Driving Me Crazy: An Interview with Nicholas Broomfield
By Bill Reed
British-born Nicholas Broomfield has been a part of some of the more interesting and controversial American and British documentaries of the past decade. As he explains in the following interview, his and Joan Churchill's Soldier Girls (1980) not only was widely shown and praised, it also caused consternation among U.S. Army brass. Their 1978 Tattooed Tears, filmed in a California maximum security prison for juveniles, won a Dupont award; and Broomfield and Sandi Bissell's 1982 Chicken Ranch had a legalized brothel in Nevada as its subject matter.
Broomfield studied law at Cardiff University and graduated from England 's Essex University in 1970 with a B.A. in political science and law. Then, beginning his advance toward a legal career, Broomfield realized that his heart wasn't in "all that horrific social hunting, shooting and fishing" that came with the territory, so he affected an abrupt mid stream career turnabout and in 1971 entered Britain's National Film School, graduating in 1974.
Broomfield began working with Joan Churchill in 1976. Their first effort together, the volatile Juvenile Liaison, funded by the British Film Institute, zeroed in on the behavior of the British police toward youthful offenders. A premiere viewing by the House of Commons ignited a controversy that ended up with the entire BFI Production Board resigning en masse; effectively the film was banned.
Before partnering professionally with Churchill, Broomfield completed five works, two of which, Whittingham, about a mental hospital, and Fort Augustus, filmed in a monastery, were made for Granada Television. But the film for which Churchill and Broomfield are most well-known is 1987's Lily Tomlin. Differences of opinion between comedienne Tomlin and the filmmakers, over how the work should be cut, received a great deal of press attention prior to the production's eventual showing on PBS in the fall of 1987.
I interviewed Broomfield on the eve of his latest film Driving Me Crazy being shown at Anthropos, the Los Angeles documentary film festival. His new work is a rather odd companion piece to the Tomlin film, in as much as chaos also surrounds the making of this work. But with this new 85-minute feature, unlike the Tomlin film, the sturm und drang are all up on the screen. A backstage documentary, Driving Me Crazy starts out as a look at the making of a multi-million dollar, all-black German stage musical (originating in New York) which is being directed by European superstar director and performer And re Heller, with the documentary being financed by Virgin Films, Tele Munchen and VCL, the German wing of Virgin.
But shortly after the credits roll, the focus of the film abruptly shifts to behind-the-scenes troubles which are plaguing the making of the Broomfield documentary. With its final, but unwitting, storyline of backstage bickering and uncertain financing, Driving Me Crazy ends up as a kind of verite Golddiggers 1988.
Aside from Broomfield, Driving Me Crazy other featured dramatic personae are its producer Andrew Braunsberg and writer Joe Hindy, brought in to sculpt a fictional storyline around Broomfield's footage. (The film's director of photography is Robert Levi.)
When I talked with Broom field at his Santa Monica, California home, he had just completed his first non-documentary theatrical film, Diamond Skulls, and would soon be off to Britain to start work on another, tentatively titled Listening Post.
This new and thorough immersion into the world of the dramatic feature would appear to signal decreasing interest in the documentary form on Broomfield's part. But, not only did he touch upon the funding and logistical problems that inevitably surround most current non-fiction filmmaking, he also spoke enthusiastically of the inherent 'fun' he says he will always find working in the form - no matter how many stumbling blocks might come with the territory.
It seems to me that the ostensible subject matter of Driving Me Crazy, the creation of an all-Black theatrical revue, ends up as just so much "white noise" in the background.
Yes, it's like the McGuffin, isn't it? A pretext.
Was it intentional from the very beginning that the actual production of your film would occupy the foreground of the action? Instead of a film about the making of a musical, a making-of-the-making-of sort of project?
I realized that that was the only way I could conceptually structure the film. The only beginning, middle and end I could see was that there was a financial problem and... until I understood that that was what I was going to do, was, basically, going to leave [the project].
So, instead, the story of the film turned into...?
I'd been asked to do a film: the money [for its production] had been cut; there was a dispute with Andrew about the writer; and at the end the money would be cut off by its financiers. I mean, that's what I was pretty sure was going to happen. And so I Insisted on being able to film absolutely everything that went on.
Absolutely everything, not just the auditions and so on. (Broomfield is shown on-screen making this carte blanche demand to Braunsberg early on in the film's action.)
Did you have a hard time selling the film's backers on the idea of doing it this way?
