We had the pleasure of sharing offices with Director / Producer, Will Francome and his Reel Nice production crew many years ago in London Bridge. Now after a long time, it’s great to catchup with him, have a chat and see how the world of documentary filmmaking has been.

Will Francome shooting Ai Weiwei

So when did you really get into filmmaking? 

I used to play around with a handycam at university, just making silly videos with mates and cutting clips to a VHS tape by playing in the footage and hitting record. It was a few years after I left university, but I wrote an idea for a documentary about political campaigner and death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. My partner Katie and I were just going to set off and make the film. We got lucky that Livia and Colin Firth heard about our efforts and came on board to help.

We made the film which became In Prison My Whole Life.

It was a wild ride to go from not really being into filmmaking and then on to interviewing Noam Chomsky, Mos Def, Angela Davis, Snoop Dogg and many others. The film went to Sundance and other festivals and I was hooked on the process. The saddest thing about the film looking back is how much things haven’t changed in 15 years and the issues of race and policing in America then are still so relevant today. 

Do you remember your first paid job around filmmaking?

After that first whirlwind experience, I had to actually learn how to work in the industry and I went to work at ITV as a researcher and then an AP. It felt in some ways as a bit of a step down and I was there researching when we had our premiere at the London Film Festival in Leicester Square, but I learned a lot of the basics of making TV documentaries and it was very helpful to go back to a tried and trodden path of working your way up the ladder so to speak. 

And how are things different (equipment, work process) nowadays since you first started?

For independent documentaries and people starting out, the limits are so much less than what they were. The access to technology is so much greater than it was and I think people are just generally using video on their phones and aren’t scared of the idea of cutting bits together. So now if you find a good story or want to film, it’s much easier. With that said, it’s a much more saturated world and so I think it’s harder in a way to get things seen that have been produced. But I think opening the world up to as many new voices as possible is great and I think that people are as likely to watch a doc on youtube as they are on the BBC in some ways so it’s much more democratic. 

Split Personality, Will Francome

What part of the process do you enjoy the most (shooting, editing, research etc) and why? 

I love being out and filming, especially if I’m shooting actuality, verite or fly on the wall, whatever people want to call it. I just like being along for a ride and not knowing what might happen at any time. Basically any day with a camera in my hands is good. But it’s those days when it feels like something consequential in a story might happen. In our most recent film The Penalty, we filmed outside an execution with a new drug that led to the execution taking 26 minutes. We didn’t know that was happening, but as it was unfolding, it felt good to us that we’d had the forethought to be there and were capturing what was a gravely horrendous situation that was important for people to know about. 

Among your works, which are your favourites? 

The Penalty which I co-directed with Mark Pizzey and Laura Shacham produced is probably the thing I’m most proud of. I think just the amount of work that went in to it and the stories that we managed to tell make it my favourite.

I just made a little short with Katie Green called The Marker about an artist who makes homemade crosses to make the locations that migrants have died in the Sonoran Desert and I really like it and enjoyed making a short like that which in a way was the opposite of making a big feature as we shot it in 2 days and it was edited in a couple of weeks. 

How do you keep the commissions and work coming in? Is it easier these days, are you pitching loads?

Since I moved to the US I haven’t actually been pitching much or developing much of my own ideas. I’m working a lot for TV companies that need things shot out here and I felt that after The Penalty I wanted a bit of a break of doing my own things.

But I’ve got the itch again and am hoping to start working on some of my own things again soon and get a balance between developing my own independent stuff and working to keep the lights on. 

New York New York

You have moved a lot between New York and London – how do the two cities compare and contrast in regards to indie filmmaking and documentary filmmaking?

There seems to me to be a bit more of an established independent documentary world in New York. Since I think the BBC and television was so dominant in the UK in documentary over the years, the UK is much more television oriented whereas the US has a strong history of documentary films being made independently, often financed through grants and independently and bought by HBO or Independent Lens or others. With the rise of streaming, that is equaling out a lot more and I think there’s a rising independent doc world in the UK too.

London Undergroud

Do you take anything from these different cities?

I just really like them both. I’ve lived between New York and London since I was 12 and I always really enjoy getting back to either. Currently with the pandemic, this is the longest I’ve gone without travelling between the two, the last time I was in London was December and I miss it massively. The idea of a pint in a London pub is too much to think about right now. 

front cover of Behind The Lens with shooting director producer Will Francome
Behind The Lens with shooting director producer Will Francome

Anyone in either of the cities who inspire you and keep you motivated?

There’s a lot of people doing very interesting work around and most importantly just following their dream to be a filmmaker. My partner Katie Green and her directing partner Carlye Rubin run Smoke and Apple films and I think they’re pretty inspiring. They had no real experience of making a film, but picked up a dslr 10 years ago to make a film about girls who loose their mothers early in life (an experience they both had) and before they knew it their film was bought by HBO. I think I found their whole experience and drive quite inspiring and they’ve now made three feature length documentaries which are all great and they’ve had much more success with their independent work than I have. But there’s a ton of people, like you guys at SRK just following the dream and that’s great to be around. 

Texas Coalition To Abolish the Death Penalty Award for One For Ten

What are you working on right now?

Currently I’m just working on a few different TV shows for independent UK production companies that are filming over here. Since the pandemic I’m stepping in to the roles that a lot of British directors or DP’s would be doing but they can’t be over here. I’m doing some true crime, some sports and some science things. 

And what would you say your work is about?

Traditionally it’s all been about human rights and the death penalty, but I’m trying to broaden out and I’d like to make some stuff that’s a little less heavy. Perhaps it’s the times we’re living in but I’d like to find more character based things that are inspiring but still feel important. 

What is the most difficult part of being an independent filmmaker for you and how have the challenges differed since you started?

I think for everyone the biggest thing is how to make it work as a career. How to make your own stuff, feel that you’re doing the right level of work and then actually get it out into the world. I think if you want to maintain your independence and make a film, then it’s easier in some ways to balance other work, you can make corporate stuff one day, a wedding video the next, work on a TV shoot another day and finance two days working on your own thing, we did that for years in London. But it’s still just hard to constantly ride that balance and sometimes I feel it would be nice to just work at a film or TV company that was getting things made and seen easily. I think it depends on each person’s character. I do like the flexibility but others might see it as uncertainty. 

And lastly how has the recent pandemic affected your work?

I’ve actually been busier than ever since the end of lockdown just as British companies need things shot in New York and that’s kind of my specialty. But we’ve had to learn quickly how to send camera feeds over zoom and work in new ways while maintaining social distance. Currently I’m working on something where the talent have to self shoot everything as we can’t go in their bubble and it’s making things tricky, but we’re finding a way. 

If you need something shot in New York or the US get in touch with Will right here and do please check his site here. Also feel free to schedule a call with us here or send us an email here and we’ll be happy to run through any project ideas you have.