Diary Of An Adventure Filmmaker: Two Ways To Build A Story When Editing Your Footage

In my previous adventure filmmaking update, I ran through the process of whittling down the raw footage from an expedition to a manageable amount with which we could begin crafting the story.

This specifically referred to the film we shot in Patagonia, journeying along the Rio Santa Cruz on horseback; the film for which we’re taking the most hands-on role in making.

The physical journey was pretty simple – ride horses from A to B – but there were several threads to the underlying human story of Leon’s evolving understanding of the social, environmental and political issues surrounding the looming mega-dam project in the valley.

The challenge has been to keep these threads in balance, ensuring each scene focuses on the right topic at the right time to build a clear overall picture of what we saw and learned, and the iterative approach described in the previous update is working well in that sense.

Karun, the story of our journey down Iran’s longest river, is in many ways a lot simpler. And while Leon and I have both been away fairly frequently, our edit producer and co-director Rhys has been taking a different approach to the footage in our absence, with his editor Nigel. I’d like to talk about that today, as part of an ongoing series of updates on the mechanics of making an adventure film.

What happened in Iran was actually much more complicated than the footage would suggest. The rushes themselves are full of gaping holes and unexplained stories – mostly due to our own paranoia when filming, but also thanks to the Iranian local authorities, who arrested us before the trip even began for filming in Esfahan, and dragged us in for questioning on several occasions thereafter – occasions which we were (for obvious reasons) unable to actually film.

Since the trip, just over one year ago, it has been tempting to try and craft a cleverly-structured, semi-farcical story about this itself – a film about failing to make a film in Iran because of the restrictions on journalism and freedom of speech. And from my point of view, it still is tempting to experiment with that kind of story, because the filmmaking struggle was such a big part of our experience.

But the reason we hired Rhys was to have someone who wasn’t there with us take a dispassionate look at the footage we’d come back with and find the best possible film contained therein. And in his view – and I would be a fool to argue – making that film would require so much retrospective reconstruction (due to the missing footage) that the journey itself would lose its impact.

The format and structure of a film is one of the first things a director must figure out when sitting down to make something of the raw material. It’s usually the case that a whole multitude of different stories could be told with a given set of footage.

But the story must ultimately be true both to the footage and to the intentions of its protagonists. We went to Iran to show off its non-political side by means of an adventure, so the truest story would be one that remained focused on that.

In this context, the story of our journey along the River Karun tells itself. So rather than pulling out all the dialogue and whittling it down in a series of iterations, as we’ve had to do with the much more abstract story of the Santa Cruz, Rhys and Nigel have been building the film chronologically, one scene at a time, to quite a high level of refinement, music and all.

Partly they’ve been able to do this because of the development that Leon and I had already put in regarding our vision for the film and its structure, with the short film acting as a template for that. But it’s also a totally appropriate way to go about telling the honest and often comical story of a madcap adventure from start to finish – different to the way we’re approaching the Santa Cruz film, but no less ‘correct’ a way to work.

As of the end of last week, we have about 25 minutes of fairly polished film for Karun, taking us from the start of the trip through to the bit when Leon decided to go for a swim in an ice-cold whitewater river at the bottom of an inaccessible gorge. This means we’re on track for a film of about an hour in length, which is about right for the kind of film festivals we’ll be entering it into, as well as for an independent DVD and digital release.

Given that we’re trying to position Karun as a cultural exposé as much as a travelogue, we’ve also been getting in touch with a number of Iranian musicians with a view to composing an authentically Iranian soundtrack to the film, taking in a variety of Persian and regional folk music styles and instruments. This is really exciting, and will be something new for both of us, having only previously worked with British composers and off-the-shelf library music.

It’s proving a fantastic creative project, and we’re learning something new every day from the talented people we’re working alongside.

My hope is that by sharing some of these lessons, we’ll help inspire and educate a new generation of adventure filmmakers, as well as giving those of you waiting for the finished films an insight into what it takes to put them together.

Stay tuned for the next update in a couple of weeks’ time.