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Podcast – Jennifer Peedom: making River and doco vs drama

River co-writer and co-director Jennifer Peedom on collaborating again with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the move into drama storytelling.

Splice of still from River and Jennifer Peedom headshot.

River, Jennifer Peedom

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

Documentary writer, director and producer Jennifer Peedom says there are less differences between factual and drama filmmaking than people think.

The director behind BAFTA-nominated Sherpa, as well as Mountain and now River is attached to two drama projects – one with Aquarius Films, and the other Tenzing, which has been written by Lion’s Luke Davies and is in stages of pre-production.

“I deploy a really strong narrative storytelling and scriptwriting process to my documentaries anyway… In the case of River, it's completely scripted. It's just 100% scripted,” Peedom says.

“The biggest difference [to drama storytelling] is the writing of the dialogue.”

As Peedom explains on the latest episode of the Screen Australia Podcast, it’s all storytelling at its heart and both drama and factual filmmakers can use the same structural techniques to do that.

In River, which Peedom describes as a sequel to her 2017 feature documentary Mountain, she again joins forces with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), but this time to explore the relationship between humans and rivers. The film, which she co-directed with Joseph Nizeti is distributed by Madman Films and is out in Australian cinemas now.

Throughout the podcast, Peedom also talks to how this collaboration with the ACO and its artistic director Richard Tognetti worked; bringing Willem Dafoe back to narrate; how they set up the film to feel like you were stepping into a concert; and how Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood became involved.

Watch River in Australian cinemas now.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge the various countries we meet on. Regardless of where you're listening in from, we are meeting on the unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This podcast has been produced on the lands of the Gadigal people of the larger Eora Nation. I'm a visitor on these lands and have great privilege to be able to work here. Always was, always will be. For this episode of the Screen Australia podcast, we are joined by Jennifer Peedom, the director and writer of feature documentaries Sherpa, Mountain and now River, which she co-directed with Joseph Nizeti. Jennifer also co-founded the production company Stranger Than Fiction Films and executive produced on the likes of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life and both seasons of SBS series Australia in Colour. River, similar to Mountain, is narrated by Willem Dafoe and is a collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and its artistic director, Richard Tognetti. Described as a "cinematic and musical odyssey", it explores the relationship between humans and rivers and is out in Australian cinemas now. Throughout the podcast, Jennifer talks about why she was drawn to documentary, how the collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in River worked, how they set up the film to feel like you were stepping into a concert, and how Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood became involved. Jennifer also talks about plans to move into drama filmmaking and why doco and drama are more similar than people think. To stay up to date with the Screen Australia podcast, remember you can subscribe through the likes of Spotify or iTunes, where you can leave a rating and review. Send questions or feedback to [email protected] and subscribe to Screen Australia's fortnightly newsletter for all the latest news from the local industry. Now he's River co-writer and co-director Jennifer Peedom.

[00:02:14] Caris Bizzaca Just to start off with. Can you tell us a bit about your role in the industry and some of the projects that you've worked across?

[00:02:21] Jennifer Peedom So I'm a documentary filmmaker. I'm a filmmaker. I both direct and produce. I sort of came up through the documentary world, now moving into drama. I have my own production company, Stranger Than Fiction Films, and so I kind of have more recently been producing documentary films and series for other directors, which I really enjoy, but primarily I'm a director.

[00:02:49] Caris Bizzaca And were you always drawn to documentary making?

[00:02:53] Jennifer Peedom Yeah. When when I finished school, I had no idea of what I wanted to do. And so I just went off and got a business degree. I always loved cinema. I grew up in Canberr and used to ride my bike to the cinema and watch mainly foreign films. And I was just always into those big kind of epic movies. And sometimes when there were documentaries, I would go and see them. But it was actually when I first saw Race Around the World that I went, 'Oh my God, that's the thing that that I want to do'. And I had done a huge amount of travel. I'd lived in Latin America. I travelled extensively in Asia. And photography had been my thing. And so I'd kind of wondered for a bit whether or not travel writing and photography might be something that I wanted to do, but I decided to go and get a degree. And during that time, it was actually just after I left uni that I saw Race Around the World and I went 'Oh, that's it'. It was just this real certainty. And as it happened, there was one more series of Race to be had. It was not Race Around the World, but it was Race Around Oz and I applied to and by some miracle got into Race Around Oz. And that was the year 2000 and I'd never used a camera before. Like I'd use a stills camera, but I'd never used a video camera. I didn't know how to do sound. I was like a total amateur and that was my film school, and I'll be forever grateful to the ABC for that opportunity.

