One of the late entries to AIDC 2011 was this masterclass with UK producer John Smithson, of 127 Hours and Touching The Void fame. As the publicity announced, John would arrive in Adelaide hot from being nominated for 6 Oscars – and unfortunately he didn’t win any. Even more unfortunately, he had been pipped for Best Oscar by the Aussie film (sort of) The King’s Speech.
Despite that, his session on storytelling was one of the best at AIDC this year.
“It’s really stating the bleeding obvious that the story is the heart of everything we do,” John began. “Storytelling is what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me in too many bars at the small hours of the night.”
For John, there are two big challenges – finding the great story to tell, and then maximizing the story.
“How do you find that elusive story, and leveraging the story to its maximum potential? That’s the double whammy of happiness we’re all seeking. You have to find the story and then squeeze the most out of it, shove it on steroids, supersize it.”
Clearly, Smithson has had heaps of experience in finding that great story that will light up a commissioning editor’s eyes and make them reach for the cheque book. But he cautioned that even the best stories sometimes turn to shit in the edit.
“You view a rough cut and nine times out of ten you come out disappointed. Somehow the storytelling has been lost in the process of creating great visuals, or the award-winning CGI, or the music. The good news is that seven or eight times out of ten you can rescue the story in the editing room. But that can take time, and the editing process is one area that is currently not as valued as it should be.”
Over his presentation John focused on five stories he’s been involved with over the past few years, including Touching The Void, of course, and also 127 Hours, which despite being a feature film and not a drama is still demonstrative of those storytelling principles he espouses. “I’d like to tell you about those five films,” he explained, “how we found the story, secured the rights, how we told it and how we maximized it. All of them were critical successes, some were commercial disasters, but I’m hoping we can draw some lessons from them.”
First up is Touching the Void, which was not only a commercial success but also a wonderfully creative satisfying experience, apparently. “I’m proud of what the director and everyone on the team achieved.”
As many in the audience were aware, as it did very well in Australia as well, Touching the Void is an incredible story of survival. Two men from Sheffield climb a mountain in the middle of Peru and somehow get to the top, but things start to go wrong from there. Joe Simpson breaks his leg and is in horrendous pain, and then his partner cuts the rope and he plunges hundreds of metres down the mountain. In a blizzard of course.
“It was an amazing story and it had been a best-selling book, but our task was to maximize the story,” John said. “It had been bought by Hollywood and so for a long time we couldn’t get the rights. Tom Cruise was supposed to play Joe Simpson and it got all silly. There was even a love interest by walkie-talkie or something. Eventually it didn’t get made.”
They did what they call ‘rights stalking.’ “If you really want a story,” said John, “you need to do every trick in the book to get the rights.” It’s persistence and finding who’s got the rights and pursuing them. “We befriended Joe Simpson and he thought we were all right and we befriended the agent, and worked out what would be an attractive offer.” Often it’s money, but sometimes its not. With Touching The Void Joe was frustrated that the film of the book hadn’t been made and he thought Smithson’s team had a good chance of actually doing it. “It’s like pulling in a fish slowly. And sometimes you have to spend quite a lot of money on the rights to a story before you’ve got a green light for the project, so it’s risky as well.”
Smithson said that virtually all these stories he was showing us had an element of stalking in them. Sara Ramsden who was in the audience was at Channel 4 when he pitched it to them, and luckily Sara had the foresight to see that Touching The Void could be a good film, despite the fact that there was a belief that mountains don’t rate. And John thanked her for that foresight!
“On 127 hours I was able to find a very rich woman who had seen Touching The Void and loved the idea of investing in documentary, which of course is a very stupid thing to do.” The option on that story was phenomenally expensive but she put up the money and it turned out to be a very good investment, as she eventually got her money back with a very big premium. “You try and put 5% down and pay the other 95% if the film actually gets made,” he said. “We have two or three relatively modest options around $3,000 out there at the moment, but Touching The Void was a six figure sum.”
Smithson talked about picking up the option to The Diary Of Anne Frank, another stalking story, but at least they knew that if they managed to gain the rights they’d get a commission too. “You’ve just got to assess the risk. If I got the rights to the Chilean miners’ story, I’d be able to do it, clearly.”
John mentioned a problem at the moment is that any interesting property, whether it’s a book or an article gets sold for big money straight away to Hollywood players. They want to own everything and they are able to pay big money for such stories.
“Touching The Void was just a great story. So many people had read the book but it was about friendship, live, death, the sheer will to survive, and that was why it did so well. It was a big theme. It was a story that was big enough to grow.”
