The Producer’s Art

Making a great film isn’t just about making the film itself – it’s also about creating the conditions in which a really good film can be made. For all eight of my feature documentaries, that role has largely fallen to my producer Al Morrow. So I wanted to have a conversation about how she thinks about producing and what makes her projects succeed.

As well as producing my films, Al’s work includes Last Breath (Netflix/Creative Scotland/BBC Scotland/Zdf/Arte) directed by Richard da Costa and Alex Parkinson; Jeanie Finlay’s Pantomime (BBC Storyville) and The Great Hip Hop Hoax (BBC/ Creative Scotland); Sarah Gavron’s Village at the End of the World; and her latest film, Misha and The Wolves, directed by Sam Hobkinson, which premieres at Sundance 2021.

Jerry:                  We’ve worked together now for many films and I know that – amidst the maelstrom of getting a film together – you have a great skill creating the space for a filmmaking team to do their best work. What, for you, are the pre-conditions you need to foster to make that possible on a feature doc?

Al:                        For me, it’s about developing trust between producer and director.  A key part of my role is protecting the director’s vision – that’s what you are trying to get everyone to buy into. It’s difficult because all films are made through collaboration, so there’s always a lot of you in the mix. There’s a need to navigate all those viewpoints and make sure that the filmmaker’s story and approach is still at the heart of the film.  

Jerry:                  From a directing point of view I sometimes find the idea of everyone hanging on the director’s vision difficult, certainly in documentary, because often the vision only strengthens into a conviction during the film-making rather than at the beginning. It develops in interaction with the material. So at the pitching stage it may not be fully there. 

Al:                        I just think you give it time. It’s really interesting that directors often think that they don’t have a clear vision or they’re in a mess or they can’t see the story. But I do trust the process, and if everyone involved does, I know we’ll get there. I know an experienced director will find their way. And then, as a producer, if you’re really in love with the story or the subject matter, or the characters, you might have ideas or thoughts, and can bat them back and forth in ways that unlock something in a director’s mind.

Jerry:                  So what are the kinds of film ideas you’d reject and what do you get excited by?

Al:                        That’s difficult to say, because the market changes all the time and what we could have made 10 years ago, maybe we can’t make at the moment. At the moment, we’re looking for very narrative driven stories. So a project just with a character at the center isn’t enough, where a few years ago character-driven films were much more in demand. That’s partly because of the move towards documentary series, where stories have to sustain multiple episodes. I’m excited by telling stories on that big canvas. 

And there are settings that I love – stories set at sea fascinate me. In terms of subject matter, a lot of my films have been about people who have got themselves into trouble because they told a lie that grew bigger and bigger and it had huge ramifications. So I’ve done about three or four films – Deep Water, Sour Grapes, Hip Hop Hoax and my latest film Misha and The Wolves – which have had that kind of story at its heart.  

Jerry:                  Liars are always very fruitful territory for docs, because docs are inevitably about the nature of truth, so you’re always on that line between the story and the truth. But I’m interested in why that particularly draws you in?  I guess to be interested in that type of story, you have to think that the boundary between lies and truth is crucially important.

Al:                        Don’t you think it’s very human to lie about your life? There’s nobody that hasn’t lied. It’s very easy to get into a situation you’ve talked your way into that you can’t see a way out of, so the lie just gets bigger and bigger and there’s a set of conditions or people encourage you to continue until there’s a crisis.  

Jerry:                  Let’s talk about giving feedback on treatments or cuts and working also with financier feedback. How do you approach that?  

Al:                        With experienced directors, I’ve learned that feedback is generally better given as an emotional response. So I will be much more inclined to focus on what I feel at different moments in a cut. When I’m bored or when things feel odd or are not working or what’s really thrilling, or if something feels unclear or a character feels unsympathetic.  The director can take those comments and decide what they mean for the film and how to translate them into the changes in the cut. I always find it magical that directors can do that.  If it’s a very inexperienced director, I think you perhaps need to make more precise suggestions – and often I involve an experienced director to help me translate what I’m feeling about the film and what it might need to improve it.  

Jerry:                   In my experience the most useful feedback is how the person is experiencing the film at a certain moment. Then you can think through why might there be that feeling at that point. Often the proposed solutions to a problem aren’t so helpful – becuase the causes of what a viewer feels might be somewhere other than the place where they think the problem is. And because as a director you know the film so intimately, you can instantly see the knock-on impact of particular changes for the whole film, which sometimes commissioners or even producers don’t see.

