How was it for you?
2016 Funding Award winner Alex Bescoby speaks to Whicker’s World Foundation’s Artistic Director Jane Ray
We waylaid Alex Bescoby on his way to picking up the first instalment of the £80,000 Alan Whicker’s legacy is giving him to make Burma’s Lost Royals. Jane was hoping to pick up some tips to pass on to next year’s applicants.
How did you hear about the WWF funding award?
I saw it on Twitter – through a tweet by Charlie Phillips of Guardian documentaries to be precise, who flagged it for aspiring filmmakers as the deadline was only a few weeks away. I was stepping on a plane to India on a mission to find the last king of Burma, and realised we only had about 2 weeks before the deadline – so thank you for the extension!
How arduous was the application process?
I think we made it arduous because we really wanted to win. Assembling the teaser was by far what we spent most time on, but then that’s not to say we didn’t spend a lot of time on the written application – it comes to 15 or 16 pages and I remember agonising over every single word. I was 50% over the word count at first and I had to keep chopping and chopping!
The application form itself – how scary?
The application form was really well structured. The way it was laid out meant it encouraged clarity, and it actually helped me to tell the story of the film. The bit I really liked was the way it tried to get an idea of who the person was filling it in.
So who was the person that was filling it in?
I came in to documentary making totally by accident. I had written a thesis on Burmese history several years before, and was working in Burma in 2014 doing something completely different when I realised I was in the middle of history in the making.
I felt that the international media were focused on telling the story of what Burma was becoming, rather than explaining how Burma came to be the way it was.
There was no documentary that I could give to people and say, “Watch that, that will give you the historical context.” So I thought, “Why don’t I make one? How hard could it be?” A stupid thing to say in hindsight, but it all started with a conversation with one old friend (Max Jones, the film’s Co-Director) and a team of people who’ve since become great friends (including Rebecca Dobbs, Katie Arnold, Jamie Coward, Finn Aberdein.) They all brought different things; how to film, how to edit, and most importantly how to tell a story for television. It snowballed; the more people I told about my idea the more people gave their time and energy for free to help me do it. That’s the power of a good story. “The most important thing my Executive Producer and mentor Rebecca Dobbs (of MayaVision) said to me in the early days was: “if you want to tell a big story, you’ve got to start by telling a little story.”
She called it “The Narrative Washing line”. She said: “OK, so you want to tell the story of Burma. But who the hell are you? And how are you going to do that in an hour? You need to find a story through which you can tell the story of Burma.”
That’s when I stumbled across this extraordinary family (the Lost Royals.) It happened almost by accident, when I knocked on the door of one royal family member living just yards from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, and another who I’d been introduced to in his role as a football coach. Sometimes the universe just helps you out.
It was so exhilarating for me when we did our first ever interview in November 2014. We were packed into in a tiny flat in 30 degree heat with the last princess of Burma – sharp as a tack at 93 years old – and she just talked.
Max did the camerawork while I held the mic and asked the questions. Max was at the time working for FreshOne, filming Jamie Oliver cook up all sorts of weird and wonderful dishes. Whenever I worried about the crossover to docs, he simply said: “If I can make yoghurt look sexy, then Burma will be a doddle.” It was that partnership with an old friend that was incredibly important, because he gave me the confidence that we could do it, and keep on doing it even when the going got really tough.
As soon as we were back at our flat, I watched the whole interview on my laptop. First of all I was flabbergasted by how beautiful it looked, that Max and I could capture something so unique and how nobody could then take that away. It was done, it was recorded, it was history. I slept with the hard drive under my pillow every night until we got back to the UK, it was so precious.
Did you feel a responsibility?
There was a responsibility in that two of the Royals were very old, and (as much as I hope this isn’t the case) they might not be around for very long – so there was always a feeling of now or never. It’s fine telling a story through archive, and talking heads discussing something that happened before they were born. But speaking to someone who lived through it and who embodies that history… you can never recreate that.
So you got your application in on time what had you realised by that point?
Don’t take any part of the application form for granted – the budget, the written proposal – you need to bust your gut for each of them. At the end of the day you can be blown away by a teaser, but if the judges realise that there’s no clear idea about how the story will develop, or that it will cost five times as much as you could ever raise for it, you’re going to find yourself under fire. So it’s important that you think these things through in as much detail as you possibly can.
Could you talk us through the set of decisions you made putting together your teaser and what you learned from that?
None of us really knew what we were doing, so when it came to cutting the first teaser my instinct was to tell the story, voiceover heavy, very clear narrative and a potted summary of what we wanted to tell – like an essay.
Max fought against, it but I kind of steamrolled him and said this is what we’re going to do. (I’ve found out that he’s usually right in the end, an irritating habit of his.) However we took the teaser to another level with the help of Katie Arnold who’d been working for Channel 4, and Finn Aberdein at the BBC – they both had that special skill that is telling a story through film. Finally we were joined by Jamie Coward, who took it to another level again, showing us how the feel and sound is just as important as structure – the man’s a genius.
Through them I realised that while the viewer has to see enough to fall in love with the characters, at the same time there’s a balance – people need to come away with just enough to leave them thinking “OK, I’m interested – visually it looks great, and it’s roughly about X. I want to see more.”
