Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online
Serial killers, a conman, a champion racing horse, a yacht race and Ken Loach. What unites them? Director Louise Osmond has made a documentary focusing on these subjects. Intrigued as to how she came to discover these fascinating, and sometimes lesser-known stories, we spoke to the Grierson award-winning filmmaker about the through lines and learning curves of her career.
Can you describe your path to directing?
I started in news as a trainee at ITN. It was a great way to learn, working with reporters, cameramen, soundmen and editors who’d covered some of the great events of the time. The lessons I learnt there have stayed with me ever since. As time went on, I found I wanted to stay behind after the news events we covered and find out what happened next.
That led me to documentaries and a mentor, Julian Ware, who worked for ITN’s documentary department. I turned up on my first day at work for him, dressed quite smart — people in news wore suits then — and he said if you want to be taken seriously in documentaries you’re going to have to dress scruffy. I took his words to heart.
How do you find stories that you want to tell, or do they find you?
I always think I’ll learn the answer to that and it will get easier but it hasn’t yet. It’s really about finding a subject or a character I feel an emotional connection to, in a story that feels relevant to the way we live today.
And how do you go about finding your subjects?
It’s a chaotic search, spanning many areas but gradually the same subjects keep cropping up on the many lists and piles of scrap paper, so I’ll keep digging deeper on those. When you find something special you know instantly, it’s an electric feeling. Sadly, that doesn’t always mean it will get made but it’s good to know you will find those passion projects if you keep looking.
Do you have an interview technique or style? How do you try to elicit the best results from subjects?
I really believe anyone can tell a story they care about. Our job is just to listen and draw them out as best we can. I worked with the producer, Judith Dawson, on many projects including Dark Horse and she was a wonderful journalist. She invested a lot of time and care in building trust with her characters and, by the time it came to film, you could feel that in the room.
Is your approach as a director the same as in journalism; to investigate and probe?
That’s an important part of it. That process helps you draw out the potential in the material and then it becomes about storytelling too: how to approach the subject in the richest way possible.
Do you have a sense of the film and how it’s going to play out as you’re shooting, or does it change in the edit?
Someone once said you make a film three times: before you film, as you film, and then again in the edit. That’s so true. It helps to have a sense of the story before you film so you can share that with the DoP. If you feel well prepared you’re also more likely to have the confidence to run with things that develop while you’re filming. Then you bring it all back to the editor and start again, looking for what’s actually in the material, not just what you hope is there.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FYzA9Ct44oes%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DYzA9Ct44oes&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FYzA9Ct44oes%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtubeBIFA award-winning documentary Dark Horse tells the larger-than-life true story of how a barmaid in a former mining village in South Wales bred a racehorse on her allotment that went on to become a champion.
You’ve made several documentaries that have gone on to become narrative films; Deep Water became The Mercy and Dark Horse is now Dream Horse, the latter two having been backed by Film4, are you involved in that process at all? And is it your preference that audiences see the documentaries first?
Not at all, the films are there to be found by anyone who’s interested and a new audience will come to the narrative films not having any idea about the true story behind them. It’s great that there’s an appetite out there for true stories; that seems like a very healthy thing in turbulent times.
There is a sense of greater opportunity for women documentarians; at this year’s Oscars 4/5 of the nominated films for Best Documentary were co-directed by women — have you found that to be the case in your career? And if so, why?
When I was starting out there’s no question it helped me to have a mentor in my corner, persuading people to take a chance on me. The ideal now, is that it’s just not an issue at all. All kinds of women can tell all kinds of stories and bring their history and imagination to the subject.
What’s been the biggest learning curve of your career?
Learning how to tell stories is a never-ending pleasure and challenge. Every project I start, I feel like I’m learning essential lessons all over again.
What do you love most about making documentaries?
Each film is a new journey. You’re setting out into a new world, trying to find the people and the story you want to share when you get back.