As a cameraman and member of the legendary Frontline Television News cooperative, Richard Parry has always ignored convention and followed his principles when it comes to film making. Here he tells Eleanor O’Kane why he still prefers to work in a state of independence.
Richard Parry is telling me about his recent holiday. Usually such a tale wouldn’t merit much comment; four old friends camping in the wilderness for a couple of days. Accompanying Parry on this trip were journalist and documentary maker Sean Langan, who in 2008 was kidnapped in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and held for three months by a group with links to the Taliban; Newsnight reporter Richard Watson, a specialist in Islamist terrorism and radicalisation and, making up the foursome, Parry’s best friend and fellow former Frontline cameraman, Vaughan Smith – most recently known for offering sanctuary to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“We mostly told war stories,” he replies when I ask what they talked about round the campfire. “There’s a gallows humour not always understood by people who haven’t been to those places.”
Parry started making horror movies on an 8mm camera at the age of 13 and describes his latest feature film, A Night in the Woods, as “a horror on a slightly bigger scale”. Produced by Vertigo Films – the company behind Gareth Edwards’ 2010 no-frills, sci-fi breakthrough, Monsters – it is due to go on general release in November. Working from a 40-page treatment developed from a story written by Parry, the acting is improvised and some of the footage shot by the three lead actors themselves on Canon EOS 5D MkIIs.
This is Parry’s first foray into film making with DSLRs. He became aware of their potential after seeing the work of his friend, American photojournalist and film maker Danfung Dennis, who shot his feature-length documentary Hell and Back Again in Afghanistan while embedded with a company of US Marines. A powerful, intimate account of modern warfare, it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and the World Cinema Cinematography Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. “Danfung showed me some of his work from Afghanistan and it was pretty remarkable. He had adapted a Steadicam and was running through a war zone wearing a bullet-proof vest, carrying a Canon EOS 5D MkII, getting the sort of shots you’d expect to see in a feature film. He’s got a photographer’s eye, so it’s not just about the camera; it’s about the person behind the camera. I thought it was extraordinary.”
Filmed on Dartmoor, A Night in the Woods was shot almost entirely on three 5D MkIIs. Footage from Parry’s Canon IXUS – a compact bought for holiday snaps – also made it into the final edit. “I used it to grab certain moments and gave it to the actors too. It holds up well in good light; about five or 10 per of the final film was shot on it.”
Parry wanted a ‘found footage’ feel for his ‘lost in the woods’, psychological horror, so many of the scenes were filmed by the actors themselves, with Parry and his DP discussing each shot, setting the cameras up then letting the actors do the rest. “There were times when they wandered off for around an hour,” he says with a hint of glee. “I didn’t know where they’d gone on the moorland.” Did he pass on any tips? “No, not really. We set the cameras to auto and off they went. The film has to look and feel real so we didn’t want it in focus all the time. The lead actor, Scoot McNairy, who also starred in Monsters, takes pictures well and had a natural ability with the camera.”
I say that it sounds like a brave project to fund. “It’s exactly the type of project that a production company like Vertigo Films would do,” says Parry. “They did Monsters and took a risk there. The producer Allan Niblo saw the director’s work and let him go off with a crew of three, a cast of two and no script for six weeks to South America to make the film.”
Does convergence present a risk in the film making process? “It is a factor,” he replies tentatively. “There are lots of cameras shooting HD now, but there’s a love affair with the 5D MkII. When it came along everyone thought that, on a certain budget at least, it would provide an answer to all the questions, but it doesn’t. It answers some of them but it does have its limitations. It’s not very good in low light; you can push the ASA like hell, but if you want to have a classic movie feel you need to work at it. Lower the contrast levels. If you want it to look like user-generated content that’s fine – in fact it’s better than fine – some of the stuff looks absolutely spectacular.”