[00:04:22] Caris Bizzaca And so, you know, talking about documentaries, your latest documentary is River. What is River about?

[00:04:31] Jennifer Peedom Well, River is I guess, a sequel, if you like to the film I made a few years ago called Mountain, and both these projects are, they're fairly unique because they are documentaries, but they are not really documentaries, if you like. So Mountain was actually a commission from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. So it began life as a concert, if you like. But as we were making it and financing it in fact, I realised that in order to achieve the vision and to achieve what it was that I wanted to do, we needed to finance it as a film as well and bring more money to the budget. And so then we essentially concurrently were making both versions of the film, both Mountain and Mountain Live and in this case, River and River Live. So the ACO Australian Chamber Orchestra will perform the work live, and it will also released in cinemas. And both films, both of them explain, well explore the nature of our relationship to landscape and in this case, rivers and this relationship that is essential for our survival in this case. So it explores the changing nature of that relationship over time and kind of ask the question, you know, 'have we forgotten to revere rivers?'

[00:05:51] Caris Bizzaca And with your collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, can you talk about how that actually works? Are you delivering a final cut? Are they composing as you are delivering footage? How does it actually work?

[00:06:06] Jennifer Peedom It's definitely not like scoring a normal film, so the way that it works is that generally and by total coincidence, it played out the same way with both Mountain and River. About 50 percent of the score is existing - what we call - classical repertoire. So we're talking about whether it be Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi and then the other half is bespoke compositions by Richard Tognetti and in the case of River, Richard Tognetti, Piers Burbrook de Vere and William Barton. So we work with that repertoire. We try and find places for it because that is something that is required of the ACO and their audience. They need it to work for their audience as well. So they love the big classical works. It's a real challenge for us as filmmakers working those in because they don't necessarily always do what you want them to do. You know, when you're working with normal score, your composer is able to work to picture the craft the score. To really sit with what you've already edited. Whereas in the case of this classical music, we are editing to that music. And oftentimes it's the wrong length. And so what happens with the ACO is Richard is a very skilled composer and also arranger. So in some instances, he might arrange or edit a piece so that it does work for the scene. So it's a really interactive process, right from very early kind of rough cuts, we're working with them to place music. Often the choices that we've made, he wants to try different things. And so it's sort of an in and out process. And then for the other half of the film, we temp in the normal way that we would, I would at least in scoring. And then we work with the composers to create those bespoke compositions, to work to picture. So it's a much more involved process and necessarily so because it is a very music driven film.

[00:08:12] Caris Bizzaca Hmm. Yeah, it seems like a real jigsaw puzzle trying to get it to all fit together.

[00:08:17] Jennifer Peedom Yeah. And that's the gig in this instance, because the movie is like a concert and the way that we set it up. You know, the ACO are such a big part of the work and the reason that it is the way that it is. And so we want it to feel like you stepping into a concert hall. And I've always from childhood, I used to play in orchestras when I was younger, and I always loved that sound of an orchestra tuning up before they start to play. And so the opening titles of both Mountain and River show the various creative collaborators, including the ACO and wonderful Willem Dafoe. And in this case as well, William Barton stepping up to the microphone. William Barton sings in a couple of the cues in River, Willem Dafoe obviously narrates, and then the ACO play and so we have everyone prepping and getting ready and then the first note of score is the movie starts and we're out. So it's a way of kind of, I guess, giving a nod to the really important role that the ACO played in the film, but just also to get the feeling that you are actually going to a concert here, even, you know, in the cinema version

[00:10:06] Caris Bizzaca I have to ask, what did you play in an orchestra when you were growing up?

[00:10:11] Jennifer Peedom I played the violin very badly. I had a quite a musical family. My elder brother and sister were like the leader of the orchestra - my brother, the cello; my sister, the violin; and I was up the back of the second violins kind of trying to keep up. But I do actually, really, I'm really grateful for that kind of musical education that I had. I think partly just the neural pathways that it opens, but I do think it's helped in some small way. I played for about 13 years, so I think it was a good part of my broader education.

[00:10:45] Caris Bizzaca  And the film is similar to Mountain narrated by Willem Dafoe. How did he become involved and why do you think he was the perfect choice?

