Monday, 18 April 2011

Simon Muriel

Simon Muriel works in television and lives in Bristol.  He is currently hovering between Location Director and Producing Director roles and has worked on programs such as My Mum’s Gay Wedding for BBC 2 to Warship for Channel 5.

Simon Muriel
Saturday, April 16th 2011
The Bristolian, 1pm

What are you working on at the moment?

Well, right now I’m working on a slate of documentaries for a corporate client in the field of Solar Technology. I do this work through the in between broadcast documentary projects but I guess you’re more interested in my tv work?

I’ve just finished a location directing role on a new 3 x 1hr series for ITV on homelessness (airing on ITV1 in early May). In the UK there is a government run scheme known as ‘supported lodging’ in which volunteers are encouraged to offer a spare room in their house to someone who is homeless. It’s a pretty bold ‘big society’ attempt to reintegrate people who have had a really tough time back into the mainstream society. This being ITV, we followed four well-known figures as they opened their doors to lodgers who really needed their help. Needless to say there were plenty of challenging situations and delicate storylines to navigate as an objective obs doc location director.

Can you expand on what a location director is?

This kind of film-making requires a real ‘fly on the wall’ approach and the best way to achieve that is with as few crew members as possible, so in this instance by  ‘location director’ I really mean ‘self-shooting location director’ ie taking on the role of camera, sound and directing all at once as a kind of one man band. Of course in obs doc ‘directing’ is a passive thing. You don’t direct the action, you just film it in a certain way, from certain angles etc, so that it can be cut together to form a narrative. The skill of location directing/self-shooting in obs doc is to capture the truth of a situation (often a very emotionally intimate situation) as though you weren’t there. It is sometimes much harder than it sounds.

How did you get started in television?

I left university with a degree in English and Latin, That didn’t really leave me with much of a defined career path. I always enjoyed the documentary form and always dreamed of working in the industry and when I heard that there was the chance of some work experience in San Francisco (a uni friend’s dad owned a production company there) I leapt at it. I worked as a production assistant for a few years and began to learn the ropes as a cameraman. At film school in Sydney I consolidated all that experience and have been freelancing in reality and ob doc genres since I returned to the UK in 2004. I continue to live by / in fear of that time honoured freelancer’s mantra: ‘You’re only as good as your last job’!

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by loads of fantastic documentary directors. I love watching films that have an eye for the small things in life, those incidental moments that can be so revealing like with Nicolas Philibert’s ‘Etre Et Avoir’. I also have a great respect and admiration for investigative filmmakers who really lift the lid on issues like Errol Morris in ‘the Fog of War’ and Nick Broomfield.

For the most part though, I’m inspired by the people I film. The nature of this kind of work is that you are often filming fascinating characters doing extraordinary things. I have a great respect for people who really grab life by the balls and make the best out of their situation.

You worked on a program in Afghanistan. What was that like?

That was a series called Air Force Afghanistan, following the RAF in Kandahar, the main airbase in Afghanistan. It was a series for FIVE, so it was not exactly high journalism but I think it shed quite a fresh light on our perception of what life is really like in a modern warzone.

There was plenty of high drama and kinetic action but it was often the more mundane aspects of life in a warzone that proved the most revealing. Like when the crew of the Hercules we were following on a sortie to Kabul got out of the plane at the airbase there and excitedly hurried over to the Thai take away to pick up a curry. As tracer from enemy fire filled the night sky on the return journey, the radio chatter was just about how many raw chillies they’d all eaten. Incongruous but true.

That was the first of my jobs with the services and I came away with a renewed respect and admiration for the work they do in such extreme circumstances and the manner in which they do it. I have to say that it made for fertile obs doc ground too. Everywhere you look there are fascinating characters doing extraordinary things.

So when you’re filming like that are you looking for themes or for the story to develop on its own?

What you’ll do in a situation like that is latch on to your character first, you’ll look for the person who is at the heart of a story who has that spark of personality, something interesting about them that will make them watchable on screen. You then plan your shoot so that you are with them on a day that they are likely to be at the heart of an interesting situation. The hope is that you can follow the story as unobtrusively as possible with that character playing the lead role in a naturally unfolding drama. Themes tend to come out more in the editing process.

Any technical differences when shooting an observation doc versus a more structured narrative?

You have no control in obs doc. Directing the action goes against the very nature of the form. I like the kind of directing where the action is playing out in front of you and you’re figuring out how you’re going to film it without getting in the way, being completely unobtrusive and not affecting the story yet covering it in a way that’s dramatic. You tend as a result to shoot obs doc in a much simpler, more practical style. Keep the lens wide so that everything is in focus as much as possible, grab your cut aways when you can when there is less action.

In other genres of course the role of the director is very different and it is all about having total control over a situation. Then you have plenty of time to get as creative as you can on the shoot. Covering the action from several different angles, often repeating the action over and over again to accommodate this.

Have you ever had a situation where your work has been censored in any way?

Chuckles.  Not sure if censored is the right word, but one series I assistant produced never actually went to air.  It was a film for Channel 4 about a 40 year old guy from Putney who suffered from well… lets just say it was a form of sexual addiction! It was around the time of the Channel 4 Big Brother fiasco and I think they understandably wanted to avoid any further controversy. It’s a good film actually but I guess there are some taboos that even television isn’t yet ready to break…?!

Dream projects?

I am really passionate about obs doc. Although it can be exhausting work, and completely all encompassing, there is no more rewarding an experience than to capture drama as it plays out in real life and craft that into a narrative in the edit. The series I’ve really been pushing recently but hasn’t quite happened—YET, is an access doc following the Gurkhas. A series following a band of young men from selection (where they’re whittled down from 27,000 to 200 in the Nepalese foothills) through training in Yorkshire to deployment in theatres of war with the British Army. It would be a real privilege to film and make for fascinating viewing I think.

Final question.  Is the director dead?

I don’t think the director is dead at all. In the world we’ve been talking about, the opportunities are all around you. Budgets may be being cut for programming but that opens up new opportunities for the multi-skilled. Cameras and edit suites are affordable and anyone can go out there and have a go at making their own films. It’s not just self-shooting location directors who are taking advantage of this new trend. Have you heard of the new kid on the block now, the ultimate one man/woman band who not only produces and directs but also cuts their own films: the “Preditor” or  producer/editor?

There are plenty of people who would argue that TV is being constantly dumbed down but it is really a case of supplying the demand. There is a lot of rubbish out there for sure but equally there have never been so many great documentaries being made.  And at least, with all that rubbish around there are lots of opportunities for new directors to cut their teeth and learn by their mistakes. The responsibility lies with the commissioners to keep commissioning the ideas that people want to watch. As long as they do that, there’ll be no shortage of directors ready to make those films.

Thanks Simon for sharing your thoughts!

"In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director." Alfred Hitchcock

"Every cut is a lie. It's never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you're telling a lie in order to tell the truth."  Wolf Koenig

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