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Attacking the Devil

The experience and challenges of documentary

Above: First trailer with working title ‘A Man Called Harry’ followed by the final trailer ‘Attacking the Devil.’ / This article is From Canon Professional Network published February 2016. The Thalidomide scandal of the 1950s and 60s was a tragedy of the highest order; made worse by the lies, conspiracies and deception that followed afterwards as those affected tried to claim compensation. A new film by Jacqui Morris – ‘Attacking the Devil’ – tells the story of how The Sunday Times, led by the then editor Sir Harold Evans, fought for justice. The film’s director of photography, Canon Explorer Clive Booth, tells CPN writer Ian Farrell how he approached it…


When Clive Booth shoots his distinctive brand of movies he’s used to working with a good-sized crew and a good-sized budget. The UK-based photographer has produced commercials and campaigns for high-end brands like Intel, Louis Vuitton and MAC, and confesses to having an “almost anal” attention to detail. He also loves being in complete control over every part of the filming and production process. Given this, Clive must have felt his world had been turned upside down when he began work as director of photography on the documentary film ‘Attacking the Devil’ – not a glitzy ad campaign, but a gritty account of how The Sunday Times helped those affected by the drug Thalidomide during the 1960s fight for compensation. The crew and budget were small. And rather than micro-planning every detail, the team had to let the action unfold in front of the camera as they interviewed those directly involved with the story. “When I’m shooting a TV ad I’ll work with maybe 50 people on set, but for this there were maybe three or four of us,” recalls Clive. The job came about through an association between Clive’s agent, Mark George, and one of the directors of ‘Attacking the Devil’, Jacqui Morris – who also directed ‘McCullin’, the 2012 film documenting the life of one of Mark’s other photographers, Don McCullin.


Mark, Don and Jacqui were having dinner at a Canadian film festival when the McCullin film was released and she mentioned she was looking for a DOP for her next project. Mark put my name forward,” Clive recalls. “I think Jacqui wanted it to be quite sensitively lit, and I’d been doing a lot of these very stylish perfume commercials, which were a lot like that.


Clive is keen to stress that he didn’t shoot every interview in the film, but his involvement was enough to secure him the director of photography (DOP) credit. Despite his considerable experience in the filmmaking industry, he was to learn that shooting documentaries is a different game entirely. “It’s a different kind of pressure: with the high-budget commercial shoots you have the client watching you working, which is pretty stressful in itself. But on ‘Attacking the Devil’ there was the pressure of knowing that we had to nail these really important interviews – you can’t go back and ask someone to emotionally recall these events again because you didn’t get it right the first time,” he says. He continues: “But to be fair to Jacqui, she did give me a lot of time to prep my shots. More than DOPs usually get on documentary projects,” he adds.


Clive’s crew often shot the same scene with multiple cameras all running at once, so there was plenty of footage to cut between in the edit. “Sometimes I’d have one or two EOS C300 cameras on the go, plus an EOS-1D X and an EOS 5D Mark II,” he says. “The EOS C300 seems to have become a kind of go-to camera for documentary filmmakers; we always seemed to be shooting on one. I mean, they are relatively inexpensive and, or course, you can swap between the Cinema EOS lenses and regular EF lenses. A lot of the jobbing freelance camera operators I hired would appear with their own C300, and they really knew their way around them. In the US, filmmakers adopted the Cinema EOS system sooner than we did in the UK, although that’s changing now. But this means you have some brilliant freelance crews working over there. For the scenes we shot in New York I hired in some guys who looked really scruffy and shaggy, but my goodness, did they know what they were doing!” he laughs. “Very impressive.”


