An Interview with Tom Allen and James Newton
Is it possible to be taken seriously as a first-time filmmaker if your director, DOP, camera operator, sound recordist, driver, fixer, logistics manager, stills photographer, voiceover artist and lead talent are all the same person?
James Newton and Tom Allen think it’s possible, and they’ve got some very convincing evidence to prove it. In this Q&A, they talk about their feature documentary Janapar, and how Tom went from having never picked up a video camera to shooting a Raindance-selected feature film — in the space of a single project.
First of all, can you describe the film and your involvement in it?
TOM: The film tells the story of a fairly typical Westerner in his twenties who decides to jack it all in and hit the road. That was me, five years ago. Since then I’ve been travelling the world with little more than a bicycle, a tent and a video camera. The core of Janapar’s story, however, is not in the traveller’s tales but in the unexpected relationship I found which fundamentally changed the way I look at life. The resulting film is highly personal, but I’m comfortable sharing it now because of the universal messages in the story.
JAMES: I’ve been involved with Janapar since the beginning, firstly as a mentor for Tom while he was shooting his story, and more recently as the film project’s producer-director. My first short, while still at university, was about an incredible woman called Sr Dorothy Stang, who was fighting illegal loggers in the Amazon rainforest. She was tragically assassinated shortly after I met her in Brazil. The news cameras came and went but the story I had captured lived on, as did the passion I had discovered for extraordinary people and true stories. So when I met Tom a few years later, I was looking for a new project. He had set himself a great challenge, and with that was the potential for a strong story. But neither of us could have imagined how his life would unfold over the next few years.
What did you find appealing about Tom’s story from a directorial point of view?
JAMES: I find true stories one of the best ways of exploring the world around us and making sense of our lives. Perhaps that’s because you can’t invent the twists, characters and scenarios that you find in these tales. But neither can you argue with their believability, and for me that makes them the most powerful form of storytelling. When I sat down to watch through 300 hours of material shot in 32 countries by one man on a bike, I knew that despite the roughness and sub-optimal filming conditions it had the potential to be one such story. But with such personal and sensitive material, it would be critical to tell it in a way that remained true to what Tom actually went through.
Tom, you set off with some basic filming equipment and no experience of using it. How on earth did the footage emerge usable?
TOM: I’m still trying to work this out, considering that I left home in 2007 packing an ancient Canon XM1 with a built-in mic and a cheap plastic tripod from Jessops! It’s hard to believe that video DSLRs hadn’t been invented, everyone was still shooting in standard definition 4:3, and that I didn’t know what aperture, focus or white balance were. Those were things I had to teach myself very quickly once things got going.
I eventually replaced the XM1 with a Sony A1E, which was more modern but even smaller — barely better than a Handycam. But that points to the importance of storytelling over aesthetics. Pictures and sound are important, of course, but without a compelling story you just have a pile of nice-looking shots, which is not the same as having a film. With all the money that goes into selling the latest and flashiest cameras, that point gets easily lost.
How did you bring your filmmaking skills up to scratch? Did the project suffer as a result of a shaky start?
TOM: The first big realisation was that I was actually shooting for the edit, rather than trying to get a complete film straight out of the camera. I didn’t appreciate that until I reviewed my own rushes and saw the bitter truth for myself. It was utter crap, without the slightest semblance of character or storyline. Most of the shots didn’t even have edit handles. That’s one of the reasons you don’t see much of the early months in the finished feature!
So I began studying travel & adventure documentaries I admired in order to understand how they’d been shot and cut — Long Way Round for its intrepidness and candid inclusive style, Departures for its cinematography, Bruce Parry’s films for their authentic, character-driven storylines. Eventually I started editing my own material together, which was the single most useful step I took. It showed me what shots were useful, what was missing, and what breadth of coverage would create options in the edit, because the mood of a scene wasn’t always as clear-cut as it looked at the time.
This, plus a lot of practice and experimentation, eventually led to the visual style and intimate perspective that you’ll see in Janapar. I just wish I’d gone through that learning process before actually setting out!
James, how did you singlehandedly unravel the material that Tom shot, process it all, and come out with your sanity intact?
