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John Battsek on producing feature docs

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02 January 2014

John Battsek, the Grierson-winning documentary film producer (One Day in September, Restrepo, Sugar Man), on the art of the feature doc

We would never do a bunch of films because there might be some revenue in it. That is not what we are about. We are, maybe to a fault, passionately connected to all the films we make.

If you are really starting out with an idea that you want to make as a feature doc, my advice would be to join forces with someone like us or another company. Whatever you think you might lose, you gain so much in the long term. Because you learn the ropes.

There are more people today in the business of financing feature docs than there were ten years ago, like HBO, A&E, Showtime, CNN Films, Neflix or Film4 and the BBC in the UK as well as private individuals and equity people.

There are about ten directors who are top of the league, like Kevin Macdonald or James Marsh or Alex Gibney. They are in a very good position to get their doc films made.

The subjects that doc financiers like are drama, tragedy, political shenanigans, miscarriages of justice, injustice in general – stories that make your jaw at one point or another hit the floor.

We try to bring cinematic ambition to all the films we make. We cut them, score them and shoot them in a certain way.

The edit is where it all happens. The edit is where you discover the real film, and craft it. That’s why we take five to ten months cutting these damn things. You wouldn’t believe it. It goes on and on and on.

I favour being very straight with directors. We are making truthful stories, so why the hell can’t we be truthful with each other about how we go about the process.

I am also very encouraging. I support my directors in as full a way as I possibly can and I feel that part of that support is saying, ‘That thing you just did is rubbish, let’s get rid of it’. As opposed to, ‘Yeah, it’s brilliant,’ when in fact I’m thinking it didn’t work.

I always tell directors it is just my opinion. Ultimately, the film is their film.

I fight with directors about the running time on every film – and I always lose. They are all too long. It drives me crazy. On a feature doc, any minute over 80’ and you are taking a risk with your audience. The perfect time is probably 85’. There isn’t a director alive who agrees with me. But I know I am right!

We always look to platform our films at a festival, hopefully Sundance, because it’s the mecca for feature docs. The market place loves Sundance.”

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