Perhaps the biggest interview in the film is with Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times, who pioneered the campaign for compensation against Distillers, the manufacturers of Thalidomide. His story runs throughout the film, and was shot in a number of different locations. “I had an idea of how I wanted Harry’s part to look,” says Clive. “We went to my usual London studio, Iris in Chelsea, and created a set from an old oak desk, a swivel chair and a hat stand with Harry’s trademark porkpie hat hanging on it. We lit Harry pretty much from one side, with some fill on the background.I set up one EOS C300 with an EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto lens on it for a super close-up shot of Harry’s face. We also had a second EOS C300 going with a CN-E85mm Cinema EOS lens on it, and two other cameras for wide shots. Everything was running simultaneously. I think Jacqui was nervous about the 400mm close up at first, but she came round to it in the end. Harry talks with such passion and conviction; I really wanted to see his face filling the screen. We tried not to use things like sliders, or camera movements in general actually. I think with commercials you have lots of fast edits in there to give things some pace, but with this we wanted the action to unfold naturally without too much complexity,” Clive says. As well as the studio set, the team also shot Sir Harold Evans giving a lecture at Durham Cathedral and carried out interviews at the Type Archive – a museum of typography in southwest London. “It seemed appropriate, since Harry spent so much of his time on the paper working with hot metal type,” says Clive. “Plus we could shoot some great cutaways there, which went on the make up the opening sequence.” He adds: “There is also some really nice footage of Harry walking around in New York. Again we used EOS C300s, but also an EOS-1D X, which was useful for smaller spaces, like the shot we did in in the back of a car using an EF14mm f/2.8L USM. We carried a few different lenses with us, swapping them in and out for a bit of variety.”


The role of the DOP is something that Clive knows well, though he says that some of the extra work and responsibility this brings can be frustrating. “It’s so complicated!” he laughs. “The cameras are complex, the kit list is long. Organising everything so that it’s there on time; you know, I just don’t like that stuff. So normally I tend to work with people who do that for me. I just find it all a bit tedious. I want to just get on and shoot.”


Clive also had to get used to the emotional nature of the subject matter: “It’s a very powerful story, and there are aspects that people just don’t know about, even all these years on. Like the link between Thalidomide and pharmaceutical research done during the war in Nazi concentration camps. “It was hard, filming someone who’s recounting their story of how they felt 50 years ago giving birth to a baby that was disabled because they took Thalidomide. Often they were in tears; and we were in tears. It was harrowing, hearing about the injustice of it all.” The scenes were challenging, technically, too. “An interesting thing about those interviews is that they were long. Someone could be sitting there for an hour or more, and if you are using natural light, and it’s January, then that natural light is going to change, which causes problems,” Clive explains. “So we shot mostly with artificial continuous lighting, which at least meant that I could create some atmosphere. When you work on location you are a slave to the light. If it’s flat then it’s flat, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But at least with continuous lighting you can add a sense of drama and atmosphere. I’m sure most of the people who watch these kinds of film won’t notice that type of thing, but I do – I want the content to be there, but I want it to look beautiful too.” And when it comes to content, who carried out the interviews? “Oh, Jacqui always asks the questions,” says Clive. “She had a firm idea in her head of the story that she wanted to tell, though I do think that story probably evolved as we went along. That spontaneity is an interesting aspect of documentary filmmaking, actually. In that respect Jacqui is as much of a journalist as the people she’s making the film about, I guess. And there’s also a great responsibility there to get your facts straight, of course.” Clive also points out the time restriction on being able to tell the Thalidomide story first hand: “Harry is 87 and the people we interviewed are in their 70s and 80s, so this tale has to be told first-hand now if it’s going to be told at all – and to Jacqui’s credit, she’s done that.”


Clive says he’s learned a lot from his experience working on ‘Attacking the Devil’, but would he do another documentary? “I don’t know. Probably, yes,” he declares. “I think I’d like to direct one, and be in complete creative control over everything. The nice thing about the documentary genre is that you can do a good job, and tell a good story, on a very low budget, so I guess you can take a personal passion and run with it. Like I’ve done with my still-photography project documenting the culture on the island of Islay. I think you could take that approach with documentary filmmaking too – pare everything down to a small amount of kit. That approach would interest me a lot.” So far, praise for ‘Attacking the Devil’ has been overwhelmingly positive, with reviewers praising both the importance of its content and its simple and ‘basic’ style that allows the story to unfold naturally and draw the viewer in. “I really enjoyed being a part of this,” Clive adds. “It was a great opportunity and a wonderful project to be involved with.”