They had basically pledged $300,000 for making this little pilot in New York. This was cut down from $1. 5 million which would have been for a much larger film; following the show to Germany, rehearsals there and so on. But I think the film still ended up costing about $800,000. I always believed totally in the film. I always knew it was a good film. I always loved the mischievousness of it. But during the making of it I was always thinking, am I really going to get away with this... am I really going to be allowed to put this on?
Andrew was pretty clear about the kind of film we'd made. I think that what is wonderful about Andrew Braunsberg is that he loves chaos and I seem to generate it. So he was very supportive. I Think that Virgin, the financiers, had more of a problem. They regarded it as something that was going to be impossible to market, impossible to sell.
Which still remains to be seen?
Well, the film has a theatrical release in England, and it 's sold for more than any other documentary to television there, because the BBC and Channel Four got into a price war over the film. So it has more than fulfilled any expectations of the financiers.
Why did you just shoot part of the finale?
Because Andre said if we shot under three minutes of the show he wanted $ 20, 000 and if it was anything more it was something like $150,000 or $180,000, so it was more or less a question of using one piece. I think that it was important that one saw, at least, something of the show.
It is rather ironic that your last film, Lily Tomlin [made with Joan Churchill] had all this chaos going on behind the scenes which doesn't show up on the film but which is publicized in the press and then with Driving Me Crazy you're made out to be a mixer and someone whom trouble follows wherever you go. Did you have any second thoughts about the public's perception of you as a troublemaker?
Not really. And I think the desire to do something like Driving Me Crazy dates back to when Joan and I were going through the hideous experience of making the Lily Tomlin film.
I always got the sense from the news stories that the situation didn't really turn sour until you started editing the film?
It took up three years of our lives. And it was hideous while we were doing it and what happened afterward was just an extension of what happened during the filming. Joan, myself and one other crew person would be stuck in some motel down in San Diego for weeks on end. If we were lucky we'd get a half-an-hour of film in the can by the end of the week. And we'd be kind of watching her window wondering when she was going to move and we'd say, 'Oh, did you see the curtain move? ' And the rest of the time we'd be doing push ups on the floor or watching television. And I kept thinking, the film we should be making is not about Lily Tomlin and her show, but about the absurdity of pursuing this woman around, who we don't have any kind of relationship with, and just the de meaning exercise that it is. My analysis, and I think one would agree, too, was that our mistake on the Lily Tomlin film was that once the going got rough we should have either scuttled the project completely, although financially it would have been very difficult to have done that or, I think that when the going gets so rough it's much easier to go with what's wrong and make that a part of the film. Where you actually use the problem as part of the process of the film. What we learned is that when you hold true to your wackier ideas and go with those, it always turns out the best.
Whose idea was it to make Driving Me Crazy?
Andrew's. I'd never worked with him before. I'd seen Being There and "Postman" [Always Rings Twice] and I'd seen films like The Tenant and Repulsion that he made with Polanski, but I didn't know him very well before Driving Me Crazy. I think the mistake that Joan and I made in the past was turning down too many films because we were always waiting for the film we wanted to make. I think that's a mistake because if you 're on your toes you can always shape things to go in your direction. And also just because it's good to keep working. So when this came along I decided to do it... that there might be something there. All the other films have been initiated by Joan and myself.
What kind of projects have you been offered in the past?
Well, one was a film on Sir Ranulph Twisleton Wykeham Fiennes going around the North Pole in some peculiar fashion. I think he was going around with skidoos instead of dogs. It's a relief we didn't do that one. It would have been a nightmare.
Which brings us to the inevitable question of how difficult is it to secure funding for your own projects as opposed to just being a hired hand on someone else's film?
In general funding is a terrible problem. I think that's one of the reasons we did the Lily Tomlin film is because it was there and very fundable and seemed an easy thing to do. With Soldier Girls we started out with only $ 30,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts and shot the film with that money without paying ourselves any salary and on the strength of the footage were able to get money to pay ourselves off and finish the film, but that's a rather dodgy way of going and it's certainly not a lifetime strategy. That was a long time before we had a kid. Luckily, whenever we really wanted to do something we've normally been able to get the money together.
You've just finished making your first fiction film.
