John Battsek: Making Documentaries With Passion

February 10, 2017
Under the aegis of his production company, Passion Pictures, British producer John Battsek has been at the forefront of the documentary form for almost two decades now, bringing to the screen One Day in September, Fire in Babylon, Searching for Sugar Man and more.  He'll be speaking at the Australian International Documentary Conference in March, but we cornered him first for a chat about all things doco.

What will you be talking about at AIDC? What topics will you be covering?

My understanding is that we’re going to be discussing all things feature documentary, so the evolution of the form. And specifically, I’m going to be doing stuff about the cosmetic makeup of feature docs, such as how one uses archive [archival footage], which we tend to use a lot of in many of our films and the nature of storytelling through feature documentaries these days.

I think they also want to talk about the introduction of dramatisations and reconstructions and what part they play in feature doc storytelling. But I think generally it’s all about celebrating the art form, of which I am a huge fan.

And why is that? What initially drew you to documentary as a form?

I suppose truthfully it was the fact that I had dipped my toe into the world of narrative feature film producing and got my toe snapped off rather painfully with my first experience of it. I produced a feature film [1997’s The Serpent’s Kiss], the first film I ever made, and it took me four and a half years. It was thankless in almost every respect, and what that taught me very quickly was that I knew I didn’t want to do that again.

What made me want to make feature documentaries is When We Were Kings – watching When We Were Kings, wandering into the cinema and not knowing what I was seeing or why I was seeing it. I was just in a funk, having come to the end of the life of that movie I had produced and really not knowing what the hell I was going to do with my life, and I wandered into a cinema in London and began to watch this film, and genuinely halfway through the film I was struck with this thought which was: “I want to do this. This is what I want to do – I want to tell stories and make films that lend themselves to being told and made this way.”

When We Were Kings

It also happened to be a documentary that combined many of things that I feel passionately about, not the least of which is sport, but it had sport as a backdrop to a much bigger story. The least incredible thing about that film is the fight itself, and it’s the most incredible fight of all time. It encapsulated so much. It had one of the most charismatic human beings who had ever walked the planet front and centre of it, and yet it was about so much more than a fight – although it had this extraordinary fight in it. So it ticked all the boxes. It also has the greatest and most perfect title of any feature doc. I wish I could have called almost every film I’ve ever made When We Were Kings. When you’re talking about retrospective stories it sort of sums up everything that a story could possibly be.

So, is Fire in Babylon [the 2010 documentary about the West Indies cricket team of th ’70s] your When We Were Kings?

I’d say – of course I loved making that film – I suppose so, but what came out of that moment for me was the idea to make a film about the Munich Olympics, and in some respects One Day in September is my When We Were Kings, because on the surface it appears to be about a big sporting event, but really it’s about all sorts of other terrible, tragic, interesting, powerful, emotive, resonant things that enabled me to build a film exactly the way When We Were Kings was, with all those different levels and layers. We used incredible music, we had incredible archive, we had an extraordinarily dramatic story in the middle of it, so in some respects I feel like that’s really my When We Were Kings – although far be it from me to suggest we made a film as good as When We Were Kings.

One Day in September

I’m a massive cricket fan and that team in many respects were the villains but also the heroes of my teenhood and childhood, and I saw them play many times, and to make a film about them, with them, and in some respects for them was an incredible pleasure and privilege. And I even got to meet [Austalian fast bowler] Jeff Thomson and do a Q&A with him, which was fantastic.

What attracts you to your subjects? What is it that makes you look at a thing, a person or event, and say “There is a film here”?

It’s a number of things. I suppose. First of all, does it resonate with me? Is it a story I can wrap my head around or have a sort of appetite for? Once that box has been ticked, equally vital is: do I think this is a film that, if we make it at its very best, will it find some kind of audience. And that could be a tiny audience, but it could be an important audience, or it could be as broad an audience as possible. But I do like to think about who this film is going to be targeted to, and is there a target for this film? I spent at least 10 years on the distribution side of the film industry. I was a publicist primarily, and I worked on many different films that appealed to many different areas of the marketplace, and I worked at companies that distributed films that they needed to tailor to different parts of the marketplace. I think that developed in me an interest in and a taste for films and how you can get them to appeal to parts of the market, if not all of the market.

Fire in Babylon

That’s a criterion that I think is really important. So, for instance, when we made Fire in Babylon, the cricket-viewing public for me is not necessarily an audience for a film, and yet I knew there was enough substance to the story to enable us to try and make it in a way that would broaden it out in terms of its appeal – which I think we did pretty successfully, with the history of the Caribbean culture vs the British Empire and how it had treated them, and what this team represented – all this stuff that we were able to layer into the film that meant it felt much more significant than just the story of an amazing sports team.

How has the rise of streaming and other forms of digital distribution affected the documentary sphere?

I think it’s all good. It’s increased the appetite and hunger and interest, it’s increased the playing field in terms of people and companies that are interested in financing our films. I genuinely think it’s just a force for the good, and the more competition and the more great feature docs that are made, and the more people get to see them, the better.

It seems that true crime and investigative documentaries are certainly on the rise.

I suspect you’ll find that it’s always been very strong, only now the visibility is much higher and I suppose the creativity that’s being utilised in order to make these things is significantly enhanced. I think we’ve discovered that well-told stories like Making a Murderer, when you tell them that way, are incredibly compelling and the production values are so high that it becomes really gripping. But The Staircase, that the BBC made 10 years earlier, was similar. It was an incredible story, but I guess the sophistication of the machine and the sophistication of the filmmaking wasn’t at the levels it is now, and so people think that Making a Murderer was the first. Making a Murderer was fabulous, but there have been plenty of crime dramas before, and very good ones at that.

Making a Murderer

What other trends and tropes do you see coming to prominence in the contemporary documentary scene?

I just think the quality, the talent level, and the creativity is just constantly on the up and up. In some respects, the movie business is reacting – the real knock on is that the movie business is trying to embrace the documentary aspects of out storytelling in its community more than anything. I think there’s been an increase in wanting to make movies that have that documentary feel to them. What I’m noticing is that there are more and more people wanting to make these films. I’m a member of the Academy and every year we get… Christ knows… 150 to 160 films that are eligible for the Academy Award. It’s a really good time to be making feature docs.

The risk is that the quality gets diluted and we’ve all got to be vigilant or rigorous in being smart about what stories really do justify treatment and which don’t.

Michael Hutchence (right) in Dogs in Space

You’re currently working with [Dogs in Space director] Richard Lowenstein on a documentary on Michael Hutchence. What can you tell us about that?

First of all, it strikes me as a truly remarkable story – he was a remarkable man. With Richard directing, there’s a chance, because Richard knew him extremely well and worked with him over a number of years, of presenting to the world the true Michael Hutchence, not a version of him that people are that familiar with. I get quite excited by that. It’s a remarkable, dramatic story. He was an incredible talent and an interesting, sensitive, thoughtful, passionate man who was undone in a way that I suspect people have made judgments about him that, hopefully, we can turn on their heads. Richard has been a pleasure to deal with since the moment we started working together. It all seems like an exciting proposition. Again, it’s a film with great music, great archive, a really charismatic central figure, drama, sadness – aspects of a story that can resonate with ordinary people. It’s got all the right ingredients.

The Australian International Documentary Conference runs from March 5 – 8 at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image. For tickets and info, head over to the official site

 

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