Sebastian Barfield is originally from Birmingham, UK. He currently works at BBC Bristol as a producer and director. He has made some fascinating programs that include, White Gospel and Seven Ages of Rock. You can follow Sebastian on twitter@sebbarfield
Sunday Mar 6 2011
Interior: Sebastian’s living room.
Sebastian makes me a lovely cup of tea and we sit in his living room for a chat.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a series. Making two films out of three, Arts of Regency [working title], for BBC 4 about the collision of art and history in the 9 years of the regency period, which is 1811 to 1820. It’s the period when you had [Lord] Byron and Jane Austen writing, you had [JMW] Turner and [John] Constable painting. You had Waterloo, the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which changed the country and Britain’s place in the world. You had this figure of the regent as this sort of fat popinjay kind of guy, who was really ridiculous but was also a patron of the arts. In a way he is one of the most interesting royals of the lot because he actually does commission some really interesting things and left quite a legacy. For me that mix of history and art is a subject I’ve been getting into as a filmmaker. It straddles the two, its not an art programme, its not a history programme, but a hybrid and they’re often more interesting when you’re crossing genres.
When is that due to air?
I think September. No pressure then, given I’m having a baby in July.
Ooh, congratulations! How exciting.
What got you into directing and why television?
I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Like a lot of people I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do when I left university and thought maybe I was going to be an academic and did some work as an archeologist. My dad was an archeologist. I went for a course the BBC ran, I don’t know if they still run it but at the time, they ran this training school for journalists. Because I was in this dead end job and didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, I just thought I have nothing to lose and I went for it. I found myself getting through all the different stages and doing really well and got an assessment. I had to do viewing orders for the 6 o’clock news and did really well until the final interview and I blew the final interview. So I was like Aright. Back to telesales, but one of the people on the board, whose pretty high up at the BBC now, I think she felt I should have gotten it, called me up and offered me a work placement for a month as a researcher and its, you know, one of those things that changed my life. I didn’t really know what a director did, what a producer did, I certainly didn’t know what a researcher did. The thing about this industry is that its pretty hard to get started in, its always been hard but I feel its even harder now than it was in the 90’s. I found the area I was interested in working in and just built up my experience until one day my boss came over and said
Interior: BBC headquarters
I think you should direct.
And I was like
Yeah, yeah no I think you would be good at it.
I am not a pushy kind of individual but having someone I had a lot of trust in telling me that I went
He did say
People make out like its really hard, but it’s not that hard. There’s a lot highfalutin stuff around it but you can do it.
And that was quite encouraging. Although it is hard, he was wrong. It’s bloody hard.
In television the role of director and producer sometimes seems to be interchangeable. Can you elaborate on what the distinctions are?
Yeah, it is for me, I am producer/director. The way I always look on it is that the producer is sort of the project manager but the producer is also sort of author. When there are two roles the producer is responsible for the editorial side and the content, and also the money and the director is the person whose got to go out and give it a look and bring the material back, with a presenter or certainly with a crew, although increasingly you’re on your own with the camera. But the director is the one that goes out, directs, probably cuts the film but they’re kind of subservient to the producer, who might as well have hired the director. For me that’s all academic because I do everything really. Although with TV what’s good is it’s a team thing, you are as good as your team.
In Portrait of an Artist, we follow Laura Cumming as she delves into the world of self-portraits. What drew you to that subject?
Actually they’ve changed the title to Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits. That project started before me. Laura had written the book, a few people were interested in making it in BBC Bristol. My exec Mike Poole, he was the one that picked it up, he got it commissioned to the channel and got them to buy it, which is a real skill. I was the guy that was assigned to make it. I’d never made a film about the visual arts so that was a huge thing for me. What I found really interesting about that film and the things I feel I didn’t get quite right was the way these static pictures… how you actually ‘paste’ them so an audience appreciates the key elements in the painting. What I learned making that is its all about the timing, when you show a certain bit on screen and when you got to get the exact moment when you cut to the next move. When you stand in front of the painting there’s an infinite number of ways you can look at that painting. On TV especially when you’re talking about portrait size in a TV’s landscape you have to go in and direct the viewers eye and you have to work out how a viewer would look at that painting and move the camera around. This is all done in the edit and graphics but I spend an enormous amount of time just trying to get it to feel right. It sounds kind of obvious but when you watch a film and it doesn’t feel right, it’s all in the pacing of the way the camera follows the painting. There’s a brilliant graphics person called Orla, who did all the moves so I was working pretty much with her and a great editor. This is all a team thing but what l learned is how you transfer the picture to the screen. Should be really simple but it wasn’t.
Do you get a lot of assignments or do you go ahead and say I’ve got this idea for a documentary I want to do? How does that work in the hierarchy at the BBC?
Well at the BBC I am staff producer, although invariably I am expected to direct. It is expected of me that I will generate ideas. I don’t have to generate every idea but come up with good ideas that can be made. I’ve had lots of ideas commissioned that other people have made. There’s a team of development specialists who devise that.