I shot in England, and I'm just starting on another film. It's a film loosely based on the Lord Lucan murder. Lord Lucan has become a part of folk culture in England. In about 1974, allegedly, he meant to murder his wife, but killed the nanny by mistake. His car was found parked on the cliffs near Dover and he's never been heard of since. And there have been all of these sightings of Lucan around the world. He became a sort of contemporary folk figure.
Does that mean your days as a documentary filmmaker have come to an end?
I think I'll do both. I've always found doing them sort of fun, but they are tough going. If you want to make a good one, you've got to put in a staggering amount of work and knock up an amazing adrenaline level. And financially they're unrewarding.
You've just finished one theatrical feature and now you're starting on another. Isn't the subtext of Driving Me Crazy about how difficult it is to make the kind of film that you seem to specialize in?
I suppose it is. It 's about all the games you have to go through. Different pulls. In a sense I thought Soldier Girls was about as far as I, personally, could push a particular style in terms of structuring it like a narrative film, more or less telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I suppose Driving Me Crazy is about all the strings you have to pull to get that to happen...all those mind games and manipulations. Making films like Soldier Girls, you're always trying to keep one step ahead of the characters to find out what they're going to do next. You certainly, at the very least, have to ingratiate yourself to all parties concerned. You're a best friend to all parties whether you agree with them or not. We were filming Soldier Girls for twelve or fourteen weeks.
From your own experience, is it easier to work on documentaries in Europe?
I don't think so. I think it's better here. For instance, with television the British unions specified, for a long time, that you have to have a certain number of people. Even the in-house union at the BBC. That means that you have two on camera, two on sound, a director of continuity... I remember when I went to film school there... I was very lucky when I went to the National Film School that Colin Young was there who'd just come from UCLA. And he introduced us to Leacock and Pennebaker and Wise man and all those kinds of films. And it was like the dawning of a new era, because I found most of the British films incredibly stymied and set up and obvious. They didn't seem to tell stories. Even in their objective way they were telling you what to think. I found them very insulting to an audience. And I think, to a large extent, they're still like that. For example, there was a thing called ''The Family" in England, which was a direct ripoff of "The American Family," and it was incredibly contrived and set up and stilted compared to "The American Family" which for all its shortcomings is just a much better constructed piece of work.
Do you think it 's because by the time this dead weight of crew is added on in England that it has the effect of shaping the material in certain ways?
I think that whether it 's by osmosis or what, on the whole, I think, the American documentaries have learned a lot from Hollywood. They're based around characters and they have a beginning, a middle and an end. And the bottom line is you have to keep an audience and they have to be entertaining. Possibly because the BBC has been a rather protected institution... I would admit that their wildlife documentaries are quite amazing and something entirely different, but their current affairs documentaries I find a bit measured and righteous.
Not too many of them show up on American television, do they?
Maybe a bit on PBS, but not that much. I think they'd look odd and a bit slow. I'm just very conscious of the fact that documentary is an amazingly exciting area to work in, but because so many bad ones are being made, it almost has become a pejorative term. And you're fighting against this legacy. I mean there are amazing ones being made, but compared to the stuff coming out there are very few good ones, very few original ones. I think Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines are very good filmmakers. They're a case in point. I think they're two very talented documentary filmmakers who should be making a film a year and they're not. I think they've an awful lot to say.
(Demott and Kreines are the makers of the [tv] banned film Seventeen, the feature about teenagers in Muncie, Indiana. It was made for PBS in 1982, but never broadcast. The couple fought for several years, to get the film shown theatrically. Limited distribution was finally secured by them in 1984, but no films have been forthcoming from Demott and Kreines since then.)
But, I get the feeling that, in general, you don 't think the documentary is in such good shape at the present time.
I don't think people even bother to differentiate between good and bad documentaries anymore. Unless you're lucky enough to make something very special like The Thin Blue Line that's going to stand out and get a theatrical release. Television is a totally undiscerning beast and the rewards are very, very slim.
After your next feature project, provided you work on another documentary, do you have any idea what the subject matter might be?
I'd do it in the center of Australia. Just the sort of odd film... a sort of Driving Me Crazy II.
Finding yourself in the middle of Australia and then just following your nose?
I don't know. I like playing around with the form, because I think the form needs to be shaken up, played around with and dropped on its head a bit. I think it hasn't been played around with quite enough. I think it's there to be wagged around with and have fun with. It's such a good form. I think you have to have fun making them and I think it 's useful if you 've got something different to say.
Bill Reed writes about film and music for the San Francisco Examiner and other publishers.