James Newton is the same age as I am. While I’ve spent years galavanting off on cycling jaunts, he has forged his way into a cushty, enviable freelance existence making factual programmes for prime-time British TV, many shows of which are household names in the UK.
But today he’s chosen to spend his time doing something that has already cost him thousands, and is unlikely to make a penny of profit. That thing, of course, is producing an independent feature film.
And the film, somewhat cringeworthily, is about me!
Seriously — who’d want to make a film about this idiot?!?
James has been living semi-permanently in a borrowed storage cupboard at the back of an office in the heart of London’s legal district, which he’s blagged in return for making a short promotional video for the office’s owners. It’s taken him and I more than 4 years to get to this point, and he’s now half-way through his allotted time in front of his MacBook Pro in the cupboard.
“I like telling stories, and this is a really good story. I think it’s just so unusual — the journey, the trip, the motivation, the twists and turns, the things that happen… you couldn’t possibly script it. The fact that it’s real; it’s a very real story — and that really appeals to me.”
By the end of these six weeks, James hopes he’ll have an hour or two of roughly-cut story to show to potential financers. And then, he’ll really be able to get started.
He picks up a ring-binder jammed full of yellow lined paper covered in frantic scribbling. “This,” he says, “is a lot of blood, sweat and tears.” He’s referring to the master tape log. Imagine sitting down with a 60-minute video cassette and writing down everything that happens, and everything that everybody says (in every language). Now imagine doing that for a bank of three hundred 60-minute tapes, which is what he sat down to do during a few weeks off work late last year.
James talks nervously while I’m rolling the camera in his direction, clearly far more comfortable on the other side of the lens, although it might be the caffeine drip that he and Rich have been living off for the last three weeks. Rich is the film editor, and has agreed to defer his already severely-cut paycheque until the day the film makes any revenue. He’ll work unpaid, and possibly never-paid, for James for at least eight weeks. Generous guy.
So I ask James if he’s doing it for the money. In response I get a faceful of spittle as he explodes incredulously. “OK, let’s have a think about how much time I’ve spent on this”, he says, as I wipe my face with a tissue. “The longest I’ve spent in any one go on this film, I think, is… four months. Solidly. Overall I reckon this would have taken… probably a year’s work in total, if it was back to back, by the time it’s finished. And I haven’t seen a bean. Not a bean.”
By ‘bean’ I assume he means ‘penny’. Nevertheless I continue, shielding my face and asking him if and when he expects to see a bean.
“This is one of those things which could go out there and… a few people see it, you know, nice film… and no-one buys it. Then we really struggle to pay off the debts. Or, loads of people rush out and buy it, and then it pays itself off, and we make a little bit of money so we can potentially go and do another project.” Gulp.
Well, it’s a long shot, but if another project were viable, I would jump at the chance to go and shoot it. I’ve had so much fulfilment from shooting this one, learnt so much about the craft of videography; not to mention making the journey of a lifetime in the process. There are some exciting ideas floating around already — but that’s for another time.
“If it’s really really successful,” continues James, perking up, “then we might make a normal income out of it!”
I’m clueless about film-making, beyond what I’ve learned on the job since first picking up a video camera in 2007 and cycling off into the sunset with it, along with my mates Andy and Mark. What I’ve learned has been about shooting stories — storytelling, shot composition, what shots are needed for a successfully-edited sequence, that kind of stuff — not to mention getting comfortable with being natural on-camera.
It took years to become proficient with all of that, but I’ve still got a huge amount to learn. So I’m interested in the process James has had to go through to begin turning all of that into a fully-formed feature documentary, and what’s yet to come. I think that this will be a really interesting chance to look behind the scenes. Why, for example, did he have to spend so many weeks logging all those tapes, watching and re-watching them for weeks on end, then spending more weeks just thinking about what I’d given him to work with?
“There’s a huge amount of power in the edit to construct a story. So you could tell this story in literally thousands of different ways, and they would all convey a slightly different angle on what is essentially the same story. But they wouldn’t all necessarily do it in the most effective way. And the job in the edit is to figure out the most interesting and engaging way of telling that story whilst sticking to the truth.”
