Liam Firmager. A Father, a friend and a hell of a director. Well known for many of his FILMS. Such as Sticks & Stones, Ricky! The movie, The Julian Paradox, Revelation and Peter Brocks: King of the Mountain. As they are a mix of feature films and documentaries. I had a sit down with Liam to ask about himself, to tell his story. This is what he had to say.
With all the professions, out there, what made you want to go into making documentaries?
I didn’t. I wanted to get into making film and films, not specifically documentaries. I do dramas, comedies, short films, music videos, and I also work extensively with Monash Uni and doing things for Vic Police, stuff like that. So, there is a varied and broad range of things that I work with. But documentaries are certainly something I like and really enjoy doing. Especially good documentaries are rare, and they are just as challenging as doing a feature film.
How much work actually goes into doing a project?
Too much…and, you never get the return on the effort that you make, ever. For most part, it’s a labour of love. And yes, I certainly make more money actually doing the side projects that I do such as music videos, and as I mentioned earlier doing stuff on Monash uni and Victoria police. That’s my real bread and butter, that’s what I pay the mortgage with, doing that sort of stuff. Whereas doing the feed films and feature films is a labour of love. There is money to be made and you can’t do it for free because you’ve got to live. But Australia is a small market in the big scheme of things. It’s a very niche market in a way, because we have a small population and an even smaller interest in local content, which is a shame. A lot of the best talents in Australia tend to have minor success here and then quickly flee overseas to Los Angeles or London where they can really make a good living. It’s a very rare thing for somebody to stay in Australia and be successful consistently, because the market is just so small and the opportunities are just smaller.
With documentaries it gives you a bit more flexibility. It’s more of an international thing, especially if your subject is an international subject, because you’re not a prisoner to geography. Whereas Australian content, such as drama films certainly are. We’re a limited market and it’s very hard to push them onto the international stage and get noticed, and it’s a very rare film that does that. Most films in Australia are made and created off the back of government funding because there is such a suspicion and a reticence for local investors to put money into Australian films. Again, it’s
very rare that they return the investment. You get the odd film director who can do that, like George Miller doing Mad Max Fury Road and all that sort of stuff. But that’s a rarity…very rare.
When you make these films, do you get to meet your subjects so you can really make the film as great as can be?
Absolutely. It’s imperative to chase down those kinds of key people for the story, or in the documentary your making. Otherwise you’re just relying on third hand accounts and that’s very subjective. Certainly, bringing together all the key people involved in a documentary story creates fantastic drama as well, because usually no two people can recollect the same event the same way. They all have their different perspectives as well, and so it very important to always consistently have this integrity of being objective, and never taking one or another person’s side in that kind of debate or conversation. The audience appreciate that too, because they don’t feel like you’re being condescending or patronizing to them. It actually allows them to make their own mind up about a story whether or not the subject is good or bad. There’s nothing worse than watching a documentary and feeling that you’re being manipulated or being asked to feel one way or another about something. So, a really good documentary will simply supply the information and then let the audience make their own mind up, and especially if you do it in a compelling way.
So, what is the current project you want to take a crack at?
The current project is a feature film. It’s a documentary on the life story of Suzi Quatro. She was an iconic rocker who made it big in the 70’s and continues still to this day, touring around the world in arenas no less. She was actually here a couple of months ago, in Australia, on her Australian tour. She’s remains incredibly popular. This is a woman who sold 55 million records so far and yet, so many people have either forgotten about her or aren’t even aware of her. The new generations don’t even know this woman, who was so important to music, existed. She was so influential on so many other female singer performers. So this is like an attempt to readdress that, but also introduce her to a new generation, a new audience. She’s been touring for 50 years, that’s half a century she’s been on the road touring. She started when she was 15 and now she’s 66, which is extremely impressive. This project will be released, hopefully, sometime this year once we sort out licencing issues. It has been delayed for about a year and a half and I flew around the world interviewing key people in her life. They were peers, all her family. I got to interview a lot of interesting people like Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry, Sir Tim Rice, KT. Tunstall, a lot of amazing people. Who all say “Suzi was this massive influence”. So, there you go, that’s what I’m doing.
When hearing the stories of the people you’re working on. Do you ever get surprised by what their tales are?
