An Interview With – Documentary Filmmaker Liz Mermin
Liz Mermin is a London-based independent filmmaker from New York specialising in off-beat social-issue documentaries on international topics. Her films include The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Office Tigers and Shot in Bombay and her work has appeared on BBC4, Sundance Channel, Discovery and elsewhere. Vanessa Gildea, for Film Ireland, asked her about her experiences as a documentary filmmmaker and for her advice for those looking to make documentaries.
Your background is in academia and anthropology. How did you get drawn into filmmaking?
There was a programme in NYU that merged anthropology and filmmaking. I found it really interesting and it was the film programme that really drew me in. It was a great programme because we got to watch tons of documentaries from all over the world, starting with Robert J. Flaherty to the present day. Sometimes in academia you’d feel that you were just talking to five people in a room and that it was so insular. I wanted to do something that had a greater scope than that, something that could reach a greater audience. And anthropology is great training in listening and drawing people out and letting people tell their own stories.
How do you find or generate ideas for documentaries or is it a different process for every project?
It’s different for every project. For The Beauty Academy of Kabul, I read a story in The New York Times. It leapt out at me. I do a lot of trawling through magazines when I’m looking for ideas. Office Tigers also came out of a magazine article. Some ideas come out of conversations with friends and for, say, Shot in Bombay, I was approached by a producer from Little Bird and asked if I wanted to do something about Bollywood. It can be easier if it comes from a magazine article because, in a way, the narrative is already there.
Can you describe your approach to writing treatments?
I write treatments as if I were writing a magazine article or a story. I think it’s important to have treatments that read really easily but with a sense of style and excitement to them. I don’t spend a lot of time writing about style and what the film will look like but there’ll always be a paragraph or so about that. I would include some background but I would try and make my characters really stand out even if you don’t know them all that well at that stage. Your treatment has to have something unusual or, if not unusual, then it must have something fresh in it so people will think ‘I really enjoyed reading that and I want more.’
I saw you pitch at the forum at IDFA in Amsterdam for Office Tigers, which was well received, how do you feel about pitching?
I’ve only done the forum once and actually I’d like to do it again, it’s a good way to remind all these commissioners of who you are or tell them who you are if you haven’t met them. I think the value of a lot of that kind of thing is face time. I did the Meetmarket at Sheffield last year and I really love that format. The forum at Amsterdam is a real baptism of fire; it’s an absolutely terrifying experience. No matter how much people prepared me for it I was incredibly nervous. It’s a very intimidating experience and they’re not always friendly. Whereas the Meetmarket is a really great chance to sit down with people one at a time and find out what they’re looking for. At the forum they don’t all get a chance to respond to you and you in turn don’t get the chance to reassure them on certain aspects of the film, which you can at the Meetmarket.
Where does the funding for your films primarily come from? And is it easier for you to find funding now that you have a successful body of work behind you?
The way it works is that Storyville budgets aren’t very big. For all of the films I make for Storyville, they will usually put in half the budget and sometimes less. So once you have them on board, you have to go out and approach all the other broadcasters one by one, which is easier to do with BBC4 on board. At least they know, with Storyville on board, that this film will get made and that it will have a good team behind it if anything goes wrong. It reassures them. The reason Storyville commissions my projects now is that they know me and they know my work so that when I come to them with a bunch of ideas they have a sense of what they’re going to get. That’s a wonderful position to be in. It was much harder when I was starting – nobody knows who you are and nobody returns your calls. It’s a very frustrating position to be in. Having said that, I still have a lot of trouble getting funding from the States. Two films I’ve done have been with the Sundance Channel, they were co-productions with Storyville. They’re amazing, I really love working with them but someone else has just bought them, so God knows what will happen with the documentary department there. America is not a good place to get funding right now, especially for stories that don’t have American characters. They always ask if there’s an American angle and if there isn’t, well, they tell you they just can’t sell that in America. It’s ridiculous and depressing. Americans are only interested if it’s really salacious or if it wins awards at festivals – that’s when they pay attention.
You achieved amazing access with your films Shot in Bombay and Office Tigers, how do you go about that?
Both of those films had an element of personal relationships being my ‘in’. With Office Tigers, I’d read this article and was talking to a friend and she said: ‘Oh I know the guy who started that.’ So that opened the door for me. With Shot in Bombay, I went out to India with my producer to see what film productions might have us and the director and the film we chose turned out to be a friend of a friend of mine in New York. That helped a lot with trust. But with The Beauty Academy…, I didn’t know anyone and I just called them cold. Sometimes that’s the way it works. I would have spent a lot of time with the characters and no matter how you get to meet them, you still have to spend a lot of time hanging out and earning trust. You can do a lot of things wrong and lose access very quickly, so you spend time being mindful of people’s space and being respectful.
Culturally, what challenges did you face in making films in Afghanistan and India?
There are tons! People in the west have all seen documentaries and TV and know what it is to be featured on TV or at least can make an informed decision about that. But at times, in Afghanistan, I was worried if the women really understood that what they were saying to me was going to be broadcast around the world. But they would tell me that they wanted people to know what they’ve been through.
