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Interview with Emmy Nominee Sarah Townsend
by Karen Pecota

Karen Pecota (KP): First of all, Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.
Sarah Townsend (ST): Thank you so much. It was wonderful!

KP: I can only imagine that is was a very exciting honor to receive and to be in the same company with the other nominees. I would like to step back in time for a moment to ask about your own beginnings.

KP: Where did you grow up? What was the make-up of your family structure?
ST: I grew up between England and Ireland. I have seven brothers and sisters. I started directing then when I was eight years old. At that time it was children’s plays where parents buy these packets where you have a small script, costumes and everything all in one package. I used to do that during the holidays with my brothers and sisters. I developed from that point and continued directing various things like stage shows and musicals. I wanted to pursue it in college but I was advised that I should get a proper degree so I did a combination of English and a Drama degree.

KP: Your siblings were apart of your beginning productions, correct?
ST: Yes, well, whether they liked it or not and generally they didn’t. But, I was insistent and would say to them, “...where that hat and stand over there and say this…” (Laughing)

KP: As a child, did you write the plays you directed?
ST: I do write if I do not have what I need in order to fill that gap. However, I do not consider myself a writer in the strict sense. I will edit or work with existing writings and if I have no choice, then I will write. Sometimes you have to do it, especially when you are first starting off in films because people don’t hand you wonderful scripts straight away. Thankfully, my English literature and drama degrees both compliment a writing skill.

KP: Branching off from your amazing theater repertoire as a producer and director, did that give you entrance into the film industry?
ST: It didn’t! It actually didn’t, but, my work from previous projects did. I was very lucky to work with composers like Ben Bartlett (He went to University with me). He won the Emmy for Walking With Dinosaurs. He also worked with me on a couple of my earlier productions. It was a pleasure working with him and from him I learned how to use music within productions. I discovered that I actually directed in a way that was very soul-ic. I would take very long plays, like a three hour Jack Beale revenge tragedy (sort of a Tarantino for the 17th Century). I cut them down to about 1 -1 ½ hours (‘cuz its much easier to do it with plays that are flawed than to do it with Shakespeare) similar to cutting and directing the scenes as if they were in a movie. I then have a scene that might be originally six pages long but suddenly cut down to one. The next step is to take the most important lines that each person says and cut with stage lighting. For example: you have one actor in one corner of the room, another one in the opposite corner, and one up above and one down below and now with the lighting I am cutting between one line or another. It is like spotlighting one line for one actor, closing it out and spotlighting another line from another actor in the room. So as in film, you don’t have to say the whole speech – you say and cut to the key phrase or words. I didn’t think of it at the time like that…but, now with the experience of doing the documentary and learning music production it enabled me to use a lot of music creatively. I would underscore everything and it allowed me to work with these wonderful writers-composers without even knowing that I was predisposing myself to such transitions. The reality is that once I set out to make the documentary (an enormous undertaking) it was another huge mountain to climb learning all of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Drama is similarly the same field – the means in which you express it – but film is technically incredibly difficult.

KP: I read a few articles on the difficulties you had filming this project. Can you describe this feat?
ST: Aahh…(Laughing)…well, part of the problem was that I was learning-by-doing. And, I had a subject, though fascinating, everything about him had already been said. Naively, I thought I’d be able to get more than most but actually, that wasn’t true. It just wasn’t true! Yes, the project was a very long struggle. I made four different versions (strands) of the movie. In the end, I put a little bit of all four strands in the final cut. The universal theme, that we can all do it (live our dream) if we don’t give up, became the overriding theme and important to share in the wake of all that has happened in the last couple of years globally. The fact is that each of the four versions had a very different pulse or storyline. Separately each strand was more personal, narrower in scope and (though imaginative in direction) ultimately geared toward a very small audience. But, all four versions taught me something about constructing a narrative when there wasn’t an obvious one.

Several people told me that showing constant failure over the course of 90-minutes would just never work because it would be too boring. It’s true, it is boring to watch someone fail endlessly; but, I felt that Eddie’s failures was the story because he comes out on the other side. His message valuable! Admittedly, Eddie is not an orphan from a terrible situation nor from a poverty stricken country but it is a story. I felt that people in the western world could relate to his story in a very immediate way because it is closer to most people’s experience. But, that emphasis made it extremely difficult to make interesting.

You know, to make a good drama, we want to watch somebody spend the first third of the movie (the first act) struggling, the second act almost there, the third act it’s all there (with a measurable outcome). That scenario wasn’t what happened with Eddie. The story was the struggle and one that never ended making it technically difficult to film. We tried to weave together different the narratives to keep our audience going so people wouldn’t say, “Oh, god, I can’t see this guy flop again”. But, the struggle was the reality necessary to visualize all of the different lies (lives) that he had led. It was incredibly time consuming. We were using tiny bits of raw footage/material of what looks like now trunks of stuff that happened to be to our avail. Truth be known, it was composed of lots of short pieces from many different people. For example: the Covenant Garden sections are collaborations from several people all over the world. We spliced stuff like personal super-8 film footage together with other personal materials (film footage and stills) and it looks like they all flowed together.

