Director Sue Bourne explains how she tackled one of the most sensitive of all subjects in BBC2 documentary A Time To Live. In it, she travels the country to talk to people who have been told they may only have months to live, to find out what they do when they learn they have a finite time left. A Time to Live airs on May 17 at 9pm.
What is the background to A Time to Live?
After I made The Age Of Loneliness, [BBC director of content] Charlotte Moore asked me what I wanted to do next. The film I wanted to make had a very simple premise: “Do you look in the mirror and ask yourself what you would do if you were given a terminal diagnosis and told you may only have months to live?”
I didn’t want to make a film about dying but about living. I wanted to speak to people who’d decided that if they only had a short time left they were going to make the most of that time. It was a subject close to my heart – I’d had cancer and had lost people close to me. I knew this was a subject everyone would be interested in. We are all going to die. And shockingly now one in two of us will get cancer. It was commissioned by Charlotte and [BBC2 controller] Patrick Holland surprisingly quickly.
Tell us about your approach to making the film
Firstly I decided the only people who would be in the film were the people with the terminal diagnosis. As I talked to people with terminal illnesses I discovered they were often calm, even serene, about their own death but found the grief of those around them difficult. I was determined my film would not be miserable. I wanted the film to leave you feeling hopeful and indeed “inspired” by the spirit and attitude of all the people I interviewed. I was not making a film about death – I was making a film about life. And how to find some sort of positivity in a terminal diagnosis.
The other key decision I made was not to film anyone having treatment – we would not go into any hospital or consulting room. I had seen all that before in brilliant other programmes. What my film was trying to do was get inside the head of a dying person to find out how they were coping with it all.
How did you find and select your interviewees?
We set out to include terminally ill people from their twenties through to their late sixties. There are many many people with terminal diagnosis but only a few wanted to talk about their situation. It took over three months to find the people in the film. Along the way we met some truly inspirational people. Some became too poorly and others died before we could film them.
We set about finding people through palliative care teams, charities and organisations working with the terminally ill. We trawled the internet for people who were blogging or writing or fund raising. We told everyone we came in contact with what we were doing and got quite a few possible contributors from doing that. I also did national and local radio interviews.
We talked to a lot of terminally ill people and always made it clear that it was initially for “background research.” Only much, much further down the line and after I had met them in person would we consider someone for the film. We were very conscious that we didn’t want people who were ill to get excited about the film then be disappointed when they were not selected. We would be asking a huge amount from our interviewees so we had to be certain they were robust enough to deal with being filmed. And being asked some difficult questions.
I knew the film needed about twelve different interviewees. From my experience of “multi-character” films that meant we had to have about twenty really good potential people to then whittle it down to the final twelve. But the key thing that determined who would be in the film was that they had all been given a terminal diagnosis and had found a different way to make the most of ther time left.
My films are only as good as the people who are in them. So for me the most critical elements in the film is the interviewees. Twelve is a lot of interviewees – and it takes a huge amount of work to find the right people. But I love multi-character films. Over the years some of my most successful films had between 10 and 15 stories – The Age of Loneliness, My Street, Wedding Days, The Red Lion etc. What I am looking for is a wide range of stories – different voices that different people watching can identify with.
I did not want to start filming before we had our final list of interviewees. I needed to know who was in the film and exactly what I hoped to get from each person and each story. We were not following their narrative story so their ability to tell their story was critical. I wanted to know what they felt like when they were told they were going to die, how they came to terms with that news, how they managed to find a positive way of living, what scared them, what made them happy, what choices they had made. I had a big long list of questions.
I had to know our contributors were going to be really honest with me. I was asking a lot of them – I was asking dying people to bear their souls on camera and I was asking them tough questions. They had to a) trust me and b) know me quite well by the time we did the filming. The reason they made the difficult decision to take part in the film was because they believed in what I was trying to do. They wanted to make a contribution. They believed that if people listened to what they were saying then it might make it easier for others to face death too. Every one of them was doing it in a different way. But they all believed that they had made things better.
