Andrew Oxley brings a charm to his documentaries, which mine the ordinary and celebrate hard-core normal. He’s returning to Exeter for a Filmmakers’ Lab event, where he will talk about making documentaries and getting into TV. We caught up with him to whet your appetite
D&CFilm: You’re at the Filmmakers’ Lab in Exeter talking about developing a career as a filmmaker in Devon, and what it takes to get your work commissioned for television. Can you give a quick run-down of what you do?
Andy Oxley: I make documentaries for TV, I make my own short documentaries, and I also have something of a sideline in making corporate and charity films, mainly for online.
D&CFilm: With Born to be Mild you told the BBC you try to celebrate seemingly ordinary people. And you told the Telegraph when talking about your Virgin Media Shorts winning film Sundays you want to ‘celebrate the ordinary by turning it into something fascinating or beautiful‘. Why does that attract you and how has it been as a guide to your work?
Andy Oxley: It’s quite hard to answer that, mainly because it’s just my natural place. I’m not sure where it comes from. I remember being at school and hearing so much wit and charisma around me, and thinking ‘this is absolute gold and it’s just a bunch of kids in the sixth form’. If a great bit of conversation happens in everyday life it’s just wasted, it’s gone, so I’ve always wanted to find a way of capturing it so that it’s there, it’s stored, for other people to enjoy later down the line. I used to write diaries as a teenager, so maybe there’s something in that – the desire to preserve things.
Also, at university, I would come away from a party thinking the best conversation of the night was one about something really mundane, like what’s the best biscuit. So I decided to try and make films on those kind of subjects. To me there is something very funny about taking trivial matters very seriously.
Another thing is when I look around I see a lot of charisma and enthusiasm in other people – two things I lack considerably. In Born be Be Mild, there’s a guy who travels up and down the country photographing postboxes, and another guy who adores collecting milk bottles. I don’t have that kind of passion for anything, so when I see it I admire it, and there’s something in me that wants to get inside that person and document it. I suppose I’m just riding on the coat-tails of other people’s personalities.
It’s also a slightly anti-celebrity thing – so much in TV is celebrity-focussed, and I meet so many ordinary people who are funnier and more interesting, so I want to capture them. The general public are under-rated (except when it comes to elections).
Andy Oxley: It was very important – I might not be doing it now if it wasn’t for that first commission. I was a bit lost when I came out of university, I didn’t know how to get into making films professionally. Even though the commission was only £500, it enabled me to get going again and gave me the impetus to make another film. It was also very important for who I met. Making the films with the Phoenix meant I got to know the Exeter filmmaking community. During this time I met Josh Gaunt, who I went on to collaborate with on numerous projects (The Life of Brians and Born to Be Mild) and who I still work with today. Most of my technical knowledge was learnt from him. I was also in a band at the time, and Jonas introduced me to Carl Shanahan, who directed one of our music videos. He’s another one I am still friends with and work with from time to time. That community is an amazing thing to have, and it would have been very hard to become a part of had it not been for those commissions – you can’t really just go and loiter in the foyer without a purpose hoping someone will talk to you – so I am very grateful for it and I do miss it now I’m not in Exeter.
D&CFilm: At your production company – Screen 3 Productions – you’ve worked with clients including Comic Relief, Oxfam, the NHS and Channel 4. How did your creative ethos and style feed into making the films for these clients. What are the skills you built on and what were the news ones you’ve developed?
Andy Oxley: Tough one. I’d say the corporate / promotional projects are entirely different. My ethos is that when you’re working for a client, you’re there to give them what they want, not what you want. I don’t think you can afford to be too precious about it and go in there as some kind of artist with a singular vision, because they are paying and more often than not, they know what they’re after. Obviously you are there to listen to them, interpret their ideas and then make it happen, so you can guide them and advise them and tell them what’s achievable and what isn’t, and what you think will work and what won’t work, but ultimately they are the boss, and they’ve chosen you because they think they can work with you. I think you have to be easy to work with because if you make it a difficult process they will probably just hire someone else next time and not recommend you. I’ve heard quite a few examples where a client hasn’t hired someone again simply because they were a bit grumpy or difficult to work with.
However, you can still bring a lot of yourself into the corporate work, and sometimes a client will see a short documentary I’ve done and want something of a similar tone. But I think the main thing that travels across all projects is you can bring a certain sensibility – of being nice, and making people feel at ease to get the best out of them on camera. And in terms of ethos, I think just trying to keep things as natural as possible works across all things, trying to make it feel unscripted and authentic. This is often particularly difficult with the promotional / business videos, where someone will be very keen to get a particular line in, but if it sounds like they’ve rehearsed it or are reading it off a page, no one will believe it.