A huge feat was trying to get Eddie to truly revealing himself. He is not one of these clowns who says, “Oh! I am this and that…etc.” He actually doesn’t do that though he appears to. The final interview in the film, that is for real. It was at that point I knew we had a story. I think that is the only time it actually happened while filming about his life. It was quite something! Just before that point, we were really at a crossroad of giving up. I felt that we maybe had a 40-minute B-style documentary; but, definitely nothing that approaches being a movie. On the other hand, technically, I learned so much in terms of how to keep tension going, how to keep the power of a narrative flowing, how to express things technically when you are not able to make-up the scene…you have to use what you’ve got… and, if you haven’t got it you better find it…you can’t just write a new scene and shoot it. Working on this documentary was an incredibly disciplined experience and not my natural bent. I have so much respect for documentary filmmakers. It is really tough! It is not something I would jump up and down to go do again anytime soon. I would rather move on to the next project where I say, “…here is the scene, here is how we shoot it, and if we don’t like it we will write a different one…” You can’t just write scenes of someone’s life, they just are what they are and you go with it.

KP: What drew you to the project?
ST: I have known Eddie for years. I experienced some of the same entertainment circles with him, i.e., the comedy clubs, Edinburgh Festivals, the street performers in London’s Covenant Garden. I was apart of that subculture in the UK. I used to run a venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for a number of years, as well as directing plays. It was kind of a loose group of artists working different venues (including comedy) and many of us had kept in touch over the years. During the time I was trying to make the crossover into film work …I happened to mention it to Eddie and he asked me to shoot one of his specials (shows)…I knew enough at this point that there was no way I could manage that because I didn’t know enough about camera work. The multiple camera work is really technically hard and I didn’t have enough experience. You have to know what you are doing and can’t just go bumbling in and hope for the best. I told him absolutely not but thanks for asking. I later thought about it and realized that there was something I could do with my expertise plus give me the latitude to learn more about film and the moving camera. I could do a single camera documentary. I approached Eddie with the idea. Originally, it was supposed to be a short piece and I would be learning as I went. I assembled a team of people I had been working with and gradually things developed to move the editing to the US. At this point, the project started to move forward. It started to become a real movie project as opposed to something that we weren’t quiet sure what it was going to be. It developed beyond our expectation. That was really exciting! The story/film is not what I thought we would end-up with; nor to be nominated for the Emmy which is the most amazing validation for all our work. It was incredible! We must have been the smallest independent company represented...It is so flattering…I really can’t put it into words how wonderful the validation as a tiny independent project with a little bit of funding here, a little bit of funding there… it was worth the effort…not only in our eyes but in those of the experts. It is wonderful!

KP: Was it difficult getting funding?
ST: Yes! It was done piece-meal…some of things we shot together on the back of other projects to make the most of our resources. It was the classic low budget film. It was something that we worked at on a down time or used a single camera instead of several. And, well, I was even doing some of the filming alone…not terribly well…but you do what you have to do at the time to make progress with the project. It was mostly done in the typical low-budget Indy way except for Eddies’s big U.K. Wembley gig (concert). This is viewed at the end of the film and we accomplished those scenes with a full crew and several cameras. Of course, all that came with the typical headaches that fell on my shoulders! I learned more than I could have possible learned any other way as to how things function, i.e. how the teams work and the various scenes work and also the importance of the order to make it all happen …It was fascinating and a tremendous learning experience.

KP: What was the UK reaction when the film came out?
ST: They will see it this fall (2010) in the UK. We had a couple of test screenings but it wasn’t actually finished. We are releasing it in the middle of November. It will be shown on film in theatres, the BBC and on DVD all within a month of each other. It will be a big deal and we are gearing-up for it right now. It will be interesting to see how that goes down. It will be fun to go back to the U.K. with a finished movie. We have been waiting to get to this point for so long. It is exciting and I can’t wait to see what happens.

KP: In reference to stateside, what do you think was the deciding factor that turned the heads of the US film market toward your project?
ST: Well, I don’t know but I think the people are truly interested in Eddie. I also think that the best decision I ever made was not to not make the film too individually personal by going into all the bits and pieces of Eddie’s life. The threads are there in part and visible; but, there are enough aspects that were unusual and the message that joins us all together is clear: having faith. Not to get to the God-like faith but one of believing in our self, other people and the dream. When we were putting the project to bed (finishing it) a year ago (2009) now…in the wake of all that has gone on economy-wise including people’s broken dreams… Eddie’s story tells us that it is not about making it on a wave of one giant thing or instant fame; but, his story is that he continued to believe in himself in the good times and the bad. To call attention to that message is what people have really responded to. It is a message of hope that is universal. I got my wish and found an editor that would allow me to push that as the main story…the truth be known, I was categorically told that it would not work, end of story! I was told that stories of failure are not interesting. But, I believe that when you tell each story individually (which does include failures), you ignite inspiration.

