"At its best, documentary film blows fiction out of the water": Director David Sington discusses his powerful new documentary"The Fear of 13 "

Nick, the sole narrator and on-screen presence in The Fear of 13. Source: Dogwoof

Nick, the sole narrator and on-screen presence in The Fear of 13. Source: Dogwoof


New documentary The Fear of 13, from filmmaker David Sington (the award-winning director behind the acclaimed In the Shadow of the Moon), is a superb example of the impact a good story, told by a compelling storyteller, can make. For virtually all of the film’s running time, all we see on screen is Nick, the sole protagonist, who sits in a chair and relates to us a tale of his imprisonment and condemnation to death row, a tale full of jaw-dropping, heartrending and blackly funny twists and turns. We are told nothing about this man as the film opens, save one tantalising line of opening text that informs us Nick has asked to exercise his one remaining right as a death row convict: he has petitioned the relevant court to proceed with his execution.

Having struggled to complete The Fear of 13 since 2007, Sington now sees his finished film released in the UK on the strangely appropriate date of Friday the 13th this November. He discussed the journey of this long-gestating project to the screen with Smoke Screen on the eve of the film’s release, following a run on the festival circuit where is has received standing ovations. You can read the entire review of the film here, but beware, the below interview reveals some details about the film, which is best experienced in total ignorance of its production history.

How have both you found audiences have been reacting to the film?

We’ve taken the film to Copenhagen and London Film Festivals, and the reaction has really surprised me; way more positive than I thought it would be. We’ve been working on this film for such a long time, and you lose perspective on it. It is a very unusual film, built around a one-man monologue, and you worry the audience will get bored seeing the same guy on screen. I found myself nervous at all the screenings, we’ve had five so far. I only relaxed at the last one and watched it with the audience! We had a standing ovation at the London screening.

It is a truism that all you need is a good story, and a good storyteller. Here you had a great story, but you made particular storytelling decisions when it came to relating the historical facts about Nick’s experience.

I wish I could boast that I had brilliantly conceived it all from the beginning, but that is really not what happened. Christophe Riley the producer came across Nick’s story, and he was really the person who was instrumental in making In the Shadow of the Moon happen and bringing it to my production company, he said to me that this was like another Shadow; a really powerful story with a brilliant interviewee. Having found out about Nick’s story we were able to convince him to take part; that was quite a difficult thing to do as he was quite resistant to it. We haunted him for a bit. This was back in 2007.

We just started with a couple of days of interviews with Nick. We were very careful with how we set up the interview; the lighting and such. His reaction to that was really strong; it spooked him. He said to me afterwards; “You really put me through something there.” The first few days of interviews were incredibly powerful and super emotional, a great deal of pain, anger, fear and crying. It wasn't an interview so much as a re-enactment if you like; a re-living of the emotions and incidents with gestures and voices. I felt it was extraordinary, but I also felt it was a bit too much, so we asked if we could do it again, with a different approach.

The music is very important in the film, there were ten songs Nick talked about as playing at key role in his life at certain moments; such as when he was arrested, when he was a child, and in prison, listening on the car radio, that sort of thing. We made a mix tape of those songs and went through them with Nick, one by one. And we went through the whole story again over two days, and we ended up with 22 hours of material. At that point I was beginning to think that we maybe had the film now, plus we had done lots of research into the veracity of what he was saying and we had identified other people to interview. But I also started feeling that maybe I really didn't want to do that. That maybe we should just use Nick. That made it very difficult to raise money for the film, as we were asking people to put money into something that sounded super-arthouse that would be of very limited interest. So we then had to continue to self-fund to take it to rough cut.

We did a complete chronological construction of the story from childhood to present, a three-hour assembly. It was obvious at that point we had enough material, but it wasn't watchable. So we brought it down to about one and a half hours. With documentary, you’ve got your story, and you film it, but you work it out in the cutting room. I never worry about structure until later in the editing process. John Battsek, a very distinguished producer of documentaries who was also an exec on In the Shadow of the Moon, a very astute guy, he told me: “It really comes alive when he gets to prison.” After that it took me about five minutes to figure out a structure for the film, which is what you have now.

