Briton Nicholas Broomfield has been part of some of the most interesting and controversial American and British documentaries of the last decade. As he explains in the following interview, his and Joan Churchill's workgirl soldier(1980) was not only widely featured and praised, but also aroused consternation among US Army leaders. its 1978tattooed tears, filmed in a California maximum-security juvenile prison, won a Dupont Award; and Broomfield and Sandi Bissells 1982chicken farmit was about a legalized brothel in Nevada.
Broomfield studied law at Cardiff University and graduated from the University of Essex in England in 1970 with a B.A. in political science and law. So when Broomfield began his ascent towards a legal career, he realized that his heart wasn't in "all the horrible social hunting, shooting and fishing" that accompanied the territory, so he took an abrupt turn in the middle of his career. and joined the UK National Film School in 1971, graduating in 1974.
Broomfield began working with Joan Churchill in 1976. In their first attempt together, the fugitiveyoung connection, funded by the British Film Institute, focused on British police behavior towards juvenile offenders. A premiere showing by the House of Commons sparked a controversy which led to the resignation of the entire BFI Production Boardquite; effectively the film was banned.
Before working professionally with Churchill, Broomfield completed five works, two of themWhittingham, through a psychiatric clinic andFort Augustus, filmed in a monastery, was filmed for Granada Television. But the movie that Churchill and Broomfield are best known for is 1987lili tomlin. Disagreements between comedian Tomlin and the filmmakers over how the work should be edited drew a great deal of press attention before the production finally aired on PBS in the fall of 1987.
I interviewed Broomfield on the eve of his latest filmMakes me crazyscreened at Anthropos, the documentary film festival in Los Angeles. His new work is a rather strange companion to Tomlin's film, as chaos surrounds the making of this work as well. But with this new 85-minute feature, unlike Tomlin's film, thestorm and stressthey're all on the screen. a behind-the-scenes documentary,Makes me crazybegins with a look at the production of an all-black German multi-million dollar musical (originating in New York) directed by European superstar director and performer And re Heller, with the documentary being financed by Virgin Films. Tele Munich and VCL, the German wing of Virgin.
But shortly after the credits roll, the film's focus abruptly shifts to the behind-the-scenes issues plaguing the making of Broomfield's documentary. With its recent but unwitting history of behind-the-scenes infighting and uncertain funding,Makes me crazyends up kind of truegold miner1988.
In addition to Broomfield,Makes me crazyOther dramatic personalities include producer Andrew Braunsberg and writer Joe Hindy, who were hired to shape a fictional story around the Broomfield footage. (The film's director of photography is Robert Levi.)
When I spoke with Broom Field at his home in Santa Monica, California, he had just finished his first non-documentary feature film.diamond skull, and would soon leave for the UK to begin work on another tentatively titledHorchposten.
This new and complete immersion in the world of dramatic feature film seems to signal Broomfield's waning interest in the documentary form. But not only did he address the financial and logistical issues that inevitably surround most non-fiction films today, he spoke enthusiastically about the inherent "fun" he believes he will always find working in the mold - no matter how many obstacles may arise. . with the territory.
It seems to me that the alleged subject ofMakes me crazy, creating an all-black theatrical revue, ends up with so much "white noise" in the background.
Yeah, it's like McGuffin, isn't it? An excuse.
Was it planned from the beginning that the actual production of your film should be at the forefront of the plot? A kind of making-of-the-making-of project rather than a movie about making a musical?
I realized that this was the only way to structure the film conceptually. The only beginning, middle and end that I could see was that there was a financial problem and... until I understood that I was going to do this, I was basically walking away [from the project].
So instead, the movie's story turned into...?
I was asked to make a film: the money [for its production] had been cut; there was a fight with Andrew over the writer; and in the end the money would be cut by its financiers. I mean, I was pretty sure this was going to happen. And so I made a point of being able to film absolutely everything that was going on.
Absolutely everything, not just the auditions and whatnot.(Broomfield is shown onscreen making this request for carte blanche from Braunsberg early in the film's plot.)
