During the special features on the DVD for his 2002 film Biggie & Tupac, Nick Broomfield describes the precautions he took to protect himself and his crew during shooting – not everyone lasted through its entirety due to safety concerns. Broomfield recalls how, in order to avoid retaliation from anyone involved in the killings investigated in the film, he used a post office box, drove rented cars, and kept mum about his address. After all, making a movie about the unsolved murders of two hip-hop stars that may involve crooked cops and gang members isn’t exactly a way to make fast friends. In the dvd interview, Broomfield casually remarks, ‘But if someone really wants to get you, they’re going to get you anyway, and the decision really is ‘Do I want to make this film or do I not want to make the film?”
It’s exactly that no-nonsense, if somewhat droll, attitude with which the British director, producer and writer continues to ruffle feathers, most recently with Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, His Big White Self and Ghost, a look at the aftermath of the 2004 incident in England’s Morecambe Bay during which more than 20 illegal Chinese laborers drowned while collecting cockles for the seafood industry. Never one to take a long break between films, he’s now working on a project about the Iraq conflict.
Reflecting on his filmmaking career, which started in 1971 with a doc about slum clearance in Liverpool called Who Cares, Broomfield says starting on a project is the hardest part of the process. ‘A lot of people are incredibly, and understandably, very intimidated to just get going,’ he observes. ‘There’s a big temptation for filmmakers to waste a lot of time writing proposals and waiting for a big fat turkey to land in their laps. Which, of course, never happens. And then they get this awful sense of time ticking by and nothing happening.’
For those about to take the plunge into doc filmmaking, Broomfield forewarns that the pool of competition is deep. ‘The popularity of documentary has meant that it’s especially hard for new people coming in because there is a lot of competition,’ he says. ‘And although when I was starting there were other problems, like the unions had a terrible grip – you had people working in the film labs all night just to get a union ticket – there’s obviously a different situation now, which is that every man and their dying dog is trying to make a documentary.’ It’s in large part due, he notes, to the advent of affordable DV cams and other equipment.
The goods news for fledgling auteurs (be they human or canine) now entering the doc biz in Broomfield’s homeland is that, unlike the previous turbulence with unions, they have the power of PACT behind them. ‘The talent ownership of copyright of films and so on has really enabled people to live from the proceeds of their work and to fight for projects they believe in rather than just taking work because they’re close to bankruptcy all the time,’ says Broomfield, ‘so there’s been a lot more interesting work coming out then there was before, and there’s a real respect and awareness of independent filmmaking in this country – but there wasn’t before – which has come very much from PACT.’
Part and parcel with this awareness should be the support of commissioning editors, whom Broomfield says should have more faith in their own judgment. If a CE believes in a filmmaker’s work, he comments, they should give them the freedom to go out and make the film they find, ‘not a lot of guarantees that you’re unable to give anyway.’ He himself has enjoyed such freedom in at least one of his films: consider the 1998 doc Kurt and Courtney, in which Broomfield admits well into his narration that he (CEs should avert their eyes at this point) ‘didn’t know the angle’ of the film yet. Looking back on that admission, one that few other filmmakers would make – especially if it was to be captured eternally on celluloid – Broomfield says, ‘I think I was very lucky to get away with it frankly, and I think people have become a bit uptight since then.’
That may explain why Broomfield says he’s never been a fan of pitch forums. He believes trying to ‘script reality’ in order to present an idea to a commissioning editor goes against the doc form. ‘I don’t know how you’d sit down and say ‘Well, this is the story,’ particularly when it hasn’t happened and you’re not telling a feature film with a script. It seems to me to be a contradiction of what documentary’s all about, so I always think these pitching forums are a kind of dreadful travesty, really. I went into one and really had a problem staying there because you’ve got this poor person bleeding their heart out and none of [the story] has happened yet – these aren’t actors – and you don’t want to have filmmakers going out there trying to control reality.’
While you don’t need to keep a seat warm for Broomfield at the next big pitching forum, one event that he will soon appear at – and of which he recently became a patron – is SEE – the Brighton Documentary Festival, which is returning for its second year this November. The fest connects filmmakers from the region, and Broomfield is a fan of its small, congenial feel. ‘It has the spirit of an early Sundance, before it got too big.’
He credits such events, as well as London’s DocHouse and Toronto’s Hot Docs, with supporting young talent, a practice he supports strongly, acknowledging that he himself faced hardships when he started his own filmmaking career some 35 years ago. (That someone who’s won a British Academy Award and a Hague Peace Prize admits he had a hard go breaking into the biz should be some consolation for newbies doing the same.) ‘It’s the young ideas and perceptions that keep the industry alive and keep the form changing, which is so important,’ he says. ‘You don’t want to have people making the same old tired style of documentary.’