I tell him about The Guardian photojournalist and convergence pioneer Dan Chung, who was criticised earlier this year by some corners of the film making community when he posted a film of the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Some felt the smooth, panned scenes of devastation in characteristic DSLR style, set to a piece of reflective music, were blurring the lines between journalism and art. Parry has no such reservations about this approach. “I wouldn’t think twice about doing it. War photographers have always done this, from Robert Capa onwards. Jimmy Nachtwey makes beautiful images of war. It’s what people want to see and it helps to get the message across. I don’t have a problem with that at all.”
Parry is considering using a DSLR for another project in India because, “it would get me into situations where the presence of a large crew would be impossible.” However, he remains unconvinced of its suitability for all types of work. “I wouldn’t necessarily shoot a documentary on a 5D MkII. It’s unwieldy and sound is a nightmare.” Parry shot his last documentary, The Big Gypsy Eviction, shown on BBC1 in July, on a shoulder-mounted Sony PMW-EX3. He also used it on assignment in Afghanistan and Pakistan for Talibanistan;a documentary made for National Geographic’s Explorer channel. “I have shot documentaries as a one-man band for 20 years, so I have lots of experience of working on my own and trying to do everything. Lots of DSLRs aren’t easy to carry. I adapt my cameras to make them work for my needs. I ordered shoulder mount for the EX3 from the States and use a WAV recorder that records four channels of sound, so I can record lots of people separately.”
Has sound always been a bugbear? “For single operators, yes. It’s one of those things that people think is less important, but it’s crucial.”
The pressure of working alone is something Parry understands well. He was a member of the legendary Frontline Television News agency, whose origins date to the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. A group of spirited, courageous freelancers who changed the face of television news, the Frontline reporters captured stories and images from the world’s most dangerous conflict zones – stricken places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Liberia – working with no agenda other than to report what they saw. Operating at huge risk to themselves, the agency lost several of its own by the time it closed in 2003; unable to exist as an independent voice in a new, homogenised landscape of news reporting.
If Parry appears indifferent to the DSLR film making revolution, then perhaps that’s because he was there in the first wave of technological breakthroughs. “What helped us go to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s was the emergence of small cameras, so it’s no different really, except the quality has improved. When Hi8 cameras came along I bought one; it cost about £1,000. The Hi8 enabled us to shoot footage that the broadcasters could put out; certainly good enough for news – although television people were a bit snooty about it. Skip back a few years to when Jihad was in Afghanistan. The guys were carrying rolls of film on three-week treks across the Hindu Kush [a mountain range stretching between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan] on donkeys. Frontline Television News co-founder, Vaughan Smith, went to the First Gulf War and covered it with a small camera – that was pretty much how the technological revolution started. There have been other cornerstones along the journey and one of the recent ones was the massive improvement in quality.”
It was with Smith, who since the demise of the agency has set up the Frontline Club in Paddington – a platform for independent thought and discussion with an emphasis on conflict reportage – that Parry met Robert King in 1993 in Sarajevo. A wannabe photojournalist, fresh-faced and straight from art school in America, King was intent on becoming the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Finding him amusing Parry decided to film him, and over the next 15 years did so, intermittently, in Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq, as he changed from a comically-inept college boy to a war-damaged photojournalist who has stepped over more bodies than he can remember. As a conclusion, Parry travelled to Tennessee to meet up with King who, at 38 years old and married with a young son, has finally found some peace.
After sitting on the footage and playing around with different edits, full-length film Shooting Robert King was finally released in 2010 to critical acclaim; but a puzzlingly underwhelming commercial response. Humorous and horrifying by turns, it’s a sobering look at how war affects the people who report it. It’s a film that Parry is most proud of.
“Those 15 years encompassed a lot of personal change for me, as well as for Robert. My goals changed over those years. I think in the beginning I wanted to make a film about war journalism as I knew it, but I don’t think I understood the darker side of it; how it affects and changes people. I felt invincible at that point and didn’t see the darker shade of it, or our own dysfunction that we each brought to the war. I didn’t have as complex a view of human beings then.” He laughs: “I think I just wanted to get a film on TV and I thought he was a funny guy. The early versions were more comic than the blacker stuff in the final film.”