Did you have a hard time convincing the film's sponsors to do it that way?
They basically pledged $300,000 to do this little pilot in New York. That's down from $1.5 million, which would be for a much bigger movie; after the show to Germany, rehearsals there and so on. But I think the film ended up costing around $800,000. I've always been a total believer in the movie. I always knew it was a good movie. I always loved the badness of it. But during filming I always thought, can I really get away with this... can I really use this?
Andrew was very clear about the kind of film we made. I think the wonderful thing about Andrew Braunsberg is that he loves chaos and it feels like I create it. So he was very supportive. I think Virgin, the financiers, had a bigger problem. They saw it as impossible to market, impossible to sell.
Which one remains to be seen?
Well, the film has a theatrical release in England and sells on television there for more than any other documentary because the BBC and Channel Four got into a price war over the film. It more than met all the funders' expectations.
Why did you only film part of the ending?
Because André said that if we filmed less than three minutes of the show he wanted $20,000 and if it was a little more it would be something like $150,000 or $180,000, so it was more or less a matter of using a part. I think it was important that you at least saw something of the show.
It's quite ironic that your last film,lili tomlin[made with Joan Churchill] there was all this behind-the-scenes chaos that doesn't show up in the movie, but it does come out in the press and then with the releaseMakes me crazyYou are portrayed as a scrambler and someone who chases trouble wherever you go. Have you ever worried about how the public perceives you as a troublemaker?
In truth. And I think the desire to do something like thatMakes me crazygoes back to when Joan and I had the terrible experience of doing thislili tomlinFilm.
I always got the feeling from the news that the situation didn't really turn sour until you started editing the film?
It took three years of our lives. And it was awful while we were making it, and what happened after that was just an extension of what happened during filming. Joan and I and another crew member were stuck in some motel in San Diego for weeks. If we were lucky, we'd have half an hour of film in the can by the end of the week. And we kind of watched her window and wondered when she was going to move, and we were like, 'Oh, did you see the curtain move? ' And the rest of the time we were doing push-ups on the floor or watching TV. And I kept thinking, the movie we should be making isn't about Lily Tomlin and her show, it's about the absurdity of chasing this woman we have no relationship with and just the exercise in meaning that that is. My analysis, and I think someone would agree, was that our mistake was in thelili tomlinmovie was that once it got stormy we should have walked away from the project completely even though it was very difficult financially, or I think when it gets that stormy it's a lot easier to deal with what's going wrong, that part of the movie. Where you actually use the issue as part of the film process. What we've learned is that hanging on to your craziest ideas and sticking with them always turns out to be for the best.
Whose idea was it to doMakes me crazy?
Andre. I had never worked with him before. I have seenBe thereand "postman" [always rings twice]and i had seen movies likeThe residentErejectionthat he did with Polanski, but I didn't know him very well before thatMakes me crazy. I think the mistake Joan and I made in the past was turning down a lot of movies because we were always waiting for the movie we wanted to make. I think it's a mistake because when you're on your toes you can always make things happen your way. And also simply because it feels good to keep working. So when that came up I decided to do it so there could be something. All the other films were started by Joan and me.
What kind of projects have you received in the past?
Well, one of them was a movie about Sir Ranulph Twisleton Wykeham Fiennes weirdly circumnavigating the North Pole. I think he drove Skidoos instead of dogs. It's a relief that we didn't. It would have been a nightmare.
Which brings us to the inevitable question: how difficult is it to secure funding for your own projects versus just being a hire on someone else's movie?
In general, finance is a terrible problem. I think that's one of the reasons why we did it.lili tomlinThe movie is because it was there and it felt very accessible and easy to make. Withgirl soldierWe started with just $30,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts and we shot the movie with that money without paying ourselves a salary, and because of the footage we got money to pay us and finish the movie, but that's a pretty iffy road. and it's certainly not a lifetime strategy. That was long before we had a child. Fortunately, if we really wanted to do something, we usually pooled the money.
You've just completed your first feature film.
