This week, award winning documentary film maker, Elizabeth Stopford, discusses how her latest C4 documentary ‘We Need to Talk About Dad’ was received on Twitter, and what a “real time” response means from a filmmaker’s perspective.
Watching my latest documentary ‘We Need to Talk About Dad’ go out on Channel 4 was a novel experience because its transmission was punctuated by an ongoing commentary – courtesy of twitter.
The ‘water cooler effect’ of people talking about your show afterwards has now been superseded by the immediacy of being able to ‘listen in’ on what people make of it in real time.
I’d spent over 6 months producing the documentary ‘We Need to Talk About Dad’ through Rare Day for Channel 4. The Johnsons had twenty years of happy marriage, professional success, a lovely home, blond-haired children. They were nicknamed the ‘Sunday Supplement family’ by locals, and appeared to have it all. Then one day, Nick Johnson, told his wife he had a surprise for her, led her blindfolded into the garden, and committed an awful act of violence.
As a filmmaker building a relationship with the family, I was very aware of the weight of responsibility in handling such sensitive material. The mum, dad and two boys had each developed ways of avoiding the crux of the ”incident” that had shattered their family idyll 7 years earlier.
Made through the eyes of the eldest son, Henry, ‘We Need to Talk About Dad’ is much more about the failure of communication in the aftermath than the attack itself. But a preview feature in the Guardian – headlined ”THE DAY DAD TOOK AN AXE TO MUM” – made me realise that once it is out there, it is out there, and people will interpret it as they will. Bluntly, in this case.
So the response in the Twittersphere was fascinating for me. First up, I was both amused and bemused to read several young females piling in – in the midst of this shocking story, to share their rather personal views:
”I know this is bad but I’m watching ‘we need to talk about dad’, its sad, but all I can think about is how the son is hot”.
”Watching ‘we need to talk about dad’ – really gripping c4 doc, shouldn’t really say this but henry is gorgeous! I just wanna comfort him x_x”
”Watching this and all I am wondering is how could such a f***ed up father give birth to two such beautiful sons?!…”
Fortunately this wasn’t the only talking point. I was encouraged to hear people reflect, too, on what they would do in this extraordinary situation…
”We need to talk about Dad – bizarre! I would never take back anyone who cracked my head open with an axe, let alone make them Xmas dinner!”
”watching we need to talk about dad, why would you let someone who tried to kill your mum back into your life #weird”
”I’m watching ‘We Need to Talk About Dad’. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time. Are we all capable of doing something so terrible?”
”I have just watched ‘we need to talk about dad’. What an amazing family. No judgement-xx”
”Feeling a lot better about my life!…”
Some of these hit at the heart of the issues. It was good to hear people grapple with – and try to relate to – the family’s predicament. Then there were those who didn’t seem to know what was going on at all…
”I’m watching ‘we need to talk about dad’ and I’m slightly confused”.
It was unclear to me whether this person meant ”confused” in a good way. I assume not. But it’s possible that if he/she paid more attention to the TV rather than tweets about how fit the son is, he/she would have a better idea?!…
As a filmmaker, it can be excruciating to know that your viewer is most likely making a cup of tea, sending a text message and checking out other domestic homicide cases on their ipad, while simultaneously watching your programme. I suppose, as we toil away in edit suites for hours on end, we have to operate under the delusion that people will really be watching, otherwise we’d become slapdash and just plaster the whole thing in commentary (I think the penny must have dropped for a good few producers, as an increasing number seem to be taking up this far more sensible approach).
Let’s face it, the majority of bums aren’t on home cinema seats. And I’m not completely against viewers multi-tasking; I like the idea that people can experience a story through a number of different platforms all at one time e.g. watch TV and explore a related product on their tablet. I can see why Twitter works so brilliantly for shows like ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘X Factor’, where a ‘live audience’ response is really half the fun. Many of those shows even have a special editor who ‘curates’ the social media conversations by adding images and clips and re-posting relevant tweets. But ideally the programme needs to be designed to be viewed/interacted with that way. Otherwise we’ll all end up lost.
Overall, I must admit that I did find it exciting to scan Twitter during TX. You feel very connected to your audience. And it can have a massively important role to play after the ‘main event’. If I needed confirmation, this tweet the next day was it…
”Living by the theory of ‘everyone was talking about it’ I am about to watch the ‘We need to talk about Dad’ prog from last night”
The ‘watercooler’ all the way. Music to any producer’s ears.