In Shooting Robert King we go on a journey with the war photographer as he processes his 15-year career; first as a foolhardy 23-year-old trying to find his feet; then a war-weary, drug-damaged hedonist; and finally as a thirty-something with renewed reasons to value life. Although for most of the film Parry is behind the camera, there’s a scene in which he is driving down a road in Bosnia with King when they become embroiled in fighting. Their car is showered with bullets. Believing King has been hit in the backside they speed to a local hospital where it transpires that the bullet has merely lodged itself in the seat where King had been sitting. Parry later found a bullet in his viewfinder.
I wonder if making the film was Parry’s attempt to hold a mirror up to himself, in light of his own experiences. “It’s an attempt to reflect our own journeys, absolutely. A lot of that film is just me and Robert sitting in a tent talking about our experiences.”
Returning to London between assignments during the 1990s, he says he did not cope well with easing back into normal life. “I just came back to London and took too many drugs. I embraced the ecstasy and clubbing scene. The whole thing was one massive high in the same way that going away was a high. I’m not saying the war experience was hedonistic, I was moved by the story. A lot of us who went to Yugoslavia were deeply moved by the story there and were drawn to the people.”
In his book, Frontline, foreign correspondent David Loyn credits Parry as someone who, in particular among the Frontline group, had the ability to bond with the locals, which enriched the quality of his work. This building of bonds has been a thread running through his factual film making; notably in his series of documentaries about Dale Farm – the largest community of Irish travellers in the UK where more than 1,000 people are facing eviction from the Essex site. His first documentary on the subject aired in 2005 while his most recent, The Big Gipsy Eviction, drew 3.1 million viewers when it was shown on BBC1 in July, 2011.
“As a documentary maker it’s important to me to spend time with the people I’m filming and it gets more so.” He has been commissioned by the BBC to make another film on Dale Farm, and when we spoke had spent the previous day at the site. “A project like this is like an iceberg; most of it sits beneath the surface. So a lot of yesterday involved sitting around in people’s caravans and talking. I have to film a very conflicted story and somehow maintain a balance. I’m treading a treacherous diplomatic path and then I have to go back in. Strangely all sides were happy with the last film. Well, not entirely,” he adds, “but mostly. I was on tenterhooks as to what the travellers might think of the film. I do think it’s important to connect with people.”
Does that ever compromise him as a documentary maker? He believes not. “Our minds are capable of analysing things from different angles. You can connect emotionally with people as a film maker and still obtain objectivity.”
So how does he move on, having established an emotional connection with the people in his documentaries? The nature of the stories he has chosen to cover often means that, while his life will continue on the same track after filming, the lives of his subjects are often shattered forever. “You have to come to terms with the fact that with some people you are, on some level, a pariah. That’s the case with all documentary makers and war reporters. It was very acute in the conflict zones. I remember being with Robert [King] and he would level it by saying, ‘We photograph people when they’ve been shot, then we get them into the cars and drive them to the hospital, and then we photograph them at the other end.’ You placate your conscience to some extent by helping them and doing your job; you have to find ways.”
These days he’s less set on trying to capture every moment of a story and sees the merit in putting the camera down and waiting to see how things develop. Initially, many of the travellers at Dale Farm were reluctant to be captured by Parry, but in spending time with them he was rewarded. “There was one particular guy that I’d given up trying to film. It was an interesting lesson for me actually. But rather than have this fixated idea that I had to get him in the film, I just hung out with him. Just when I’d given up he turned round and said, ‘Yes’. In order to make good films you have to let your objectives drop a bit. When I was younger I had a tendency to try and film everything and beat myself up when I didn’t get stuff.”
Did this lead to him compromising his safety more than necessary? “Yes, when you start in this business you are very ambitious. So much one does in life is born out of insecurity to prove oneself, so you take risks. Now if something doesn’t work out to be the best thing in the world, well that’s all right, there are more important things in life. You have to try and retain a bit of a grip.”
