A Dramatic Turn of Events

Right now, I’m sat in a cafe, drinking cinnamon tea and reliving last week’s drama shoot. My back still aches from it, and my brain seems to have powered down to energy-saving mode. But the memories made, the jokes cracked and all the things I learned on the shoot still make me smile as I sip my tea.

The production I’ve just finished working on, a feature-length drama-doc about Prince Albert, was always going to be more drama than doc. We had already filmed the talking heads who were going to provide the documentary element of the film, we’d fact checked the script, we had cast the actors, and now it was time to shoot the whole thing. A beautiful country house in Yorkshire had agreed for us to film there, and we were setting off in the car, armed with lots scripts, schedules, socks and snacks.

During the shoot, I was to take on the role of the 3rd AD (assistant director). I’ll write a separate blog on the ins and outs of what’s involved in the role, but I think the first thing I realised when we got on set is the importance of the hierarchy in drama shoots, which just isn’t quite the same as on a doc shoot. There is a very clear pecking order: Director, 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, Floor Runner. The hierarchy decides things like who gets to have an editorial say, who gets on set the earliest, even who eats lunch first. And I must admit, it was quite a shock going from being the researcher with quite a significant editorial say, to a position where my suggestions counted for nothing. Although I understand that in many cases, hierarchies are an important way of maintaining order, it is also important never to crush creativity and innovation in an industry that relies so heavily on creativity and innovation.

Of course, there are many other ways in which drama shoots differ from documentary shoots. The schedules and timings are far more precise; there are many, many more people involved; there are many more factors to consider, such as set dressing, lighting, radio communications. Each department multiplies threefold and everyone has their own specific responsibilities. It’s quite an amazing machine – but there again, I discovered a warning symbol. The careful working of the cogs in the machine made the whole shoot so systematic, so pre-determined, so…boring! Whereas on a doc shoot, you’re always travelling to new places, meeting new people, exploring new things, on the drama shoot all the creativity happens in advance, and once you’re on shoot it’s just a matter of getting the stuff on film as quickly as possible. And at the end of 16 hours of being on my feet, the last thing I wanted to do was think creatively about how to make the film as beautiful as possible.

So that’s why, as I finish the dregs of my tea, I feel extremely grateful for the experience of the drama shoot, and very confident that I’m working in the right industry and the right genre for me. I love making documentaries. I love sharing real people’s stories. I love going to new places and discovering new things, and making them accessible to thousands of viewers. I can’t wait to get stuck in to another documentary.

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A Dramatic Turn of Events

Drama Queen

I’m now working on a docu-drama, an eight-part series about ancient Rome. This is the first docu-drama I’ve worked on, and it’s really interesting to see how the teams of directors and producers (four teams of two, each allocated two episodes) are working to combine the elements of documentary and drama to effectively tell the story of the Roman Empire. Along the way, I’m learning how drama is written, and I’ll share a few of my discoveries with you.

One advantage of dramatizing parts of history is to bring the complex politics to life. The history of Rome wasn’t all epic battles and gladiators: the key moments of change usually involved covert conversations in darkened corridors, House-of-Cards-style. These are pretty boring to describe or to read about, but dramatize them and you’ve got yourself an edge-of-your-seat political thriller!

One of my tasks as the series researcher is to provide the Drama Producer with character briefs for the casting. This means that I get to profile these incredible figures of ancient history in a way that the actor can embody them, understand their personality and their motivations, and bring these people back to life. It’s a great privilege, and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – my previous experience in directing theatre productions has come in useful too! I find that when I read about the leaders and key figures in history, I can vividly imagine what they were like – little details here and there that we get from their biographies make them jump off the page.

But I’ve been particularly impressed by how the producers and directors are so keen on historical accuracy. It’s easy to get carried away with the sensationalism of the story – but each drama sequence has been supported by and based on at least one reliable historical source. The directors are particularly keen to put words in the mouths of their historical characters that sound believable – I’ve been looking up extracts of Seneca’s speeches so that the director can write ‘in the voice of Seneca’. I’m also working with the props department to make sure that each of the key props in the series are historically accurate – for example, that the drinking cups are typical of status and period.

All these details, coupled with the new archaeological discoveries that we’re exploring in the documentary sections of the series, are bringing Ancient Rome back to life. I’m exploring aspects of Roman life that I never covered in my degree, and what will be an intriguing and informative journey for our Channel 5 audience has certainly been that way for me. I’m so happy to be a part of this project – and I can’t wait for filming to start!

Drama Queen