The quality of the storytelling was exemplary. “Kevin squeezed every bit of the story out of it, every story beat. The release of information is crucial in stories like this. Kevin didn’t meet the two climbers for a long time, then spent two days on each one. He finally cut the interviews together almost like a radio play, and worked out what he needed by way of re-enactments to explain the story.”
There was no archive of the original expedition, so everything was re-enacted, Jon explained. Some was done on location in Peru. “In some wide shots Joe doubled himself and then we did the re-enactment in the Swiss Alps with actors. We shot the mountaineers on location telling us how it had felt, but none of that worked. So all we had was the two interviews and the re-enactments in the end.”
John stated that his motto is to keep within the bubble of the story. “It’s so easy to venture outside of that bubble – with interviews with experts, friends and others who are extraneous to the central story. But if you stay within the bubble you can maximize the impact.”
There’s a lot wrong with feature documentaries, he said, as they can be a nightmare, but at least they have a long shelf life. There is the film premiere, the festivals, the DVD release and TV, so they can last a couple of years. With a one off doc it is screened on television and that’s it, it disappears.
“Void opened my eyes in a big way to how you can supersize a project and make everyone involved happy at the same time. It also helps you take a dominant position in the genre. There was a feeling that survival stories were too niche. We have since made more than 50 one hour stories of survival.”
127 Hours came about directly because of Touching The Void. “Our company has been quite dominant in the disaster genre.”
Next he showed a clip from the documentary Deep Water, which is a story about one of the entrants in the first round the world yacht race who realized he couldn’t continue and he couldn’t go back, so he sat around waiting for the other boats to catch up to him. He pretended he’d sailed around the world. He was living a lie.
“It’s a great story but a really difficult one to do. It’s one person on a boat. He’s dead. Lots of people tried to do it and weren’t able to. Another company made the film and it just didn’t work. We were asked to come on board and we saw that there was no simple through-line. There was too much background, too many interviews, and not enough jeopardy. So it was like throwing all the pieces on the floor, cutting out the extraneous parts of the story and only having the key people on the story.”
“We got the film to a point where it worked well critically, but not many people went to see it in the cinema.”
Next John played a clip from Thriller in Manila, the film about Muhammad Ali’s fight with Joe Frazier in the 70s. “We thought it would work because it had Ali, boxing, the fight, and the backdrop of America in the 70s. We wanted to hang it on an interview with Joe Frazier, but we realized we couldn’t as he had been affecting by the boxing and a car crash. So we had to break our bubble rule and tell the story by having multiple interviews from all angles. They were all talking about this one fight, so there was still a focus there. However it was a bugger to edit.”
“Editing is a neglected art, I feel. You normally cut a one hour doc in 6 to 8 weeks and a feature in 10 to 12. This one was difficult so we went way over budget in editing time. The archive was ridiculously expensive but we always knew that if we got the film right we could sell it to the US. And luckily we did and HBO bought it, and we were immediately out of the red.”
Next up was a film about The Falling Man, the iconic picture during 9/11 of someone jumping from a building. The film tracked down the identity of the man. “That was such a difficult film to do. There were so many taboos, so many discussions about all the elements in that film. We were walking a tightrope. This film was again all about the editing. A journey of discovery, we didn’t know what we would discover in the shooting, we discovered the major character Gwendolyn late in the day. So we had to allow more time in the edit. We were ten weeks over in the editing. Big money is often put into the grade or a brilliant sound mix, but no film has ever been rescued by a grade or a sound mix.”
Smithson said that his role is to be a friend of the film, and that sometimes means being a tough friend that was prepared to fire the editor, and perhaps the director too. “If a cut isn’t working, you get a new editor. If it still isn’t working, you get a new director. Occasionally we are a tough friend, but we’re an honest friend. I believe the cutting room should be like a confession booth with total honesty. Sometimes it can get hysterical, but honesty is the way.”
The final film he played a clip from was 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle. “It’s a fascinating story how it moved from a documentary to a fully fledged feature film, but that would need a session by itself,” he told us.
In conclusion, Smithson exhorted us to stalk a story if we see a good one, and fight to get it made. He considered the question of how long you fight, if you don’t get immediate traction. He mentioned that The King’s Speech was rejected by all the major players before it eventually got made, and so was documentary Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, played by Sara Ramsden in an earlier session. And he suggested that too often, an indy producer will keep flogging a dead story long after it’s obviously dead.
“In the end it’s instinct and passion whether you continue, or call it quits,” he finally decided.
“In preparing for this talk it suddenly hit me what these films have in common – they all have a really tight close up people based story, he said. “They are human stories with a huge backdrop. “
“So we’re right back to where we started, with the King’s Speech, which takes a tiny story and makes it so much more than that.”
This article was first published on Screen Hub in 2012.