Al:                        I think feedback on feature docs is very different to TV. In TV there’s a practice of giving very specific notes, you know, cut that, change that scene, put more titles and so on – and there’s an expectation that that list will be implemented. I always find that a bit shocking. The danger of going that way is that you end up with something that’s formulaic, made by committee and not very interesting or unique.  

Jerry:                  How do you navigate the risks in a project? 

Al:                        Every time we finish a film, I forget about the fear and the risks that were involved. At the start of a project, I’m just super excited about the story and I’ll do anything to get that story into the world. I’m always over-optimistic – I always think it’s going to take six months to raise the money and start shooting because how could anybody else not see how brilliant this film is? But it always takes anything between two and seven years to get a feature doc together and get it out into the world. It must be like childbirth, the forgetting what it was like last time. I’ve never had children, but it must be like that. 

In terms of managing risk and the fear that can sometimes overrun a project, your best allies of the people that you work with. I don’t think producing is something I would want to do on my own. For me, working with the team at Met immediately mitigates any problem because we generally share how we’re going to handle it, and we’ve now worked together for over a decade. The most important thing in producing when you get yourself into sticky situations, which you do all the time, is just to be super honest about everything. 

There are lots of different types of producers, aren’t there? Some are very skilled with budgets and money, putting the finance together and managing a budget. And there are producers whose focus is more on the creative, and who get deeply involved in story, research and relationships with protagonists from start to finish. The ideal is to be able to combine both. For me, producing has to be a team effort because my strength is predominantly, I think, as a creative producer, though I’ve learned over the years how the money side works and I do really enjoy selling our films and bringing budgets together. But in managing those, I need support from others in the team. 

Jerry:                  Often when I’m in the middle of production, I have this feeling of wanting to give the whole thing up lurking in the back of my mind, this escape route. Each film films like it’s going to be the last one. But I think self-doubt is necessary for making the film, it means that you’re outside your comfort zone, which is important creatively. So that’s interesting you saying how optimistic you are that it’s going to turn out OK. I’m the opposite, I always think it’s going to be a disaster. Often it’s producer optimism that carries me through.

Al:                        Producing is impossible. If you actually break down what you have to do, it seems absolutely impossible to make a film or a series, , so you have to be wildly optimistic. You have to trust that all these strangers you don’t know are going to buy into this project and an audience is going to watch it. That you’re going to be able to make it during COVID or whatever other things hit. And it’s not a good way of trying to make money, especially documentaries. If you specialize in documentaries, what craziness is that, it’s ridiculous! So everyday you wake up and need to be a mad, crazy optimist. Fundamentally you absolutely have to believe it’s going to work out.  

Jerry:                 Often you need to set up a co-productions, in order to get a project off the ground. What makes them work and not work?  

Al: I’ve had some really good experiences with co-productions. They have to be bringing something that is genuinely advantageous to the film, not just money or rights. You’re having to approach people quite often that you’ve never worked with, create a relationship and build trust. It’s a big leap of faith. It has to have strong reasons to collaborate: maybe your film is set in another country, and your co-production partner knows the country, knows great crews or who to go to for finance in that country. When it doesn’t work, its maybe because of different expectations or they have different experience level to you and you’re having to carry a lot of it. You want people that are as ambitious for the film as you are, know their territory, and can be hands-on and practical.  Then it can take a lot of work off your hands. It can be great.  

Jerry:                  What would you say are the frequent underlying causes of things going wrong with projects? 

Al:                        Miscommunication is the biggest. It often it amazes me how humans can miscommunicate and resort to blame. But you’re asking financiers to put a lot of money into the project. And you’re saying, as a producer, trust me and trust the filmmaker to make the film you imagined and that will be sold. That can be problematic because financiers, if they are worried about a project, will try and impose their ideas, sometimes by being increasingly interventionist in the creative aspects. So for the producer there’s a role to manage the financiers’ interventions at the same time as giving the director the licence to come up with solutions. 

Jerry:                  So, what enables you to trust the process?  

Al:                        The one thing I know, perhaps the only thing, is what a good idea looks like and what other people are going to enjoy watching. That’s what I think I know, and it’s all I need to know because it will sustain me for the duration of the project.   But then there’s the process to get there. At the development stage I notice directors expect more of me. When we’re writing outlines or pitch documents – sometimes I can see they want me to be more actively seeking finance for the film – but often it’s not the time yet, because it’s not ready to start pitching. That phase can be a long period of time and it’s often done with no money, but you have to put that initial legwork into get it to a point where other people will understand it.  And there’s usually a moment when it switches, where the vision for the film crystallizes in a way that other people can see it – and by that stage you’ve done the research to back it up.

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