I was filming in England and I'm about to start another film. It is a film loosely based on the murder of Lord Lucan. Lord Lucan became part of popular culture in England. Around 1974, he allegedly wanted to kill his wife, but accidentally killed the babysitter. His car was found parked on the cliffs near Dover and was never heard from again. And there were all these Lucan sightings around the world. He has become something of a contemporary popular figure.
Does this mean your days as a documentary filmmaker are over?
I think I'll do both. I've always found them fun to make, but they're difficult. If you want to do a good one, you need to work hard and build an incredible level of adrenaline. And financially they are priceless.
You've just finished one movie and are now starting another. Isn't that the subtext ofMakes me crazyabout how hard it is to make the kind of movies you seem to specialize in?
I suppose it is. It's about all the games you have to go through. Different trains. In a way I thoughtgirl soldierit was as far as I could personally take a certain style to structure it as a narrative film, more or less telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. I guessMakes me crazyit's about all the strings you have to pull to make it happen... all those mind games and manipulations. make movies likegirl soldier, always try to stay one step ahead of the characters to find out what they will do next. At the very least, you should please everyone involved. You are the best friend of all parties, whether you agree with them or not. we filmedgirl soldierfor twelve or fourteen weeks.
In your own experience, is it easier to work on documentaries in Europe?
I don't believe. I like it better here. For example, on television, British unions have long stipulated that you must have a certain number of people. Even the BBC house syndicate. That means you have two in front of the camera, two on sound, one continuity director... I remember when I went to film school there... I was very lucky when I went to the National Film School that Colin Young was at coming out of that UCLA. And he introduced us to Leacock and Pennebaker and Wise Man and all these kinds of movies. And it was like entering a new era, because I found most British films incredibly clunky, fake and obvious. They didn't seem to tell stories. Even objectively, they said what you should think. I found them very offensive to the audience. And I think, for the most part, they still are. For example, in England there was a thing called The Family which was a direct copy of The American Family, and it was incredibly contrived, false and affected compared to The American Family which is, for all its faults, just a much better play. built to work.
Do you think it's because when the dead weight of that crew is added in England it has the effect of molding the material a certain way?
I think, whether by osmosis or otherwise, overall I think American documentaries have learned a lot from Hollywood. They are character-based and have a beginning, middle and end. And the bottom line is you have to keep an audience and it has to be fun. Possibly because the BBC was a more protected institution... I would admit that your wildlife documentaries are quite amazing and something very different, but I find your recent documentaries a bit measured and fair.
Not many of them appear on American TV, are they?
Maybe a little on PBS, but not that much. I think they would look weird and a bit sluggish. I am acutely aware that documentaries are an incredibly exciting field to work in, but with so many bad movies being made, it has almost become a pejorative term. And you fight that legacy. I mean, some amazing ones are being produced, but compared to what's coming out, there are very few good ones, very few originals. I think Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines are very good filmmakers. You are an example. I think it's two very talented documentarians who should make a film for a year, but they don't. I think they have a lot to say.
(Demott and Kreines are the creators of the banned [tv] movie Seventeen, the feature film about teenagers in Muncie, Indiana. It was made for PBS in 1982 but never aired. The couple fought for several years to have the film released theatrically. Limited distribution was finally secured by them in 1984, but no Demott and Kreines films have appeared since.)
But I get the feeling you're not enjoying the documentary in general right now.
I don't think people even bother to distinguish between good and bad documentaries anymore. Unless you're lucky enough to do something really specialThe thin blue linethat will attract attention and gain a theatrical release. TV is an entirely undemanding beast, and the rewards are very, very small.
For your next feature film project, assuming you're working on another documentary, do you have any idea what the subject could be?
I would do this in central Australia. Just a weird kind of movie... sort ofdriving me crazy II.
Find yourself in the middle of Australia and then just follow your nose?
I don't know. I like to play with the shape because I think the shape needs to be shaken and played with and turned upside down a little bit. I don't think there was enough confusion. I think it's there to wave and have fun. It's in such good shape. I think you have to have fun doing it and I think it's useful when you have something else to say.
Bill Reed writes for about film and musicSan Francisco Examinerand other publishers.