British Filmmakers Jack Leigh and Tim P. Baxter’s short documentary “Rich is the Life” follows the life and work of Marko, a man who was diagnosed with manic depression and left his career behind to rekindle his boyhood passion for gold prospecting.
Following its highly successful screening at Manchester Lift-Off and its Best Documentary win, the film will next be screening at Amsterdam Lift-Off. We interviewed directors Jack and Tim to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and their paths as filmmakers.
Interview by Sneh Rupra
First of all, how did it feel for Rich is the Life to be screened at Manchester Lift-Off, and to win Best Short Doc?
Finally seeing the project on a big screen was a phenomenal experience. It’s taken us a few years to bring the project to life – we both work professionally in the film industry, but we’ve found it incredibly hard to raise money as there is very little funding available in t’ North. Eventually we decided to do it ourselves and worked for a year to fund the project through our company Eight Engines.
This was the first time the film has screened in our home town, so it became the unofficial premiere and was the first time either of us had watched it with a live audience, which was a surreal experience. It really felt like the celebration of quite a long journey for us.
To win was the cherry on top of the cake – the standard was so high that it came as a bit of a shock really.
Did you enjoy the Lift-Off experience, and meeting some of the other filmmakers also screening?
We loved it – as previously mentioned the quality of the other films was superb. We’re both very passionate about film making in the North, so it was fantastic to have a chance to celebrate the creativity and talent on our own doorstep.
We met some great people at the screening and saw some fantastic films, hopefully we’ll have another project to submit next year, but if not we’ll be going just to network and watch the shorts!
Did you come across Marko, who inspired this doc, or did you know you wanted to film something in that part of the world and went looking for a subject?
Tim’s background is in creating films with a heavy focus on visual style, and Jack’s is in journalism with a focus on intimate storytelling – we wanted to find a project that showcased these skills.
Tim feels as though the documentary world is dominated by head and shoulders interviews, which have a tendency to create films with flat and unadventurous visuals, so a decision was quickly to avoid a fly on the wall style. To make this work we needed a story that had potential for spectacular visuals. Jack keeps a notebook full of ideas for stories, so we took it to the pub and scoured through it for an idea, eventually settling on gold prospecting in the arctic.
Once we had the concept we started emailing museums, authors and even Visit Finland. Marko was CCed into an email with us acting as a translator and we started talking – the rest is history.
Along the way we spoke to many gold prospectors, we always knew to make the film work our protagonist had to be able to carry the story and we feel incredibly lucky to have found Marko.
What was your relationship with Marko like on set? How much did you balance direction with simply acting as an observer?
It was essential to make Marko part of the team, he needed to buy into the concept. Even though we had been exchanging emails for a long time before filming, we had never met face to face, so flying out with a camera ready to film was a hell of a risk – thankfully it paid off! Marko was incredibly accommodating.
In total we all spent a week together living in a tiny cabin with very few other people around, and I think this created a real kinship between the crew and Marko – we all still speak regularly.
The best thing we did was giving ourselves enough time to build a relationship with him, and we think this paid off both in the level of intimacy in the interviews and the amount direction he allowed us to give him. We would send the drone up and make him walk for miles in the arctic tundras whist we messed around getting the perfect shot – he never once complained.
We did direct him a lot, on the first day he explained the process to us and we planned a way to film it.
How did you go about preparing to film in such beautiful yet harsh conditions?
The boring answer is research. We spent ages reading everything we could about filming in extreme conditions – at points it got to -25 degrees celsius, so we had to be prepared.
Once we had all of the kit we knew we needed, we made a film to practise over a couple of winter days in the Pennies – its called Getting the Miles in the Legs and is available online here.
What we actually found was that it is harder to film in the Manchester rain than the arctic snow – at least in the arctic everything is so cold that it’s bone dry.
The cinematography and editing has created a really stunning piece of film – how did you go about getting it so perfect?
The second advantage to giving ourselves a week to film was that we could schedule our filming around the weather – the first two days we were there, it was a complete white out. You could hardly see your hand in front of your face. If we had filmed in that, the film wouldn’t have looked great.
Another advantage to filming in the arctic is that the sun never really rises, meaning that golden hour lasts all day. We wanted to use this to our advantage so we invested in a set of Richard Gale Optics Lenses which are rehoused from 1960’s cinema glass and created a really specific looks – as Tim calls it ‘flaretastic’.
As much as we would like to blow our own trumpet the arctic is a stunning place and provided an incredible canvas to work with.
Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?
Just a few…
Firstly when we arrived in Finland we discovered that airport regulations had changed and our apparently ‘flight safe’ batteries were now dangerous weapons that needed to be destroyed… We managed to keep about 50% but the rest have apparently been incinerated, and when you take into consideration that batteries die quickly in the cold to begin with, this was a complication.
Then, on the first night, a slip in the sauna end up with Marko pulling shards of broken beer bottle out of Jack’s bare backside – which actually became the best way to bond with a contributor – we would highly recommend it for any future projects.
Then we crashed the car into a snow drift (I say ‘we,’ I’m looking at you Tim). Thankfully Marko is basically a Finnish action man and dug us out pretty much single handedly.
Finally when we got back we managed to get a job producing a BBC drama called Men Who Sleep in Cars which took up all of our time. When it came to editing Rich is the Life, Jack was travelling around China, and getting files back and forth through the Chinese fire wall was difficult to say the least – some lucky person at the Chinese censorship has sat through every draft of Rich is the Life…
Tell us a bit about your approach to the Human Nature documentary series.
The concept of Human Nature Documentaries was to shoot a series of films that have the visual flare of a nature documentary, but about humans instead of animals.
We wanted to make them about individuals who had unique lifestyles but focusing on the people instead of the activity, for example Rich is the Life isn’t about gold digging – its about a gold digger. We didn’t want to make a film that told you how people find gold, we wanted to make a film about Marko, more about why he does it than how he does it.
Has the experience of making this film changed your perceptions in any way?
The big lesson we’ve taken away from it is if you trust yourself, build a personal relationship with your subject, and give yourself enough time to craft the project then you can make any story come to life.
One of the other tactics that paid off was bringing Spesh Maloney, our composer, along with us. This worked so well that Spesh actually composed the score in the arctic whist we filmed, which made it feel very authentic to the experience. It also meant that we didn’t have to have that awkward conversation full of misunderstanding as we try to explain how we want the music to feel – Spesh understood exactly how it should feel.
Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
We consider ourselves incredible lucky to work as professional film makers through our company Eight Engines. In terms of our own creative aspirations we have a third Human Nature Documentary in pre-production.
Our long term goal however, is to utilise the skills we’ve learnt producing this series and raise funding for feature length documentary – we’ve have a couple of story ideas that we have been discussing for a while now which we think could be fantastic.