Debbie Isitt, Director of Nativity!, speaks about filmmaking and improvisation

Debbie Isitt and Nativity!Debbie Isitt gave a talk in Coventry University on 08.12.2011, as part of the Coventry Conversation series. It was one of the most inspiring sessions I’d been to, and of course I asked a few questions (you can hear some of them in the podcast, I think). It is available on the Coventry University Podcasting Service: Debbie Isitt – The making of Nativity 2.

She started with some quick mentions of Nativity 2, which she had just finished shooting (it took 6 and a half weeks), and will be editing for the next 6 months. The filming, as well as the story, started in Coventry, then they went on a trip to Wales (again, part of the story), then the characters get lost in the middle of nowhere – which was similar to the crew’s experience; there were parts of the journey where there was no phone reception, they felt completely isolated… and it did feel like a genuine adventure.

Debbie spoke about the practical problems that brought – because with a 85-people crew, it is a big deal when moving all the time. She called it ‘like moving a circus’ – and I think she’s not far from the truth 🙂 Nativity! was based in Coventry; Nativity 2 also revolves around it; still, she made sure she took the ‘local’ feeling out of it, and trying to make it as universal as possible.

FilmmakingThe budget for Nativity 2 was over £ 2 million – so there was a bigger ambition, compared to Nativity!, and in her words, it felt tighter because of all the things they wanted to do in this film. However, because of the success of Nativity!, the distribution company was happy to fund it – they were one of the big investors (or the biggest?) in the production. She mentioned that the BBC (which funded Nativity!) felt it was a commercial success, so they decided to not take part in financing Nativity 2. She was asked if there was a visit from the Executives – because she did have visits from the BBC while filming Nativity! – but for Nativity 2, no one came to check them, which shows the amount of trust they have in her and her team.

Debbie also spoke about the typical distribution cycle of a film: First there is the cinema / theatrical release, then (usually one year later) it is released on DVD, and the year after it is screened on TV.

There was a question about an American version of the Nativity! – someone in the USA wanted to remake it for the American market; but she said no, explaining that for her filmmaking is not just a business – it is about meeting an audience (she thinks about the audience all the time, while developing a story, filming, editing), and she felt more compelled to work for the UK audience. Though the most important reason was that for an American remake, they would have wanted her to work with a script. And that’s not how she works.

Film ScriptDebbie became famous with the film Nativity!, and with the fact she works without a script. Nativity 2 was filmed in a similar manner: the actors don’t read the stories, but instead have improvisation workshops where they ‘become’ the characters. What is more, the story is usually only in her head, and instead of writing a script, she communicates her idea verbally with the crew, until they understand it and get inspired by her vision.

One note about working with no script was that you can’t fake accents – so she suggested using actors that have the accent you need.

Debbie often breaks ‘rules’, doesn’t always listen to what people from the industry are advising her, and especially doesn’t buy into their fears and doubts. Debbie thinks that in this business ‘everyone’s instinct is to say No’. For example, everyone would advise her not to work with animals and children – then she goes ahead and shoots a whole film with children. What is more, she absolutely loves the experience: she says working with children is great, they are free, open to improvisation, and generally fun to work with.

I think she’s enjoying the process of working with children so much exactly because she doesn’t use scripts and relies on improvisation. It can be easier to work with the genuine reactions when you put people in a certain situation, than to plan their emotions – especially with children. What is more, as the Director she’s not alone on set – so others can get inspired as well, and join the creative process, building upon each other’s ideas.

Still, the production crew needs to work with something so they can understand her basic idea and plan logistics, budget, etc. – so they work from a treatment which gives a general idea of the types of locations and situations that the film would include. And of course lots of this changes in the process – so as Debbie says, they need to be ‘working on the edge of their seats’ to do their job, they always need to be aware, and as flexible as they can be. She is right to say that working with her is ‘not for everyone’ – and she puts a lot of effort to cast and crew the right people, who trust her, believe in her idea and want to make it happen. She calls it ’85 people chasing an idea’ – and I think that, from a creative perspective, this can be a better thing than ’85 people going out to shoot exactly as planned’.

SD CardsOf course, her filming process generates very different results; a simple illustration is that the ratio in her productions is around 20:1 (filmed material : material being used), while the ‘standard’ in film production is around 5:1. This standard, though, comes from the time of celluloid and expensive materials, so efficiency in materials was crucial – whereas today, Debbie works in digital, and digital storage is much cheaper than film. She did say, a bit bitterly, that this is also a ‘scary technical development’ – being given a handful of memory cards (each no more than 5 x 5 cm), does make her feel strange… Because with all this amount of work put into the film, you expect a massive result – a truckload of material – and you’re left with a few memory cards that are easy to lose, and if you lose one, you lose hours (and sometimes days) of footage and hard work.

When asked what she can advise budding filmmakers, her simple answer was: ‘Do it’; you have to prove that what is in your head works. When she wanted to make a film without a script, no one believed it was possible – so she made a 2 minute film, asked them: ‘it this OK?’ and it was, then a 5 minute film, then a 15 minute film, until people finally believed she could make a feature film without a script.

Keep it simple and do it.


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