Docudrama: The Form of Last Resort?
For five months in 1989 an abandoned newspaper office in Manchester, England, was taken over by a Granada TV film crew in pursuit of a sombre assignment. The object of the exercise was to make a 90-minute drama documentary showing the events leading up to the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland on December 21, 1988, with the loss of 270 lives.
Why Lockerbie?, or The Tragedy of Flight 103 as it was called in the States, is the la rest work of Leslie Woodhead, one of Britain's most noted documentary filmmakers. Woodhead joined Granada TV directly after graduating from Cambridge in 1961, and after doing numerous general and ecological documentaries, set up Granada's drama documentary unit with David Boulton in 1978. Why drama-doc? Woodhead sees it almost as a form of last resort. "It's a way of doing things where ordinary documentary can't cope...a way of telling a story that would be impossible by conventional documentary methods. " For Woodhead the impossible story has ranged from the account of a Chinese woman being tried by Red Guards in A Subject For Struggle, through the '68 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in Invasion, to a picture of the Solidarity Movement in the Len in shipyards in Gdansk in Strike.
Why Lockerbie?, which presents a devastating indictment of Pan Am's former security methods, was completed in England in November 1990 and shown on HBO a month later. What follows is a shortened version of Alan Rosenthal's interview with Woodhead as the film was being finished. The full interview is due for publication by the University of California Press in Rosenthal's forthcoming Documentary Drama (1992).
How did the Lockerbie program come about?
In the late spring of 1989 Granada TV's World in Action made a short program investigating the responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. The program looked at various options and concluded that the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) was responsible, and the film was transmitted in early June. However, the people working on the program had concluded there was an enormous amount of intriguing material lying around to which they couldn't get access. The editor of World in Action then suggested to me that I might want to consider a drama documentary on the subject because it satisfied our main criteria for these things: difficulty of access, lots of intriguing information, and witnesses who might nor speak on camera but who might be willing to be debriefed and who could be sources for a dramatization.
About the same time I was talking to HBO (Home Box Office) about possible areas of cooperation and it turned out they were very interested in a film investigation.
Research began in June 1989, and at the same time an other ingredient came in to place, our writer Michael Eaton. Michael had written a film for HBO called Fellow Traveler about possibly communist American writers in the fifties, and HBO thought he might be a good person to work with because of his interest in factually-based material. We met and agreed it would be intrigued in g to try and develop something. After three months working with Amon O'Connell and Alasdair Palmer as researchers it became clear that the key to the film was "the preventable massacre. " There had been numerous warnings in the months before the disaster. And it became more and more bewildering that no one had managed to read them and stop it from happening.
What were your objectives at that point? And how were you coordinating research and script writing?
We were aiming for a one-hour film looking at the three months preceding the disaster, and we thought we would best be served by a hybrid mix of documentary interview and dramatic interlude. We thought we could sit down with leaders of the next of kin of the families, who were highly informed about the intricacies of the events leading up to Lockerbie, and cross-cut that with our own dramatized interludes. We got as far as going to Lockerbie itself in August '89 and doing some filming of the families gathering to consecrate a memorial to those who died.
Regarding research, Amon was working on the terrorist things and Alasdair was beginning to look at Germany and Pan Am security at Frankfurt airport. Information was spilling out at a tremendous rate and Michael did three script drafts in no time flat. But it seemed every time he put pen to paper everything we knew had to be completely overturned and updated.
What guidelines did you lay down for Michael?
At first Michael's task was to help me distill and refine this torrent of undigested information and try to make narrative sense out of it with the notion of "the preventable massacre. " Then, as dramatist, he had to find shape and definition in this amorphous cloud of events. Luckily he very quickly came upon the controlling idea of the script. He was very interested in what he called the ethnic methodologies of two groups. The first was Pan Am, a big American company in financial difficulties struggling to survive. The second was the Palestinian Lebanese unit. And each group is unknowingly but inexorably moving towards the other. That was the motif that fascinated him. So Michael was trying to understand the language, the styles and the operating methods of these two utterly dissimilar institutions. He wanted to see how companies talked to and related to one another, and understand the same things about the way a hard-pressed and determined terrorist cell lives its life and operates.
So there was Michael scribbling away and writing script after script. But by September 1989 I concluded things were so fluid and hard to pin down that it was better to call a temporary halt and review everything in January. Meanwhile I'd also realized that we'd need at least an hour-and-a-half, and that to only investigate three months before Lockerbie was n't enough. We might have to go back way before that because the simple notion that the problem lay with underpaid, undertrained inadequate security people in Frankfurt just wasn't good enough to explain what happened. We needed to trace back up the corporate pyramid of Pan Am and back down along the time scale to find out how such inadequate people had been given such positions of authority at Frankfurt airport.