It didn't take us very long at all to restructure the film: we had Nick, black spacer, music, sound effects. We took that to Sheffield as a work-in-progress and raised the money quite easily from the BBC and private investors in the US. I worked out the structure by responding to the material.

You give the audience almost no information about Nick to start with:

If you look at the setting, it is clearly ambiguous. I obviously wanted to retain a slight sense of mystery. I knew that. Storytelling is all about holding information back. If you present all the information up front like a journalist piece, that is what kills most television and factual programming. It kills all the fun! “Once upon a time” is how you tell a story.

What effect were you looking for with the highly-stylised bridging sequences that appear in between the sections of Nick’s monologue?

Nick paints very vidid “word pictures”. If I put pictures of what he was saying on screen, that would be redundant. Words and pictures never want to be doing precisely the same thing. So I had to find images which were helpful, without being merely illustrations. The mantra was: “we must not illustrate Nick’s story.” That meant no re-enactments, really. There is the imagery of the prison, what is outside the cell door. We try and deploy that in a poetic way to enhance the mood, so we use shallow depth of field, most of the pictures are out of focus and they are typically over-cranked. 

What I was trying to do was to keep you inside Nick’s cell and in Nick’s head, with images that were in his mind but not necessarily images representing what he was saying. Or maybe more accurately; these were images in my mind when I was talking to him. I didn't want to create scenes on the whole, I wanted to create little moments, vivid images, that might flash into your mind when telling a story. Dreamlike images.

The film is also structured as a mystery, so I wanted images I could play at the beginning and the end, but only at the end will you understand what they mean. They have got to have some powerful emotional tenor, but you never quite know why, until eventually you understand. A visual puzzle to go with the narrative puzzle. It was very difficult to do. As soon as it got too literal, it was dead.

How did you build trust with Nick, and what was he like to work with?

We did show him In the Shadow of the Moon, which he really liked. That convinced him we were good filmmakers. We probably had two or three meals together before the interview. I met his wife and child. I was just trying to convince him that I was a trustworthy person in it for the right reasons.

He is very charming, quite outgoing, quite “big”. A vivid person, not quiet at all. He is good fun, and he’s funny. He is somebody I think who has to try, as it were, nothing is quite easy for Nick, you get that impression. He has to make a big effort, so as to be a nice, sociable person. He is not a very relaxed person. In the intervening years since shooting the film we had very little contact with him.

We did say to Nick: “You will have nothing to do with the editing of this film, it is a documentary, and it has to be objective, it can’t be a plug piece. We have to make up our own minds about you and how to show you. You are putting your life in our hands in a funny sort of way.” But he has had absolutely no editorial input whatsoever. And he has never complained about it, demanded it or asked for it. He has been extraordinarily trusting of us. 

Source: Dogwoof

Source: Dogwoof

What were the major challenges you faced making the film?

The first problem was we had no money! We tried to sell the film, but a lot of the regular people you would target turned it down. So it was very difficult to decide to spend even more money on it. That was the main problem. But it was a difficult film to make, not in terms of being difficult to shape Nick’s material, it took a while, but it wasn't a painful process. It was difficult to illustrate, to put in the pictures, so to speak. 

We had three shoots in the United States, and we had a really good line producer in Haroula Rose and fantastic support from Kate Swanson, they set up a quite complicated shoot in the US with prisons and guards and extras, all on a relatively modest budget. The problem wasn’t filming it so much as editing it, making it work. 

Are there any documentary filmmakers who particularly inspire you today?

The people I really admire are the documentary filmmakers who are going out and really putting their necks on the line to get these extraordinary stories. I did think of Errol Morris’s film Fog of War and Swimming to Cambodia, which is a one-man stage show. I also thought about fiction films, classics about death row; how did they work, what did they do? Such as The Green Mile: you don’t really know until the end what really happened.

I revere the classics; the Maysles, Pennebaker, Jennings and Grierson. At its best documentary film blows fiction out of the water. The best films are way more powerful and important, they stay with you. It has to be Godfather-level fiction to compete. For example, there are plenty of films about Mexican cartels and drugs, but Cartel Land is the film that will stay with you.

The Fear of 13 is released in the UK on 13 November 2015.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.