Nick Fraser: The Storyteller (PART II)

Do you read critiques of your books or ignore them?
December 1, 2007

Do you read critiques of your books?
I read them fairly quickly; I think it’s much easier dealing with critiques of your books when you’ve run something like ‘Storyville’ because you learn basically not to take them too seriously. You learn that people have their own agendas. George Orwell, when Animal Farm came out, he read all the critics. I think about probably six of them or so and three of them were negative, and he said that they never said how beautiful it was, and he’s absolutely right. Most criticism that filmmakers get, 80% is just summarizing. I think many more readers or viewers figure out what’s wonderful about a documentary, but a lot of that never surfaces in the review.

Do you have a writing ritual?
Hardly. I’ve got two pieces to write at the moment. I did get up at 6:30 a.m. every morning for about four years to write books and it’s very, very grueling. You go to bed at 11 p.m. and then you start feeling really exhausted. I couldn’t do this job and do a big book. I mean having got through the whole Democracy experience, it seems to me I must start writing again; I’m looking for topics now.

I’m actually, at the moment, doing a piece for The Observer newspaper about an American novelist, Richard Yates. Because when I tried to stop going crazy through the Democracy experience, I read all his seven novels. Revolutionary Road is just a stunning book and it’s being made into a film directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The interesting thing about Richard Yates is, to me, he speaks more than Updike does, and as much as Bellow or Roth. I think Richard Ford is a crazed Yates fan, and when you meet these fans they’ll fix you in the eye and go on for hours about what a great writer he is, and he is a great writer. He usually writes about failure, which is unusual in America, and his books are deceptive. They appear simple – they’re not simple – the characters are very complicated, and I find this about documentaries, the overlap between fiction and documentaries for me is that in really good documentaries you sort of feel you’ve known the person most of your life. We had one that’s just come in – the working title is The Chuck Show, but I think they’re going to call it The Art of Failure.

So I’m writing about Richard Yates, and also very interested in the new philanthropy, the way saving the world has been taken over by individuals and foundations. I’m very perplexed by this. I tend to write about things that I don’t understand. There are lots of things I don’t understand. But I tend to understand fewer things as I get older. I think shedding certainty is an absolute life obligation; I think that you should grow into skepticism. And I think many types of polemical types of writing that you might have admired 20 years ago cease to be interesting because the more you know about the world, the more reasonably complex it appears. And that’s not a problem, that’s a huge plus because it makes it more interesting.

I wrote about my old school because after all these years I didn’t feel I quite understood the importance of it, and then before that I wrote about Europe. I’m not sure that it’s a good way to make a living. I think if you’re more hardheaded you have to take much more of marketing. You know it’s said Saul Bellow said to someone, he doesn’t have ideas, he has buttons, and this is in the days when everyone wore those dreadful buttons and I think really a lot of bestseller writing is in one way or another about buttons, it’s about slogans, it’s about marketing, et cetera, and I think this is what writers have to do. But it’s sort of what I have to do with people and their documentaries, so I wouldn’t want to do it, especially in relation to my own writing, although I’d love to sell more copies. It’s a very difficult business being a writer in my view.

Do you feel more pressure when it comes to book deadlines as opposed to ‘Storyville’ deadlines?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve never had that tight book deadlines, and I’ve never had trouble meeting them. I’ve never had trouble with deadlines. I’ve had trouble getting other people to meet deadlines – that’s much more difficult. And I don’t understand why people have a problem with deadlines; it seems to me if you say you’re going to deliver a film on X day and then you sort of count back you know exactly when you have to hit all the things. But evidently, not everybody feels like that – they have huge problems with deadlines.

Is it becoming more of a problem?
I don’t think so. The film The English Surgeon was actually spot on the deadline. I think on the whole filmmakers will always, if you give them a deadline, will do it a month late. That’s the problem: when you write out a first deadline and you say there’s a second one, they deliver it a month after the second one. Some friends of mine think that documentary filmmakers are fantastically unprofessional, and wouldn’t survive in any other medium. And in my view, they’re just the same as journalists or magazine writers: they want to do their best and they have high standards and they just spend time on things and they don’t mean to.

What was going through your mind over as talks of the cuts were circulating?
I felt in a state of near split personality, because most of my time by this stage was trying to sort of herd the 10 filmmaker calves to get them to finish the Democracy films on time and try to, with my colleagues, organize the logistics of this unwieldy fascinating project, which is always so overstretched and under funded. When we started doing it, everybody knew that. So that was taking up a huge amount of quite stressful time and at the same time I was thinking ‘What the hell is going on? I don’t know what’s going on at the BBC, I don’t know where we are.’

