Alex Harron Q+A: From DIY Tartan Feature to BBC Success - The Racer
Alex Harron is a man who means business. In a very short period of time, through shear determination and self-belief he has leaped beyond his first DIY made documentary feature (the Tartan Feature 7 - Bend Don't Break) to being commissioned by the new BBC Channel for his new film, The Racer.
We're delighted that Alex has had this very well deserved success so we decided to chat to him about his journey and offer some advice for anyone else looking to take this route into the industry...
Q: The Racer is due to screen as one of the launch films for the new BBC Scotland channel. That’s quite exciting and inspiring so huge congratulations. Tell us a little about the film…
The film tells the story of Motorcyclist Jodie Chalk and her goal to become the first women in Europe to win a national championship (CB500 Scottish National Championship). It’s a bit of an underdog story. Or at least that’s the surface story, For me it’s about sacrifice, perseverance, talent and the love and bond between Jodie and her father Garfield.
Q: The Racer is also your first TV commission. It’s had an interesting life as it initially started out as a short. How did you go from that to having it screened as one of the flagship programs on the new channel? That’s quite a journey.
I was doing a corporate gig, Jodie was nominated for an award by a local radio station in Fife and I was creating a 40s video about her. I read her story and thought there something in this. I spoke with her Dad and eventually had a meeting with them. I said to them that I would film what I needed for the gig and film more footage, interviews, racing and some footage at their garage. Create a pitch video and send to Scottish Documentary Institute for the Bridging The Gap Programme. Basically, once you’ve been accepted into the programme you have workshops to refine your idea, story, characters and your pitch video. Then pitch it to Creative Scotland. It was a good process and I was successful and given 8k to make a 15 min short film based on my idea. At this point I was thinking about making it into a feature. I started filming and editing the short and started to think what I would do with after it finished. It had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and was screened at several other film festivals like Vancouver International and Sebastopol Documentary film festival etc. I had a look online and saw that the new BBC Scotland had a New talent documentary strand '30 mins'.
For myself I had felt for a long time that I was capable of doing something like that if only I had the opportunity, I got in touch and after several emails got a reply and eventually a meeting. I pitched a 30 min version of The Racer using the short film as pitch video, as well as talking through my idea for a boxing documentary about Kristen Fraser the first ever female boxer to turn pro. They were interested in both and as The Racer was further along asked myself to officially send it for commissioning, 4 weeks later I had a commission. It was so straight forward it was unbelievable. Dream come true.
When I saw the email that it had been commissioned my stomach turned, I though Dear God now I have to make it. I sent emails to several production companies looking for someone to come onboard. Matchlight got back to me and helped put everything in place and I was filming a week later. It was a bit of a whirlwind in all honesty, I’ve learnt so much from Matchlight there were very supportive helping me make that transition from indie films to TV. I can’t thank them enough.
Q: You mention your new commission, called The Boxer.? Was the process of having your second film commissioned easier after your first?
I didn’t want to be one of these people who get a commission and that’s it back to self-financing your films. It’s actually my worst nightmare. Battle to get money to make something then eventually putting your own money into it, with the doubts of whether this is going to make a difference to my career?
I had pitched The Racer and the Boxing doc at the same time. I had made Matchlight aware of the fact that The BBC wanted both. I finished the editing process on The Racer and in the meantime I was still filming the Boxing doc.
Some amazing turnarounds happen with Kristen, first she won a commonwealth title and then she announced her wife was pregnant. Great story elements that made it even better. I cut a 13 min pitch video and showed it to Ross Wilson at Machlight who was very positive with it.
I cut it down to 6 mins And it was officially sent in to the BBC, We had two meetings with The BBC, talking about the story and what the films themes were. It was officially commissioned and again a week later we were filming.
Q: Your first long-form film was “Bend Don’t Break’, which was self funded and part of the Tartan Features collective. For us, Tartan Features works on a few levels and one of the most successful seems to be that it can act as an alternative stepping stone for filmmakers to further their careers with their next projects, much like John McPhail did with Where Do We Go From Here? leading to Anna and the Apocalypse. Do you feel that if you hadn’t made Bend Don’t Break that it would have been more difficult to get The Racer made? Was it an investment you made in yourself, by going with the DIY approach?
