In conversation with David Nicholas Wilkinson: on making documentaries

Montage by the author Photos courtesy of Guerilla Docs

Actor, producer, distributor and director David Nicholas Wilkinson is a regular fixture at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, generously sharing his experience with eager new writers and filmmakers. This year was no exception, although the format was different, of course, with everything online in one format or another. David chose to do his slot by Zoom, which meant there could be interaction and questions after.

This is the second of two articles, focusing on David’s advice on becoming a documentary filmmaker. The first was about David’s own filmmaking career.

Advice on becoming a documentary filmmaker

For budding documentarists, David says it’s astonishing what you can do from home now. There are many different ways to tell a story, but you have to be pragmatic and boil it down to what the story has got and how it can be best presented, so as to render a complex story simple. While it is important to focus on creativity, at some point you need a technologist – someone who understand how to turn your work into something that broadcasters will accept.

David once asked veteran British filmmaker John Schlesinger if there was a secret to making a good film, a formula kind of thing. Initially he said: “Well, not really.” Then he thought about it and said: “Yes, there is. Fifty per cent – at least fifty per cent of making your film is choosing the right people for each department and then letting them get on with it, and if they come up with good ideas, you listen.” David took that advice to heart, and uses his director of photography (DoP) and editor as sounding boards.

Twenty-nine years of documentary filmmaking later – first as a producer, and latterly as both director and producer – David says he comes up with an idea every week without fail, if not two. Once he comes up with an idea, he puts it through the following filters:

  1. Look to see if someone has done something similar (this can take a long time).
  2. Once (1) is complete, ask yourself, “Do you still like the idea?” In 90 per cent of cases, David decides he does not.
  3. Can you raise all or some of the money to make it?

When you speak to David about his films, he is clearly passionate about their subject matter. Perhaps we should add “how passionate do you feel about this idea?” as one of the filters to help decide what topics to pursue as a documentary filmmaker?

On a note of caution, David warns against sharing your idea for a documentary too widely.

 “People steal ideas,” he says. “That’s why it’s a good idea to start making a film, because then you’ve got something copyright-able. A documentary is only an idea until you start making it. A film or TV programme based on a screenplay is different, because the screenplay itself has copyright.”

He should know. It has happened to him.

Although there may not be a script up-front, and your film may emerge as you make it, you should still have a plan in the sense of knowing exactly what it is you want to say. Even if you’re on a low budget, think what it is you want to say, and stick to it. This is where a background in drama can come in useful, as you know how to craft a story to hook an audience, and keep them interested.

Coverage – having the right shots and enough shots to tell the story of any given scene – is the next topic. It’s amazing how many filmmakers film a great scene, but forget to take an establishing shot, for example. Even he is not immune from making this mistake, despite all his years of experience. The remedy is to have a shot list. Give yourself alternatives, in case you find yourself in a corner.

David is unusual in that a few frames of almost every scene and every interview he shoots ends up in the finished film. It is very rare for him not to include something. In other words, he shoots to the edit. He says this goes back to an experience in his acting days, when his role in Oscar-winning British film Chariots of Fire ended up on the cutting-room floor. He knows how much it hurts, even if it’s not an indictment of your performance, but because the film is too long. One film-maker he knows shot 700 hours for a 90-minute film. “Don’t waste your money,” David advises. “I make essay films rather than standard documentaries.”

Make sure that what you film is worth looking at: shot from interesting angles, beautifully lit, and so on. You can use the most expensive camera in the world, but if what you shoot is dull, you can’t fix it in the edit. When it comes to the edit, David says it is a mistake to edit your own film, because you tend not to see the flaws in your own work. He emphasises once again how important it is to have a sounding board.

Photos courtesy of Guerilla Docs

According to David, independent local cinemas can be very helpful to local filmmakers – they see it as part of their brief to support the community. Digital Camera Package (DCP) makes one-off screenings feasible.

“Lots of cinemas have a documentary day,” says David. “That’s better than a week-long run.” If a broadcaster doesn’t put any money into your film, the market will in all likelihood think it’s an inferior product, otherwise a broadcaster would have invested in it. However, if you release it in the cinema, it becomes a different animal. It will get reviewed, and then your sales agent can sell it based on the reviews.”

David has noticed a lot of British filmmakers will not go out and tour with their films. People are fascinated by what we do, he says, and we can use that to our advantage to amplify our message. I can vouch that he was indefatigable, traipsing the length and breadth of the country to do Q&As after screenings of his film Postcards from the 48%. He gives the example of the Q&A after the screening at Horsham, which went on for two-and-a-half hours until security threw them out. He remembered one woman in her 70s telling him: “I voted Leave because the French hate us.” She’d never been to France; she’d just read it in the Daily Mail.

A special documentary screening of Postcards from the 48%. Photo courtesy of the Multimedia Centre, EU

As to wider distribution, David says the classic mistake new filmmakers make is not distinguishing between festivals and the market. It’s true that some, like the Cannes Film Festival, are also markets, but most festivals are not. Distributors don’t go to film festivals, as they simply don’t have the time. Markets are very intense and are about business. British distributors tend to go to the London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Cannes and Toronto film markets – or at least they did. It remains to be seen, after the pandemic, whether these markets will continue to be online-only events from now on.

If you’d like to hear more from David, why not follow him on Facebook? Every day he puts up a thoughtful post, usually about film making. He’s full of wisdom, fascinating anecdotes and insight. He’s always one of the heroes of London Screenwriters’ Festival, and his posts are a bright spot in many people’s day.