Did you personally, as a filmmaker, come up against barriers – cultural or otherwise – during filmmaking?
It’s interesting because I’m going to be sitting on a panel in Sheffield. It’s important to be informed about where you’re going and, once there, to follow the cultural and social rules of the place. You have to be prepared to let yourself look like an idiot in order to get what you’re looking for. You get to ask questions that no one in their culture would ask, so inevitably you get some very interesting answers.
I’ve read that you cite stalwarts of the cinema-vérité style of filmmaking like Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers as influences. How does the more traditional observational style of filmmaking influence your work?
My style is definitely not strictly observational but it’s a huge part of it. I’ve no idea how I would describe my style but I do shoot in an old-school observational style to some degree. I shoot a high ratio, around 120 hours for a feature. I am there a lot; I shoot a lot even when it seems nothing much is happening. I like the idea of the camera as a roving eye and just picking up stuff. But I also do interviews, not a ton of them but I do. When I’m in the edit room I am a lot more playful than old-school doc makers, that’s where the difference is. I certainly cut a lot faster. I don’t know why that is because I love slow-paced documentaries but I just don’t think you can get away with that as much anymore. I’d get bored if I was working in the same style all the time.
Do you ever use the camera yourself?
I do sometimes, usually on my own, though. Every time I do that I enjoy it but I do appreciate working with a really good cameraperson and the skill and the art of that. There’s nothing better than being in the edit and viewing beautiful footage shot by somebody who really knows what they’re doing. I can’t say that about my own footage…
How do you approach the editing process? Do you also edit yourself?
I’m trying to do less and less editing and trust editors more and generally get better at that relationship, because people tell me I should! The process of editing begins with us simply watching everything. I’ll do an outline and I’ll start working out what are the good scenes, what scenes work well. I’ll also do the 3×5 cards and a big wall, and we’ll sit around and start imagining a structure based around the scenes we know already work. I’ll let the story come out of what we have rather than what I think the film should be. And then we start building the scenes, we assemble them together the way we have them on the board. It usually doesn’t work so then we spend the next two to three months moving them around and trying to make it work.
How do you feel about making different length versions of your film?
I think it’s essential, I don’t think you’re going to get funding if you’re not willing to do that. No one likes making their 85-minute film into a 52-minute film because it’s genuinely a different thing.
I’m wondering if you see trends in documentary filmmaking emerging, and what you think of reports that say the future for the feature doc is gloomy?
Certainly that’s what the American industry is saying and seeing as they’ve had the most success with feature docs we have to take that seriously. When you tell people you’re a documentary filmmaker, people who don’t know the industry say, ‘Oh it’s such a great time to be a documentary filmmaker, with so many documentaries in theatres.’ But when you look at the figures they’re really not good. I think part of the problem is that no one has figured out how to market documentaries for the American market, in terms of foreign or niche films.
Is it important to you to keep up to date with new technology? Have you been shooting tapeless yet and how has that worked out if you have?
I try to read up on new technology and we’re shooting part of the horses film on the Sony EX1 camera. And so far I really like it, I really like having the rushes right there to look at. It scared me a little bit when I started thinking about where my rushes were, sitting somewhere on drives that aren’t going to last forever.
Can you tell us about your current Irish feature doc about horses?
I made Shot in Bombay with Little Bird so there was already a relationship there. James Mitchell, the executive producer, had a meeting with Simon Perry and Nick Fraser and I got a call saying, ‘We want you to find a story about horses. We’re going to send you to Ireland to find the story…’ [laughing]. It started almost as a joke with a friend about doing the film from the perspective of the horses, I didn’t really know what that meant but it sounded kind of interesting and then somehow I managed to turn it into a twelve-page treatment. Alan Maher and the Film Board have been great to work with and the producer Aisling Ahmed is fantastic, I feel really lucky to work with her. It’s a fun crew and we’re trying to do something different, to look at things differently. We’re exploring something new here and I’m not exactly sure what it is, but we’re experimenting with it.
Do you find it hard to make a living making documentaries?
It certainly can be a struggle, I mean, Storyville budgets are small and you’re not going to be living large on those. Critical success does not bear any relation to financial success in this world, that’s the hardest thing. The Beauty Academy… showed at theatres all over the USA, got great reviews, etc., but made no money at the box office. I’m trying to executive produce projects a bit more or act as a consultant during edits: you don’t make a lot of money doing that, but it helps, and it doesn’t interfere with the work I’m doing anyway.
What advice would you give to people embarking on feature doc projects?
I think the most important thing is to ask yourself the question: why is this a feature documentary and not a TV hour? Is it because it’s a really big story and the characters are larger than life? Or is it because you’ve got a visual approach and ideas that really deserve the big screen? Try not to have very high expectations because, even if your film goes to festivals and becomes a hit, you still probably won’t get distribution because it’s just hard to get. And also, always make films on subjects about which you’re either very, very passionate or very, very curious.