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Filmmaker Q&A: Alex Harron on Bend Don't Break & The Racer

Alex Harron is the filmmaker behind documentary Bend Don't Break (TF#7) and forthcoming short, The Racer, which follows motorcyclist Jodie Chalk on her quest to retain her status as female British number 1. We caught up with Alex to chat about the story behind Bend Don't Break and making the move from shorts to full-length documentaries.

For the uninitiated, tell us a little bit about Bend Don't Break - how did you come to make a documentary about American Football in Scotland, never mind its worst team? Why did you want to tell this story?

I’ve always big a fan of sports films, from Rocky to Moneyball. But it was watching the film Friday Night Lights that really made me want to make a documentary about American Football. The problem was how would that be possible in Scotland. ESPN make feature sports docs through there 30 for 30 documentary strand. Some amazing films covering everything from Ric Flair to boxing docs and in between. One of the films, Small Potatoes was about the USFL a rival league to the NFL. I had never heard of it before it made me wonder if there were other leagues in America and in Europe. I done some research online and found there was teams in Scotland. I couldn’t believe it. I quickly got in touch with the Dundee Hurricanes and made a short video with interviews and some game footage. That gave me the confidence to move forward with the project.

What really made we want to make the film was I saw an underdog story very similar to Rocky. Essential the team had hit rock bottom not winning a game in years. To me there was only one way to go but up. The idea was to follow the team progress and hopefully find some interesting characters along the way. The team had between 30 and 40 players and I had identified two or three people based on initial interviews that had interesting stories and through filming and talking to players and coaches, I found 6 who we followed through the season. I wanted to have a mix of characters that were from America and Scotland. The different outlook and point of views of the Scottish players and American players is one the most interesting points of the film. The culture clash.

Bend Don't Break weaves the story of the team with the stories of the individual players and their characters really well and I was struck that the combination of movement in the subject with the exploration of people is a theme in your work. Is this a conscious choice? Why do you think this works so well for you?

I think what I really want to do with every film I make is to weave a story together with the cinematography that makes you feel like your there. That you understand why they do what they do. Why they sacrifice so much to play the game. That you understand them as people, their personnel motivations, struggles and triumphs that resonated with the viewer. The goal is to weave all the characters stories together with the larger story of the team. It’s one of the hardest things that I have ever done in an edit. It took for longer than I naively expected but I happy with the results and I’m excited for people to see it. One of the aspects I love about sport is the movement of it. Visually I find it so interesting. I shot Bend Don’t Break completely handheld. I wanted the look and feel to be quite different from what is seen on TV. I wanted people to feel like they were part of the huddle, part of the game that you could feel the hits. It was a miracle was didn’t get hit once on the sidelines. We had a few close calls.

You spent 4 years making Bend Don't Break - how did the story evolve over time? Did you make the film you set out to?

I did have a film in mind at the start but so much can change during the process of making a documentary that literally anything can happen. We had an initial 9 months period where we followed several characters and the team through out their season. After that I went in the edit and honestly thought the film would be finished. I was incredibly naïve and wrong about that! It took about 9 months to transcribe, edit down footage, create a trailer and have a rough cut. I’ll be honest when I looked at the first rough cut at 3 hours. I was thinking I’ve made a mess. The film just wasn’t there, I had done the thing which every inexperienced editor does basically put every person in that we followed in the film and put every game we filmed in the film. The film was bloated and not very interesting in all honestly. I continued to work on the film, slowly but surely cutting the film down. Losing games and characters as I went along. Over the months the film got better.

Finally, I felt the film was ready for feedback. I was lucky as I had contacted the Scottish Documentary Institute and they had given me advice on the project. I showed them the rough cut and got lots of feedback. It was clear to me after the feedback the film was needing a lot of work. I worked on a list of things that were needed. They included things like more filming to tie stories together better, more cinematic shots of game, training etc and I decided I wanted to have some animated sequences in the film. As I’m a massive fan of the film of Jeanie Finlay’s film The Great Hip Hop Hoax which has numerous animated sequences. I got in contact with some of the characters that were becoming more prominent in the film and filmed more sequences, two animated sequences were produced for the film. Once these sequences were added it really brought the film together. Finally, the film had a good structure and flow to it. At this stage Troy Lynch and Ryan Livingstone started work on the music and sound design. It was during this process that little cuts here and there tidied up the film and it was given a final polish and after 4 and half years it was finished.

