“Personally, I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey.”
Olly Lambert is a London-based, Grierson Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, also Journalist of the Year as awarded by the Foreign Press Association in 2007. His latest film, My Child The Rioter, aired on BBC2 on 31st January 2012.
The following interview took place in January 2011. His insight and advice are just as pertinent and useful now as then.
His top tip? Setting yourself a 10 minute window each morning browsing through broadsheets spotting stories that make great documentary material. (I’ve dutifully practised every day and the fun hasn’t worn off, though I have learned to become more selective: a student arrested during a bulldozer getaway after hurling a puppy at a bunch of Hell’s Angels might be the best headline of the decade, but it stops there.)
Walking down the corridors at Uncle studios in Soho’s Livonia Street, I feel nearly as nervous as when I first approached documentary filmmaker Olly Lambert to ask him for an interview. But as I finally locate his editing suite, I’m greeted by a multitude of screens and a director who smiles as warmly as after the Q&A where he noticed my “loitering with intent”. Any remaining apprehensions are dispelled as he leads the way towards a comfortable set of sofas slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of the desks, and offers me a cup of tea and a very affable “How can I help?”
The edits he has overseen as series director are the final cuts for Series 3 of The Family, which aired on Channel 4 throughout November and December . The seven-part documentary follows the story of the Adesinas, a Nigerian family living in Hackney, through a system of fixed cameras – the rig – installed in their home for a period of eight weeks. I marvel at the logistics involved: 28 cameras, 40 microphones, resulting in 4000 hours of raw footage. And The Family is not the only documentary to be currently produced following that format: “Virtually every editing suite in this building is a rig show.” Cameras are being installed in hotels, modelling agencies, A&E departments – and curiously, in a house full of dwarves doing a pantomime. Still, despite the creative nature of the projects being commissioned, he doesn’t think the rig is the “silver bullet”.
He explains that while this system affords an omnipotent, multiple-angle view over a scene that may capture moments a cameraman couldn’t, he’s wary of the paradox between director and subject:
“I find it allows people to perform in a slightly unnatural way, that wouldn’t happen if there were a cameraman present. It’s definitely double-edged. I think what will happen in a year or two is the rig will become just one more weapon in an armoury of how to film documentaries. In a strange way it’s been one of the most unrewarding experiences ever as a director.”
If he has any misgivings about his latest project, it’s because he’s got his own armoury of accredited films to run it against. Since his 2001 directorial debut Four Weeks to Find A Girlfriend which saw him nominated for a Grierson Award, he’s been commissioned to direct documentary after documentary, scooping up another nomination in the process for Sky1’s Ross Kemp: Middle East. A surprising path, it may seem, for someone who originally studied English with the intention of becoming a theatre director. “There were no plans for it. I got a job as a runner at a company called Middlemarch and thought, I absolutely loved it, I’ll go for this.” He worked his way up from being a runner, researcher, and assistant producer, and has been working as a freelance director ever since. Is he surprised at the turn his career has taken? “Personally I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey,” he candidly asserts. “Filmmaking is a tremendous passport into people’s lives, it gives you access to the world in a way you wouldn’t normally have.”
True to his professed curiosity, his films focus exclusively on human subjects, from traffic wardens in London to tea-selling boys in Gaza. He doesn’t feel, he muses, that he’s found his voice as a documentary-maker, and instead defines himself only as interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His passion for the mundane colliding with the terrifyingly unfamiliar is such that in 2003, while filming in Kuwait for Channel 4’s science department, he abandoned the commissioned project to focus instead on the humanitarian disaster taking place, resulting in the critically-acclaimed Festival favourite Battle Hospital – a “much, much more interesting story” than the restrictive subject of medicinal practice in war zones. “Luckily, being in the desert, I didn’t have an executive producer breathing down my neck,” he confides. “But the story is kind of, you know, the king. Without a story, you haven’t got a documentary.” He quotes playwright Tom Stoppard’s son, who told him over a drink one day: “If a story’s good, you can shoot it on toilet paper.”
And what does he make of aspiring filmmakers’ current trend of using online platforms such as YouTube to publish their work? “It’s kind of a huge positive, that anyone can make a film for under a thousand pounds. The sooner you make your mistakes the better. But that’s a red herring because films are not made with gadgets and buttons, they’re made with ideas and relationships.” He ponders ways of standing out when so many hopefuls are walking around with cameras and competition is fiercer than ever. The way he did it, he offers, with a hint of unapologetic brazenness, was to pester directors on a daily basis for an opportunity to work alongside them. “And also,” he stresses, “you’ve got to start fine-tuning your antennae for what is a good story. There’s a handful of people I keep an eye on, thinking, ‘They’re gonna make it,’ and the way they mark themselves out is they’re the people who are thinking all the time, ‘Where’s the story, where’s the story?’”
So what’s the next story for him?
“What I’m dying to do next is go completely the other way and do something that has far less managerial roles, far less expectation. We’re all a bit knocked today because we found out the third episode only got 700 000 viewers, which is tiny for a 9 o’clock Channel 4 slot.” He gloomily surmises the reason behind poor ratings might be the show is up against I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here.
But if he seems disheartened by audiences’ attitude, he certainly won’t be losing interest in the people who compose them anytime soon. “You’re only a good director if you are extremely human and sensitive to people’s stories, to what the difference is between what they might present and the reality underneath. It’s the most important part of the job, I think, to be human.”
For more information about Olly’s films or to contact him visit www.ollylambert.com