With almost 25 years under her belt at the ABC’s NHU, chasing marsupials in the dark and strong-arming financing from the rest of the world, Dione Gilmour has earned a reputation for her sharp wit as well as her reliability and good sense. As Gilmour gets candid, Brendan Christie lets the tape run…
ON HER BEGINNING…
‘How did I get here? I have no idea how I got here, frankly. A series of accidents? Nothing planned. Nothing far-sighted. Nothing visionary whatsoever.’
Twenty-four years ago, Dione Gilmour found herself in a predicament. She was a teacher training teachers on how to educate students, traveling the globe to learn the latest techniques, but she wasn’t happy about the future. ‘I decided I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like the way I thought we were headed, so I came back to Australia and resigned, and started looking for another job.’
One of the offers she received was for a six-week contract position as a researcher in the natural history unit at ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster. That short contract has led to almost a quarter century with the unit. In that time, Gilmour has been a researcher, director, producer, and has worked in front of the camera, all the while working her way up the food chain to become the head of the department, a position she has now held for nine years.
Her first production for ABC was a half-hour called Around The Bay. Delving into Australia’s marine environment, it was an inauspicious beginning to a long career as a filmmaker, featuring a somewhat less-than-charismatic star: plankton. ‘The ABC had a much less rigorous system than it does now. Basically my first program was made from the outs of somebody else’s program. It got put to air in the summer when none of the hierarchy was around. We snuck it on air.’
From small beginnings, Gilmour has built a résumé which includes hundreds of her own natural history films, and has acted as the guiding force behind a litany of award-winning films from her unit.
Part of the growth process was learning how to make films, both as an artist and a businesswoman. In this, Gilmour had the good fortune to learn from some of the best.
‘We had a really close relationship with the BBC in the early days of my working here, and I was lucky enough to go on a three month bursary to the BBC Natural History Unit to learn a bit about filmmaking. I worked with the head of the NHU at the time, who was also the executive producer of a thing called Life On Earth, a guy called Chris Parsons. He was fantastic. I learned one hell of a lot about doing things. One of the things Chris always said was: `Look, in this game you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got a fifty percent chance of being right, but you’ve got to make it. You’ve got to make things happen.’ I think that’s how I regard producing.
‘Producing is not just a creative role, it’s the art of making things happen. I guess if you run a unit, it’s that much more. It’s the art of trying to make things happen, because it’s not quite so hands on.’ She applies this insight as a guiding principle in her work at abc’s nhu.
The BBC’s work ethic also made an indelible impression. ‘[Their] people spend an enormous amount of time researching to make sure they’re in the right place at the right time. I think when I first joined the abc there was sort of a bit of `Why don’t we go to this place? It looks rather nice. We’ll wave the cameras around and maybe some birds will fly into the shot.’ But when I went to the Beeb, I realized the intense professionalism on the research side, and the absolute planning to the nth degree. Incredibly complicated filming trips, often to get material that had never been shot before, would go off like clockwork.’
Getting filming to go like clockwork in a country whose landscape is partially unexplored, and whose non-human inhabitants are largely unclassified, isn’t easy. Australia’s complexity is generally lost on foreign filmmakers, who have the tendency to gloss over the country’s diversity.
‘Someone can come in here and do a quick whip around: `Okay, here’s the koalas. Right, here’s the kangaroos. Right, here’s a few parrots. Good. Okay, that’s Australia. Off we go.’ But, to get below the surface takes incredible effort, and it takes an enormous amount of time. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make films here, because the people who work here have proven you can, and you can do it very successfully. But, the absolute amount of effort you have to put in per unit return is gigantic.’
The difficulty lies in the fact that science is still playing catch-up down under. Australia has largely been an afterthought to Western science, a consideration only after Europe and North America.
‘We still don’t know what animals we’ve got, let alone what they do. We’re also trying to ask very complex questions – the contemporary questions of science today – without really knowing what we’re working with to start with.
‘It’s a lack of knowledge. It’s an unpredictability of weather patterns to which we seem to be susceptible because of the shape of the large island, or small continent, on which we live. Most of our animals are brown, they’re nocturnal and they live by themselves. We also don’t know very much about their behavior. Well, try and film that when what you want is light, masses of animals and colors. The guys keep saying that they would give anything to have just one animal that actually came out in daylight and did anything in front of the camera whatsoever.’
