Interview with director Jerry Rothwell on Donor Unknown

This is the full transcript of the interview I did with documentary maker Jerry Rothwell for Don’t Panic, very nice man he was too and a very good film which should definitely be seen:

JoEllen Marsh, Jerry Rothwell and Danielle Pagano at the Tribeca premiere of Donor Unknown.

Jerry Rothwell has previously brought us such critically acclaimed documentaries as Heavy Load and Deep Water. His new documentary looks at donor conception through the quest JoEllen Marsh initiates to find out about her donor, known to her as Donor 150. Along the way she discovers a website which connects her  to 13 siblings from the same donor across America, the first connection resulting in a  New York Times article. An article their unconventional donor, Jeffrey Harrison- a hippy living on Venice beach in a dilapidated RV with his coterie of animals- sees and which prompts him to give up his anonymity and forge new relationships with his biological children. The result is a film that highlights contemporary issues of genetics, identity, family and the ethics of sperm donation, and is genuinely insightful, funny and touching. Don’t Panic talks to director Jerry Rothwell  about the issues the film raises and his approach  to the story.

What first drew you to filming this story?

I’m  always looking for a very specific situation but one which might throw light on much bigger issues. What I was really interested in was a how a group of people were trying to find a new set of relationships, brought about by technology-the ability to contact each other over the internet, but also by the technology of reproduction. There’s a very a tight story around wonder and the offspring that come about because of [Jeffrey’s] donations.

 How did you convince the producer, Hilary Durman, that it could be made as a film when it was originally going to be a radio documentary?

I think the difficultly she worried about is the issue of privacy and the question of whose story is it? The story probably belongs to about 30 people, and how do you get consent from all those people for a film to be made, which gets into some quite private issues. Then we started talking to the different families and they started talking to each-other  and then that was the really the way we got it going.

What were the siblings reactions to having a documentary made about them?

They’d  done a certain amount of media before because, they did the New York Times article. And I think  JoEllen’s motivation for doing it was to raise awareness about donor conception, that her story is like a lot of other people’s stories and to encourage people to look for their donor if they wanted  too, that it was possible and it wasn’t necessarily scary.

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Interview with director Brian Welsh

This was meant to be for Little White Lies’ website  but it doesn’t seem they’ve published it yet (annoyingly) so thought I’d post it here as well:

Brian Welsh started off working in Glasgow as an editor on social documentaries, and then trained as an editor at The National Film and Television School. He wrote and directed his first micro-budget feature film Kin-about a guy who is separated from his family and is looked after by a care worker-between projects. His second feature In Our Name explores the plight of a female soldier Suzy, who returns home to her family mentally scarred from what she has witnessed during her time in Iraq.

Did working on documentaries  with social issues, did this inform the way you conceived of In Our Name?

I worked up in Glasgow as an editor with a company called Autonomi cutting a lot of films about things that were going on in the city, like we made a film [Good Cop] about a Race Relations copper and gang fighting problems. The film’s [also] about the Choker murder inquiry which was Glasgow’s Stephen Lawrence, if you like, with this young Sikh guy being killed. I’ve always been interested in films and stories about real people as opposed to mindless escapism, you know, cinema that really has something to say about the world around us and society. So that was my editing background and that overspilled into the stories I wanted to tell when it came to writing my own scripts.

How difficult was it to make that transition from editing documentaries to directing a feature film?

I was very fortunate, because I’d studied editing at The National Film School and the types of films or projects that I was excited about becoming involved in- the main reason for coming down there- weren’t really materialising. So I decided that given the fact that I had all of these resources and all of these very talented people I met, that it would be  a great idea to try my hand at directing something that I wanted to talk about. So I made a really low-budget film there, and luckily that was seen by Artificial Eye, and then they asked me if I’d like to submit a script for this new scheme that they were running, and that was In Our Name.

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Interview with Uk film director Si Wall-Part Two

Here’s the second part of the interview I did with Si Wall, here he talks about Drinking Chocolate, his film about two homeless people the middle-aged Johnny and teenage runaway Lola and the unlikely friendship they form. He also talks about developing the Caitlin McCarthy scripted Resistance, a period drama about Czech resistance fighter Vera Laska, his love of the films of Suzanne Bier and the state of the British film industry.

