Marc Isaacs’ new feature The Filmmakers’ House is labelled as “documentary.” Some doc purists, though, may be startled by the director’s freewheeling approach toward a project which was indeed shot in his own house.
The characters featured in The Filmmakers’ House (chosen for Sheffield Doc Fest and selling this week in the online Cannes Marché on Andana Films’ slate) are a homeless Slovakian man, Isaacs’ Colombian cleaner (who is getting over the death of her mother), his Pakistani neighbour, who provides everyone with delicious food, and two builders who’ve come to repair his garden wall. There is also a significant role for his pet cat who has a habit of killing pigeons and dragging them into the kitchen.
At the start of the film, Isaacs films his producer telling him on a Skype call that the doc project he had been working on isn’t exactly bowling over the commissioning editors. “No-one is really running with it, no-one is really excited,” she informs him. “Unless you’ve got crime, death, serial killers…sex,” she adds of the ingredients that might attract their attention.
Isaacs takes the disheartening news in his stride. His response is to start shooting a new film in his own home.
“Every moment in the film is fictitious,” the director acknowledges. “Everything you’re seeing has been thought out previously.”
There wasn’t a traditional script. However, he did write story outlines and his protagonists were invited to improvise. The film’s characters are “real.” The builder is a builder. The Muslim woman who plays his neighbour is indeed his neighbour. The homeless man is a real-life “homeless guy” whom Isaacs knows and had befriended. The cleaner “used to clean for us some years ago” and is essentially playing herself as is everybody else with the exception of the builder’s assistant. (That role is taken by the director’s own son.) The scene with the pigeon is also partly staged. The cat did indeed catch the bird but Isaacs put its dead carcass in the freezer and took it out when he was ready to shoot the scene.
The film is set over a single day – but actually took nine months to shoot. “Everything in the film, all the ideas and themes, are borne out of absolute reality,” Isaacs explains of his approach, which deliberately blurs lines between fiction and documentary.
Isaacs made The Filmmakers’ House partly to express his frustrations at the way the documentary commissioning process has changed in recent years. ”In the past, there were lots of strands on the BBC and even on Channel 4 where commissioning editors would have power to commission films. They would be in control of the money and could take the risks. They never had to ask the chief executive of the organisation if they could do a film,” Isaacs remembers of an era when filmmakers like himself had a much stronger relationship with the commissioning editors.
The director talks of going for cups of coffee with Nick Fraser, who used to run BBC’s Storyville, and bouncing ideas off him about what might work as future projects. “There were never scripts or 20-page treatments. It was based on trust.” If Fraser thought a project sounded interesting enough, he would give the go-ahead.
Now, everything on TV is formatted. Commissioners don’t have their old appetite for documentaries that might take months to research and turn out in unexpected ways. Instead, they want films which will fit tidily into pre-existing strands. They demand to know what the film is going to be before they will commit to making it.
Film companies, he suggests, also tend to look for the most obvious and commercial pitches too, with serial killers and celebrities being two staples.
Isaacs, who has won multiple awards for films like All White In Barking (2008) and The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Lying (2006), found himself out of favour with the patrons who used to support his work. He therefore looked for ways in which he could continue to make films on his own terms and with the resources available to him.
Although the BBC and Channel 4 would never commission a project like The Filmmaker’s House, both channels have now seen it, like it and are keen to acquire it, says the director.
Isaacs is unapologetic about bending the rules of traditional documentary. “There are definitely people who will think what I’ve done is wrong and that it is not a documentary but I actually think the word ‘documentary’ is meaningless in a way…(as a director) you’re always making decisions, you’re telling a story. Observational purists and Direct Cinema people are also doing that. My starting point is that we should be free as filmmakers to tell a story in any way we choose. What is ultimately important is that you have to feel a sense of truthfulness in the film.”
In Isaacs’ opinion, there are simply good and bad films. As long as what you make is “emotionally engaging” and “authentic,” it doesn’t matter what you call it. “There are so many different kinds of documentaries. I prefer just to call them films in a way…ultimately the boundaries are really fluid.”