Earlier this year there was this notion that the BBC would cut the strand so badly we would just be basically an acquisition strand rather than be able to commission anything, and they have restored the cash. What the last painful four months tell me is that the BBC, which is in a bad shape financially, does love ‘Storyville’ enough to keep going on in quite a major way by their standards. I would always wish there would be far more money because I don’t think documentary filmmakers get paid well enough. I think it’s very rare for them to earn a decent living and there’s only one Michael Moore. It’s actually a very difficult thing to be doing, making good films, and I don’t think we give them enough money – I don’t think we recompense them enough, and this is a real problem for me. But, they do make great films and at least I can go on showing them, and I can pay them adequately.

Eugene Jarecki said it would be a bad business decision to lose ‘Storyville’ and ‘one of its best and brightest – Nick Fraser.’ You’re synonymous with the strand the world over – how does that make you feel?
I’m sure someone else could do it – I mean, you’re always replaceable. I think that’s interesting. I’d never thought in my life that I would be so synonymous with something, I always thought where I’ll be moving from one thing to another, I’ll always be a bit on the outside looking in because that’s what journalists do. There’s a danger if you’re a reporter, you become professionally non-attached to things and the opposite of that is ‘Storyville’ because in order to make ‘Storyville’ I had to become fantastically attached a) to ‘Storyville’ and b) to the BBC, its patron. And I think this is a different sort of life, it’s a life that has its problems. Some journalists have no private life at all, but fortunately I do. But you can always say ‘Well, I’ll concentrate on my private life for remaining attached and I’ll hang loose,’ but it’s quite impossible to do that when you’re trying to run ‘Storyville.’ It demands loyalty.

What do you see for the future of ‘Storyville’?
I think the real thing we have to do with ‘Storyville’ is make it work, which is what we have to do for all documentaries, and raise the ratings and the profile. I think the big enigma of documentaries in the last 10 years is people love them, they talk about them like rock ‘n’ roll, but quite often the performance both in cinemas and on television is mediocre. I don’t think it’s primarily a consequence of filmmakers and the kind of films they do, it has to do with the marketing priorities of television and what television has become.

However, I also think we have to work with filmmakers to ask ‘How can we raise the game a bit? How can we have more films that have the impact?’ At the moment, a tiny number of films are doing very well in DVD and cinemas and then a larger number are doing quite well, and there’s a huge number doing not so well. Not that that’s a criticism, they’re just not doing it outside of one or two television screenings. And I think it would be helpful to raise the number of films that do very well somehow, but also the number of those that do pretty well. And I think you have to have a variety of strategies to do that – I think you have to persuade filmmakers, it’s very difficult, by the way, to be – not more commercial – but a bit more on the nail sometimes. There’s a slight predictability to what surfaces at festivals. I mean there are very remarkable, sort of stingingly good films, then there are quite a large number of films that fall in the category of social action films, that just document issues from a rather predictable point of view and they go through the system and they don’t break through.

There’s a serious problem in the UK… where people who work in television are not necessarily people who concern themselves with documentaries. They’re not a priority, they’re an afterthought for quite a sizable portion of people who work as executives in television, and I’m not sure if that’s getting better or not. You would have thought by now that with all the praise heaped on documentaries… I can send out five or six shows to someone who produces feature films and doesn’t watch documentaries and they’ll email me back and say ‘These films are much better than the feature films I watch.’ So that’s interesting, but that on the whole is not an argument that’s broken through in television – it’s rather the opposite.

Can you give more details on ‘Storyville’ in regards to coproductions?
We reckon we’ll have at least 10 full coproductions per year. We may be able to raise that. It’s been interesting – we haven’t commissioned anything particularly for six months, so first we have to look at what’s in the market. I realize from a week of viewing films that it does make a difference if you coproduce things or not because there’s quite a lot of films that I might have taken, but they fetched up not quite what I would have wanted so I won’t take them, and these are the problems of buying things.

So the subject is fine for us, but not really the way it was done. Also, it’s interesting because now that the clock’s put at zero, if we’re going to coproduce 30 films over the next three years, what’s interesting over the next three years is, what are these films going to be? And this goes with another mandate that we have at the BBC. The BBC has made it plain that if we’re going down to 25 from 40 – I’m trying to put this as tactfully as they do – so basically they always tell you ‘Well, can you sort of cut out the ones that are boring?’ but they don’t express it in that way. They say ‘There’s some that are better than others’ or whatever.

I think what they really mean by that is they want 25 that have this breakthrough quality. They’re not saying ‘Can they all be as popular as Super Size Me?’ but they’re saying ‘Can they all be talked about more than just by people that write flattering previews?’ and I think this is basically what we’ll try and do. And the stuff that we’d most like to find is harder to find: it’s sort of quirky, offbeat, and with no received opinions.