[00:10:57] Jennifer Peedom Yes. So I mean, most of my films aren't narrated films, and when we began to make Mountain, it was really clear that I knew we needed some words. And I had read this amazing book, back in my climbing days called Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane, and we decided to reach out to Robert to see if we could... He just has this beautiful, poetic language that explores the nature of our relationship with mountains. And so we reached out to him, and it just needed a little bit of help to make the story hang together. And those words are so beautiful. And so then we needed to figure out who was going to speak those words. And you know, I really thought about it for a very long time, and I didn't want to approach anyone until the film was ready because I wanted there to be a really clean proof of concept. And when it came time to doing that again, it took me ages to ask anyone. And because for me, it could never be a token celebrity like it needed to be someone who I believed a) related to the words that were being spoken but b) you could also kind of imagine them in the mountains. And it was actually The Hunter, the Australian film that I had seen, and I could therefore just imagine Willem Dafoe in this really rugged environment. And of course, I'd seen him in many films for many years and actually my agent, Bec Smith said, 'Oh, I know Willem, I can just email him'. And so she emailed him. And he said, 'This sounds really interesting. Talk to my agent'. So we talked to his agent and it was as simple as that. Honestly, don't ask, don't get. And I in that instance flew over to Rome to do the narration record in pre-COVID days, which was wonderful. And he was just a joy to work with. And we connected several times since he actually came out to Australia for the premiere. And then when it came time to do River, it was just a really a natural thing. We are talking about potentially doing a trilogy and it was such a joyous experience. His voice is an instrument. His voice felt to me like a cello, and it just felt apt that Willem become the voice of River. And, you know, he was really happy to oblige us. So yeah, it was great.

[00:13:54] Caris Bizzaca And with the film, how much was filmed by your team and how much was sourced by other means, you know, news and media outlets, stock footage, things like that?

[00:14:05] Jennifer Peedom So we began pre-production on River the week that the first lockdowns were announced for COVID. So we had intended to shoot a lot more. In Mountain we'd done a bit of both. And the way that we pulled that film together was to work with a number of cinematographers that I collaborated with before, namely Renan Ozturk, who had been the main cinematographer on my my film Sherpa. And Renan and I had actually talked about the Mountain project at Base Camp making Sherpa. So he was always going to be part of the equation. He had hundreds of hours of beautiful material that maybe had been shot for a North Face commercial for 90 seconds or something, or maybe two minutes that he had hundreds of hours. So he gave us access to his library for that project. So it was always a combination of us shooting and then working with other cinematographers to access their libraries because you could never go and do something of the scope of Mountain, on a budget that we had. So it was a kind of a partnership with other cinematographers as well as shooting our own material, and we planned on doing that for River as well and then we would kind of shut down on that. So what we did was and what we found was that there was a whole lot of cinematographers that were also in lockdown and really not able to go on shoot, all shoots had been cancelled. Suddenly, there was a whole lot of people with a whole lot of availability that could still go out into their own backyards, wherever that was in the world and shoot material. So we actually commissioned a lot of people through Renan, through other people. Our co-director, Joseph, did a huge amount of research into who was shooting what great stuff. Oftentimes we would reach out to them and say, 'Hey, we really love this amazing drone shot you've got. Do you have anything else or would you be able to shoot anything?' So it was a real combination of all of those things. And what we found was that people, it was like an unexpected kind of lovely opportunity to the whole thing, because what we found was that a lot of these people, because of the nature of the kind of work they do, had seen Mountain. They were like, 'Oh my god, I saw that film. I loved that. I'd really love to be involved.' So there was this really openness and willingness to to be involved. So that was one piece and a huge amount of our material came in that way, then it was just a huge amount of research pulling in. We found the work of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who's this amazing French filmmaker/cinematographer and he is represented by Getty Images. So through a partnership with Getty Images, we then were able to access a huge amount of his library. A lot of it that is not normally on Getty Images. And  the incredible thing about his work is that it's all aerial. It's all about looking at the Earth from above and with River in particular, the stories of rivers are best told from above looking down. And to that end, we also realised that actually going even further up, going to satellite level was going to be really useful in the storytelling of River. So we looked at a lot of satellite photography. There's an artist, a visual artist called Benjamin Grant, who collaborates with NASA to get certain imagery because NASA imagery is available for anyone to access, but the hard thing is finding the shots. And so he had already done a lot of the work to figure out where the best aerials of Rivers were, so we then entered into this relationship with him, where we were able to find the best stuff - we would do time-lapses, we would do all sorts of stuff from up high, and that became a really integral part of the storytelling of River.

