Interview with the Director

Being briefed by Canon

Coming from a background of directing and shooting commercials, it was new territory for me to receive a brief from a client requesting a documentary.

Working in my favour, I had a good prior relationship with Canon, having made commercials and online content in the past by collaborating with their advertising agency Leo Burnett.

What was different this time around was there was no advertising agency involvement, which meant the briefing process was quite different.

Canon simply asked me to meet with Tom Carroll and a curator he had engaged to archive and organise his work, Benjamin Chadbond to see if I could find an interesting documentary angle exploring the forthcoming public exhibition of Tom’s images the pair were planning. 

Initially I was asked to bring to light the stories behind the images. I feel it was assumed these stories would captivate an audience and invest them more in Tom’s work.

The parameters for the film were quite loose. We were looking to create the film in roughly a 12 minute exploration. 

Finding the creative direction

I realised quite quickly that without context, Tom’s back stories had a risk of feeling superficial. I also felt that an audience needed to connect with Tom emotionally before engaging with his work.

I initially spent some time engaging with Ben the curator. We met a few times and talked about Tom’s work and Ben offered many fascinating insights, some of which feature in the film. I looked at working prints of the images and got my own feeling for Tom’s world.

My early mental picture of the film was based around 3 layers: The superficial layer of the images themselves; the next layer surrounding the context of the surfing world at the time the images were taken; and the deep emotional layer that motivated Tom to take the images he did, and the connection he has in present day with them.

This third, deepest layer formed the foundations of the film. I was interested in exploring the images as catalogued memories. Why did he freeze these moments in time and why is he finally getting around to sharing that intimate memory with a public audience? Also, what does it do to Tom’s thinking to go deep into his past?

What was new to me in the realm of documentary making, is the dance between intent and observation in terms of creative direction. We conducted many interviews, each becoming progressively less formal, shorter and deeper in its themes. At a practical level, I needed some idea of the content I wanted to explore with Tom, ie what to ask and how to ask it. At the same time I needed to learn from what Tom was telling me and adapt future plans for the film accordingly. I’ve always admired work which honours authenticity. I needed to ensure Tom’s voice was being heard, and that it was being heard in a way that honours who he is. At the same time, Tom is not necessarily used to my creative intent and curiosity, so it’s my job to steer him in the areas that honour my overall vision for the project. In a way its very similar to the way a conductor works with an orchestra.

Watching the film now, I see equal parts of Tom and myself in the finished piece.

The hardest part of the process was distilling down the essence of the film in the edit. The notion of photography and memory was to remain within reach of the narrative, while at the same time I wanted the audience to immerse deeply in the motivations of the man behind the lens.

Because memory is such a profound and esoteric concept, exploring it takes you off topic very easily! 

Working with Tom/ Challenges and obstacles

It seems wild now, but when I was first presented with the opportunity to make a film about a world surfing legend, I had no idea who my subject was! It was an enviable position actually, because my naivety surrounding my subject gave me a chance to explore who he is in a very unforced and uncalculated way. It was also refreshing and unconventional for Tom, who was used to collaborating with people who knew him and the surfing world well.

Paradoxically I was coy about not knowing who he was, and it influenced my confidence in the first few meetings. I soon realised Tom was a beautiful human who thought deeply about the world and his place in it.

Within weeks of meeting Tom, I’d realised that if I was affected by Tom at an emotional level, so too would an audience.

Despite our early rapport, Tom was very unclear about the film I was making and he was unsure about how to steer things.

Halfway through the filming process, Tom suffered a major injury setback, badly tearing his shoulder rotator cuff. The injury rehab was intense and it naturally became a kind of emotional beacon for where he was at in life.

Sensing this was time for us to use well, I set up the camera in Tom’s lounge room as a diary Cam, and he regularly catalogued his thoughts and feelings. As I learned from this more raw version of Tom, I also harnessed my newfound ability to Direct him by proxy, without physically being present.

The dynamic was fruitful and the content provides an audience with some of the mundane realities of celebrity life, and an insight about how we feel about our own mortality.

Conceptually, the material Tom gave in his diaries provided reflection points for how he has lived, what kind of life he has had, and what it means to know what is important.

Craft

My earliest intention was to make a piece of film that brings a worldfamous celebrity into the world of normal, mundane even. I wanted his thoughts to be raw, immediate and accessible.

Tom was generously offering me a very un-curated version of himself. Naturally, my response was to become less 'curated' with the visual craft of the film. 

The intention was to create a raw and candid observational style of film. Although with my advertising work I utilise camera operators, I decided to keep my rapport with Tom intact and shoot the coverage myself, using a Canon C300 mk2 motion camera.

My brother Jeremy collaborated with sound. What it meant was Jeremy and I were primarily the only two people Tom saw during the making of the film. For some of the beach overlay, which was more dynamic stylistically, including the drone footage I collaborated with Ashleigh Carter, who I have a great working rapport with.

My choice of camera also enabled Tom to film his own diary entries, courtesy of a locked off shot in his lounge room.

The film also heavily features Tom’s very own Super 8 and high 8 video footage. Quicksilver couriered several boxes of Tom’s archives and I was able to pour through the work to see life as Tom saw it.

The footage was curious, playful and artfully composed.

Ultimately my intention was to let Tom’s work speak for itself, and like photography itself, create a lasting impression on the audience.