How to Make an Epic Documentary For 25k

| August 19, 2010

Mark Pollock in 'Blind Man Walking'

To coincide with the screening of Blind Man Walking this Sunday at the IFI at 13.30 as part of its Ireland on Sunday programme, director Ross Whitaker explains his own particular journey getting the funds together to make the film.

Well, first things first: if you want to make money, go into sales. If you put your head down and push yourself you can really make a good living. You’ll probably even get a free car if you’re on the road and each year a few weeks paid holidays.

If you want to make documentaries, you probably won’t have any of those things. Not for the first few years anyway.

When I started out, I tried hard to get a project commissioned. I submitted scripts to all of the normal funding rounds and documentary proposals through established production companies to broadcasters. It seemed to be one rejection after another.
Before long, I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. I got a loan, bought a camera and started filming. The idea was to make films and sell the finished work to broadcasters afterwards. The revenue from selling the first film would fund the next and so on. It was a great plan. But then I learned that nobody wanted my early work and even if you could sell the films it wouldn’t be for much.

A few years on and things have changed. A little. With a few documentaries in the bag, it’s slightly easier to get an audience with commissioning editors but that doesn’t mean they’ll fund you.

Still, when Mark Pollock asked me if I’d be interested in making a documentary about him, I knew we had a task on our hands. I always felt that Mark’s story was fascinating. He lost his sight at the age of 22 but refused to let it ruin his life.

He created a niche for himself doing adventure challenges and giving motivational talks to businesses. Then on the tenth anniversary of losing his sight, he came up with an adventure challenge far beyond anything he’d done before. He wanted to prepare for and take on one of the hardest races on earth. Like Scott and Amundsen almost 100 years earlier, he was racing to the South Pole.

From my point of view it would be a challenge too. To do it right, filming should take place for nine months before departure and for close to two months in Antarctica. Anyone I asked suggested that I’d need a huge support crew in Antarctica and the race organisers told me that it would cost EUR50k per person travelling – and that’s before you paid the crew!

Then I got sick. Without getting into the details, it soon became clear that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to travel. And the EUR300k budget wasn’t exactly prompting commissioning editors to reach for their chequebooks. So we created a Plan B. Rather than spending my time searching for funding, I spent it filming the preparations. I contacted the race organisers and a Norwegian crew that would be following the race and they agreed to help me out with footage. Mark’s teammates would film as much as they could during the race and we’d figure out a way of putting it all together when they got back. It would still be a great story, even if this wasn’t the ideal way of telling it.

When they returned from Antarctica I was almost afraid to look at the footage. And when I did, I found a mixed bag. There was some ropey stuff but, thankfully, there was some amazing stuff too. The video diary feel to the footage captured in the tent felt really immediate and powerful. There was definitely something there.

A few months later, I had a meeting with Mairead NiNuadhain in RTÉ Diversity about the possibility of completion funding and she agreed to try to help. A little while later, I got a call from

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