[00:17:59] Caris Bizzaca And there's a drone shot that is just incredible. I feel like you already know the one that I'm talking about just based on saying that, but it starts on top of a mountain-

[00:18:10] Jennifer Peedom It's everybody's favourite shot.

[00:18:12] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, and it just soars down, twisting and turning and things like that. How did you get the drone team to capture that shot? And how many times did you attempt it to get the perfect shot?

[00:18:25] Jennifer Peedom So the drone pilot on that was a Dutch guy called Ralph Hogenbirk, who goes online by the name of @shaggyfpv, and that particular shot was in Norway. And Joseph Nizeti, our co-director, found some of his work online during our research phase and just recognised what a great drone pilot he was and he was one of those guys that said, 'yeah, I'd love to be involved' and was super enthusiastic. I mean, what we really found in this project was that in the few years since we'd made Mountain, drone technology has just gone off the charts and the skill of these drone pilots who don't necessarily - they're not cinematographers working necessarily in other areas, they just drone pilots. And he is one of those guys and they are so skilled. They're just using those things all the time. And in the case of a Ralph, he has like an eyeset and it's like he's playing a video game. And the thing that makes that drone cinematography really great is proximity flying like the closer they can get to the surface and the thing that they're filming, the more of a rush, obviously, the audience gets. And he's just really good at that. But that's just practise. They practise and practise and practise and all of the best drone pilots I know crash a lot of drones and they just have good insurance and they just get better at it. And yeah, the shot you're talking about in the final film, it's set to this incredible piece of music. It's set to a Bach Violin Concerto, which is originally written by Bach as a solo violin concerto, and Richard Tognetti rearranged it to be for the whole orchestra to make it work for the length of that particular shot, which we all kind of love. And I had actually had a piece of Jonny Greenwood originally on that I was like not wanting to let go of. But actually, when Richard did this arrangement and put it there, it was the most extraordinary pairing of Bach to any kind of cinematography that I'd ever seen. And every time I watch it, I still get goose bumps, but it's a really amazing shot. And it tells the story of Rivers plunging down this glacier as it's melting and then joining the river. It's it's a really special shot.

[00:20:56] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, wow. Because when I was watching it, I was like, how is the music matched so perfectly to this incredible, like rollercoaster drone shot.

[00:21:08] Jennifer Peedom Yeah, just to make sure I don't forget. I mean, when we talked about music earlier, I just want to give a huge shout out to the editor Simon Njoo, because the skill with which he worked those images, which we didn't always have full control over, or the length we like, or hadn't necessarily been shot specifically for the scene. The way that he made all of that disparate material feel whole and work with the classical score. I mean, he really was masterly. Editing is a huge part of a project like this.

[00:21:46] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. Could you also talk about Radiohead's involvement with River?

[00:21:53] Jennifer Peedom Yes. So Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra has many interesting collaborations that many interesting people he's collaborated with around the world for many years. And one of those people is Jonny Greenwood, and a few years back, they talked about working together, and Johnny came out here for a tour and they they met up, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra actually commissioned Jonny to write an orchestral work. And he interestingly called it Water. And it's this epic, I think it's about 15 minutes long, really amazing piece of music, and it had really only ever been performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. And so Richard was keen to use, he's like 'we have to use Water. We have to use elements of Water in a film called River.' So that was always going to be the case. He reached out to Jonny. Jonny said, 'Great.' And so we used it in various different places through the film and another piece of his work as well. And then with the particular Radiohead track, it was just something that we put in there in this. It's one of my favourites, most emotional sequence in the film for me. And we put this piece of music in kind of thinking, 'Oh, maybe he'll say yes.' And I think because of that relationship with Richard, he and the band said, 'We think it's great' and they let us use it. So that's the story of Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood in the film.

[00:23:54] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, within the documentary watching it, you really see the human impact on the environment and the rivers of the world. What impact do you hope that your film will have, particularly, you know, for any kind of change going forward?

[00:24:12] Jennifer Peedom I mean, I think we have a really clear objective with a project like this. It's similar to probably Robert Macfarlane's work and his aim with his work. It is to provide the audience with an encounter in nature and so often so many of us, myself included, sitting behind a desk and in front of computers, we don't connect with nature nearly as much as we should in the ways that we used to. And I think we have lost sight of the role that it plays in our lives and our survival, and I think the recent floods in Australia have kind of sadly reminded us of that. But I have great admiration for activist films. I'm not an activist filmmaker. You have to do what you do well. And I think what my work has kind of been this big epic landscape and humans in the face of of those landscapes and working with music. And so this is, I guess, me corralling my skills to tell a story about the importance of nature in our lives and hopefully to remind us that we should perhaps remember to revere, in this case, rivers.