If I hadn’t made Bend Don’t Break, I wouldn’t have had the commissions from Creative Scotland and the BBC. I would be nowhere, When I first started on the project, I had two shorts on the BBC Social and had no idea how to progress my career. But I was ambitious and I thought I want to make a feature. I looked for a year to find the right project, eventually I found out about the Dundee Hurricanes, it was the right fit. I love sports films and sports docs. If it wasn’t for the Rocky films, I don’t know if I would be a filmmaker are not.
Looking back on making the film I think I did everything wrong at some point. It was a steep learning curve and massive undertaking, I had 98 hours of footage. It took 9 months for a rough cut of 3 hours. I remember looking at it and thinking I’ve made a mess. I evaluated the film and realised I needed to do more, ask more questions, get more into their lives and less of the football.
A big mistake that I made was to focus on the sport too much. I have learnt and put that into all my other films. What is the story? It’s the underdog story and ultimately, it’s about brotherhood and friendship as well. I kept thinking about Rocky which was an inspiration for the film, I used to Joke it was like Rocky but with more swearing. Surface level it’s about Boxing, but more importantly it’s about the desire to achieve something in your life and it’s also a love story between the Rocky and Adrian.
I know now that your films needs these layers, the more you have the better the film. I didn’t back then. Because of the constant filming and near 3 year edit to finally finish the film and cut it down to 84 mins.
My Producing skills, interview skills, camera skills and editing skills all dramatically improved. There's nothing like doing it to help you improve. I remember when I pitched for the 8k to make the short film version of The Racer, that all this experience was going to show on The Racer, that I was going to make the best film of my life and I feel I did.
I felt a bit disappointed that I didn’t know what I know now starting Bend Don’t Break as it would have made the film better. I guess I hoped that the film would give me a career and it has but not in the way I expected or hoped. It was the experience of making it and everything I learnt and taking all of that and putting it into the Short film version of The Racer then TV version that has made the difference that and lots of help from Matchlight.
Q: From working within the BBC infrastructure and having had the freedom to do as you like with your own productions, what do you see as the biggest differences? What advice could you offer someone following a similar path?
I think doing what you like isn’t always what is best for a filmmaker, I’ll be honest, and every film I’ve ever made I think it’s too long. If I had someone to give me advice it would have been better. Most indie films I see are far too long. It’s like, as filmmakers were unable to see the forest from the trees. I always wanted someone to help with that. The great thing about working on The Racer with Matchlight and the Boxing Doc is the feedback you get, the help, the advice. They're incredibly supportive in helping the film get made and with the story structure, which is always the hardest part.
For me it’s a question of humility and willing to learn and become a better filmmaker, which I feel working with Matchlight I have become. My advice is to be humble, be willing to learn and take your experiences and knowledge into it.
The New BBC Channel is launching this February.
Q: The new BBC channel is still a little bit of a mystery. What do you hope it will achieve? Do you think it’s a positive for Scotland’s independent filmmakers?
I think having a dedicated channel for Scottish content is great thing for Scotland to have. It’s already created more work in the industry and given myself and few others our first commissions for TV. How will this work in the long term is anyone’s guess. But for me the fact is, with out that channel I would be in no man’s land and a few others would be the same place.
There’s never been a better time in Scotland to get into industry - between the new channel, BBC Social and the new hub from Channel 4 things are moving forward. How will this translate to indie filmmakers? Well it’s opportunity, one that wasn’t there before.
For all of us it’s a question of what we as filmmakers make of it. I saw on the opening night Nae Parsan directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra and Gary Fraser’s drama The Grey area. It wouldn’t be likely they would have been on TV if the new channel didn’t exist. I think eventually because of the content being Scottish based that it could become a home for indie features, here’s hoping. (TF - that could very well be true ; ))
Q: Your films have great, relatable universal themes, often an underdog sports team or person battling against a system. Where do you take your inspiration from and what brings you to these characters?
I guess it’s often themes that I relate to, that and my obsession with sports films. Underdog stories are pretty universal and a lot of times everyone has probably felt that way at sometime in our lives and can relate to it on some level.