The important word is ‘tease’ – you have to have the confidence that you know your material well enough to leave the audience wanting more. You are supposed to entice people, not overwhelm them or worse – bore them. The strength of the teaser is in what you leave out. Likewise when you’re describing it – if you can’t summarise it in 10 words, then perhaps you don’t know what your film’s about, and you haven’t really got a film yet at all. It took me over two years to get that right.
When it came to the day of the pitch – you’re in front of an international panel of 6 judges, an audience with quite a few serious industry experts. How did that go for you?
The hardest thing was that I had no idea what to expect.
Even watching it back now I feel sick to my stomach with nerves. In the build up to it we put so much work in, weeks and weeks and weeks, since we found out we were shortlisted. I spent a month writing 2 pages – that’s how long it took. I think the pitch you heard was version 13.
I practiced in front of loads of different people, and got the corners knocked off me. The opportunity the Foundation gave to practice the pitch to Paul Pauwels (director of EDN) the day before was also invaluable – he was very clear in that prep session, saying: “You will have 7 minutes and you will have to stop – we will cut you off.” So when I was writing the pitch, I made sure it was 20 seconds short so I wouldn’t be cut off! My major fear then was just getting it out without a major mistake – I thought as long as I can get it out on the day, then this is the best I’ve got. After that, it’s out of my hands.
Getting it out – How nerve-wracking was the actual pitch?
I’d been to watch a few other pitches to get an idea of what to expect, and it made me more nervous! Although there was a real mixture of styles, the pressure was always high – and there was a feeling that the competition was intense, particularly with buzzers that can bring a pitcher to their knees if they haven’t spoken to time!
When we had our pitch training the day before Paul said: “look, we’re not going to throw water balloons at you on the stage” – instead Paul rose to his feet when there was a minute left and used a hand signal to say, ‘that’s it – time’s up.’) Knowing you’re not going to be buzzed (or pelted) took the pressure down to almost manageable levels.
But it’s still absolutely terrifying when you’re up there. During the questions I had a kind of out of body experience – I didn’t know what I was saying! I was completely exhausted when it was over, but what I will say is that the tone of the whole session was supportive and friendly, even though it was a competition for the Festival’s biggest funding prize, with only one winner.
I watched 4 brilliant young filmmakers pitch ahead of me. I’d met them to day before (we were all staying in the same hotel) and they were all lovely. I felt like such a ‘newby’ when they mentioned the work that they’d done, and as I watched them I thought that I’d been outdone in every way.
I could pick something from each that I learnt from them. There were four amazing stories, and all very different. Everybody had their own merits: an amazing nose for the story, bravery, a gentle spirit that gets people to open up, extraordinary shots. You could remember all 5 of them quite distinctly, which I think is testament to the selection.
And after the winner was announced…?
The moment the runner up was announced, and I realised there was only 1 space left, my heart went into my mouth. I felt at that moment what it would feel like not to have won, after all the work we’d put in. Not a nice feeling at all.
Even though I only spent 24 hours with the other finalists, I learnt things from them that I won’t forget, along with tips and tricks that I would like to try out for myself. We met for breakfast the next morning and they were still just as lovely. I’d love to see them again, and hopefully work with them in the future – I still have so much to learn.
What was a highlight?
[Being a finalist of the funding award gives each candidate a full pass to freely attend all public and industry events over the five day festival.]
I went to a session called How to Secure Access. This was 4 or 5 people who had been making documentaries for 20, 30 years, and they were sharing the real ‘tricks of the trade’. But at the same time they emphasized those important human skills that make a good filmmaker – being trustworthy, being honest, being persistent and tenacious, going beyond where you sometimes feel you shouldn’t. Alan [Whicker] said himself that as long as it’s asked politely, you can ask any question – that’s so true.
When I think about my own entry into filmmaking, the best way I can describe it was like taking up tightrope walking as a hobby. It’s risky, exhilarating, and you think you’re the only person in the world mad enough to do it.
At every point, I thought I was going to fall off, that something catastrophic would happen – like we’d be kicked out of Burma and never be allowed back, that the family would turn around and say no, that somebody would come in and steal our idea, that Max would get really, really ill this time and not be able to come back (don’t worry, he’s indestructible.) Every time we got a bit further I just couldn’t believe I was still going.
Then you go to a place where everyone has been tightrope walking for decades. That’s how it felt arriving at Sheffield. You meet these people who’ve been tightroping walking all their lives, and when they get to the end they turn around and do it all again. They’re all wonderfully mad.
You mentioned Mr Whicker, in all honesty when Charlie Phillips tipped you off about this fund did the name Alan Whicker mean anything to you?
I’d watched Journey’s End on ITV which was made just after he’d died, the obituary programme.
I was thinking wow, I’m sad that I never really knew about him. When we applied for the Award, the first people I mentioned it to were my mum and dad and they said excitedly: “Alan Whicker, as in Whicker’s World?”
They’d watched it religiously growing up, especially my dad. He said that his only impressions of Australia still come from Alan Whicker. He’s never been, but he remembers Alan Whicker’s account of it so vividly. He showed them the world, when that world was inaccessible for most. I went back and watched as much of his work as I could, immersed myself in his books, and I fell in love with a man I’ll sadly never get the chance to meet.
Have you got ideas for your next film?
I stumbled in to this and I’ve never enjoyed anything more, it’s like coming home. Realising that people can do this for a living is an extraordinary privilege.
Applications for 2017’s Whicker’s World Foundation awards open in September 2016. For all of the latest information please keep up to date with our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. The Whicker’s World Foundation newsletter will be launching this summer.