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An Interview with Nick Fraser

Interview with Nick Fraser, Commissioning Editor for BBC's Storyville by Dalia Neis, published in DocuWave magazine in Great Britain

What are the philosophy and objectives behind Storyville?

 

When I came to the BBC six years ago Storyville was previously called Fine cut. . It was initially a slot for showing longer than 6o minute documentaries. I didn't like the name because it had overly film school, arty connotations and so I changed the name to Storyville. We began to think of Storyville as the best and brightest documentaries that were being made at the time in the world. Storyville has gone on from eight to ten slots a year on BBC 2 to over fifty-two on the Digital Channel (BBC 4). I have three slots to fill on peak time on BBC 2 including a late night slot on News night. Storyville is a much bigger block than it was two years ago and five years ago but it still has the same character. I can't say that Storyville has a specific style or subject - I think it should be open. I rather like the fact that the criteria now is interest not just style. The only thing that governs our choice is that we like them and we think they're in a variety of ways important.

How important are audience ratings and statistics to Storyville. Does that not also form significant criteria in the selection process?

In the matter of the three slots on peak time on BBC 2 we have to pay acute attention to the audience. If the film doesn't make over a million viewers then it's not good enough. On the late night slots and of course on BBC 4, it matters much less. I think that if you are selecting shows for a new digital channel then you can't be concerned with audiences because you don't know where there is an audience. So what you have to think about is what the pre-viewers will like, what people will write about and the overall impact it has. You have to almost reinvent the idea of television and consider what will be interesting and important to say and show this week.

Do you feel that you can take more risks on a digital channel?

Yes you can, but the disappointing thing I have to tell you is that when you examine what ratings there are, or in the absence of ratings, you have look at what people like the reviewers or pre-viewers appreciate. They are a very small group of people admittedly, but it doesn't follow that because it's on a digital channel that they think you should be taking more risks. A digital channel doesn't mean that you can find audiences for shows that didn't find audiences on a non-digital channel. It just means you have pretty much the same criteria of interests and you have to juggle hard to make sure that anyone watches them at all. So I wouldn't say that the arrival of digital TV necessarily indicates that you are going to see a lot more minority stuff.

It must feel quite restrictive for you to have to deal with all these various factors.

 

I think on the whole I'm mostly free until they sack me and decide that I've put out too many documentaries that no one watches. In any case, through my own tastes or maybe deficiencies and habituation of working in the BBC, I tend to like things that are not middle of the road but that are fairly accessible.

Are you in favour of documentaries that are more formal, associative and less narrative driven? Documentaries that work with perhaps a more poetic and associative form of narrative.

I'm not actually sure that there is a tradition of so-called innovative or Avant-Garde documentary filmmaking that really exists anymore. The new Chris Marker is going to find it very difficult. The essay documentary form is becoming harder to commission. The stuff that everyone wants is very strong narrative that's why in spite of this Werner Herzog is a strange success, everyone loves Werner Herzog's films. Teenagers can watch them, even though they are quite thoughtful, eccentric and impassioned. Everybody gets what they're on about. I watched the last Goddard film and I was very intrigued by how I didn't really respond to it. I mean it was very funny because it was very Anti-American but I didn't get it really. Perhaps it's my own problem that I think that documentaries that don't have any narrative are very difficult to watch.

Do you feel that there are subjects or topics that come and go out of fashion within the commissioning process? I am thinking of documentaries that deal with historical events such as the Holocaust where there seems to be a certain resistance in producing such films.

We have a film now about an actor called Kurt Gerron who was a German war veteran and a Jew. He was imprisoned in 1939 and ended up in a series of camps - it was he who directed this notorious propaganda film made in Terezen. This film addresses a new topic: What were the motives behind this man? He is now trying to deal with reconstructing who he was and why he might have taken this decision. There's been a definite dip in Holocaust films the last year. A lot of it has got to do with political taste - as soon as the Intifada started there have been fewer films commissioned on this topic. It is quite strange and I'll be tempted to commission a lot of films about the holocaust. It's not the audience it's the commissioning editors who are resisting.

 

Tell me about the process in which you commission documentaries.

 

My target is to split things three ways and have one third of the output of 52 odd slots bought off the shelf, a third pre-bought and the rest are commissioned.

Channel 4 have a lot of money but very few slots. We have lots of slots but less money per slot so almost everything we do has to be co-produced unless the film can come in at about the same cost as Agnes Varda's film came in. She made the film (The Gleaners and I) as an 8000 pounds masterpiece. If people can do films for that price I can commission them but normally they can't so we have to find co-production money. Once we like the filmmaker and we like the subject there is a period that ensues when everyone runs around trying to find money which is very frustrating. But that is increasingly the fate of documentary filmmakers - they have to get good at that - this is how shows are commissioned in Europe.