I think though it’s about finding a story with layers, it can’t just be about American football, Motor racing or Boxing. What is actually about? What are the layers? What is every scene saying? What are the story elements?
It’s something that I learnt through the years. I’m incredibly picky about projects. If I’m going to spend a lot time on it, it’s got to be something interesting with lots of story elements. The goal each time is tell a story that people relate to, find interesting and hopefully feel something at the end of it. My inspiration come from films like Moneyball, The Rocky films, Friday Night Lights and hundreds of sports docs I’ve seen. Moneyball for example, The sport is Baseball, I can’t stand it. But the film has the whole underdog theme played better than most films. It taps into that incredibly well.
With all sports films there’s elements of obsession and passion. To get anywhere in sport you have to practice, train to be successful but at what cost? It’s something I explore in Bend Don’t Break and again have done so in other films, it’s something that fascinates me. At what point is too much, too much?
Finding the subjects I have found, has allowed to explore these themes and have better understanding of them. There’s nothing more fascinating than asking a person why they do.
Q: Your films also portray strong female characters in male dominated worlds sensitively and without ever feeling tokenistic. Do you discuss how you intend to portray your subjects before-hand or are they happy to trust you? Is there a process where you review cuts together? How much input do they have?
There always a question of trust when making a film, to start off with they don’t know you. I always discuss what I’m hoping to do and have in the film. I always discuss what may be red lines for them. For two reasons 1) what will make them feel comfort about being filmed and 2) access.
Ultimately if you can’t film what you need to get a film made then ultimately its best to walk away. I think the longer filming goes on the more trust you gain. I’m always nervous showing people rough cuts or pitch videos of them. it’s their life and they might not be happy with it or alternatively they might really like it. It’s more of a process talking things through. It's something I’ve learned, that showing rough cuts to give them a sense of the film is the way to go. But ultimately as the filmmaker it’s my decision what will go in the final cut.
I remember showing a 13 min pitch video to Kristen Fraser for the boxing documentary and felt incredibly nervous about it, she had seen small clips etc. But nothing really put together story wise. At some point you have to show something and it can either put them off or get them onboard even more. I got text back from Kristen saying that she loved it, Relief!
Q: What advice can you offer new filmmakers who may be thinking of approaching someone they are interested in making a documentary about?
Professionally and honestly. When I approach people, I’m honest about it what it could be and where it might go. With Bend Don’t Break, I said it would be a feature and play locally in Scotland. I didn’t make any promises I couldn’t keep. With The Racer it started with making a pitch video and went on from there. With The Boxing film I said right from the start it was to be a pitch video for the BBC to make a 60 min film, 6 months later it was commissioned for 60 mins. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver, try to get across how much footage will be required how it’s going to be filmed and what the end goal for the film is.
Q: What’s next for you after The Boxer? (and feel free to talk about that too)
At the moment were filming “The First Ever” The title of the boxing doc.
When I first met Kristen, I said it was dream project and it is. I had always wanted to make a boxing film, there’s so many good ones, dramas to docs. I could never find one that had a different perspective that hadn’t been done before.
As Kristen is the first female boxer to turn pro in Scotland, there are going to be lots of firsts in the film, that is amazing to be part of as a filmmaker and here’s hoping the film ends with her winning a world championship.
For the next project at this point who knows, I’ve been researching various different projects but nothing set in stone as most of this year will be taken up by the boxing doc. Although one of them is another sports doc, I’m looking at other things now. I don’t want to be known as the sports doc guy, maybe too late for that! Seriously though it’s about finding that good idea with subjects that have an interesting story and will give you access. Finding them is the key.
The Racer will screen on BBC Scotland at 11pm on the 28th of February and again on the 4th of March
You can see Bend Don't Break (featuring a Q+A with Alex) at the Tartan Features : Beyond year Zero event on the 24th of March
The Racer at BBC - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002wzt
The Racer Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/Theracerjodiechalkdoc/
Bend Don’t Break on reelhouse pre-order available to stream and download on 01/03/19: https://www.reelhouse.org/alexharron101/bend-don-t-break
Bend Don't Break screening - https://www.facebook.com/events/323659268255641/
TFE Trailer: https://twitter.com/i/status/1094265384524484608
Buy The ticket productions: https://www.buytheticketproductions.com/