Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.
Brian Hill directed “Songbirds,” screening in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section. In “Songbirds,” the female inmates at Downview Prison in Surrey, England, sing about their experiences. “Through the vulnerability of singing we are able to glean another image, another portrait of who these women are beyond their prison sentences,” Sundance states. Hill founded and is managing director of Century Films production company. He has won a number of awards, including the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award, for his documentaries and television dramas.
Please tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What jobs have you had?
I was born in Rochdale, a small and not very interesting industrial town in the north of England. I left there at the age of 18 and went to university in Leicester, another small and uninteresting town. I studied sociology and then subsequently started to earn a living. Early jobs include casino croupier, university researcher and freelance journalist. I then became a social worker for a number of years before getting a job at the age of 31 with the BBC. I started as a junior researcher on a daytime television series which gave advice to viewers about housing and social security rights.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? How did you learn about filmmaking?
Having never really wanted a career in film and television, I suddenly found myself immersed in a world that I didn’t understand. I made it my business to understand filmmaking and before long was making three-minute films. From there I went on to other projects in the BBC, before leaving and working for various independent production companies. In 1997 I formed my own production company, Century Films. Although I have recently started making fiction films, the bulk of my career has been in documentary. I regard my background in sociology and social work as an ideal one for any documentary filmmaker. In terms of learning about filmmaking, I never went to film school, but I watched films, and I spoke to filmmakers. I’ve recently started writing scripts and my first television drama (“Bella and the Boys”) won me a BAFTA nomination for writing.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
“Songbirds” is part of an evolutionary process which started with a film called “Saturday Night” in 1996. That film was a documentary about four very different people on one night in the British city of Leeds. The poet Simon Armitage wrote a narration for the film in verse. In our next film (“Drinking for England”), we wanted to use poetry in a different way, and we came up with the idea of interviewing our subjects and then turning their interviews into verse, which they would speak in the film. In other words they told us their stories in poetry. As we were making the film, I discovered that two of our characters could sing, and we set their verses to music. The next stage in the evolutionary process was “Feltham Sings,” a film set in the largest and most notorious youth offender’s prison in Western Europe. We decided that this film should be a full-on documentary musical, with everyone singing about their lives. This docu-musical was a new genre and proved to be very successful. The film won several awards, including a BAFTA for best documentary. “Songbirds” has continued this process and is our latest documentary musical.
What are your biggest creative influences?
My biggest creative influences are not necessarily all filmmakers. But they do include British directors Alan Clarke and Ken Loach. Errol Morris is a filmmaker I admire, as is Kim Longinotto. Also, Werner Herzog.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The biggest challenge in making “Songbirds” was working within the prison system. Although the prison authorities were very supportive, nothing can be allowed to disrupt the prison regime, and filming schedules and prison regimes are not necessarily compatible. It was also a challenge to work with a group of women who had little or no singing and dancing experience, in order to make a musical. However, people can find hidden talents and strengths, and it was a joy to help these women find theirs and translate them into film.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
The day I found out that I’d been accepted into Sundance, I’d just arrived in Australia from London and was sitting in the sunshine at the Adelaide Cricket Ground, with a cold beer in my hand, watching South Australia play Western Australia. It felt as though everything was going right.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
What I hope to get out of the festival is the opportunity to meet other filmmakers from around the world and talk to them about their work.
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
If I was given $10 million for moviemaking I would find nine directors I admire and give them each a million dollars to make the film of their choice. The final million would be for me to make a film. These could be either documentary, drama, animation or anything else. The only stipulation would be that they had to tackle serious social issues. While the issues might be serious the films would not necessarily have to be.
What are some of your favorite films and why?
Favorite films include “The 400 Blows” by Truffaut for its humanity and wit. “Divorce Iranian Style” by Kim Longinotto for its humanity and humor and the way in which it tells us that people across the world have similar hopes and dreams. “Raging Bull” for outstanding performances and bravura directing. “City of God” for passion, technical brilliance and warmth. “Nashville” for just being totally brilliant. “Red Shoes” for being so far ahead of its time.
What are one or two of your New Year’s resolutions?
New Year’s resolutions include going to the cinema more, eating more fruit, stop watching crap television, read more 19th-century novels.
If you took President Bush’s job, who would you hire/fire?
If I took President Bush’s job I’d fire everyone who currently works for him.