The Frontline freelancers were renowned for taking risks, filming where no other news teams would go. So I can’t help but point out that perhaps not having a complete grip might have been what enabled many of them to venture beyond the wire. Was it necessary to have a sense of invincibility to do what they did? “Maybe,” he admits. “If not, maybe we’d never have done it. Rory [Peck, a Frontline cameraman killed in Moscow in 1993] was like that. Or you need total self-belief like Vaughan. It would have been hard to do it otherwise because we had no insurance and no backup.”
He thinks that he went to war, partly to prove something. I ask what, but he doesn’t seem to have the definitive answer himself. “That I was more courageous than I thought? More interesting than I thought? To prove something to my parents, maybe? I don’t know. I had an interesting time, but I don’t think that, ultimately, I proved anything to myself. Real change in oneself has to come through different means. I think I was curious about the world. Why do boys go and join armies or run away to the circus? I was fascinated by war movies. I grew up in the era of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. I loved war movies. I guess I wanted to see that and be a part of that.”
He wants to tell the darker stories. He currently has a psychological thriller, Hollow Point, in development. It’s about family dysfunction, while A Night in the Woods is about dysfunction in relationships. “It falls back to some common human trait,” he says, “although both can be slotted into genres.” He thinks the marketplace is difficult for placing dark stories unless they are genre films. “The UK film industry needs a kick up the arse. It is so conservative; it needs to change. People still making films that cost a lot of money to make, with people taking big fat fees that they aren’t recouping in the box office.” He believes British films need to become more competitive and says that Vertigo Films, which made Monsters for less than half a million dollars, is leading the charge.
“Technology is partly driving this, plus an approach more like that of the American independent film industry. There, people are willing to roll up their sleeves, work really hard with a small crew and shoot handheld, which is quicker. It’s something that Americans are really good at. There’s always been a really vibrant film scene there that we don’t have in the UK.”
In an industry where you are only as good as your last film, he says the window to get the next project going is short. “I struggled after South West 9 because it didn’t make its money,” he admits, referring to his 2001 Brixton-centric, BAFTA-nominated directorial debut. He sees two options for film makers in the UK. “You can either go commercial or you can go arthouse and fit into a little clique where you’ll be funded no matter what. It’s about solving the conundrum of creating something that makes money that at the same time you’re proud of.” His documentary work is doing well, earning him commissions directly from the TV channels. Shooting Robert King helped get his film work back on track; although, when he talks about how relatively few people have seen it, it clearly stings. “The BBC gave it a slot in its documentary strand, Storyville. It was a great slot but no one saw it. The viewing figures were about 100,000, whereas The Big Gipsy Eviction was seen by 3.1 million people. That’s 31 times more people. Thirty one times!” It’s as if he can’t believe it himself.
Away from the war zones he now dons “a different kind of armour”, as he finds himself at the mercy of reviewers. “You don’t face reviews in news,” he says. “It comes and goes. People either buy it or don’t; and it’s satisfying when they do. After South West 9 I ploughed through the reviews thinking, ‘Why are they writing that?’ You always feel a bit misunderstood.”
Every couple of years Parry returns to conflict zones; desolate places in Afghanistan and Waziristan in northwest Pakistan to shoot films for National Geographic. He says he enjoys the process of putting a story together. He doesn’t take the risks these days, though; he doesn’t see himself as immortal any more. “It’s much more dangerous outside the wire now. Yugoslavia was great; we just got on with the people. We had the same references, but it’s not the same in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.” I ask him about Robert King. Parry tells me he’s selling tomatoes: “Quite a lot of tomatoes.”
He’d love to see war reportage back on the agenda again. “I think it’s a great art form, but the reality is that people like Robert are selling tomatoes because it just doesn’t pay the bills any more,” he says with a grimace. “Journalism is going through major turmoil, especially print journalism; there isn’t the money there used to be.” He doesn’t watch the news and says he’s much more interested in people than politics.
The prospect of more guerilla-style films in the future is an exciting one. “I’d like to continue doing improvised, low-budget projects. You’ve got more freedom and more control because you aren’t fighting with all the executives,” he says, displaying that same streak of independence that fuelled Parry and his Frontline colleagues years ago. “They just let you get on with it.”
© Eleanor O’Kane 2012