The runner-up and winner of this year’s £15,000 development fund is Lizzie MacKenzie for her project The Hermit of Treig, which is a profound and irresistible film about an elderly hermit called Ken who has been living in self-imposed isolation in the Highlands of Scotland for over 40 years. Lizzie agreed to answer a few questions about her project and the experience of taking part in our 2020 Film & TV Funding Awards Pitch, which took place virtually on June 10th in partnership with Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Lizzie, tell us a bit about you. What is your background and how did you become a documentary filmmaker?
I’m from a small island on the west coast of Scotland, so I grew up pretty free-ranging. It gave me such a taste for fresh air and freedom, so always knew I’d never fit in to the conventional 9-5 sort of work. I spent my twenties doing a bunch of different things, from opening a restaurant in the middle of nowhere to working with horses in various different countries… following one curiosity after another. I seemed to have a knack for finding myself in weird and wonderful situations with fascinating characters, and I always found myself thinking ‘this would make a great film, I wish I knew how to make films’, but I assumed that I’d have to go and study at university to make that happen and I didn’t want to do that. The urge to tell stories was always growing stronger, and in 2017 when I quit a horse training job I serendipitously met an award-winning documentary filmmaker (Amy Hardie) who was in the early stages of making a feature length film about horses (and PTSD in ex-military) and was looking for an intern to bring on board. That meeting was probably the biggest game changer in my life so far. Amy put a lot of trust in me from the start and provided me with so many intense learning opportunities. I progressed from intern to production assistant to assistant director over two years. It was a challenging but brilliant couple of years (DIY film school) and gave me the skills and confidence to begin telling my own stories. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else now!
Can you tell us about the first time you met Ken?
I was running a remote restaurant at the time, 17 miles up a dirt track. Our nearest neighbours, friends and most regular customers were the local deer stalkers. They’d prop up the bar in the evenings and were full of stories about an old man who lived at the very edge of the shooting estate in a log cabin he’d built himself 30+ years previously. Obviously I was intrigued, and it didn’t take long for curiosity to get the better of me. His cabin was a two hour walk from the end of our dirt track. It was January and there was snow on the ground, but I was desperate to learn how to fish properly and thought if anyone could catch a fish in an icy loch in the depths of winter it would be him. I was right! It turns out that fishing was the key to Ken’s heart and we have been friends ever since. What struck me most about him was the sparkle in his eye and ‘joie de vivre’. I feel like so many people allow life to wear them down and their zest for living diminishes as they age… but here was Ken, nearing his 70s and still deeply engaging with life, full of curiosity and playfulness. I wanted to learn all his secrets of life and the land, and was never able to shake the desire to make a film about him ever since those first encounters.
You’ve spent several years working on this project, gaining Ken’s trust both in front of and behind the camera. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt so far?
Hmmm… don’t be tempted to drink his homemade wine whilst trying to shoot? That aside, it’s an interesting relationship because we were friends for so many years before I began filming. When I started seriously filming I felt myself contending with the documentary rule of not getting too close to your contributor, of keeping some separation, remaining impartial to their life etc etc, and while it is easy to do that to an extent because Ken is such an independent spirit, it is also very hard because he is growing more frail and increasingly in need of help and care. So at a certain point I decided that this rule can’t really apply in the case of this film. Ken is first and foremost my friend, and someone who I will help and care for whenever he asks me to do so, and any filming must always come second to that. That process led naturally to my presence being more a part of the film than I had originally intended. This project has taught me to carefully consider and reconsider the ethics of my filmmaking on a regular basis.
How did you find the experience of pitching your project virtually? And would you do it again?
The idea of pitching in an audience-filled theatre terrifies me, so doing it online was definitely a good way to ease into the world of pitching. I was the last finalist to pitch and grew more and more nervous as the others did their brilliant performances that I just sat and covered my entire office in post-it notes whilst watching. When my turn came it went by so quickly and I didn’t glance even once at the hundreds of post-its. I daren’t watch it back, but did enjoy it much more than I thought I would and would happily do it again.
How did your exec producer, Amy Hardie and the rest of your team react to seeing your pitch and to the news? And what kind of reaction have you received since?
Everyone is delighted! It sucks we’re socially distancing as there would have been lots of hugs. Lots of people have been getting in touch to express excitement about the film. After so many years of slowly chipping away at the project, it feels so good to get the recognition and momentum to really make things happen.
Tell us what was going through your head on the awards night. And how did you celebrate?
Naomi Spiro, my producer, came out to join for the night of the awards. But due to lockdown she couldn’t come in the house and had to camp outside! So the two of us had the laptop and a bottle of wine in the shed in the garden… it was a whirlwind, and thankfully we were graced with clear sky and a beautiful pink sunset, so garden celebrations with Naomi and my housemates could carry on into the night.
Best and worst moments of the whole process?
I loved the pitching workshops The Whickers set up for us. They were invaluable and Paul Pauwels is brilliant! The worst was getting some pretty negative feedback from a trusted mentor the day before the deadline when I thought I had perfected my recording… it was a scramble to rethink and rerecord but her advice was so useful and made a big difference in the end.
What are your next steps and how are you going to spend our £15,000 development fund?
I’m dying to start filming again. So the next step is to start as soon as restrictions allow it. For several years I’ve been begging and borrowing equipment from the very patient Amy Hardie, but the development fund means I can finally get my own gear and spend the rest of the summer in the Highlands capturing the abundant bright days and Ken’s summer antics before the days start to draw in again.
Do you have any advice for other filmmakers working on their first feature-length documentaries?
Find yourself a great filmmaking mentor with a similar way of looking at the world and work closely with them.
What are your hopes and fears for Ken now?
Ken always says he’d like to live until he is 102, and I hope he does! But I always worry about him as winter approaches. He has been rescued by helicopter for two winters in a row now, so I only hope that he can gain enough strength and chop enough wood this summer so that he goes into next winter fully prepared and able to battle the elements. I want to finish the film and watch it with him!
You can find out more about our winning projects and our finalists here.