You’re currently developing Resistance, how’s that coming along?

It’s my passion project really, I know you should be equally passionate about everything. But I mean I’ve written my Oscar acceptance speech [laughs]. But at the time that I got it I was getting about 3 or 4 scripts a week and some were quite good but not for me, some were going to be heavily reliant n some special effects and that’s not what I’m about. And this actually sat in my inbox for quite a while it was called ‘Vera’ at the time and it just didn’t inspire me to read it, it’s  a little old ladies’ name you know. And after a while I opened it and printed it out and read it and I physically, I know everyone says it, but I physically couldn’t put it down and right at the end it just made me cry and then I put it down had a cup of coffee and read it again straight away. I was really inspired by the script but then you realise that it’s fact based, it’s not just a piece of drama. What I’m reading about is actually the early part of someone’s life  and it’d be really easy to say it’s a World War II drama which it is. But it’s actually a story about this woman’s [Vera Laska] courage and her refusal to die, she refused to be a statistic, she refused to be just another number in Auschwitz, and at that age 15-21. She  survived World War II through her strength of character it’s not through circumstance because a high percentage of people who went to Auschwitz didn’t come out. She just refused to accept that. It goes back to her character and she sums that up because in the rest of her life she’s dedicated to teaching others, to writing books and to fighting for human rights. She was a strong human being and my only regret is that I’ll never get to meet her because she died in 2005 and I just want this story we’re going to do to do her justice, because it’s this woman’s life.

Czech resistance fighter Vera Laska, the subject of Resistance.

How did you get Caitlin McCarthy’s script?

I got a script in my inbox called Free Skate and I liked it but it wasn’t for me and out of politeness I asked for another script, because she’s written some of the best stuff I’ve read in the last 18 months and everything she’s written wins awards it’s that simple. That’s when I got Vera as it was then called. I’ve got so much respect for the woman because I know how hard it is and it’s ever since reading Caitlin’s work that I don’t call myself a writer now because Caitlin is a great script writer and I write stuff now and again, that’s the difference. As a screenwriter she’s destined for great things so I’m really lucky to be associated with her on Resistance.

What do you think are the challenges of directing a period piece?

I have to go back to Suzanne Biers, in Denmark they have the Dogme school of thinking where they do away with lighting, make-up and wardrobe and it’s all very stripped down and as real as you can get. And her key word is accuracy and I think to do a period piece you have to put your mind into 1939 Czechoslovakia and male it accurate that’s the only way it works. Because for me we could make the most beautiful film in the world and if I hear someone coming out of the theatre and saying ‘oh what a great film, but the buttons on the uniform are wrong’ that would just cripple me, it really would. Because it’s a detail that could’ve been accurate.

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Interview with Andrew Thompson, co-director of award-winning documentary Mugabe and the White African

Andrew Thompson with his partner and co-director Lucy Bailey

Andrew Thompson is co-director alongside partner Lucy Bailey of Mugabe and The White African, the only documentary made inside Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe passed a total press ban (which is only now starting to be lifted). The documentary, nominated for a BAFTA and winner of the British Independent Film Awards, was filmed covertly on and off for 12 months under dangerous conditions. It tells the story of one white farmer Mike Campbell and his family’s attempts to legally challenge Mugabe’s racist land reforms, which aim to take away land from the white farmers and re-distribute it to poor black people, but which actually give the land to Mugabe’s supporters. Here Andrew Thompson talks about the challenges of filming in Zimbabwe, the absurdity of Mugabe’s land reforms, the importance of the film in raising awareness, the determination of the Campbell family and why he loves documentaries amongst other things.  

What brought you to make a film in Zimbabwe and were the issues there something you were always fully aware of?   