In terms of developing skills, the corporate / charity films have been incredibly useful because they challenge me to do things I otherwise wouldn’t. I’ve had to become a bit of a jack of all trades in order to survive. I’m not naturally very technical, I’m more interested in the content, but I’ve had to teach myself a lot, both in terms of filming techniques and post-production. I can even do a little bit of After Effects these days, so I’m really getting down with the kids.
D&CFilm: What’s the role of the artist / filmmaker in society?
Andy Oxley: Blimey, who do you think I am, Melvyn Bragg? All I can say is for me, I just want to shed a light on some of the most interesting / weird people around us, to celebrate their idiosyncrasies in an entertaining way. I think people are fascinating creatures, and I think there’s humour in almost everyone. Perhaps I also want to make you think differently, give you a different perspective on a familiar subject. But for the real filmmakers, people like Errol Morris and Michael Moore, they do the proper heroics, like exposing corruption and challenging the way society works. That’s what it’s all about.
D&CFilm: Making a Difference, Sundays, Born to Be Mild, Men, Loos and Number Twos, have style and a gentle, respectful, absorbing power. If you could boil it down, what are the key skills of a documentary filmmaker?
Andy Oxley: I’d say the most important one is being able to put people at ease. If they like you and trust you they will reveal more of themselves on camera. I’m a fairly tame and un-intimidating character, and I don’t think I display too much ego, so I think generally people want to help me to make a film, rather than feel they are a performing monkey working ‘under’ me. I also think the trust thing is hugely important when it comes to humour. A lot of my films I’d say have humour in them, and maybe sometimes I am gently pushing it into mocking territory, but on the whole I like to think it is very respectful and we are laughing with the contributor, not at them. A good example of this would be the eccles cake enthusiast in Making the Difference (who is sadly no longer with us). He was very wry and took his interest very seriously, but he knew exactly what he was doing and that he was being funny. There are some more borderline examples, but I still think they wouldn’t mind that audiences find what they’re saying funny, even if they hadn’t intended it. To me it’s a celebration of their character. Tonally it is so important to get right, or you’re just being a condescending smart-arse, which no one wants to watch.
The way you interview people is also really important. You have to make it as conversational as possible, to the point where they almost forget the camera is there. If you just read questions of a page that’s not going to get very natural responses. I will just throw in my own comments or opinions, so it throws them off guard a bit and makes them feel like you’re just chatting in the pub.
The other big one is patience. You have to wait around a lot, and you have to be around contributors a lot, who sometimes might be difficult to deal with. I think you just have to put up with as much as you can and never lose your rag. It’s not about you, it’s about getting the best material, so you have to do whatever it takes.
D&CFilm: What is the most challenging aspect of filmmaking?
Andy Oxley: Making a film happen at all. It’s so hard, particularly at the moment with arts funding being cut left, right and centre, to get money for making films, particularly documentaries, where there’s no guarantee of a great end result. All my short films so far have been made with my own money (except the two Phoenix £500 bursaries), so you just have to really believe in it and make it happen somehow. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to get anything commissioned for TV unless you’re an established production company, and even then it’s hard. I’ve seen production companies put money into development departments and a year later they still haven’t got any commissions. It depends on so many factors. I was lucky in 2015 and found an idea that got commissioned by Channel 4 as a one-hour single with a view to becoming a series. But none of my subsequent ideas have been commissioned, so I’ve been working on other people’s programmes, such as the one I’ve just finished – a three-parter for Channel 5 about noise abatement. There’s a lot of uncertainty in filmmaking, which I suppose is what makes it exciting – although sometimes I wonder if I should have just become an accountant.
D&CFilm: What’s been the most rewarding part of your career so far?
Andy Oxley: Getting that film made for Channel 4 is definitely a highlight – one of those life milestones that my 14-year-old self would be very happy with. Particularly as it was so hard to get the commission in the first place and then it was a very challenging film to make – virtually everything went wrong, mainly in terms of access. Call me old-fashioned, but to me there’s a certain glamour about TV which will always be there.
But generally, getting any film finished is the most rewarding part of filmmaking. The process of making a film is always a total nightmare – the only thing that makes it worth it is seeing it on the big screen and getting that sense of relief that it’s finally done.
D&CFilm: Thanks Andy!
Andy Oxley will be talking about Breaking into TV at the Filmmakers’ Lab in the Exeter Phoenix on Tuesday, January 28. Check the Filmmakers’ Lab site for times and tickets
top image: Andy Oxley filmmaking for Channel 5 – he’s the one in black on the right.