[00:25:30] Caris Bizzaca And while your focus has been on documentary, there were some news stories and things talking about your step into narrative. Are you still? Are thee plans to?

[00:25:43] Jennifer Peedom Yeah, yeah, very much so. I have two drama projects that I'm attached to at the moment. One with Aquarius Films and a script we've been developing for a number of years. And the other one is Tenzing, which is a feature film about Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who was the first to climb Everest with Edmund Hillary. And that is, look, it's not going as fast as I would like it to, like any feature film. They take longer to get moving than the documentary, but we are now, you know, really getting momentum. We have done the casting process, we're various steps down the line in terms of our pre-production, so that's that's really starting to move forward, which is exciting.

[00:26:22] Caris Bizzaca Oh, great. And just comparative to documentary. How have you found narrative (drama) storytelling?

[00:26:29] Jennifer Peedom I deploy a really strong narrative storytelling in scriptwriting process to my documentaries anyway. So in a strange way, it's almost like the biggest difference is the writing of the dialogue, because a huge amount of writing is finding the right way into a story. It's finding the structure of the story. In an adaptation like this, it is finding which bits of the story are we going to tell, and that is the same as documentary. What isn't the same is the writing of the dialogue and in documentary our job as writers, because mostly in documentary the directors are also the writers. But for me, it's the performance of of conducting interviews or extracting the dialogue in any which way you do in a documentary and I've been mentoring some other filmmakers - we're producing two feature docs at the moment with really talented young filmmakers. And I've been talking to them a lot about their role in directing the performance when you're doing an interview and how important it is to to treat your documentary subjects like they're an actor. What any actor wants is to feel safe. They need to understand what they're doing, why they're doing it and what their motivation is. And so there are techniques that I've kind of developed over many years, I mean I must have done hundreds of interviews in my life where you realise that the better performance you get, I mean, obviously, the better your film is going to be. And so the more things you can do to make that subject feel safe and understand why they are there, what they're doing, it means that they become a collaborator and it means that they engage in the process and you are going to get a better performance because it actually matters in documentaries as much as it matters in drama. And I've seen good documentaries be not that great because the interviews are just really badly conducted. You know, the director's asking the question and then looking down at the piece of paper while the question's being answered and the subject is responding to nobody. And so there's some. I mean, that's just one example. Just in the script side, a lot of the editors that I've worked with - when I finished making Sherpa, I said to Christian Gazal, who was my editor there, who had worked on mainly only drama, I said, 'What to you is the difference?' And he said 'there's no difference - there's no difference, it's just storytelling. So we're still deploying all of the same techniques, sound design and music and dialogue.' So for him, it really was the same. So I think there's kind of really practical differences, but in another way, and particularly in the way that I try and make my documentary films as big cinematic works, that's the ambition. And so I kind of think there's less difference and you would imagine.

[00:29:35] Caris Bizzaca Hmm. Yeah. Even as you're talking, you know, I'm thinking about the question "Narrative storytelling". I'm like, well, documentaries have narrative. And even if I said scripted storytelling like documentaries still have a script.

[00:29:46] Jennifer Peedom In the case of River, it's completely scripted. It's just 100% scripted. And in a lot of the, you know, in Sherpa, a huge amount of the work on Sherpa was writing in post-production. It was going, OK, so where are we crossing the threshold here and what is the second act turning point and what does rock bottom look like? And it's all the same things. And I think, you know, I use those tools, they are just tools, but I think they're there for a reason. And I think they can really elevate documentary storytelling, as is the case. We're seeing these films, you know, the Oscar winning films, the BAFTA winning films that are just, they are as engaging as as the best kind of drama films. And on the big streamers, they are getting as many eyeballs as a lot of the dramas.

[00:30:46] Caris Bizzaca That was director, producer and writer Jennifer Peedom him and remember, you can catch River in cinemas now while Mountain is on Stan and DocPlay and Sherpa you can also watch on DocPlay. For the latest episodes of the Screen Australia Podcast, subscribe through places like Spotify and iTunes, and subscribe to the Screen Australia fortnightly newsletter for the latest articles, videos, funding announcements and more. Thanks for listening.