These hardships have meant that her unit has gained unique vistas into one of the world’s few uncharted frontiers. ‘The people in this unit are really geared into what’s happening in the natural environment. They are the envy of the research scientists. The number of times our people have actually been responsible for saying to the scientists: `Hey guys, did you know this, and this, and this?”
Training a team to work in that environment isn’t simple. Many of the filmmakers with whom Gilmour has worked point to her empathy for young producers as one of her greatest attributes. It’s a compliment she doesn’t accept, preferring instead to let the people around her take all the credit.
‘Those people have to have their own resources from the very first day they go out. I’m not sure I help them at all.’
While she plays down her influence behind the camera, her expertise in the business arena can’t be denied. Like many territories with a small population supporting domestic filmmaking, new Australian producers face vexing fiscal realities.
‘So, their very first film – they research it, and they chat it over, and we get the very scarce dollars out. But, they’ve got to go out and make their film in such a way that it will entertain the whole network in Australia, and it has to be sold overseas, or otherwise we don’t get the money to make it in the country. So, the first program they make they’re making in difficult locations, with difficult animals, and cheaper than most other places in the world – and yet it has to be in the international market competing against all those other wonderful animals that come out in the daytime.’
ON ADAPTABILITY, HER AUDIENCE
AND BLUE CHIP PROGRAMMING…
Adaptability has become the hallmark of Gilmour’s NHU. Her flexibility is reflected in the make-up and output of her unit – a mixture of blue-chip natural history, hosted programming, and forays into animation and children’s programming.
‘I think that kind of diversity is really important. One reinforces the other in terms of filmmaking. You get a community of filmmakers whose thinking is provocative for each other. I think they’re all learning a lot. It also gives the audience something. You reach somebody for some time every year.’
Reaching audiences is paramount as budgets get tighter and slots get swallowed by international concerns. By definition, that translates into a need for more risks than natural historians are traditionally predisposed to.
‘I think it’s part of the market today, but I think that on the whole, natural history filmmaking hasn’t been very adventurous – ever. I think it’s been technically adventurous. I think [nat history films'] ability to go out and grasp the most amazing images the world has ever seen has been wonderful, but I think we’ve been telling the same story since the 1930s, when they first started making wildlife films for movie theaters. Either we are going to lose our audiences through sheer boredom, or we’re going to become filmmakers as well as historians.’
Part of the problem is an inclination towards blue chip, a discipline which is difficult to execute well.
‘Look at what you’re giving up to do one of those programs: You’re living in a remote part of the country for years. You either take your family with you or you probably end up divorced. If you do want your family around you, there’s a whole new set of parameters around how you can do that. You don’t have an enormous amount of people who have the ability and the desire to do blue chip.’
Few entities can even attempt the budgets called for to turn out cutting-edge blue chip. While the BBC isn’t forthcoming about some of its budgets, industry sources place productions like Walking With Dinosaurs at a million and a half dollars an hour. Competing with those resources is difficult.
‘You can’t put together budgets like that. I would suggest that there are only two or three places in the world who can. They keep lowering the limbo stick. It makes it bloody difficult, because whatever money you’ve got, you’ve got to make programs where the audience can’t tell that this one cost a million, and this one cost half a million, and this one cost a tenth of a million. The audience isn’t going to know that. They’re just going to look at it and think: Did I like this program? You’re all up there competing for the audience. You’re all up there hoping to be broadcast into the most places. It makes life very tough. But then again, one could just be envious.’
Inevitably, it means turning from blue chip to less expensive alternatives. Although Gilmour believes the appetite for magazine formats is limited in Australia, she understands the importance of reaching a broad audience and that demands a pragmatic stance on non-traditional formats.
‘They’re there to fill up the mouth of that voracious monster that sits in the corner of your living room. They’re there to give people vicarious thrills at times, and to frighten the shit out of us. Why can’t you look at nat history the same way?’
Unlike many in her field, Gilmour doesn’t shun any format, even if she prefers not to work within them herself. ‘Should we be censoring? I don’t think we should. I think we should leave ourselves open.’
‘My ideal coproduction is: Give me the money and then fuck off. I’ll give you the film when it’s finished. Although I don’t think there’s very many people foolish enough to do that.’
Gilmour learned the power of the coproduction dollar early in her career. ‘I found that one of the best ways to keep producing was to go out and get coproduction money, and then get the abc to sign the contract… Then they would find out that I had to make the film.’ The importance of foreign investment has only grown, even though her reputation as a filmmaker is established.