How did HBO react to the delays? Was there a difference in style and method between them and Granada?
HBO was very sympathetic to the idea of a postponement and also willing to bankroll the implications of that, which meant it being a much more ambitious piece than originally planned. But postponement also raised the danger of never starting up again.
Can you tell me about the difficulty of research, where you are confronting international police, airport authorities, wary company officials, and so on.
Police authorities, especially German police authorities, don't immediately make themselves available for this kind of enquiry. What happens is you usually come upon some senior official who is no longer in the position he occupied when the events took place, and probably isn't too happy about the circumstances of his departure, who's willing to set the record straight. You get him on board and he says, "Why don't you get to see so and so," and with the recommendation of A you get to see person B. I also have to say there was a lot of interesting leg work journalists had already done on the story. And then the lawyers working with the terrorists, for their own good reasons, were willing to make certain files available.
The research really took off when we went to the States and started to make contact with the people who had been senior officials at Pan Am at the relevant time, particularly Fred Ford, the first head of Alert, Pan Am's security initiative. We then met Jumbo Wood whom Fred had hired alert's head of training, who had lots of files and records and memories of what had taken place.
Pan Am knew you were making a film which was possibly very critical of them. Wereyou frightened of their interference with the film on Legal or other grounds?
We finally reached a point in spring 1990 when we knew we had number of points we had to put to the current regime of Pan Am. Alasdair Palmer spent some hours with their head of public relations and they gave us their views on the issues we had raised. Where we thought it was relevant and proper we incorporated those things into the script. There were number of things Pa n Am wanted to tell us that we thought they had their own reasons for telling us. And yes, we were wary of their reactions, so at every stage the film was subject to very careful scrutiny by our lawyers in New York and London. I've never spent so long in legal debates with lawyers about the fine tuning of what we were doing. They were very demanding and rigorous and quite properly asked for supporting documentation for every line of every scene and how we could justify what we were doing.
One of the critiques of drama documentary is that one is never quite sure what is factual and what is invented. Can you comment on that in regard to Lockerbie?
We felt that on material as sensitive as this there was no scope for invention. In fact, in many ways, the story line of our film is maddening from a dramatic point of view. It's a 19-month story spread over three continents. All the characters in Act One disappear in Act Two, to be replaced by quite new people in Act Three. Assessed by dramatic criteria the thing was a nightmare and a disgrace. But as far as I know, and as far as we have been pinned into a corner by our lawyers, there is substantial backing for every scene in the film.
Was there any pressure to jazz up the film...to make it more sexy?
I was concerned there would be some impetus from across the Atlantic to move away from our otherwise austere and puritanical priorities towards something having more to do with emergency and entertainment drama. I have to say, having now worked with HBO on two films, that wasn't the case. The Americans had a grueling gritty obsession with information and for conveying it with clarity. At the level of authentication, scripting information and making us think harder, they were very stern taskmasters. Where their priorities differed from ours was in casting. They wanted people their audience had heard of. Well, thank God that didn't mean Burt Reynolds or Madonna, but there were times when I got very nervous because we were close to deadline and the casting hadn't been completed.
In drama documentary you want to come as close as you can to showing that this is how things happened, this is how things Looked, this is authentically how people behaved. How did you solve these problems?
Besides the writer, the other crucial figure in all rh is was the production designer Roy Stenhouse. What really gets him excited is going around Europe taking photographs of Polish wastepaper baskets so that he can get them absolutely right. Roy's first task was to take reference photographs because it quickly became apparent we would never get permission to film in many of the locations. No airport in either Europe or the United States was willing to let us in to do one frame of filming on the subject. Frankfurt was willing to allow us on to the concourse but not into the main body of the airport. All the airports were so sensitive that it became apparent that if we weren't to be blocked we would have to reconstruct check-in desks, baggage handling areas and all that goes with that. So Roy traveled all over taking thousands of photos and videotapes so that he could reconstruct all of it.
In the end we had to reconstruct in excess of 50 locations. We realized the only way to do that was to build it all, which could have been awesomely expensive. Roy found what was really the secret weapon of this film, the huge empty old Daily Mirror building in central Manchester, which had cavernous open spaces. We looked at the building and knew it could help us because we could shoot most of our interior locations right there. The gain was enormous logistically. You go down a flight of stairs and move from the German police headquarters to Pan Am's check in. You go up a flight of stairs and you are in a terrorist cell. Go down some more stairs and you are in the Iranian Embassy. With this secret weapon we were able to shoot a very extensive film in five weeks, including a week in Germany and a week in Malta.
