Source: The Guardian.
Documentary editor and producer Nick Fraser received the BAFTA special award last night. Fraser was commissioning editor of the BBC’s Storyville from 1997 to 2016. Over that time the series won five BAFTAs and four Oscars, among other awards. He has worked on documentary films including “Man on Wire,” “Notes on Blindness,” “Project Nim” and “India’s Daughter”; in 2016, he founded documentary streaming service Yaddo. We talk to two filmmakers whose careers he kickstarted.
(Director of “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “The Armstrong Lie”)
“I first met Nick over “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” with Eugene Jarecki – Nick arranged a shotgun wedding and forced us to work together. That was quite a trial by fire. It all turned out well, but that was a mixture of Nick’s bravado and genius and sense of how to make things happen. Over the years we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better. I’m constantly calling up for advice, and he’s also been a producer on a number of my films, including “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Gonzo.”
“One of the great things Nick has presided over has been this explosion in the popularity of documentaries; he is one of the people who is singularly responsible for making that happen. He helped push documentaries to be better – to be narratively more adventurous and also journalistically more sound. Twenty years ago, documentaries generally speaking were pretty dull and Nick had a tremendous hand in making them more exciting. Suddenly, the voice of the filmmaker came through, but also a sense of rigour. He is one of the great impresarios of the documentary renaissance.
“You can see that the electricity generated in his brain has burned all the hair off his head – when Nick is thinking you can almost see sparks fly. He’s thinking so fast that sometimes the words can’t come out fast enough and he has odd cadences, I think, because he is already four or five sentences ahead of his mouth. He has a fierce intellect, but also a genuine artist’s vision for how to tell a story. He is at once extremely rational but also very intuitive. And as intellectually tough as he is – and he can be very hard on people in some ways – he is also very generous and compassionate with filmmakers in terms of getting them to where they need to go, without pushing or kicking them in the pants. Every film he works on is very different stylistically, which is an enormous credit to Nick. He’s able to guide artists in ways that encourages them instead of forcing them to cleave to a single vision.
“The other great thing about Nick is how he defends. I remember in “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” Kissinger got very upset and went to the head of the BBC. The BBC performed in exemplary fashion, and I think Nick had a lot to do with that. They said to Kissinger: ‘We’re proud of this film, if you want to write a reply go ahead.’ But they weren’t going to be cowed into submission.”
(Director of “The House I Live In,” “Why We Fight,” “Reagan”)
“I first met Nick standing at the urinal of a men’s bathroom in Amsterdam, where I was attending a conference for documentary makers. Nick was known to be the big fish there: he passed through the room like a great shark with a lot of minnows following in his trail, and I never get a word in. Then in the men’s room I asked to pitch my project to him, and he memorably said, ‘Well, given the quality of the projects so far today, I think the toilet here is precisely the most appropriate place.’ I pitched my project and he didn’t have any interest in it, but within seconds he had steered me toward the right people, and a domino effect happened from there.
“Everybody [in documentaries] wants to feel that Nick likes them best. He’s our bridge to the most dignified traditions of journalism. He combines incredible rigour with a sense of mischief and whimsy and he doesn’t tolerate cliche or superficial discourse. So we all try to measure up. And of course Nick loves me best, that’s what I have to think.
“When you get to work with him you realize he is part teddy bear, part true believer and part your favourite college prof you miss the most. He invests enormous time in the deeper levels of your work and is always ahead of you in understanding the story and other creative challenges you face. Conversation with him advances in light years when the rest of the world seems to be operating in calendar years. It’s deeply inspiring and formative of much greater work. He is older than I am and yet I’ve often found him to be hipper in his sensibility than me. And he continues to reinvent himself, now with Yaddo and his movement into the digital space.
“He is also a profound humanist – what goes on in the world that’s unjust outrages him fundamentally. Beyond the savvy, beyond the wicked storytelling techniques, there’s a huge beating heart connected to the human condition. I had a conversation with Nick once about a wonderful film he had worked on and he gave me a somewhat critical assessment of it. I said: ‘I’m confused, didn’t you release this?’ He said: ‘Are you suggesting I’m supposed to like all the films I put out on Storyville? That wouldn’t make it a channel in the public service – that would make it a channel in the service of my taste.’ That makes him wonderfully non-dogmatic in an era when publicly compromised personae use the airwaves as the platform for their efforts to propagandise the public. He is a true broadcaster.
“Nick had a stroke recently and I’ve told him he’s currently residing in his haiku period, which I will miss when he gets his speech fully back. His mind is perfect, his verbal delivery is haiku, but you get what he means. I’m in the middle of finishing my new film about Elvis that’s about to go to Cannes, and because he’s one of the executive producers I sent it to him. One day later I got notes that were absolutely brilliant and had a huge impact on the film. It shows you the power of an unstoppable mind.
“I can’t imagine a person more worthy of a BAFTA than Nick and I think the BAFTA is a perfect award for him: they are both representatives of a long tradition of non-traditional thinking. He has reminded the world of the incredible depth of media-making rigour that has been so central to British life for so long.”