We were aware of the situation in Zimbabwe obviously from press reports and things we’d seen in the news and Lucy Bailey had spent a lot of time filming in Africa. And we were actually filming in Beitbridge in South Africa, which is the main land bridge between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and we saw hundreds and hundreds of Zimbabwean refugees trying to get over the border to South Africa. It was really at that point that we thought there is surely a story to be told somewhere about the catastrophe happening inside Zimbabwe. So we were aware of the story, but as filmmakers you’re looking for a way in, you’re looking for a way of telling that story. And it was in talking to friends in South Africa that we heard about the extraordinary case of one white farmer, Mike Campbell, challenging Robert Mugabe in an international court. So Lucy and I looked at one another and said ‘that’s our story, that’s it, that’s the way we’ll be able to tell the much wider story of what’s going on in Zimbabwe.’ It’s a  very raw, very intimate, very personal story of one man challenging the President in an international court. So ourselves, we’re not South African, we’re not Zimbabwean and we have no connections in those countries. It’s just an interesting story and an important story to tell as well.  

Do you think the story is something that people are generally unaware about or only know small details about ?  

Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean I think, certainly around election time, Zimbabwe gets a lot of press. But I think as a filmmaker who wants to make a theatrical film you need a lot more than just shots of destitute black farm workers or white farmers having their farm disputed. You need a story and what was great about the court case is that it gave us a natural backbone through which to tell the story. Lucy and I very much come from a background of Comic Relief appeal films and in those films you’re often telling quite difficult complex stories. Films about child prostitution  or malaria or infant mortality, you’re telling really quite heavy stories and you’ve only got three minutes to tell them. Our challenge as filmmakers was can we sustain the emotional intensity of a three minute appeal film over a 90 minute feature film. And we do that in Comic Relief by getting an audience to identify with one or two characters and really care about those individuals. That’s the way we like to tell our stories. So in a Comic Relief film through one or two characters they get to learn about the wider issues and that’s the way we approached this film. Through Mike Campbell you get to learn a much wider story, the complexities of the land reform issue and what’s going on inside Zimbabwe.  

I think with news reports it’s also easy to distance yourself from the issues so it’s more interesting to have someone to relate to in your film.  

I think so, I think an audience watches the film an identifies with the film at a  very human level. It’s the emotions which go through an audience with the family. Now if you’re watching  a news report  there’s not enough time to get to know the characters  or to understand what drives those characters. I think what our film does is it engages an audience that perhaps doesn’t even know where Zimbabwe is on a map and doesn’t know anything about the political situation. It’s a film that’s been very successful in bringing a much wider audience to the situation inside Zimbabwe.  

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Interview with Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos

Here’s an interview I did for the website Sound Screen.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Dogtooth is a startlingly distinctive and darkly comic film about demented authoritarian parents who keep their grown-up children  locked up in the house, and continually lie to them to shield them from the outside world.  Amongst other awards it won the Un Certain Regard prize at 2009’s Cannes and is courting a lot of praise and attention from critics. Here the director discusses his film in-depth and also talks about the state of the Greek film industry and the irritation of being compared to contemporaries like Michael Haneke.

Where there any real-life events that influenced you to tell this story of Dogtooth?

No not really it just started from an idea you know about the future of families. And what if in the future there were no more  families and things like that. I then had the idea of these parents that really [could have] happened at any time, that they would really wanna keep their family together forever.  And have them think that their doing the best for their children  and raise them far away from the rest of the world but of course that wouldn’t really work. So it just came from that and the real stories we heard later while we were rehearsing, you know we heard about the Austrian [the Josef Fritzl case] story, it was very different from what we were trying to do, it was very dark you know with having dungeons and having children with the daughter. I wanted to do something much more brighter and beautiful in contradiction to what effect this situation would have on the children, and to show that these parents have the best intentions in mind although it doesn’t really work that way.

What I noticed about the film was that it is quite a dark film but there’s also a lot of humour in it, for instance when they tell their kids that their grandfather is Frank Sinatra, when we see the parents making love and they’re wearing headphones listening to music. There’s all these comical moments and I was just wondering if the humour was an important aspect of the film for you?

