James Jones is an Emmy Award-winning documentary film maker who travels the world with a crew of two or three people in search of great stories. Here he tells us about sudden twists, the power of humour and endless months in the cutting room...
How did you get into this?
I knew I wanted to get into journalism but needed to earn money pretty quickly. As I’d studied Russian and spoke it a bit, I got a job as a translator on a BBC series about Russian oligarchs and couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do something so much fun. I fell in love with the film making process and I took it from there.
Were you a natural?
The first film I directed was called Sex, Lies and Black Magic which was about girls being trafficked from Nigeria to Italy, and in terms of whether I knew what I was doing – not really! You can see that the bits we filmed early on are bad, but it got better towards the end of the three-week shoot. I was in my late 20s and thought I could blag it, but I think the very strong story saved me.
When did you feel like you’d mastered the craft?
It’s still a learning curve – I look back even two films ago and think I understand it much more now. It’s often about finding solutions in the edit, and you get better and better with practice.
What skills does a good doc maker need?
A big part of it is relationships with people. Sometimes you’ve got to be a bit of a comedian because you’re thrown into all sorts of situations with different kinds of people – whether that’s Iraqi soldiers or police in the Philippines. You have to find common ground and win their trust without being smarmy.
Are your films typically your own ideas, or are you guided by what the TV broadcasters want?
It’s a real mix. The dream is always to come up with your own ideas – the one we’re doing now about the drug war in the Philippines which is called On The President’s Orders was an idea of mine and my co-director Olivier Sarbil, and it’s nice when something you care about gets off the ground. But equally, I’m so busy sometimes that I’ll finish one film and haven’t had time to think of the next project; if someone comes to you with a great story then that can work too, and you make it your own quite quickly.
How much planning typically goes into a doc before you start filming?
It depends on the film. Sometimes the best thing is to get on the ground and start meeting people and filming, getting them used to the cameras. If it’s a retrospective film with a big interview, you want to spend a lot of time researching so that by you time you do the crucial interview you know every single anecdote and detail. So it can be three months of prep, or it can be three days.
What are the biggest challenges?
I think getting access is key. If you’ve got the access and you know the story, you’ll get the material you need – it’s all about the initial foot in the door.
Are you able to remain completely neutral in your viewpoint when you start filming?
It’s a good question. Some films certainly come with a perspective, like when it’s more of an investigative film that’s trying to uncover something you suspect is wrong. But the films that I like making more are probably when you know it’s an important issue but you’re going to tell it in a very open-minded way and allow the viewer to make their own mind up.
Any good examples?
I did a film about police shooting in America and I think the suspicion would be that we would go in there and be very anti-police, because there is an issue about a disproportionate number of young black men being killed by cops in America. There is a problem there, but the way we wanted to tell the story was to speak to everyone, including the white police officer who was on trial for killing an 18-year-old black kid, and allow them to tell their story and put it together into a compelling narrative – but without putting our finger on the scales too much.
Did it work?
I think because we did that, and there was no narration telling you what to think, the film was more powerful. For me, the power of documentary is being able to tell you the whole story with all of its nuances and to not make you feel like you’re being preached to.
A lot of the places you film you must stick out like a sore thumb. Do you try and blend in?
I think it’s helpful, especially in a country like the Philippines where people are excited to see us and welcoming. But there are certainly times you want to be below the radar – you don’t want to attract so much attention that it distorts what you’re filming.
What was your scariest day at work?
The toughest place I’ve been was Gaza in 2014, which was probably the one time when I’ve been in the thick of a war with bombs falling. You’d be going to bed at night and hear these thuds and hope they didn’t get too close. But to be honest, I’m not a war-junkie, I never wanted to be dodging bullets. There are other people braver than me who do that.
Is there decent money in it?
If you want big bucks you go to Hollywood and do drama, but there’s still a decent amount of money in documentaries.