Some of them said remarkable things like “I have had some of the happiest moments of my life in the last few months”; “I consider it a privilege to know that I have only a finite amount of time left – I can put my house in order ”; “What is the point of being sad – I want to be happy and have fun for as long as I can.”
How did you approach filming?
What had worked really well on The Age of Loneliness was having a shooting AP work with me on the research and then the filming as well. I decided that again this would be the best way to work so Natalie Walter joined me as shooting AP. Once the two of us had done the research, David Williams joined our little team as a production and sound assistant when we were ready to film. I like small and dedicated teams, and in this case it was vital that we were super adaptable with regard to our schedule.
All the people we were working with were not well so filming days could not be too long or demanding. We also knew we would not be able to go into people’s homes if anyone of us had a cold or a temperature. We had to have flu jabs and had huge bags of supplements, vitamins and hand cleansers to make sure that we were germ free and healthy. One day Natalie had a bit of a cold – we checked with the contributor if we could film and she said yes – if she banned people with colds she said she would never see anyone. But Natalie wore a mask all that day and ate her lunch in another room.
Very often on the day we were due to film someone their blood count would drop dangerously low so we‘d have to change our plans instantly. We’d then phone our next contributor, usually at the other end of the country to ask if we could turn up a day early. We hired a big eight seater van which became almost our home for three months as we drove hundreds of miles round the country – just the three of us. It was an amazing experience. Tough but ultimately uplifting and inspiring.
We used the mirror box for all the interviews. I felt it was really important that they were talking straight down the lens to the viewer. It worked well but it does of course take quite a bit of setting up and it must be weird being faced with black curtains and then see an image of me in the lens asking questions. Rather amazingly everyone took it in their stride. We did both a master interview and then a second one against a white backdrop. And a series of images of their faces against the white backdrop. Some people did equally good interviews in both settings. Others did better in one than the other. The people who had been a bit nervous in the master were better and more relaxed in the second interview. On balance, it was great to be able to have two interviews to play with in the edit.
What about the look and structure of the film?
I found it very very hard to know how to film someone who was dying. The main thing we felt would be useful visually was that they were making the most of every moment – so time and intensity were important. But how the hell do you film that?
Most people were no longer working. So their lives had slowed down. They were doing the gardening, going for walks, enjoying nature, the birds, the flowers. It was all a bit clichéd but sometimes our filming palette was pretty limited. However with 12 interviewees each story was going to be very different and they would run between 4 and 7 minutes. We knew some stories would be a bit longer than others but we still had to cover our backs visually and make sure that each person was visually distinctive from everyone else. I think we got there in the end but while I knew the interviews were fantastic sometimes I felt I had not fully nailed the visual side of the story.
What cameras did you use?
It was shot on the FS7 with prime lenses. We also used the mirror boxes for the interviews and did a series of slider shots with every one of our contributors. We also shot quite a bit on slo mo though actually come the edit we have restricted the use of that slo mo. We had sequences which we shot on the Osmo too which have worked really well and we also did a couple of “in car” sequences using the go pro. We hired all our kit from Promotion who were terrific – we hired everything out for 12 weeks so we could film whenever we wanted to.
Tell us about the edit
Sam Santana and I had talked several times in the past about working together but this is the first time we have managed to coincide. We work really really well together and the edit has been a delight, in spite of the subject matter. I think because of the power of the interviewees and what they are saying Sam and I are determined to make the film really sing. They took part in the film because they wanted their voices to be heard. This is their legacy and we want it to be a memorable one
One major decision I made was that I do not want to say in the film who is alive or dead. Everyone in the film knows that that was the plan and they are happy with that. I don’t want people to be overcome with sadness when they hear that Nigel or Annabel or Fiona or Steve has died since we did the filming. Instead we just won’t say one way or the other. Then we can all hear what they wanted to say about living.
Sue Bourne is one of the UK’s leading documentary makers, with acclaimed single films such as The Age of Loneliness, Fabulous Fashionistas, The Red Lion, Love, Life and Death in a Day, My Street and Mum and Me among her many credits. Her films explore some of the big issues facing society, told through the testimony of multiple characters. She runs her own micro indie, Wellpark Productions, through which she produces her films.