Do the filmmakers already have to come to you with partial funding?

No, they can come to me with nothing - just an idea. It helps if they shot five minutes of material. Unless I know the filmmaker I have to have an idea about how they're going to treat the subject and normally you can only figure that out if people send you a tape. Although, quite often we commission something just through a conversation; I say, 'that sounds like a good idea' and then we give them a bit of development money, they develop it and start finding co-production money and then it goes through the system. We have a lot of international partners – we also work with the Film Council which is very important for British filmmakers. We've done two shows with the film council so far - There is one show by Sophie Fiennes, which is not a narrative narrative-, its contemplative and narrative about a gospel church in LA called Hoover street revival. Then John Batsak is producing a film about Brit pop and the whole moment in the 90's when it was considered to be very important called Live Forever. Out of all this great magi-mix of co-production, after about 6-8 months if your lucky, the money finally emerges and the filmmakers go off and make the films and then we hope for the best.

What about newcomers?

Storville at the moment has one big project for newcomers but it is generally difficult to get us to perform and function for interesting newcomers because everything has to be co-produced. If you have a film that requires three partners to satisfy, it precludes really choosing newcomers as somebody among the partners is going to say 'oh we can't take a risk on this person because they haven't done enough'. If it was a documentary that was initiated somewhere else then we'd probably say the same thing. So that is a problem and at present we can't really do anything about it.

Unless this newcomer has an experienced producer to ensure a smooth production.

That would be OK yes, but they should have done a bit if you're talking about films over 60 minutes long. There have been occasions when newcomers have come in and they've shot 100, 200 hours footage. They show us what they've done and I say, 'oh that's fine, we'll take a look at that'.

You seem to be the most present representative from the British documentary industry. In fact, aside from yourself there doesn't appear to be many, if any, British commissioning editors participating in European and International documentary events.

There are some others, but not many. That's what I do at the BBC. I've had the advantage in working in television in not having to do wholly mainstream work although I sometimes do pretty obvious stuff that gets quite big ratings. There is a problem in television that the more money they give you the more they want something in return. If they never quite give you enough money you have more freedom but they rely on you to find the rest of the money. It seemed to me some time ago that sooner or later the BBC and British broadcasters would be forced to do much more international collaboration.

You have in the past spoken about the danger of inbreeding. Do you still think that this is the case in Britain?

Yes I think there's a huge danger for young filmmakers - what they find in Britain is that life isn't too difficult because there is a lot of money in the media system here. But the price you pay for that is that it's not your own, it's ordered up by broadcasters and you become a sort master-cutter or subcontractor of the media. The broadcasters want something and they get you to do it and that's what you end up doing. It's not as you would say, a creative act, its something done to order. I also think if you look at what British broadcasters commission is getting very formulaic. It very much consists of things that exist to fill slots.

So are you considered to be in opposition to this?

Well alas, yes. I didn't think that this should ever happen to me. I work on the margins and 10 or 15 years ago I would have been nearer the centre. But if that gives me more freedom so be it – I don't really begrudge that.

I'm surprised that other people haven't really done the same. Shouldn't international collaboration also affect the quality of the project as well as the prospect of wider distribution outlets?

Well it does take more time and you'd be surprised that Ikka, my colleague from Finnish TV harangued the entire corpus of commissioning editors in Sheffield three years ago and said that commissioning editors in Britain were the most narrow minded people he'd ever met on this planet. Clearly, British TV is pretty much geared to serve British TV which is fine but I wish that more people in Britain were allowed to make films as good and engaging as some of the wilder documentaries by American filmmakers.

There are people in the BBC and channel 4 who periodically demonstrate some interest in these international films but it's pretty slight and I don't think it's got larger. If anything, you have a sort of near tragic sense that nothing changes.

 

Interview by Dalia Neis

 

 

Dear Jo,

I would like to express some more information which can be used as additional notes with the assemble cut of 'When I see you Again'.

The interview scene at the opening of the film will be replaced with the old black and white stills of the 1920s school photograph (as featured in the two sequences in this version of the film). The voice-over of the interview will be heard over these stills. The reason for this adjustment is that this footage has just been processed and returned to me. They are different to the ones that are shown, different black and white contrast, different faces – the real beginning of the film! I did feel that it was important to still give you the interview as this information is important and without it the film wouldn't be complete even though it is not the actual image that I intend to use.

I do not know what stage you are in the viewing process, whether or not you have even watched the film. I intend to now substitute this and would like to send this to you, so that you can have it along with some subtitles. I am aware that this information could have arrived a little late. So please tell me if this is ok for you. If you can bear this in mind, I would be very grateful.

London spring 2002, Dalia Neis