by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Say what you will about Nick Broomfield: that he's shallow, that he's an ambulance-chaser, that he is, as one reviewer put it, "the unobservant voyeur." But whatever else they are, his films are compulsive viewing. His modus operandi--collecting a group of arresting individuals surrounding other, more central and elusive (or dead) ones--sucks the viewer into their vortex as testimonial after testimonial reveals both the film's subject and, as Broomfield would put it, the "soul" of the interviewer. The tapestry he weaves out of these apparently disparate interviewees is often overwhelming, even when you're not sure about the director's motives, and it keeps you watching to the final frames.
In person, I found Broomfield to be affable and highly approachable--on the run after a packed day of doing interviews in conjunction with being honoured at this year's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, he was perfectly happy to answer my questions (in a Starbucks on Toronto's College St., no less), and held forth on subjects as disparate as technique and current events. We began, fittingly enough, on the origins of his interest in the form.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So: Why did you choose to make documentaries?
NICK BROOMFIELD: I think it was just a natural progression, because I originally, when I was about fifteen or so, took pleasure from taking still photographs. And I remember I was in France on an exchange program, and the other kids couldn't play with me, so by accident, I went around and took pictures. And I found out a lot about the neighbourhood, and met all these people, and thought, well, if I want to find out about the world, this is a cool way to do it. And then, I think, a few years later, I realized that journalism had changed, that the sort of salad days of magazines like LIFE or PICTURE POST in England had sort of gone, and that if you really wanted to do a new kind of visual piece that documentary would be the way to do it, because you can obviously develop an in-depth search and explore kind of whatever subject you want to, and you have a greater freedom than being a journalist in a way. Because you make it happen, and you can look at things in more depth than journalists can.
What led to your decision to insert yourself into your documentaries?
Because as I changed my focus, and started making films that were more investigative, and more conceptual, I needed to find a way of structuring it, so that the story of these seemingly disparate elements that had no relationship were held together. And in the same way, in a fiction film, the detective is often the way of showing the journey of the story. I'm that person, the filmmaker, which is what I am, and the person who is making that investigation is something that I use in these films.
The search is obviously something that's very important to you. Do you enjoy the search? What is the attraction to the search for you?
Well, some of the films are investigations--you're investigating a murder or you're investigating a person, I think that they're investigations on one level or another. And when they're very intensive, the investigation provides a certain storyline too. An intention. I think that it's an element that's very helpful.
You're often dealing with searches for elusive figures, like the fascist in The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver's Wife, or Heidi Fleiss and Courtney Love. Is there something that attracts you to these figures?
I think that often there are certain subjects that are almost off-limits, and that other journalists or filmmakers haven't done them for that reason. And I think that those things are often very interesting--they almost have a modern mythology of their own. I think that the story of Kurt and Courtney is like a modern myth, and the story of Biggie and Tupac is like a modern myth. And to a certain extent Heidi Fleiss as well, they're all mythical characters almost.
What do you think is the documentarian's place?
Well, I think that in a free and properly functioning democracy, he has the function of examining and investigating the actions made by the government on behalf of the people of the country. And I think unfortunately, especially in America, what you have now is nine enormous corporations that control essentially all the media in America--the magazines, television, cinema--and they pretty much publicize the government position. In this most recent invasion in Iraq, they were pretty much just, in an unquestioning way, publishing Pentagon handouts. So that sort of critical function, of investigation and examination that is essential to any properly functioning democracy, has gone. And I think documentary has a particular responsibility at the moment to try and provide some of that information. I think documentary is a form that can examine things in-depth, present a situation to people, and it's vital to the world in which people have opinions and make decisions.
Is there a point at which a documentarian can go too far in invading privacy?
That's possible. I'm sure they can.
Even when you can't find your original figure, you usually have no trouble finding a motley band of hangers-on who are willing to spill their guts to you. What do you think of some of these people when you find them?
Well, I think people define themselves in a big part by the people who they spend time with, or hang out with, or have around them as friends. Obviously if you're doing a profile of someone like Kurt Cobain, and he's dead, you need to look to his friends to define him in a way. In the case of Biggie and Tupac, which is a murder investigation, you're examining people who were close to them or who knew them. I don't know about them being a motley group of hangers-on. Maybe that could be applied more to the people who were close to Kurt Cobain than Biggie and Tupac.
Right, but you have the people who were sort of surrounding Heidi Fleiss...
Well, those were people with whom she was intimately involved. The characters in Heidi Fleiss were Heidi's way into the business of prostitution. And Ivan Nagy was someone with whom she had a long, abusive, sexual relationship, which I think gave one an understanding of who she was, how she thought. It was also very interesting in that it represented a lot of the kind of relationships you get in Los Angeles--women who come to L.A. to make it as an actress in some way, who end up having these very bizarre relationships with much older guys, who have lots of money and who probably could never pick up the beautiful girl in college when they were much younger. I think her relationship with Ivan represents those things. I wouldn't describe them as a motley bunch of hangers-on, though.
In your early career, you directed a number of films with Joan Churchill, and she photographed a number of your films. What is your way of working with her, then and now?
Well, I think that one of the ways in which... One of the things that I like when working with Joan so much is that we know what each other is doing. We don't have to discuss everything. So working with her is sort of like shorthand. Obviously, I think she's an amazing cinematographer. She has, like, a sixth sense, just an amazing ability to capture what's going on. Often she sees things that I don't even see in a situation, and when I say that I'm obviously sound recording, things that you don't visually see at all, even when you're stuck behind a camera. But she has a sort of uncanny ability to sort of sense the emotional temperature of a room, of who's going to do what, before they do it. And I think on the level of making the films, people sense whether someone's honest or not and whether they're someone they really want to share their soul with, which is kind of what you're asking them to do. And Joan has that sort of aura around her--people trust in her, believe in her. She has a lot of integrity, and I think that comes out and makes her an amazing person to work with. People want to talk to her camera, they want to talk to her. She's a good girl.
You also directed the film adaptation of Spalding Gray's monologue Monster in a Box. What was it like working with Gray?
It was a pleasure, and it was very straightforward. Spalding was quite tough on himself. He was very amenable to being directed, there were no problems. It was very straightforward. I think the only problem we had on that was that one of the cameras wasn't focusing properly--it was a very straightforward shoot. Painless.