You could apply that as easily to book-writing, as I’ve found out over the last few months. “You hopefully end up with this really refined, condensed stew of goodness, which the audience can then just watch seamlessly and get the overall story and go away with the overall messages, without even thinking about a single cut — hopefully — or a single edit point. But that process in itself takes… weeks. Months. Years!”
Why hire an editor, then? If there’s no money, why start spending it already? Why not just sit down, as the director, with a piece of editing software, and edit it yourself? I ask this to the editor, Rich, who says that a lot of directors try to do just that. But he thinks there’s a clear reason not to.
“The director will come with lots of ideas for how to tell the story, how to structure it, music, etcetera,” he says. But — “there’s so much material… you lose perspective on it. You need someone else to judge it, and be a sounding board.”
I’d never really known what that ‘editor’ title meant, assuming it meant simply pressing buttons or cutting up bits of cellulose and sticking them back together. So the job’s actually a very creative one?
“We have this term in editing called a ‘button monkey’, which means an editor who just presses buttons and is mute all day long, doesn’t say anything at all — has no sort of creative contribution,” Rich tells me. “But they’re pretty useless, to be honest. Anyone can press buttons and learn a piece of software — it’s really easy. So the main role is… to have a creative input and be a sounding board, I’d say. And hopefully, that sort of partnership — you often get long term partnerships between a director and an editor — will make a better film.”
Rich is clearly into the project on a personal level, and loves the story and the material he’s working with. “Both me and James are used to doing more run-of-the-mill television, and, you know, it’s a great job, it pays the bills — but it is a bit soulless. So it’s great to have a film which is a bit different, and which you can invest emotionally and artistically in, rather than just going through the generic TV mill.”
I imagine that the role of editing, of cutting away all the fluff to leave a pristine nugget of focussed expression — not just in film, but in writing, journalism; even abstracting out to art curation, architecture and the like — is probably overlooked by many.
I’ve definitely overlooked it in the past as a writer, but now I can see that it’s sometimes a vain hope that single-handedly ‘doing it yourself’ will produce the best results. There’s something to be said for having an expert eye watching from a distance, an eye dedicated to bringing out the best from an artistic endeavour — and easy to see how a creative mind could get so engrossed in a piece of work that they fail to notice some huge flaw or oversight that alienates, distracts or bores the intended audience, or just doesn’t do the job at all.
James is re-watching some raw footage on the tape deck he’s got plugged into the telly he’s brought from his front room at home. I suddenly realise what makes this different from — say, photography; why the amounts of time involved are so unbelievably immense.
It’s because, with video, time itself is the raw material. It’s not a still image or static word dangling in front of you, that you can move around and instantly see the effect. Every object you work with exists along the axis of time, and every decision, change, addition and removal has to be considered in its proximity in time to everything else. And so working on an edit requires not just cutting and jiggling, but watching, watching, watching and more watching. The very palette for your painting eats directly away at the man-hours involved.
But I still want to pin down why he’s still plugging away at this project, which has seen so many abrupt changes of direction, for no financial reward, when he could be earning a most reasonable crust in mainstream TV. The scariest thing that strikes me about this whole thing is that it might come to nothing. All this time, energy and passion stands a good chance, statistically speaking, of being seen by precisely no-one.
“This actually started out as a podcast series, so we never even thought there’d be a film in this. Three blokes leaving on bikes to go round the world. Potentially lots and lots of really short episodes that could be really interesting to follow,” he says, remembering the fun but ill-fated video podcast series from 2007 (you can still watch them here).
“Turns out they didn’t want to cycle round the world after all, and they didn’t want to cycle round the world together. But one of the stories ended up being really unusual and interesting, and within all of that, we found a film. We found a whole film. And that’s what we’re making.
“And in terms of why I’m doing it, well… why not? You know, if you’ve got a passion for doing something, and you want to make a film, then go find a story and make a film!”
And I’m pretty sure that if he’d originally been drawn to it for any other reason, I wouldn’t be sitting in his very hopeful edit-suite today.