And we’ve got a film at the moment called Blast, I think it was pitched at Hot Docs by this guy called Paul Devlin who did the marvelous film called Power Trip. And he has made a film about setting up these balloons, first in the Arctic, and then in the Antarctic, to find out about the origins of the universe by recording white radio waves at the edge of atmosphere. Well, this sounds like a Tin Tin album, and indeed all of the characters are strange, including the filmmaker’s brother, who bears a startling resemblance to the filmmaker, inevitably, and is one of the astrophysicists. And it really is bliss. It’s a very informative film about science told in a very simple, funny way. It’s in post-production now. It’s films like that which are highly unexpected but have this sort of popular tinge about them… they also have a kind of humor or irony.

What are your thoughts on taking risks?
I think you become more conscious of taking risks when you have some position to defend. The danger is when you go on for a certain amount of time, you have to go on taking the risks and nobody’s telling you ‘Go on and take more risks.’ In fact, they’re saying the opposite to you – they assume that everything is quite easy. So they’re asking you ‘Take less risks, but keep on delivering the optimal stuff’ and that’s when it does get a bit difficult, and I think that’s where we are now. I mean, the BBC is quite a risk-adverse culture, and the match of the BBC and documentaries has always been a bit awkward. I mean they like to commission things when they’re absolutely certain it’s going to work. They like to poach talent when it’s been developed elsewhere, or grow their own talent laboriously, and they like to work with formats that are absolutely dear to them, so things that come from nowhere, like every good documentary… I’m not saying that the BBC is hostile to them, but it’s not necessarily central to their culture, it seems like an eccentric activity commissioning it.

You’ve said that you have a fantastic sense of urgency about making programs as a public broadcaster that are more global and using new media to do so. Can you expand?
I was encouraged by the Democracy project because that was taken up by every single BBC platform. There were bits of democracy on the radio, World Service, News 24, which is a domestic 24-hour news service, and BBC World as well as BBC2 and BBC4. I do think it’s quite a long slog. I thought, all this work, over 10 years – and I don’t want to exaggerate, it’s not difficult work – but you really do have to stick with it, I thought it was kind of getting home to people in and out of the BBC that this is the way you globalize information on a very small scale. You take stories, you have them done all over the world, and they appeal to people all over the world. And I had a marvelous encounter with Jeremy Paxman, who’s a big cheese presenter at the BBC, and he had seen the Chinese film about the election in the classroom, so he said to me, ‘Was that a BBC film?’ and I said ‘No, Jeremy, actually it was shot by a one-man operation in the middle of China, Wuhan, and then it was edited in Shanghai, then the rushes and the hard disk were flown to Cape Town, then the editors flew from New York to Cape Town to finish it off, and the film was actually finished in South Africa.’ And he just looked at me and blinked. And he said ‘Well, I suppose our world is increasingly globalized so productions should be globalized in proportion to that.’ So he got that – the light bulb went on. And I do have to say, the great thing about being at ‘Storyville’ is you keep meeting people under 30 and they do take this for granted. There was a Canadian and kids from all over the world working on the Why Democracy? website in Cape Town, and their assumption is their whole world is going to be like this. They may be working in Australia and South Africa or Canada, or they may be sharing sites that they work from in these countries, but it seems to them that the idea of production organized on a local scale, a national scale, is ridiculous, and that goes for new media. Young people are very cosmopolitan, very interested in how the world really is, so I think there must be a way of making programs that appeal to them.

You sprinkle feature film references into your conversations – do you live and breathe film?
No, my influences are far more of journalism and writing. I’m often told I must watch certain feature films and my ignorance is really quite shocking; I mean I know a certain amount about French films, I mean I know about Louis Malle, I know most of his films, Jean Renoir. I know mostly about French films and a bit about Italian films, but I wouldn’t claim any level of expertise or any level of ability certainly to analyze films. I wouldn’t like to be a film critic because I’d just get bored having to watch all these feature films. Once every year there’s a film that comes along that I really like, but it’s not a major thing. Books and talking to people are more important to me.

Have you ever had a chance encounter with someone who’s changed your outlook on life?
I don’t think chance. I mean there are people I rely on fantastically, there’s a small number of people. My father died when I was quite young and I think that was a problem – I didn’t learn much from my father. But I think you have to struggle to learn things and I think you sort of prepare for these encounters and there are certain people you meet and who are very remarkable. And then quite often when you see them 10 or 15 years later and you’ve lost touch with them, you wonder what it is in them that appealed so much to you… One person is Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, I understand more about the world and writing journalism from Lewis. Lewis is really great. I think he has got due recognition, but it’s been a long time coming. And there are lots of women – most of all my mother, which can hardly been called a chance encounter. I think through my French family – it’s a very middle-class family I come from in France – and in an almost tedious way, as my daughter complains, they transfer values from one generation to another, and they’re very good at that. They teach you how to behave, and to be kind to people.

For the first half of this interview, visit Nick Fraser: The storyteller

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