JAMES: 300 hours sounds like a lot of material, which it is, if you only have evenings and weekends to devote to your passion project. Even if I’d had 40 hours a week to spend on viewing, it would have taken almost two months to get through the rushes. None of this would produce any income, so it was a very risky time investment, as it might have turned out that there wasn’t a strong enough story after all. But risks like that are necessary if you want to make an independent film.
I did some preliminary viewing of the tapes as they came in over the years that Tom was away, meanwhile freelancing for the BBC. Once all the rushes were in, I did a second viewing to try and identify overall themes and storylines. A third viewing was needed for logging the footage. And then I carried out a fourth viewing of the material I’d picked out as the strongest, before going into the edit.
Needless to say, I ended up knowing the material like the back of my hand! And this was indispensable in order to do the story justice, as I’d never actually been out to see Tom myself. But it wasn’t easy. I would sometimes view for days without seeing anything of interest, living Tom’s life through his lens and getting utterly lost in his world. Then I would suddenly discover something extraordinary.
I remember clearly, late one night, stumbling across the moment when Tom falls in love with Tenny, an Iranian-Armenian girl. A real-life love story was unfolding in front of my eyes. I’d never seen anything like it. That rawness was beautiful. We see many love stories played out on screen, but rarely are they captured in real life and with the level of honesty Tom had developed with his camera.
It turned out to be a critical moment. Tom, a bachelor and IT professional from Northamptonshire, found himself embroiled in a romance entirely at odds with his grand adventure. The decisions he made from that point would ultimately find him pedalling alone into the Sahara Desert. You couldn’t make it up.
A lot must have changed in four years. How did you manage to craft all that experience into a single long-form narrative without destroying the sense of scale?
JAMES: Most importantly, I did this by choosing a non-linear narrative structure for the film. If you sat down to tell someone a story about last week, you probably wouldn’t start at the beginning, you’d jump right in at the highlight and spiral out from there. This structure was far more challenging to get right, and I still suspect it might be done better, but the decision freed up the strongest material to play where it worked best. It was liberating to stop thinking of the material in linear terms and to start looking at each scene for its potential to express a story beat or stage in Tom’s development as a character. It allowed me to bring an appropriate level of drama and conflict into what would otherwise just be an extremely long travelogue.
So was it easier to tell Tom’s story in this non-linear way?
JAMES: Actually it became more difficult to begin with. I couldn’t figure out why some scenes worked but other scenes didn’t; why overall it seemed closer to the film I wanted to make but at the same time was missing something I couldn’t put my finger on. And I realised that I didn’t actually understand enough of the theory behind the stages of growth that a character has to go through in a compelling and satisfying story arc.
The book that helped me overcome this steep learning curve was The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Ultimately, strength of story is the only way to engage with a broad audience once the novelty of jaw-dropping images and sound has worn off, so — in documentary — by far the best way to convey your message is through story. The single biggest mistake that new filmmakers make, I think, is putting aesthetics before a clear understanding of the power and importance of story.
Wasn’t a lot of good material sacrificed through this focus on narrative?
JAMES: Loads. By making the film non-linear and cross-cutting from one part of the timeline to another, I had to make sure that every single scene served a narrative function, hitting a necessary ‘story beat’ to keep the film moving forwards. Sometimes it meant killing a scene that had had a huge amount of effort put into it. Other times it meant changing the order of sequences because they did a better job elsewhere.
There’s a lovely piece of Istanbul street music, for example, which puts us firmly in Turkey after having travelled across the whole of Europe. It’s followed by a scene of Tom and his riding partner Andy arguing on a Turkish roadside. Now, in reality, that particular argument happened some weeks before they reached Istanbul. But it was more effective to use the scene to set the mood for the events that followed. That’s an example of manipulating chronology in order to better tell a story, rather than sticking to a linear record of events for the sake of scientific accuracy.
Overall, working through this process has made me a better storyteller. And it’s taught me that you have to be ruthless with your cuts. I’m glad I didn’t let Tom into the edit suite until later on in this process. I think he would have been very unhappy, even though what I boiled his story down to was still very much the truth.
So it’s not just about spinning a good yarn — it’s about aligning with truth as well?