Is it like a big happy family or does it get competitive with people wanting to do their own ideas?
Everyone wants to do their own idea but what gets commissioned is often not down to us and is often not down to how good the idea is in the first place. That’s the big myth. People get disappointed when their ideas don’t get commissioned. It was probably a great idea, its just the person commissioning has 50 ideas crossing their desk a week, they’ve got their own agenda, they want to find a vehicle for X and don’t want to commission Y because his last film won a Bafta or there’s a whole other agenda that doesn’t necessarily relate to that idea. My ideas that don’t get commissioned stay in my hard drive and in 2 years time, I’ll print them out and say hey got this great idea….
In Dec 2010, the BBC reported that following the six-year license fee freeze, there would be 16% cuts in budget. How has that affected programming in the last few months?
To be honest we don’t know. That’s the simple answer. We’re all still in a very good position cause we have this huge amount of money we know is guaranteed coming in, so actually lots of people would give their right arm to be in that position, you can’t complain. They’ve got this initiative called delivering quality first, we’ll see how that works as its only in its very initial stages. They seem to be trying to initiate a cross-organisational discussion about how to almost re-engineer the BBC. If you work for the BBC you can email your suggestions in and the process is going to take six months. I’ve certainly emailed my thoughts; there are certainly areas that aren’t being run right. If you’re asking about the 16% cuts…its worrying. We’re waiting to hear how that is going to affect us. What is affecting us immediately is the license fee freeze that the BBC trust has introduced, before the license fee negotiation, as I understand it they didn’t take an above inflation rise, which we were expecting for this year. Because TV is commissioned two years in advance, that money has been spent, this years budget has been spent and obviously that was budget spent assuming that we had this above inflation rise, or whatever that rise was, I don’t know if it was inflation or above inflation but we weren’t anticipating a freeze so suddenly there’s a lot of money that’s got to come out of the budget very immediately, and I’m definitely feeling that. You will see on BBC local news website that producers are up for redundancy and a redundancy process is going on. I am a producer and you can read into that in maybe I’m personally being affected. But my understanding is that’s not part of the big 16% percent reductions coming down the track, this is sort of the interim of the cost savings the trust introduced, which I don’t think anyone was expecting. All you can do is lose yourself in the programme and make a good programme. That’s all you can do really.
Who or what in television has inspired you?
When I went for my first jobs there were a few programmes I remember really inspiring me. There was a Michael Wood series I remember as a kid, In search of the Trojan War and the one he did about Alexander the Great. I just remember being very transported in terms of history. He is a fantastic presenter, a proper historian able to bring these big histories to life just by his ability to write a script and deliver it. Simon Sharma as well. Often people talk about directing and its all about visuals and camera work but what’s often forgotten, in TV at least, is the importance of writing a script and being good with words. The writing is often left to the last minute and someone like Simon Sharma and History of Britain is so brilliantly worded. Beautiful writing is often overlooked and I’m not saying I’m a great writer but I’ve worked hard on the commentary. Adam Curtis is a big hero of mine. If you look at his blog, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/ its one of the most interesting things BBC has done online. He’s putting up excerpts of programmes no one has seen in 40 years that explain what’s happening in Egypt at the moment or with Obama or in the advertising industry. He’s almost merging journalism and you tube in a completely new way. The thing I’ve taken from his programmes is that they make you look at the world in a different way, there’s this sort of default way of looking at a subject and a good programme should make you think about it differently. Every time you look at it, it should be from a new angle that you wouldn’t have come at without seeing that programme and his programmes always do that. That’s always an aspiration I would say when I’m making a programme. I do try to find that left way of attacking it.
I’d like to do some more music projects. I did a lot of music docs and I’d like to work on another BBC2 music series. There haven’t been a lot of them of late but I feel I’ve come on a bit as a director now and its time to have another go. I’m pretty lucky because I’m in a place where I’m pretty happy creatively and doing interesting programmes. There’s always another programme coming down the track, something very interesting and usually pretty different to the last. The one before Portrait of an Artist was History of Now, which was very quirky and opposite of the artist programme which is very slow and quite traditional, but funny and witty. I felt we did something interesting stylistically with that. I’d like to do more work with that. I’ve tried to get some work off the ground that merges history with animation. That’s an area I’ve been looking at. There are quite a few things I’d like to do that I don’t feel I’ve quite nailed.
Final question. Is the director dead?
I don’t know really. When I started working in TV certainly there was a much stronger sense of the director as auteur force than it is at the moment. Because of reality and formats, formats in particular, when you are directing shows like that, you’re filming to a blueprint. There is a blueprint which is a menu if you like, a script that’s applied to every programme, a structure and I think the preponderance of those sorts of programs has been at the expense of the auteur type director. So you don’t get the auteur films any more, you get things that are much more formulated. There are directors but its much harder to get your own voice across...I think.
Thanks Sebastian for sharing your thoughts!
“No man ever said to his wife, honey we’ve got to see this film. I hear the director brought it in under budget.” Billy Wilder