As 2,000 eager delegates gather at Sheffield Doc/Fest, award-winning producer/director David Pearson recounts the experience of making the heart warming story of a new ‘buoy band’ with a collective age of 560, and explains why real ob docs deliver stories unlike anything else.
TV likes patients. Casualty, 24 Hours in A&E, Live from The Clinic. Nothing wrong with that of course, it’s a good subject area for watching human behaviour and endeavour.
But in times of tight budgets and quick turnaround commissions television is less keen on patience.
There will be plenty of independent films that demonstrate patience in Sheffield this week, where I’m heading for SIDF, both in the way their story has been covered and in the time spent waiting for broadcasters’ decisions or turn downs. There are exceptions, but stories filmed over long periods and directly commissioned by TV are getting rarer.
I’m fortunate, I’ve just directed Fisherman’s Friends for ITV1, which goes out next week.
It’s a “shoal biz to showbiz” story about the newly famous Cornish accapella shanty band The Fisherman’s Friends, filmed across six months to tell a tale of male friendships under pressure as these ten old mates are thrown into a showbiz summer during the busiest season for all their own small businesses.
Winning the trust of middle aged men not used spilling their emotions took time, perserverence and more pints of Doombar than I or my wallet care to remember. We knew from the start that filming this story in one short sharp burst simply would not have delivered the narrative that we have, which is by turns poignant, insightful and funny.
The pursuit for shorter, faster (read cheaper) production cycles continues apace, coupled with a belief among some that factual stories can always, like soft putty, be squeezed through a pre shaped nozzle- “yes, give me one with a star shape story arc”. Squeezing reality can provide entertaining and revealing shows, if done well, but less patience spent on capturing stories from life, as they happen, has reduced the richness and genuine insight into life shown on TV. Following a subject over longer periods, seeing characters in different lights, matures the story- it’s rather like a good oil portrait improved with lot of sittings.
Patient film-making requires broadcaster and production commitment, so it is to ITV and Twofour Broadcast’s great credit that they gave just that, encouraging the softly softly approach to capturing the spirit of the Fisherman’s Friends. They knew that I like making strong stories that make you laugh, gasp and cry. I’d just produced the edgy, disturbing and emotive BAFTA Nominated Mugabe and The White African (shot over 13 months) and making something that would make us smile was appealing.
The men like to josh each other and trade insults - as only good friends can - but capturing this in a way that also plumbs the deep waters of lifelong friendship beneath the banter takes time. And there were dark and moving events from the men’s pasts which only emerged over weeks and months, and which required careful timing to get them to discuss candidly and honestly on film. Patience reveals truths from people who aren’t in the “disgorge it all in a few days” mould, or in the “acting up” artificial hot house atmosphere of reality TV. Not everyone with an interesting story can quickly become unselfconscious in front of the a camera. Trust has to be built and won.
The film that emerged is not the one that was perceived before it started. It is not the story of a bunch of naive Cornish yokels seduced by the glitter of fame and fortune. As Jon Cleave, the band’s gravelly voiced bass singer, said within five minutes of me meeting him, “This could be more of a riches to rags story”: the riches, for him and the rest of the group, being friendships far more valuable than any amount of music biz gold.
I realised that we could only get the best account by hanging in there with them through thick and thin, so that as trust grew their natural Cornish reserve about the difficult issues in life would reduce. To draw all the threads of their story together we hit upon using Jon, a man fully in touch with his own facial hair as well as his emotions, to narrate the film.
His quick wit and heartfelt observations make him the unofficial spokesman for the group on stage - by using him to tell the band’s story ‘from the inside’ he becomes the voice piece for this normally private group of friends’ inner narrative. Achieving this with a non-professional voice-over artist took, yes again, patience, and time well worth spending for an intimate and typically idiosyncratic view of the Fishies’ new found fame.
Blessed with a superb crew: cameraman Jeremy Humphries and Chris Seager; sound recordist Keith Rodgerson; Twofour’s great post-production team (we shot HD, HDV and with a lot of 8 track sound), AP Chris Rowe and editor Jimmy Edmonds, and with the unflagging support of Twofour Exec Producer Bridget Sneyd, we managed to complete the film and show something that the band, their families and support team recognise as being very much them, being themselves.
That’s at the heart of making revealing documentaries.
David Pearson directed and produced TwoFour Productions’ Fisherman’s Friends. It will TX at 10.35pm on 15 June on ITV1.