Name: Alex Harron
Primary Skills: Director, Producer, Editor
With two successful BBC films under his belt, sports enthusiast and documentary filmmaker Alex Harron shares his journey from Fife College to the Edinburgh International Film Festival – as well as the lessons learned along the way.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in filmmaking.
I’m Kirkcaldy based documentary filmmaker. I’ve always been interested in why people do things. I think that’s why documentaries interest me so much.
I first started my journey in filmmaking going to Fife College, I’ll never forget the excitement being shown around the studios and seeing all the film equipment. I had been interested in filmmaking for long time and wanted to make films like John Carpenter and James Cameron. I made a documentary in my second year and since then that’s what I’ve focused on, documentaries.
One of my early short films, ‘Wrestling is like Ballet with Violence’, was about amateur wrestlers based in Scotland. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do it. I asked some of the wrestlers and one talked about watching wrestling with his dad as a kid. Unfortunately, his Dad had passed away some years earlier and to honour his memory he became a wrestler, another talked about it as a performance. When I challenged on him taking part in the “sport” where the result was already decided. He said: “Alan Rickman knew he was going to lose in Die Hard; it didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy it”.
Expectation is everything. You ask a question and you sometimes you get a response you expect. The reality is you often get an answer that never occurred to you. That to me is what makes documentaries so interesting. You have idea of a story but usually the story changes quite a bit from the one you had in mind at the start of filming. It’s the most unpredictable and exciting filming you can do.
What or who are your main inspirations and influences?
I kinda split my influences in two: Documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore, Dan Reed, and Louis Theroux; and big blockbuster filmmakers like James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and John Carpenter.
I like to shoot ‘fly on the wall’ as it gives an intimacy to a film and Dan Reeds’ films are like that. I also like to have my films look cinematic and quite dynamic. I think that’s where the action influence comes in from James Cameron shooting sports scenes in my films that are exciting and tell you a story in themselves.
My main other inspiration is music; I often look for music way before filming a scene. In The Boxer music is pivotal at the fights and throughout the film. I was also lucky enough to have a friend of mine, Ryan Livingstone, compose three original compositions for the film.
Other than The Boxer and The Racer, what other films have you worked on and produced before?
When I first started out I made a few shorts documentaries on a range of subjects; wrestling, ballroom dancing, street performers. Some were successful, being screened in film festivals and on BBC2 and BBC Three. I kinda thought that somehow I would be “discovered” and that would lead to success. I was horribly naïve.
Tell us about your first documentary feature film, Bend Don’t Break.
I decided after making numerous shorts that I wanted to make a feature to stretch myself, but also something commercially viable: a product that could be sold and hopefully get me “noticed”. I had watched the ESPN sports doc called Small Potatoes about an alternative American football league in the US. It made me wonder if there were teams in the UK. I found that there were, and two were very close by: one in Dundee and one in Edinburgh.
The Dundee Hurricanes was in disarray. They hadn’t won a game at the time in over a year and it seemed like it could work as a feature. I had a plan to film from pre-season all the way through the season; getting to know the various team members, their motivations and stories. What made me excited was the characters in the team. They were several American players and Scottish, so it had a nice mix in terms of their stories to focus on.
I thought it over, and – after doing some initial filming – decided to go ahead with the project. I got students from Fife College onboard, as well as former students, and started filming. It become abundantly clear that I needed a budget, as petrol alone was going to be a lot. We did a short crowdfunding campaign and, with private backers, raised £8K. At the time it seemed like a lot. The filming went well – but the editing was a nightmare. Finding the story, going back to filming, as well working – making corporate films to make money. It took three years to edit.
I had hoped that film would get noticed and do well. The reality was that it did get me noticed by some of the industry – the Scottish Documentary Institute and the BBC – but the film itself, I consider it be my “learning film”. I become a better interviewer, producer, director and editor. It helped me understand story better, and looking back I wish had done a lot of things differently. I knew the next project would be the film that the learning from Bend Don’t Break would show.
Tell us about The Racer.
Bend Don’t Break was a very masculine world and – to be honest – I’d had enough. By this time, I knew I wanted tell sports stories, So I started looking for female sport story.
I heard about Jodie Chalk, a female motorcycle racer. I started filming and pitched the idea to the Scottish Documentary institute. Through the ‘Bridging the Gap’ programme I received an £8K grant to make a 15-min short film.