Hmmm…No. What the challenge is, and I’m sure a lot of documentarians would feel this way as well, your subjects have a persona that they’ve worked on for years, their public image, and they’ve worked on their brand for a long time. They can be very guarded. They do a lot of interviews with people, with journos and with media types, they’re so practised and rehearsed in their responses that it’s almost automatic. It’s almost like they created a persona that they wheel out for an interview. So you never really see the real person. And the challenge is to actually work your way through those layers and get to the actual real person, and to draw that out and give that to the audience. That was certainly true with working on the Suzi Quatro thing, because, she’s been in show business for 50 years and that’s a lot of interviews. She’s a very guarded woman, and understandably so. She would have been burnt a few times in her life, with interviews, articles, things like that and her persona is much rehearsed. So, to me, the real challenge, the satisfying challenge, is pulling back those layers and actually finding out who the real person is. Not only doing that, but then translating that into the film and into the documentary, so the audience can feel it. They feel like they’re privy to this person’s actual personality…and life. They’re never going to come out with a surprising revelation when you interview them, unless of course, you can navigate and work with them through the interview to get what you want and draw it out of them. That’s the fun, and you know when you get there, the tone of the interview changes. They’re more relaxed and there’s a bit of trust involved. It is a real trust issue with documentaries because you’re dealing with this person’s life, and it’s not only their life, it’s everyone around them as well, friends, family and associates. They can all be very protective of their subject, the principal person. So there’s a lot of mine fields you have to navigate, to get around and through to this person as the main subject. This is a massive challenge in itself, especially when you’re dealing with somebody who’s passed away, like Peter Brock for example. I developed a documentary on Peter Brock. You think it would be easy to create a documentary based on a famous Australian icon who had a lot of success. There was a lot of rumour and innuendo in his life. It was more challenging actually going through that mine field of friends and family all trying to protect what they see as a legacy. They all read his life in a specific way. So it’s either their version, or everyone else is wrong. Your challenge is to get to the truth, the objective truth, of who this person was. Example, why did he do what he did, why did he say what he said, and you have to get through that whole Pandora’s Box of opinion. They all believe they’re right. They all believe that their version of the person is the truth…like anything. I enjoyed that a lot, perversely.
If you could do a documentary with anyone, including historical figures, whom would you choose?
You know, I haven’t given that a lot of thought, surprisingly. You think I would, but I haven’t. You’ve
caught me off guard. I would say, I’d like to do a definitive doco on Christopher Hitchens, who was a militant atheist. A poster boy for atheism really, vehemently anti-religious. I have a different perspective to him of course, I actually believe in god and things like that. I think he did in a profoundly clever way. The guy was fearlessly intellectual and his debates were so entertaining to watch. He had a uniqueness to him as well, that set him apart from your garden variety duller run of the mill atheist. Dawkins who wrote The God Delusion, is just a dullard, he’s not entertaining, bright or sharp. He is just militant in his approach to it. Whereas Hitchens is a fascinating character. Duplicitous, a real iconoclast.
So, out of all your documentaries, which would you say was the toughest one to make come to life?
Toughest would be…I did a documentary on an historical figure from South America called Garcia Moreno and I travelled to Ecuador to do that. It was extraordinarily tough, because, number one, I didn’t speak Spanish and so everything had to go through an interpreter. Which is a long lengthy process, believe me. And number two, was that this guy had died in 1887 or something. There was no footage of him and very few photographs. So, trying to develop a compelling and interesting and visually stimulating documentary, when you don’t have access to actual footage or photographs is a big challenge, and I had to really push myself. There are solutions, like doing recreations, historical recreations, which is time consuming and expensive, but can be effective. So that was one solution. The other of course is animations, sketches and drawings that did exist that you could animate. Just making sure that your interview subjects are interesting and it was edited. But, that was the hardest, I wouldn’t do that again, because simply it was so time consuming. It also wasn’t my native language for a start, and it was such an old historical figure, I couldn’t just rip the archives from a TV station and say “Hey, what have you got on this guy. What footage exists”. Yeah, I’d never do that again. Any subject I do from now on I’ve got to make sure they’ve got bags of archive footage, so I can draw from it.
When you’re not being a director, what sort of things do you like to do for fun?
Well, I’m heavily into music, I used to be a muso. So I do enjoy still playing and writing music. I love restoring old classic British cars. At the moment, I’m working on a nice Jaguar Daimler. I like restoring things like old jukeboxes. But film is a big thing of course, like it’s all encompassing. So even though I also work with film, I just love film, and watching film. I love being an audience member and a critic as well. I don’t think I’d ever get sick of that. Some people who got into film didn’t last, because they said and they felt that they couldn’t just sit down and watch a film anymore. They were consistently critiquing it, watching how it was made, what the camera was
doing, or the technical deficiency of what was going on. So they had to walk away because they were losing their passion to actually just watch a film. So, to me, it was always important to separate being a creative person and making the film, to just actually being someone in the audience enjoying a film.
What’s your favourite kind of movie and music to listen and watch?
I love to watch films that are done on a low budget, but exceed the expectations of that budget. They’re usually the best because the director, producers and the crew are all working on an extraordinarily tight budget. So every dollar they spend has to appear on screen as $100 dollars. I think if they succeed, it is the most satisfying experience for the audiences to watch that kind of film. They put so much effort into the story and the characters because they have to, there’s no other choice. They can’t rely on CGI or explosions or a big marquee name to pull it over the line. They’re usually dealing with unknowns, or first timers. So I find those kinds of films really satisfying when they get it right, really enjoyable, both from a film maker’s perspective and an audience perspective.
