Matthew Willis on Documentary Filmmaking: Hectic, Immersive, Tiring, Rewarding

Meet Matthew Willis – the gent who is potentially one of the wittiest you’ll ever meet (tall order, coming from us). The DSSC team had a rare opportunity to work on a documentary with this UK-based producer and here are our three key takeaways. ONE: His insights on all things worth an insight are cutting & laced with rare wit and punchy puns. TWO: Despite being in the media business, he’s anti-establishment and other than Twitter (“I use it as my news feed”), he shuns social media like we shun red-velvet cake. THREE: He will never admit it, but India is his soul country; complete with mango lassi, chicken tikka, and fresh banana chips.

What makes Matt a bigger phenomena than what he projects is his unique outlook to filmmaking. In today’s times where the line between conversation and argument is heavily blurred, Willis brings to the table the fine art of a healthy debate backed by researched facts & the willingness to be countered. He looks for stories that aren’t widely known and offers a fresh perspective that forces you to think, question & mull over for weeks after.

Intrigued to decode the mystique surrounding the phenomena called filmmaking, we get chatting with the man who’s made phenomenal programmes for platforms like BBC and Amazon. Here’s a special edition of #DSSCSecretConversations with the ace documentary producer & closeted-photographer who is driven by telling stories that matter and take you on the other side of camera.

What goes behind choosing the subject for a documentary?

Personal interest in the subject is a must and you need to find a story you’ll be as passionate about sharing a year or longer after having the initial idea. Today there are numerous outlets putting out high quality storytelling and it’s all too easy to find that your idea has been covered elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean an issue is done: there is often still room to say something new about a subject.

Do you think there’s increased responsibility to narrate stories that don’t get prominence in mainstream media?

The fact is that stories will be told with or without me. My role is to tell stories that I believe need to be told. Just imagine the huge diversity of stories we’d hear if we all held a microphone as we lived our normal lives! The media is already diverse – brilliant stories are being told in captivating ways every day on YouTube, podcasts, and elsewhere – you just need to get out of your bubble and find them.

Documentaries have to make us feel things. They should have a dramatic truth – not just an intellectual one. If watching or listening to a documentary leaves someone feeling angry about an injustice; moved to take action or, at the very least, share with a friend something they saw/heard then that’s a success.

What are the chief challenges you face in your profession?

Selling ideas to networks is, sadly, the biggest challenge. It’s an artful process of finding a story that I want to tell and, at the same time, being something the commissioning editor would buy. It’s an incredibly competitive process. By comparison, everything becomes a pleasure once you have the commission to make something. Whether it’s trying to get a visa, negotiating access to an institution, or convincing someone to take part in your programme, everything you do influences the final programme. 90% of ideas in development go nowhere. That’s just the nature of the industry.

How do you view the current climate of the documentary industry?

There have never been as many outlets to get your voice out there, at the same time it’s never been so difficult to get your programme heard. There’s tremendous opportunity at the moment: current events are challenging everything we thought we knew about the established world order. With Trump, Brexit, a resurgent Russia, Adityanath’s appointment in Uttar Pradesh. What will these events mean for us? What will really change?

Narrative storytelling can provide a means of understanding the context of these events. At the very least a good documentary can force you to think about things in a way you hadn’t before.

Matt & Vincent Ebrahim, recording with the Deadcat

To paint a picture for your audience with nothing but background noise & narration couldn’t be easy. What’s that process of producing podcasts like?

In many ways storytelling in audio is easier than with film because taking an unobtrusive microphone with you is easier than a camera & crew. You can be more nimble and attract less attention. People are also more willing to open up about their feelings and experiences because it’s easy to forget that the Deadcat* is there.

It’s been said that the pictures are better on radio than television. I agree with that – a well placed sound effect, or street noises can conjure a far more vivid and immersive picture than a camera ever could.

I definitely think audio is a powerful medium that isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon.

There’s a school of thought that believes a lot of international documentaries show India in poor light, which often results in them getting banned by the authorities. What’s your take on this?

India is a rapidly modernising, outward-looking, globalised country. There is a lot of good to talk about as well as some negative issues. My current project covers sand mining and the overexploitation of sand as a global resource. Beaches are disappearing across the world and, combined with rising sea levels, our insatiable hunger for sand to make concrete buildings and roadways is going to cause major problems in the future.

The role of journalists is to hold those in power to account. If a government was happy with everything that was said about their administration, the programme makers are no better than propagandists. Journalists should continue to highlight wrongdoing, empower the weak, and give voice to the voiceless. So in essence I’m 100 percent for freedom of speech. I want everything to be reported: good and bad.

You recently worked on a project with Vincent Ebrahim about tracing his roots back to India. You travelled 7 cities in 2 weeks – how would you describe the experience?

Hectic, immersive, tiring, rewarding. It was a full-on trip with only one rest day in 19 days (when poor Vincent succumbed to food poisoning). The main takeaway was the incredible diversity. The people are brilliant and it’s an endlessly fascinating country. I’ve visited India five times now and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’re open and friendly and willing to stop to talk (and drink chai) you’ll learn a lot and get much more out of the encounters.

As Matt reaches for his Deadcat*, we rev up the signature DSSC Rapid Fire before he dives back into work.

 

A dream project you hope to produce soon?

Matt: World’s Best Beach Resorts!

Favourite Indian food?

Matt: Fresh idli with coconut chutney, laccha parathas (I’m salivating at the thought of that layered goodness) and I can also now make a mean Malabari molee curry!

One MW-verified must-watch documentary you’d suggest?

Matt: Anything by Adam Curtis, Errol Morris or Werner Herzog.

Just one? ‘The Lift’ by Marc Isaacs. In a way nothing happens – he stands in a lift in an East London tower block for a month – but the storytelling is superb; frosty characters soon open up about their hopes and fears.

One pro-tip for young filmmakers starting off in the industry?

Matt: Have a passion project – something you truly believe in and want to make. Make it and put it out there for free. It’s fine to do other work for money, but this is how you’ll learn the most: make mistakes, find your own voice and vision. And it’s probably how you’ll make your name because it will be the most unique, least compromised thing you’ll do.

Since you travel around the globe to document stories, what’s your top travel tip?

Matt: Pack light, be nimble. Oh and wear merino (naturally odour free – look it up).

You have an enviable music playlist – what are your top 3 travel tunes?

Matt:

  • The Vanishing American Family – ScubaZ
  • In White Rooms – Booka Shade
  • Jan Johansson – Visa från Utanmyra

Most memorable project till date?

Matt: Outside of my work in India it would have to be travelling to California with the great pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy to visit the home of his friend (and my hero) the legendary photographer Ansel Adams. It was such a treat: truly one of those times I couldn’t quite believe that this is my actual paid job!

 

*Deadcat: The most commonly used artificial fur windshield for microphones by Rode. Also used as an interchangeable term for windproof microphones.

 

This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.