Director, Editor, Episodes 3 and 4
Q: Can you tell me what your job entails?
A: First, I have to work through the draft scripts with the writer and producers and offer my suggestions on how to improve the overall structure of the films that I will be making. I then proceed to fill in, as far as possible, the left-hand column in the scripts -- i.e., what visuals I think should be filmed to best illustrate the words. To do this, I also need to do some more research around the subject. The next stage is to work with the production team to set up the shoot. This involves finding and hiring my most important colleague, the director of photography, finding locations, going on "recces" (visiting locations), working with the art director to decide how the locations can be turned into an appropriate "set" and what props will be needed, finding and hiring actors to play the main parts, making sure the costumes are right, etc., and ensuring it can all be done within the budget. During this time, we are also filming interviews with key contributors, and I have to prepare questions for them and also direct the filming of the interviews. Then, before the main filming (the reconstructions), I complete my storyboards and shooting scripts so that I know how each scene will be filmed -- where to put the camera, what special equipment may be needed, e.g. dollys and cranes, or what lights or special effects might be required. Then the shoot -- the most stressful part of the project -- long days, lots of scenes to get through, enormous pressure, overcoming unexpected crises and adapting and readjusting storyboards if necessary. Then into several weeks of editing, which also involves giving direction to the assistant editor, the music composer, the graphic artists, the picture researcher, the rostrum camera people and the archive film researcher. During this time, there are several viewings with executive producers after which both the rough cuts and the scripts are adjusted. When everybody is happy, we complete the post-production, which means getting the voice-over recorded and carrying out final picture grading, titling and sound mixing.
Q: Did you find it difficult to combine the roles of director and editor? What were the advantages and disadvantages?
A: It was fine during the early stages of the edit, when the pressure is less intense and I had the help of an assistant. It was satisfying to work with my own rushes and see it all come together. It was also nice having the final say -- no nasty arguments in the cutting room between director and editor! But there were times when I needed some input and so I drafted in some of my most respected colleagues to view the films and give me some feedback. Towards the end of the edit, things became very intense. I was trying to do two jobs at once, and my head was often spinning. I had to attend long conference calls with the American producer and spend time rewriting scripts with the writer. I had to give direction to the composer, the picture researcher and the archive film researcher, and I often had to leave the edit suite to go and shoot rostrum or work on the graphics. All this meant that the editing was constantly interrupted, and I was frequently rushing like mad to catch up with myself and meet deadlines. If I'd had a dedicated editor, he or she could have been working away in the cutting room while I was off doing other things.
Q: What sort of productions have you worked on before?
A: Mostly documentaries on historical, social or cultural themes for British television. I have edited films in various styles, e.g fly-on-the-wall, personal testimonies, investigative films, musical collages etc. I've also directed some action sports programmes, a short film and some studio shoots for MTV.
Q: What was your brief for the programmes? How was it different from other historical documentaries you have made?
A: This was the first time I had directed any historical documentaries with such elaborate dramatization (actors, sets, props, costumes, make-up etc). The most challenging aspect was the American producers' stylistic requests, i.e., that the films be shot mainly in slow-motion and that we should not show any faces in sharp focus or in close-up. This meant that one had to abandon the normal approach to drama and come up with alternative ways to film the scenes -- for example, focussing on foreground objects and throwing the subjects (i.e. the actors) out of focus. But ultimately I feel it forced me to be more creative and come up with more interesting shots.
Q: Were you familiar with this period of history before taking on the job?
A: Not really. I had only a sketchy knowledge of the period -- dribs and drabs half remembered from school days or picked up from TV and movies over the years. I certainly couldn't have told you the precise stories of Livingstone, Gordon or Rhodes.
Q: What fascinated you most about the period?
A: Many things. The intrigue, the amazing stories, the different tensions within the Empire, and also the connections between what happened during that period and the way things are today.
Q: Though working on the series have you changed your perceptions or ideas about anything or anyone from the period?
A: Only in so far as my knowledge of the whole period is much wider now. I certainly hadn't realised what a ruthless man Cecil Rhodes was or how eccentric General Gordon was. I also learned much that didn't impress me about Queen Victoria.
Q: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters or events covered in the series?
A: It's hard to relate to the characters in the series -- many of them had such exotic, interesting and extraordinary lives. I'm just a lowly TV director! I was however quite impressed with some of Gladstone's ideals, and I'd like to think I share his views on human rights, people's right to self-determination and freedom.
Q: What was the biggest challenge during filming and why?
A: Getting it all done on time! We were attempting to make the films look like feature films, but we had the budget of a documentary, so we had to work under some considerable constraints. I always seemed to have too many shots to film and not enough time. I was always afraid of going into overtime because that costs a fortune.
Q: And during the post-production?
A: Mainly as I've described -- the pressures of editing and directing at the same time.
Q: In hindsight, would you have done anything different?
A: Asked for a much higher salary! No, seriously, I wouldn't have done that much differently. I think I would have requested an assistant director on some of the big shoots where I was frantically running around the set, and I think I would have hired an editor.
Q: What is your favorite part of the series?
A: The Indian mutiny in programme 2. I think it's extremely dramatic and the visuals are absolutely stunning.
Q: If Queen Victoria was alive today and watched the series, do you think she would approve?
A: Probably not! There are more than a few occasions when both she and her empire are shown in a very poor light.