I think that British and Irish films tend to do that really well because they don’t have the budgets of Hollywood but they have the talent and they have to rely on the story. The story can be so compelling, fascinating and rich. I find it hard to enjoy Australian films for the very reason that I think that there isn’t enough emphasis on story or script. It almost feels like films in Australia go through a process of committee. So in order to get funding to do your film, you have to submit your script through a committee that is generally agenderised. They have a specific motive or a gender of content or theme. A lot of great sort of genre films are completely overlooked in Australia. If you went to film Vic and said “I’ve got this great idea, it’s a western alien zombie comedy”. You wouldn’t even get a look in. Now, it might be the greatest script in the world, might even be hilarious, you might even have a great cast attached to it, but they just wouldn’t look at it, because it doesn’t fit into what they want to show as Australian culture, which is a shame. We’ve got to be far more broadminded. It’s like New Zealand has a far more potent kind of a film enterprise than Australia. Like, Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings and stuff like that. That just shows great foresight, great passion, and great faith in their film makers. Now, if you pitched Lord of the Rings to Australia, 20 years ago, you would have been laughed out of the office. They would have laughed at you and said “What do you think you’re doing”.
Music, I love all sorts of quality music, 60’s music, psychedelia, I like soul, I love new wave, I love
heaps of stuff. In fact, it’s easier to tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like manufactured pop, I don’t like metal, not a big fan of new country and stuff like that. But, if it’s anything to do with soul, jazz, 60’s rock, I love it, fantastic.
So, if a younger person came up to yourself and asked what skills they needed to become a director. What knowledge would you pass onto them?
Have no preconceptions. Avoid film school. If you want to be a camera man, or a sound engineer or work the lights, or be in the creative side of things like art, or be a producer especially, by all means go to film school. There are essential skills you need to navigate and actually use to get into the industry and do well. But, I think for a director, it’s a completely different ball game, because a director is actually about life experience and it is about translating other people’s life experiences too. You can’t teach that. You can’t go to film school for that. You can learn composition, sure, any idiot can learn composition with a camera. So the most important thing is just getting out there. Get out there with a camera and start filming. It doesn’t matter what you film, whether or not you’re doing music videos for your mates or a school concert or whatever. You’re constantly learning and developing craft. I think, most importantly of course is life experience. It’s about stretching yourself and taking yourself out of your comfort zone to find your subject, to find your story and working with people especially. It takes a real fascist to be a film director, because you have to be. Film is not a democratic process. Post production is a democratic process, when you’re promoting a film. But, to actually get a film made, you can’t do it by committee, you can’t do it by democracy. You need one person who’s leading the charge and has the vision and knows exactly what they want on print. Anyone who tells you different is mediocre. When you think about all the greatest directors, whether they were Hitchcock or Polanski or Ridley Scott, they were, definitively, the masters of their destiny and they knew exactly what they wanted. Francis Coppola, no one’s going to tell him how to frame his shot, no one’s gonna tell him how to modify his script. So, there’s a certain fascism, I mean that in the best way of film. You need to take control, you need to be the one with the vision and you need to push it, override people, even when they’re telling you you’re wrong. If you’re absolutely focused and believe that the vision you’re looking for is correct, then that’s going to be right or wrong. It’s either going to be fantastic or it’s going to be the Hindenburg…you know, crash and flames. It will never be mediocre, it will never be ordinary.
So go to your EBay or your local cash trader, and, buy a half decent camera, and just get out there and start shooting with your friends. Always be looking to improve yourself. Always be looking to do something better and more interesting. Networking is important, like when you start working with people you can trust, and they’re talented, hold on to them, treat them with respect and take them on that journey with you. You can’t buy that kind of talent. Watch as many films as you can. Seriously… if you can’t sit down and watch a film a night and study that film and love that film and pull a whole bunch of inspiration from it, then you’re in the wrong game. It’s not an easy path, it’s not an easy career at all. It’s not glitz and glamour. It’s not red carpet. It is like 0.5% of what’s
involved. All the stuff you see on TMZ is fantasy. Most film work, especially documentary work is solitary lonely work, where you sit there for 10 hours a day, consumed in your subject, editing away for a year sometimes. That’s what it takes. If you’re doing anything less than that, you’re not going to make it, and your film is not going to be interesting. There is a real commitment that is involved, and if you don’t have a really strong work ethic, and you’re not fully committed, if you’re not prepared to roll with the feast and the famine in terms of money, if you can’t do that stuff, then forget it and work in IT where its guaranteed. It’s got to be a life commitment, it’s something you have to give your soul to. I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s true. And, those who are prepared to do that and love it when they’re doing that, are the ones who will go far and will do something. Those who don’t particularly want to work in IT, who think film sounds glamorous and exotic, sounds like a bit of fun, have no idea how much work goes into it. The hours and the work you have to put in…it’s huge. But, in saying that, when you finish something, and it’s well received, or when you get your first freshly printed DVD of that film and it arrives in the post in nice boxes, then that’s an amazing feeling. You think, wow, that was worth it…incredible. When you walk into Blockbusters and see your film on the shelf and people rent it, that’s fantastic. It’s quite exciting. So, all that hard work paid off.