I hope that what I have made is not a fairytale but that there is every reason to have faith that we can all do whatever it takes to believe in our own personal abilities. Not only faith but hope! When discouragement comes and we fall down, we can choose to pick our self up, dust our self off and start again…For me too, to make this film was such an exhausting process. I, too, felt like giving up! In the end it was the fourth strand (version) of the story that was the one …the message …Eddie’s story that I wanted to tell.

Eddie’s story: It is a story about following your dream and believing that your dreams will come thru….Eddie never stopped believing in his talent, skill and his love to entertain. I believe that he was honest about what was always happening to him with a mixture of humility and pride that seemed healthy enough to carry him thru the good, as well as, the bad times. He comes alive in front of an audience in spite of the nerves and lives in the moment.

KP: How long did it take you to get that last strand?
ST: It took quite while. I started out with it and communicated what I wanted from that strand but because I was so inexperienced I got a little intimidated. I was working with people that had a lot more experience in film and even though I knew drama very well, I also understood that the projection thru film media requires different technique to get the same message. I was sort of nervous and felt like I should listen to people who have done this for years…Oddly, the reality was that not one of them had made a documentary quite like this one. It was not just a Bio-piece. I was much more and it took a couple years to see it. I think the turning point for me was to not give up until I found an editor who would listen to me and would allow me the latitude to indulge me…and let me try things I thought important to try. In the end it became actually what I wanted in the first place. It is so funny to recall that all the things I wanted to initially incorporate were in the last strand but I didn’t know how to make that happen early on. Five years down the line, I finally had the confidence to say OK, I’ve tried every other way you guys have told me and now, (with more experience and more ability to express how I want to show it) even though you may disagree, I want to try it this way for a reason. I gradually earned the trust of the final editors. I said to them with confidence, “…you see, this can work!” I did what Eddie did. Some times you have to not listen and do what you feel is right for you. Your instincts tend to hold true.
KP: Hmm, your gut feeling really does say a lot…
ST: But you ignore it, don’t you? So, getting the confidence together is the bottom line and then to hold on to it, is the key.

KP: What went through your head when you got the news of the nomination?
ST: I nearly fainted, actually! And, on the street! I had been underground in a basement working that afternoon. I came out and I had all these messages in my inbox. I could not believe it! I was saying. “What, What, What!”, while gawking in the sunlight. I actually had to hold on to a wall because I couldn’t believe it! It was a moment I will never forget. I knew we were submitting it but never dreamed we would be a contender. We were such a tiny company compared to all the other applicants. It was so fantastic! I will never forget that day.

KP: When did you hear?
ST: About 6 weeks ago… (July 2010) and everything has changed since then, my whole life has changed!

KP: When did they announce it?
ST: They have actually done it and we did not win. I in terms of winning, to me winning would have made very little difference…because winning or not…just the nomination was good enough…and we were in the running with people who experts are good enough to be a contender…that is what matters to me…and to be honest with you, it is the nomination itself that actually counts…and all the other documentaries we were up against were huge… and by big companies….while we were sitting in the place and listening to all of the names being read for this and that, I just kept wondering how did we get into the race? I was awed by the fact that it was wonderful!

KP: Have you been contacted by lots of people since the evening?
ST: Oh yes…now we are contacted and noticed as someone who can actually do something…it is on going…and helping with other projects…it is very positive.

KP: Where are you now with the project White Horses?
ST: You know how it is when you have different projects going on at the same time. At the moment it is on hold because I am finally able to weed through a pile of work that has been on the back burner and having the time to complete a variety of projects. I am also making a plan for the future projects coming up that I will be working on for the next few years. It is very exciting! I just finished the Madison Square Garden Comedy Special and on-lining that at the moment. I am also working on a semi-documentary musical on The Street Performers during Britain’s 80s era, as well as, a few smaller projects.

KP: With White Horses…I read you are working with an all female crew? True?
ST: Yes, at the time we were ready to start shooting, it was an all female crew and cast…but we have had some financial set backs and the all female cast and crew could change by the time we continue the shoot. It will depend on how we can proceed and if we are able to work with the same people…The project has been put back six months. I want to get on with other projects that I have in the wings but White Horses is a project that is very dear to my heart…it is set on the coast line that I know very well and I really want to do it… how it will end up in the next months I don’t’ know or if it will stay all female.

*To read the review of Believe: the Eddie Izzard Story, click here. To read an article about Sarah Townsend at the Berlinale, click here.