These days people spend years studying drama directing, handling actors, etc. You went straight.from documentary to drama-doc. How did you handle that?
When I started doing these things in 1970 I was a television journalist and had never spoken to an actor in my life. I spoke to one friend of mine, a drama director and asked him "what do you actually say to them when they come into the room?" and he said "I don't know. I just sort of talk to them." I found this massively reassuring as he was making Hollywood features by then and he still didn't know. What I try and do is find actors who are enormously interested in real materials, and who can find their own ways to transmit them into life. I don't claim a special skill with them beyond saying "would you please do a lot less." The other factor in working with actors is to try and understand some thing about the character of the individuals we are researching. So Alasdair Palmer came back with as detailed character notes as he could devise about all the major figures. He told me what the Chairman was like, what Fred Ford was like. When I met Jumbo Wood and asked hi m what I should call him, he said, "Call me Jumbo. The Queen does," which became his first line in the film. A lot of the normal di rector's role of hunting for character and motivation is not a legitimate part of what I have to do as a director in drama-doc. We are not trying to speculate or invent characters. We are trying to represent our best view of what real people are like.
What Pulled you into drama documentary?
it was completely pragmatic. We came upon dramatization as a way of solving certain, quite definite problems that we encountered as current affairs documentary makers in the early 70s. It was a time when we were making fierce documentaries about America and Southeast Asia but couldn't get into Eastern Europe. Some of us thought this was a very unsatisfactory state of affairs and we ought to be trying harder to solve these problems of access. The film about General Grigorenko that I made in 1970 became a dramatization simply because we thought it was an important story and we couldn't work out any other way of putting it on television.
In the USA drama documentary or fact drama has become the flavor of the week. Is there any difference between the way Americans handle drama documentary and the way you do them in England?
Although I love what Americans have done, particularly with feature movies like All the President's Men, we have such different priorities and parameters that sometimes conversation is not that useful. I think what is often called docudrama or "faction" in America comes either from drama or entertainment departments propelled by people whose experience is in those areas. The priorities of these people are storytelling and drama rather than journalism and revelation and investigation, and it gives an entirely different spin to what they do. They feel no inhibitions about taking a story in directions it doesn't actually possess. I do believe there is cause for concern about the kind of degraded dramatizations which are now finding their way onto American network TV. There is a sense in which the whole of American prime time documentary seems to be blown away by a rather sleazy form of semi-dramatization in which hyped-up events are presented with high action music and fast cutting. And there is cause for concern about that drift.
So how do you let the audience know that it's not being misled? That all the events of the program really do have a basis in truth?
Sometimes program makers play fast and loose with the broad lines between real journalism and speculation and invention, without sufficient signposting. Labeling and signposting are both terrifically important. In the Lockerbie film we have a moment in the last act where a narrative voice comes on and says something like, 'we are not so sure about this, folks, as we are about the rest of the film. This is our best stab at what took place.' And we've labeled it that way. I think that where these films have sometimes gone wrong is that they haven't sufficiently delineated where the ground rules shift. It's really very difficult to footnote a television program in the same way you can a book, but I think you have to make more efforts than some programs have done to indicate what the status of information is, and where it shifts.
There is another issue. At a time when British television is deeply concerned with impartiality, there is a feeling that drama-docs are "per se" partial and that they don't allow you to quickly state both sides of the case. I would contend that in a curious way, providing you signpost and label them properly, drama docs are sometimes more capable of being straightforward with their audiences than conventional documentaries. The interventions and editorial decisions I make in apparently unmediated documentaries are sometimes at least as great as they are in drama-docs. It's just the form doesn't make it look that way.
Many academics I know seem terribly bothered about the drama documentary form, and the nature of the beast. How valid is the concern?
I think the regulators and the television academics are a lot more bothered about this debate than the viewers are. There was a po ll here two weeks ago which concluded that the viewers had no difficulty whatsoever with drama-docs like Who Bombed Birmingham? They knew what kind of animal they were being offered. They knew they had journalists working with actors. They knew they weren't watching observational documentary. Quite frankly I think the audience is enormously sophisticated in decoding this kind of material and all the kind of matronly clucking by regulators and academics about purism and good form is simply not shared by the audiences.
Alan Rosenthal is a documentary filmmaker and author active in Israel Britain and the United States. He teaches at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His most recent book is Writing, Directing and Producing the Documentary Film, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
© copyright Alan Rosenthal 1990