I made the film, and it was premiered at the Edinburgh international Film Festival – and went on to be screened at several big film festivals worldwide. I knew that it was best short film that I had ever made, and also knew the BBC Scotland channel was being launched the following year. There was a strand called ‘New Talent’ for a 30-min doc commission. I sent the short film, as well as the trailer for Bend Don’t Break, and a treatment for a 30-min version of The Racer to Louise Thornton – the commissioner for the strand.
I got a one-hour meeting. I pitched three projects, and one was the 30-min version The Racer, as well as a female version of Bend Don’t Break about women’s American Football in Edinburgh, and The Boxer, which I had just started researching. It was the best meeting of my professional life.
I was encouraged to officially submit The Racer, work on The Boxer, and get back to her. A few weeks later I had a commissioned BBC project with a £30k budget. Again, at this time, I thought that was a lot of money, but it was a start.
I remembering feeling at the time that it was everything that I had been working towards. Excited, but nervous about how the process was going to work out. We shot for seven days, and with the footage from the short version, we edited The Racer into a 30 minute documentary.
The production company Matchlight came onboard and I learned so much from the editor and executive producer, Ross Wilson. The film went out on the first week of the new channel being launched and was a success with good viewing figures. It was shown four times throughout 2019. I then pitched The Boxer and got commissioned for 1-hour documentary.
Tell us about The Boxer.
It’s a one-hour documentary for BBC Scotland, about Kristen Fraser and her journey to become a world champion.
It’s more than boxing film as it touches on a lot of different subjects; from women in sport, to LBGT issues, to an unexpected twist to the story that people won’t see coming. I literally can’t wait for people to see it. Kristen herself is an amazing person; very determined, articulate, and I think people will find her and her wife’s journey fascinating.
Kristen Fraser is the first female boxer to turn professional in Scotland. The three main subjects are Kirsty, her wife and biggest supporter, and her coach/manager, Davie McAllister. Kristen is based in Aberdeen so the majority of the filming has taken place there, with a fight in Paisley. So, it’s really a North-East Scotland film.
We started filming late 2018. I had a lot of former Fife College students and Fifers on the crew; Gemma Munro did additional camera work camera, Fearghas Urquhart did some boom work, and Ryan Livingstone worked as sound recordist and composer. The film was screened in July [last year] on BBC Scotland. It’s a BBC production, so it had a budget fully funded from BBC Scotland.
It was filmed over a long period of time. That was a challenge, and there was also periods inactivity on the film. But I used that to work on scenes in the edit. A doc can be like a marathon, and their times where you flag a bit and you pick yourself up, look at the material and continue.
It’s funny looking at the film, everything flows and fits perfectly in the edit, but that takes a long time to find the story in each scene.
It was a great project to work on. Following the high and lows of Kristen journey to a world title was the most enjoyable and rewarding experience I’ve had as a filmmaker.
What made you want to produce the first The Boxer? Tell us how the project developed.
I’ve always been fascinated by boxing. It’s one of the most dangerous and intense sports there is. Sports films are some of my favourite films – from Friday Night Lights to Moneyball – but boxing films are my favourite. I’ve seen Rocky over 80 times. As well as other films like Raging Bull, Bleed for This, The Fighter, Southpaw and Million Dollar Baby… Too many good films to mention. I honestly don’t think I would be filmmaker if it wasn’t for the Rocky films.
I have always wanted to make a boxing doc. My first ever documentary was about amateur boxing in Fife. It was terrible, as most first films are, but I always wanted to revisit it. To be honest I never thought I would ever make a boxing film. I felt like every story had been told and sometimes boxing films just seem cliched ridden.
However, the world of women’s boxing hasn’t been shown a lot and it brings a fresh perspective to it. When I heard about Kristen, I was so excited. Very rarely do you get a first nowadays and Kristen being the first female from Scotland to turn pro was amazing story to document. I got in touch with her and said I wanted to make a documentary about her Journey. I was wearing a Rocky t-shirt when we first met and I said it was my dream project. It’s the best film I’ve made and incredibly proud of it.
Was the project been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
Yeah, post production was a bit of a nightmare really. I edited the film myself, but originally I planned to work with an editor. Having someone to immediately bounce ideas of and for them to bring their creativity to it is a massive plus in editing. Also, sometimes you get too close to a project and need someone to help tighten it.
