Walter McIntosh is a documentary film-maker whose first film Lessons From Joan, about pioneering English theatre director Joan Littlewood’s famous production of Oh! What A Lovely War, premiered on 1 June 2018. Here he talks with Paul McCormack about Joan, his film and the challenges of being a documentary maker in Australia.
Could you tell me a little bit about Joan Littlewood?
Joan Littlewood pioneered a new way of doing theatre which involved a lot of improvisation and involved the ideas that actors should inhabit their characters rather than act them. She didn’t believe in actors memorising great big chunks of script and then performing it. She was interested in a very naturalistic form of acting, an acting of the street that involved observing people in everyday life and how they acted rather than portraying people in an artificial performative sort of manner.
There was a lot of class politics in the way she approached theatre. She believed in a nobility about the working class and wanted to give people a sense of pride in their own roots and background
There was a lot of class politics in the way she approached theatre. She believed in a nobility about the working class and wanted to give people a sense of pride in their own roots and background, which I think is why she encouraged people to perform from their own experience rather than perform something that was brought in from outside. She really believed in people bringing their own sense of fun and play and injecting their own experiences into the characters they portrayed.
How did you first hear of her?
It all started when I was at university and got really into the singer Morrissey. His compilation album Louder Than Bombs featured a photograph of Shelagh Delaney, who had written the play A Taste of Honey which was first directed for the stage by Joan Littlewood. I subsequently read A Taste of Honey when I was doing a theatre class at university and learned more about Joan Littlewood and the English ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.
Many years later I met Kevin Palmer, an Australian who had written a memoir of his life in theatre in London during that era. Part of his memoir was about his experiences working as Assistant Director on Oh! What A Lovely War, which was Joan Littlewood’s most famous play. We had done it at school and I was really surprised to meet an Australian who was not only very familiar with Joan Littlewood but had worked closely with her.
What is the Australian aspect of your documentary?
I really did ask myself a lot ‘did I have the right to be making this film?’ because it’s a film about a British director, so why should an Australian guy be directing this documentary? The link is Kevin Palmer and seeing Oh! What A Lovely War from his perspective.
When you met Kevin, had you already had the idea for the documentary?
No, when I met Kevin I was more interested in making the film about Kevin himself. Kevin had grown up in a boys’ home in Brisbane run by the Salvation Army and my original idea was to make a film about how this boy from Brisbane ended up in London’s West End assisting Joan Littlewood. As the project developed it became more about Joan Littlewood, with Kevin as the Australian aspect of the production.
When did you decide to focus only on the play Oh! What A Lovely War?
From the very beginning I was wanting to focus on the making of Oh! What A Lovely War because it was Kevin Palmer who gave me access to the material and who introduced me to the other actors. Kevin wasn’t really involved with any other Joan Littlewood productions, so that’s how I came to narrow it down.
When did you start?
In 2013 I suggested to Andrew Arbuthnot, a short film and documentary producer, the idea of making this film. We did a research interview with Kevin Palmer at the end of 2013 and then very shortly afterwards Kevin contacted me to say that he was going to London in March 2014 to see a revival of Oh! What A Lovely War. That’s when the idea for the film took off. We didn’t really know how we were going to use this interview with Kevin at that stage, but once we knew that Kevin was going back to the Theatre Royal in Stratford East, where he’d worked for Joan Littlewood, we realised we could make a film because we had the opportunity to interview other actors who had been Kevin’s colleagues in the theatre fifty years earlier.
When did you start shooting the documentary?
In 2014, when Kevin visited London. It was a very short shoot because, partly for reasons of cost, we decided to film it all in quite a compressed period. I think it was five days, starting with the day that Kevin went back to the Theatre Royal to see the 2014 revival of Oh! What A Lovely War. We had a very limited budget, so it was just me who went and then in London we hired a director of photography and a sound recordist for the five days.
How long did the film take to make?
It took about four years. I was working on the documentary in between my day job but I did work consistently at it and so by the time it was developed, shot and edited it was about four years.
How much was the budget?
Initially we had a budget of $15,000 because we’d been fortunate enough to get a development grant from Screen Australia and we used the funds to film the footage in London.
We also ended up spending much of the film’s budget on archive footage.
Years later, when I was near the end of the editing, I was able to get some more funding from Screen Australia through their Producers Equity Program. A lot of that went to pay for things like colour grading and sound mixing. We also ended up spending much of the film’s budget on archive footage.
Could you tell me about the archive footage?
There were a lot of photographs in the documentary which gives a lot of life and character to the film. They’re beautiful black and white photos that I sourced from Getty Images. Each photograph cost $650 to $750 to license and is only on screen for about five or ten seconds. I think we used about twenty photos, so the cost built up very quickly.
We couldn’t film anything of Joan Littlewood because she died in 2002, so we had to approach the BBC, who wanted A$80 a second. We had to blow the budget and spend about A$12,000 on archive footage.
There was no footage of the original production. How did you get around this?
After returning from London I did an internet search for Oh! What A Lovely War’ and sure enough it turned out there was going to be a production in Melbourne about two weeks later. It was really lucky, but we had to rush to get permission to film the play from the Melbourne company and also from the rights holder, which was the estate of Joan Littlewood.
You eventually got that permission?
Eventually. I went to Melbourne where the director let me sit in on rehearsals, which allowed the cast to become familiar with me. As far as trying to get permission from Joan Littlewood’s estate, that was a much longer process and, in the end, final permission wasn’t achieved until the documentary was almost finished. It was taking a bit of a risk to film all this footage and start putting it together knowing that at any time Joan Littlewood’s estate could just decide they didn’t want this made and I don’t know what I would have done then.
You really have to embark in good faith to show you are really committed so even if people say no at the beginning you keep going at it and diplomatically try to persuade them.
I would have put in all this work and had all this footage and not able to use it. But you always take a risk when making a documentary. You really have to embark in good faith to show you are really committed so even if people say no at the beginning you keep going at it and diplomatically try to persuade them. A lot of the time you can persuade people once they see what it is that you want to do and that you’re doing good work.
What’s it like being a documentary maker in Australia?
I think it’s difficult being a documentary maker anywhere because documentaries are not as popular as drama and feature films. It’s tough to survive as a full-time documentary maker. I certainly am not one; I do a lot of editing and some teaching to pay the bills.
It’s tough to survive as a full-time documentary maker.
I do know some documentary makers who direct full-time and it’s very difficult. If you’re a boutique documentary maker it probably takes three or four years to make a one hour or feature-length film and even if you’re successful in getting a grant that will allow you to pay yourself a wage, it will usually only cover a few months, so you might be paid when you’re out on the shoot or when you’re in the midst of an edit but there’s a whole lot of unpaid time when you’re developing the film or applying for funding.
Some documentary makers that I’ve worked for might be able to pay themselves $20,000 or $30,000 during the production phase of a documentary. If you look at that $30,000 and average it out over a three or four-year period it means you’re not earning very much money.
So, nobody does it for the money?
Nobody does it for the money. There are companies that make documentary-like programs and do it on a commercial basis, but they are not making boutique documentaries. They are making reality TV like Who Do You Think You Are? or historical documentaries with big budgets. But arthouse documentary making is very expensive and you make it because you have a passion for the subject. You really have to expect you’re not going to make any money from it and you’re probably going to put some or even a lot of your own money into it.
When and where will we get to see Lessons from Joan?
The Australian premiere was on 1 June 2018 at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. It will also be shown on Foxtel Arts later this year. We have also sold it to Sky in New Zealand and the UK. Our international distributor, Poorhouse International, are looking at other markets.