JAMES: Having worked in television, I watch a lot of programme-makers resorting to cheap sensationalism. Characters and stories become divorced from reality and audiences lose all empathy. Part of my motivation to make my first feature documentary was to get away from that. I think a director should be able to freely manipulate structure and story elements in order to create an accurately condensed version of the truth, without resorting to exaggerated retellings. I’d rather tell an authentic story that already possessed the strength to stand on its own. I’m now trying to bring that experience back into my TV work.
That shouldn’t mean that documentary has to be lacking in entertainment. But I find that it too often is. I’m likely to choose an action thriller over a documentary to watch with my wife at the weekend, as I know many others will. But I wanted Janapar to break the mould, to feel like the kind of film you could show your girlfriend or your mother or your dog or your granddad, and for them to end up enjoying it more than you did! So it’s been fantastic to watch the screen-test audiences respond to a self-shot documentary as if they’re watching a cinematic feature.
Tom, didn’t you ever think you could have made the whole film yourself? Surely you knew the story better than anyone?
TOM: No, I couldn’t. And I disagree that I knew the story better than anyone, even though it sounds strange to say it. I had a vast collection of individual memories, of course. But it took me a long time to identify what I’d actually learnt, and bring any useful meaning to it. The experiences forced me to question the deepest principles of my background and upbringing, and re-evaluate my priorities for life. That takes time to process and recover from.
I ended up making sense of what I’d done through the retrospective construction of a narrative, which happened through the process of drafting my book and watching the footage come together into a film with James and Richard Wheat, the editor. It’s incredibly difficult to be objective when it comes to your own story, especially one that literally changed your life. I needed other people to help me make sense of it.
So James — why did you bring other creative minds into the post-production stage?
JAMES: You can’t make films on your own. That’s been my experience, anyway. You need to share the creative process with editors, composers, sound designers — people more talented than you in their particular fields. I wouldn’t have been able to stay objective without the fresh eyes of the editor Richard, for example. Ultimately you learn as an artist by putting your creations in front of other people and watching as they’re torn apart, and filmmaking is an example of doing just that in a broad spread of disciplines, all at the same time.
You brought a composer on board to score the whole film. Why not just use library music or license commercial tracks?
JAMES: I decided early on that the film needed a powerful score — one that paralleled the changes Tom goes through as a character through the story. There’s a scene where Tom leaves home with two friends. It’s a short montage that moves us through time as they travel across Europe towards Asia. Here, the music plays a hugely important role because it sets a prophetic edge against what you are seeing. While these three guys are cycling, wild-camping, meeting people and having fun, the music is actually suggesting a future level of maturity and equilibrium that Tom is destined to find. So the music gets the footage working in a more nuanced way, and sets up narrative expectations at times when pictures alone can not.
Getting the music right can make or break a theatrical film, and it’s only by having original music composed that you get a sufficient level of control over it. Vincent Watts, the composer, was very collaborative, and we went through a lot of development together before arriving at the score you will hear in the finished feature. Tom and I both wanted Janapar to be a personal film; one that people felt they could relate to, one that would be memorable. Having a score composed has helped to do that in a way that licensed music would never be able to achieve.
What closing advice would you offer to aspiring indie filmmakers?
TOM: If you think you’ve got a good story, make sure there aren’t better ways of telling it than film, because film is difficult. But if you really must, then start with the basics. If you’re self-shooting, get so familiar with your camera that you can operate it with your eyes closed. Leave enough room in your raw material for someone to mould it to a different vision of the same story. Practice cutting your own material. Treat failure as an opportunity to learn. And if you’re clueless, educate yourself. Find experts and learn from them. Finally, you might be convinced you’re the next Morgan Spurlock, but remember that you can’t do everything yourself, and that good collaboration won’t dilute your idea — it’ll make it better.
JAMES: Really understand what makes a good story. Everything else is moot. There’s no excuse for not understanding the basics of shooting, because it’s all out there on the internet. Don’t worry about getting a really expensive camera, but do worry about getting some kind of editing package, so you can shoot, edit, shoot, edit — experiment and learn the whole process yourself. Make sure you choose a subject that you truly care about, and that you have personal experience of it so you’re naturally going to be passionate enough about the project to do whatever it takes to get it done!
Janapar has its world premiere at the 20th Raindance Film Festival on Friday 28th September and will be available on DVD towards the end of 2012. Visit the Janapar website to watch the trailer and for more information.