Yeah it was very important to me but I guess it always is in the things that I do. But I feel that especially in such a story and such a situation you can get into much more deeper and true things approaching it also with a humorous side of things. Because if you get too dramatic and too melodramatic about things or just violent, you just force people to think certain things instead of allowing them to think themselves and to be engaged in different ways. But if you can walk a line between all these things; tragedy and violence but humour as-well and have them laugh at situations, then it’s easier for people to realise what’s going on and to be involved and to be more open about thinking [about] all these situations.

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Interview with UK film director Si Wall-Part One

Si Wall founded Purple Frog Productions, directed the award-winning short Marbella Nights   (2009) and the documentary Nestinari: The Dancers of Fire on Bulgarian ritual fire-dancing. He is currently working on his first feature film Drinking Chocolate about a homeless man who befriends a newly homeless and damaged young girl, as well as Resistance a biopic about Czech Resistance fighter Vera Laska. A film which as a script by American screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy has already won numerous awards. Here the director talks about how he became a filmmaker, his influences, and the challenges and triumphs of filming in Bulgaria with a non-English speaking crew and creating a film from scratch in 24 hours.

What made you decide to be a filmmaker in the first  place as I read that you studied law before that?

Yeah I have done law and I’ve had a business before and everything’s fine. But I just think there just comes a time when it’s just not about making money and it’s just not about fitting into that part of the world .  And there a couple of people that when I was in my family were great storytellers, I think that’s where I really get it from. My godfather as well as being an actor he was also a comedian, so I think I kinda got it from them a little bit, well I hope so.  I don’t think I’m as funny as him but that’s probably where.

Was he quite  a famous comedian then?

No he was a warm-up man for Frankie Howerd and he was his regular warm-up man when Frankie Howerd was just starting to get famous around the late fifties and early sixties. And whenever my mum and dad was working and I was off school I used to go my godfather who helped raise me and he was just really charismatic, old-fashioned comedian. So that’s where I got it from, well I hope so, I’ve got no-one else to blame it on.

Was there any directors or films that you saw that really inspired you?

It changes every time I see a good film and think ‘wow, that’s brilliant.’ At the moment I’ve just been to a thing at the ICA and listened to Suzanne Bier [Director of Things We Lost In The Fire and the original Brothers] talk and I think she’s an absolutely outstanding storyteller. But she’s not up there yet with Ridley Scott and all those but in my opinion she’s equally good and probably, in my opinion, one of the outstanding filmmakers doing it today. And I like that thing that she has-and we’re going to try and do the same with Drinking Chocolate-where you bring an audience into someone-else’s world, and it’s all accurate and it’s real life and I think she does that incredibly well.

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Interview with Julien Planté, artistic director of French film channel Cinémoi


I personally think that the French make some of the best films in the world, they are often sophisticated, nuanced, intelligent and complex, embodying the great artistic visions of directors like Godard, Truffaut, Audiard, Denis, Chabrol, Moll, I could go on. So it was great to meet a man who knows so much about them, having also worked as programmer at the French cinema Cine Lumiere. I met him at a suitably French bistro in Soho to discuss the channel and the state of French cinema amongst other things.

What do you love most about French film?

It’s a tricky question, but I think there is this particularity in French film that the French respect the auteur and before that there is a long history of French cinema. And what is great is that there is an ongoing thing since the first creation of the cinema itself with the Lumière brothers, that’s very particular. And there is the history of cinema itself with the Lumière brothers, that’s very particular. And there is Pathé production before the war  and there is all these great traditions of films. But I think generally I like this particularity in French cinema of giving the final cut to the directors, I think it’s very rare.

Do you think there is a lot more creative freedom in France?

Yeah, I mean I don’t think you should generalise and say that, because you know there is 250 films produced in France every year. But it is a particularity that is very rich and that ‘s why I like French cinema and that’s what I want to show as well on the channel, that French cinema is not a genre in itself , so of course there is commercial films like anywhere. But what I like is the auteur and my favourite directors, most of them are French it’s true. I love Claire Denis, [Arnaud] Desplechin, Agnes Varda, I really love them because they have real vision and because I think their producer respects their views and vision. And like is often the case for a lot of French actors they’ve got the final cut.  It’s what I read David Lynch as well said about the French , they’ve got the final cut. That’s why Lynch himself is produced by the French, by Studio Canal.

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