My Way, for Channel 4, was an homage to my favourite filmmaker, the great master Abbas Kiarostami. (Or was it a theft?)
The film was a pilot for an innovative biography series that would document a celebrity “directing” dramatized scenes – key moments – from their lives. Through observing them select those moments, cast actors and then guide them in their performances, the idea was to reveal truths that even they weren’t aware of. And then watch their reaction to what they see – this molded memory of the past unfolding before their eyes — the reconstructions hopefully unlocking an emotional reaction and, with it, new insight. Both for them and us.
I’ve always been interested in the stories we tell ourselves. Whatever reality we experience in the here and now, once transformed into memory it plays out as a movie in our head. (Which might be one way of explaining our deep, untroubled affection for the medium.)
And My Way was an attempt to access that intimate movie, revealing the “truth” through the choices made to portray it – the distortions, lies and elisions we employ to protect ourselves from the pain of what really happened. What is most telling is often untold. I suppose the idea behind My Way was a kind of marriage between certain principles of psychotherapy and others of documentary.
When you look at old documentaries, you’re struck by the innocent trust (or sometimes vaguely subservient fear) captured in the relationship between the subject and the camera. This was a world before TMZ, the world before we all became “media trained” through a process of osmosis, watching the careful fabrications (and occasional gaffes) of the stream of others we watch on screen.
I’m not saying those documentaries were more “true.” We know that standards were different, that those old classics often relied on techniques that we would today call “constructed reality.” But, still, there was a directness to the answers the subjects in those films would give.
These days everyone knows how the process works. The fundamental dishonesty of the editing process. The way your words and actions on film can be used against you. The trust is gone. That’s true when you interview “real people” – and especially when you’re dealing with celebrities.
“My Way” was an attempt at a way through the problem.
I thought of myself as a kind of pickpocket. Distracting my subject (“Look here, it’s a normal documentary!”), then picking his pocket (“Actually I’m playing a game you’ve never played before.”)
My dream was to make it about Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the Moon — and still quite resentful that Neil Armstrong pipped him to the post. Buzz wanted to do it.
Instead – for boring TV reasons — I was given James Hewitt, Princess Diana’s one-time lover, telling the story of their relationship… and how it ruined him.
I was deeply disappointed at first. But James was more interesting than you’d imagine and actually quite perfect for the experiment that was the film I had in mind. That is, a man who can’t come to terms with the past. The story itself sounds irredeemably tabloid. But I think the way it’s treated yields surprising truths that no one else got from him.
I should warn you. Lots of people don’t like this film. They call it “tricksy” or other, even worse, epithets. Others, including some top names in documentary, liked it a lot. I have my own mixed feelings – I was forced to include some elements I hated in order to make it a “Channel 4 9 p.m. film,” as it’s called in the industry.
But, that said, I think it was an honest attempt at making something original.