking about doing something along those lines and they hadn’t quite worked out what, but that was kind of how it began really.”
Duncan Humphreys: “My role in ‘97 was director / cameraman, I suppose. Fred and I actually worked in the same roles and capacities throughout the Tour and we were also the originators of the idea in a drunken stupor. I was complaining bitterly about my lack of satisfaction in what I was doing, and Fred said: “Well what the bloody hell are you going to do about it?” and, and I said: “Why don’t you go make a film about the Lions.” And he said: “Yeah, that’s a really good idea!” So we started looking into it, that’s basically what I remember.
“I vaguely knew Fran from his playing days and I phoned him up at Cotton Traders and pretty quickly I was talking to Fran. I had to go to Bedford Rugby Club and Fran just said: “Yeah, you can do it.”.
On how they got the film off the ground financially:
Duncan Humphreys: “If you look back then, there were big questions whether the Lions were even going to survive. What was their place in the modern game? The media was full of it. You know, ‘this could well be the last Lions Tour.’
“We ended up going down to Weybridge where they were based before flying out. That was quite interesting, we got some pretty good material but they were feeling out each other, the players, and they kind of just accepted us as I don’t think they put two and two together at that point that we were going to be there for the entire time,
“Nowadays the players will have media sheets, ‘on Wednesday, you’re doing rafting with the camera crew’, or whatever it is. In those days, there was nothing. It wasn’t sort of confronted in any sort of major way that we were going to be there.”
Fred Rees: “There was a thing with the Lions at that point because the game was shifting to the professional era. It was the first Lions Tour within that scope, and obviously money therefore became a much more important thing for them. So when we pitched the idea of the film to them. Their thinking was: ‘Well, we just need a whole bunch of cash up front to help oil the wheels of our Tour’. So they said to us, well if you pay us 30,000 quid then you can have the rights to make the film. Then once the Lions have that money and we had the rights we’d be able to go to the BBC or ITV or whoever it was, and get them to commission the documentary.
“Sadly for us, when we decided we would pay the 30 grand, we went to the TV stations, who, to a man, looked at us like we were crazy and said: “Why have you done that? There’s no film in this. The Lions are going to get smashed. No one’s interested.” Which left us in a position where we either had to throw off 30 grand away, because obviously the Lions weren’t going to hand it back to us at that point, or we had to somehow stump up the money ourselves to make the film. In a fit of madness that’s what we decided to do. So we sort of rustled together as much as we could, basically re-mortgaged our houses and leapt over the edge. If the whole thing had gone sort of tits up it would have been quite catastrophic to get away. We probably wouldn’t have quite ended up on the street, but it was a big gamble, for sure.
“I don’t remember there ever being a meeting where we were introduced to the team. There was no real explanation, with us being present anyway, of what was going on. From a filming point of view, we definitely did approach the thing of wanting to capture what was genuinely happening. So therefore, in effect, being a true kind of fly-on-the wall film, as much as we could do that. If you film people doing things, where they can’t really think about the camera they have to just focus on what they’re doing, then obviously you capture the real truth of what is happening, and therein lies the power of watching a documentary. If you feel that it’s true and you’re really in the moment with the people as they go through their things that they’re doing within that lies a good film.”
On the inspiration for providing players with cameras:
John Bentley: “I always remember our first meeting, in the corner of the room there was a tripod and a camera and we were being filmed. There were a couple of guys and we didn’t know who they were. Never met them before and we’d not been introduced. On the Friday night, during the drinking session, I ended up talking to them and they didn’t have the camera with them. I said, Why are you here? What are you doing? And they said “oh, we want fly-on-the-wall” and I said you’ll never get it. There’s only a player who can get fly-on-the-wall. You’ll never be able to get fly-on-the-wall.
“All the boys were preparing to go to the gym and there was a knock on my door and one of the lads, the film crew boys. He came into the room and he had a little carrier bag and inside he pulled out a piece of equipment that I’ve never seen anything like his tiny little handheld camera, and he said: “Do what you want with it.” I actually took it to the gym and nobody knew it was their camera, they all thought it was mine.”
Fred Rees: “When we turned up to do the shoot we already decided that we were going to try and give the players cameras, so we had these three little cameras that we turned up with. That was always on our agenda to get them to try and help. Obviously John was fantastic in that and leapt into it and grasped it with both hands. His enthusiasm for that shines through in the film and it’s a really integral part of the film.”
On getting Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer mic’d up for training and matches:
Fred Rees: “The initial edit that we made of the film was about 10 hours long. And then the final piece ended up being just shy of three hours. There was definitely stuff that hit the cutting room floor that I’m sure people would have enjoyed but wasn’t necessarily quite right.”