What made you decide to make Bend Don't Break your first feature-length documentary? Did you always intend for it to be feature-length?

Before Bend Don’t Break I had made lots of short documentaries about various different sports or docs with subjects that had a lot of movement. Subjects like street performers, ball room dancers and wrestlers. I had made an hour documentary for client on homelessness and I thought the time was right to make a feature and Bend Don’t Break and American Football felt right to me as feature. I had already tried the same with a ballroom dancing doc but unfortunately there wasn’t enough story and ultimately, I wasn’t passionate enough about it so it stayed a short. It was good lesson to learn because a feature takes along time to make and if you don’t feel that passion for it who will? I think a good model is to make a short see if it can be made into feature and go from there. But with Bend Don’t Break it was always the intention to do a feature. It was only after filming a few hours of footage I knew there was enough material there to make it. Test shoots are everything, it’s in those first few interviews and shoots that you’ll find out if it can be a feature or not.

What routes did you take to fund the Bend Don't Break? How did you find that aspect?

The film was funded by crowdfunding and a few private funders. The total budget was peanuts in all honestly and was long gone in about a year. The rest was self-financed. I was lucky to have people that come on board that did camera, boom etc as favors and seen the benefit of the film to themselves. without them the film wouldn’t be as good.

What lessons did you learn from making Bend Don't Break that you took forward into the making of The Racer?

Making a feature is a big step up from making a short, much bigger than most realize or appreciate. You can get away with a lot in a short. I used to tell people with a short you get in there tell a story make it look amazing and get out of there before people realize it’s crap. With a feature structure it’s so important to have a good structure and it’s the hardest part to get right. Working on the film has made me a better producer, cinematographer, editor and producer. I learn so much putting the film together. Sometimes I wish I had the knowledge I do now at the start the film, it would have benefited the film a lot. My new film The Racer had benefited from it. It’s the best thing I’ve made. Going through the Bridging the Gap programme with the SDI was a great experience, having a proper budget, support and getting a producer so I could focus on directing was great experience. I couldn’t recommend it enough.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in documentary-filmmaking?

Try to figure out what your passionate about, what stories do you want to tell and why? Every film I’ve made is about sports and has had some of the same themes passion, obsession and relationships between people and how they conflict and balance each other. Find crew who are reliable, keep it simple and short, find interesting characters who feel comfortable being filmed. Watch short docs., feature docs. Take notes, what works, what doesn’t.

What's on the horizon for Bend Don't Break and The Racer?

I recently attended the Sheffield Doc Fest to talk to distributors in the hope is to get one and see what happens from there. In the mean time I sent the film to various TV Channels, BBC Scotland, BBC Three, Sky Sports ESPN, Fox Sports. It’s uphill battle with a lot of competition out there but I believe in the film so fingers crossed. I recently had a meeting with several independent cinemas and hope to announce a cast and crew screening in the next month or so.

For The Racer I have a world premier at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this month. Then it will then be submitted to several other film festivals worldwide. With being a part of the Bridging the Gap programme the SDI helps with this paying for submissions fees and helps to get the film out there and to help raise your profile as documentary filmmaker. The plan after that would be to create online version after it’s festival run. I spoke to several people about opportunities for shorts docs at the Sheffield doc/fest from channels like BBC three online, BBC The Social to online magazines and newspapers such as Guardian and New York times that have short documentary strands on there sites. For both films there are opportunities out there, it’s really about getting the contacts and finding the right fit. Which can hard but is ultimately it’s worthwhile after all the hard work that has been put in.

You can watch the trailer for Bend Don't Break here.

The Racer premieres at EIFF this Thursday 21 June at the Filmhouse as part of the Bridging the Gap short showcase. Tickets are available here and you can watch the trailer here.

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