‘We scrimp and save, but every program we do, we have to have coproduction money. Sometimes we have 85% or 90% of our budget from the outside. Sometimes much less than that. What I have to do is sort out where and when we should be getting our money from the outside. Where do we have a product that will be relatively easy to sell? When have you got your new filmmakers, or somebody who’s trying something a little different that might not be as immediately obvious up front? You have to gamble on them. The little money that we do get from the abc we have to invest in those because I know, even though nobody else believes me, that this one is actually going to pay off. Nine out of ten times, it will. But, you actually have to make it to prove your point. It’s risk management, and that’s what the whole game’s about, isn’t it?’
Gilmour maintains a close relationship with her production counterparts, building the trust and understanding essential when partners operate half a world apart. ‘You set [a coproduction] up, with the very best intentions, and if it doesn’t work out you fall on your face. I think the relationship between us and our coproducers has to be kept alive, and it has to be kept on a rigorous professional [level]. Things can fall out the side sometimes, and you have to know that.’
‘You do an awful lot of business at three in the morning. That’s why people think I have a sense of humor – because I’m hysterical by that time. Even a contract seems really funny.’
ON TECHNOLOGY AND HIGH DEFINITION…
Natural history has been tied to technology since its inception, and filmmakers now work under the brooding clouds of high definition. Still expensive and largely unexplored, the switch-over to high definition is not an immediate priority for ABC’s NHU.
‘We’ll use high-def when high-def is the best thing to use at a particular time, and it’s a reasonable price to use. I don’t see that we must do this or we must do that. All this technology has to work as tools. You’re not going to use high-def if you’re going to some remote place and live there for a year filming. The gear’s going to break down anyhow, and you need the most stable, strong gear that you can possibly think of to go the distance.’
The NHU is doing some work in Super 16 (the lowest standard of HD) but only rough plans exist to step beyond that frontier. Gilmour is still waiting to see the dividends of the technology. High definition, she feels, still smacks of gimmick.
‘Are these the kind of films that you want to make? I think that they’re great for some people to make them so that the audience can see them, but they’re not necessarily the sort of films that all of us want to make. They do tend to have a lack of…the unexpected. They look and feel stagey. They’re being used because of the technology, rather than being the best way to tell the story.’
The medium, she maintains, only has value if used for the good of the narrative. ‘Technology is going to change like blazes, but people are still going to be looking for great stories. People are going to want to be entertained, amused and horrified. They’re going to want to be moved in some way. They want to be inspired. They want more information. They want to see things that they’ve never seen before. They want to look at the familiar through new eyes. They’ll always want those things, and as filmmakers, that’s what we’re about.’
ON THE FUTURE…
Gilmour is guardedly optimistic about the future of natural history and television in general. ‘I think we’ve got to question everything that’s going to happen in a decade. Are we going to have television in a decade? Certainly not in the way we know it now. What is the most important thing to do in the next decade? Probably build up your brand name so that people know to choose your programs. They’ve got to be able to recognize your group and know what you do. There’s going to be just as much of a need, if not more, to make the software to go out on whatever systems they’re talking about. [The trick is] to keep ourselves flexible enough that we can take advantage of the changes in the whole broadcasting environment.’
But, should filmmakers expect to enjoy the same success they have been recently? ‘I think we had this enormous upsurge that came with the multiplication of the channels in the last few years. Natural history was a monty to go into, for all the reasons you’ve heard: because it can translate easily, because there’s no political boundaries, because it has high interest, etcetera, etcetera. It really did become a very important genre of filmmaking, and the demand was incredibly high. I think we saw that flatten out about a year ago, and the demand is going down at the moment. I think that people want stories to be told in different ways. There have been too many bad natural history programs. People have tried to get in and scoop the market purely for money, and the industry is in for a bit of a shake-up in the next two or three years. I think we’ll have a few new players, but the people who’ll survive will be the people who have produced good product all through this time.’
The reason for the acceptance of the genre might have something to do with more than just viewer likes and dislikes, suggests Gilmour. It may be genetic.
‘As the world becomes more urbanized, and we become less in touch with our real selves, the greater the need for natural history programs. I think there will always be an enormous market for what we do.’
‘It’s totally within us. The life we live now is totally artificial. We keep wanting to go back to our roots, to the Earth – and I’m not the Earth-mother type. I literally mean that I think that this is part of a human’s make-up. We’re denying it, and we haven’t adapted around that denial yet.’
Special Tribute – Extra Info. on ABC’s NHU (pgs. 50 & 54)