I worked closely with my executive producer Ross Wilson to refine the story and edit, but it wasn’t the same as being in the same room and having a conversation about the film. Having to constantly upload scenes and send them through for feedback. I would say that the edit probably took double the amount of time it would normally take.
It was also weird recording voiceover over the phone and doing interviews with Kristen over Skype at the end. Overall, though, the film is finished and very happy with it.
Were there any memorable moments on set?
Too many to mention. I can honestly say that I had my mind literally blown on a couple of occasions where I could barely speak. Especially on one occasion – that is big moment in the film. No spoilers though. You’ll have to watch the film.
How important do you think team chemistry is on set?
For a documentary filmmaker, you have to trust your sound recordist. Documentary films are chaotic at times, filming events with lots of people. You have to trust your sound recordist is picking everything up. No sound = no film. I’m lucky working with Ryan Livingstone; he’s good at his job, patient, and incredibly talented, He always gives his all. It helps were friends as on docs its long days sometimes with nothing to do. So, we can have a chat and laugh on some down time.
After you have worked with someone on a lot of projects you start to have shorthand. They know what you want and you know what makes their job easier. That makes the film easier and much more enjoyable – especially when you’re under stress. There’s no second take in documentaries; you got to capture that moment as it happens or it’s lost forever.
What are your thoughts on the filmmaking community in Fife and across Scotland?
I’m more tuned into the documentary filmmaking community in Scotland.
For me, at this time, it’s like a golden age of documentary filmmaking in Scotland. We have incredible talent making feature docs and TV documentaries. The BBC Scotland channel has really helped, with most of the commissions being documentaries. In the last year they produced films like Real Kashmir by Greg Clark, Lumo: Too Young to Die by Hannah Currie, Eminent Monsters by Stephen Bennett, to new a few.
There have also been some amazing documentary features like Finlay Pretsell’s Time Trial, Grant McPhee’s Big Gold Dream, and Nan Parsan by Felipe Bustos Sierra. For me, that kind of talent is really going to put Scotland on the map when it comes to documentary filmmaking.
Many people say there aren’t enough opportunities for creative people in Fife. What are your own thoughts? How can we improve this?
I often get confused when I hear the statement: “there aren’t enough opportunities in Fife”. I often think; what are your expectations? What do you expect to happen in Fife?
Also, in different creative endeavours, there will be more opportunities than others. As a documentary filmmaker, I don’t need to be based in Glasgow or Edinburgh or anywhere in particular for that matter. I go where the story is. When I first started out, it was local, then it was Scotland. Now I look for the story anywhere. Getting there is just logistics.
The reality of the situation is that the hub filmmaking and TV production is based predominately in Glasgow and the central belt. From that aspect, as Fifers, we are lucky that’s very close. It’s definitely harder networking and making contacts if you’re not based in Glasgow. You have to make the effort to go to networking opportunities and the two big film festivals in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
For me, there’s two ways to look at. Stay in Fife and work on corporate videos, most likely struggle now and then, and work on the occasional indie film with low budgets to zero budgets… or be willing try to break into the industry in Glasgow.
What’s next for Alex Harron? Any plans for your next project?
I have one project that is ready to be pitched. We have a treatment and taster video ready to go. We had spoken to commissioners informally about it before Covid; once that had hit, it was put on the backburner. I will be looking to get started on it.
It’s a crime focused documentary and I’m looking forward to doing something different. It has the potential to be something really special. I also have another two projects – that I have done some serious work on – that I will be looking to pitch. Both are sports docs tackling different issues, so hopefully they be looked upon favourably by commissioners.
What words of advice would you give someone new to filmmaking?
Try as early as possible to figure out what you exactly want to do. Do you want to be a director, camera person, editor, documentary filmmaker, production manager, Etc. If you specialise or know what you want to do, it can be more helpful when looking for opportunities or during networking opportunities.
Get involved in indie filmmaking learn from people with more experience. Get in touch with production companies, many have internship programmes. Listen and take as much advice as possible. Make as many films as you can, learn from them, and put it into your next film.
Outside of filmmaking, tell us a bit about the other ways you like to spend your time.
Watching films, going to the cinema, working out, and spending time with my family.
What’s your favourite film and why?
It hard to chose one, but if I had to it would probably Aliens.
James Cameron does action and story very well. I’ve forgotten the amount of times I’ve seen it. Never gets boring and there some amazing performances in it from Sigourney Weaver, Jeanette Goldstein, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen and the very young Carrie Henn.
You can follow The Racer on Facebook here.