Duncan Humphreys: “Fred put the editorial together in a way that was very filmic; it wasn’t a traditional documentary. The key elements were the technical ability to mic the two main coaches - that was incredible. We had no kind of agreement with the Lions that we would be able to make them up and literally on the very first day of training our sound man wandered out with two radio mics, and just mic’d them up. I think Geech and Jim just assumed that was what was going to happen, however much they were unhappy about it. The next thing you know the poor buggers were mic’d-up every single day of the Tour. It’s what elevated it to being so special. Their relationship for starters, because it gave a grounding in kind of what was going on and the emotions surrounding it, but also then as the games became more and more important they took on this role of the two old men up in the balconies looking down and they were just so involved. You saw just how close they were as friends, colleagues and coaches. That part of the film came from the sound man David Brill just wandering over micing them up. That’s how I remember it.”
Fred Rees: “I can’t recall any outward hostility from Jim and Ian in terms of us making the film. I mean, obviously, internally they were pretty worried about it to begin with. When David Brill where to put the radio mics on them, they just presumed that that was what they were meant to do, so they just sort of went along with it. Then they just sort of got so caught up in what they’re doing that they sort of forgot about it. Maybe internally, there were many more debates about what the hell were they doing letting people film, but they didn’t really broadcast that to us. I mean there’s such a lovely pair of gentlemen. They were always very kind to us and I think, in a way, the whole radio waking them up every morning became sort of part of their ritual for the beginning of their training sessions and their meetings.”
Duncan Humphreys: “Jim used to mic himself up by the end of it. I think there was only one instance, where Barry Williams and Mark Regan had a little kick off. That was the only time where you see Jim react to the camera. It was right there and he knew he was microphoned. We got it pretty clearly what was being said between the two gentlemen. And you saw Jim say “Look, there are cameras around, you can’t do that.” That was the only mention in the whole Tour of cameras being there.”
On how they managed to access the inner sanctum of the changing room:
John Bentley: “Jason Leonard was the captain for that first Tour game at East London and the film crew were in the changing room and he asked them to get out. They made a decision to go and approach Fran. If you don’t get in the first changing room, they wouldn’t get in any changing room, so it was important that they had to get back in. Fran went in, had a quiet word with Jason and let them back in. From then on, they were in every changing room and you never knew they were there.”
Fran Cotton: “I could understand from Jason and the players point of view, you’re trying to get yourself ready for a game you don’t want anybody poking a camera in your face. I didn’t realise that the players had kicked them out of the dressing room. In fairness, they actually did it very discreetly. You know you wouldn’t have known they’re in the dressing room, quite honestly. After that some of the footage that they got of dressing room incidents and Woody [Keith Wood] firing off a lot of expletives.”
Duncan Humphreys: “Jason asked us to leave the changing room before he gave his team speech. I think we felt pretty strongly that you know, if you’re out for one, you’re out for them all. And without being in those you’re, you haven’t got a film, or basically. We went and spoke to Fran, who just backed us 100%. It was only Tim Rodber, who kind of kicked us out of the changing room, so I filmed the door instead.”
Fred Rees: “Up until that point, unless you were a rugby player at that kind of level, no one no one had ever seen what it was like inside that environment. There is a bit where basically Woody manages to sort of drop 13 ‘F bombs’ in about 10 seconds. Listening to this, we thought ‘wow this is actually this is so much swearing that how’s this going to go down?’ So we phoned Woody up and we sort of said: “Look Keith, we’ve got this scene. It’s really brilliant but, you know, we’ll just play it to you. So we played it to him and he said: “Bloody hell, maybe you should take out a few of those swear words because I might have to open a supermarket at some point and it might not help!” So using the magic of editing, we managed to chop half of them out. Then we phoned him up and played it to him, and he listened to it and he said: “No, that doesn’t sound right, you better just throw them all back in again.”
Keith Wood: “I had 34 ‘F bombs’ in 30 seconds and they call it down to 17. Actually, that’s the one that is there, the reality is it’s twice as many. And I know Guscott was just wetting himself in the background saying: “My god he’s a looper!”
Fred Rees: “He was one of the ones that was always there for a chat. He was very open but when he got his game face on the ‘F bombs’ did fly, let’s put it like that. I think it was Woody’s use of words around his swearing, because he was always about ‘it’s our day, we make it, and we’ll take the pain and we’ll take the plaudits at the at the end of it and it’s our greatest moment’, and you know that kind of stuff was truly inspiring.”