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Q&A with Richard Symons - The Price of Kings

The Price of Kings is a twelve part documentary series which explores the role of leadership. The films provide an extremely personal insight into the sacrifices and decisions made by some of the most influential and powerful leaders of our time, consisting of interviews with their wives, children, friends, colleagues and enemies.

The first three films of this series include Presidents Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Oscar Arias.

WIN! DFG has teamed up with Spirit Level Film for a very special competition - DFG Members can win an Apogee MiC for VO and location recording worth £175. Plus we're giving away five boxsets of Films 1 & 2 of The Price of Kings, featuring Presidents Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres. To enter the competition click here.

You can watch the trailer here.

There is also an exclusive £15 discount for all DFG Members when purchasing The Price of Kings, Films 1&2. To find out how to grab your discount click here

The Price of Kings

DFG spoke with director Richard Symons about leadership, getting funding for the series and securing access to his unprecedented list of contributors...

Tell me about the series The Price of Kings and how you came up with the idea:

We'd been pretty rough on 50 or so ministers and MPs that we'd interviewed for a BBC film called The Ministry of Truth. I think it was warranted but the process exposed us to the hidden personal conflicts and consequences of public service, trying to do the right thing for your fellow men.

We wondered what those were like for a world leader - where the stakes are way higher, circumstances more extreme, decisions much tougher, dire consequences for mistakes and you've no-one to turn to - the buck stops with you. How do people who've been called killers, thieves and warmongers explain themselves to their children, wives and conscience? Especially when on the surface there are facts to back up those accusations.

We thought intimate confessions from world leaders would not only be a compelling way of showing human nature under extreme circumstances but also how it shapes nations and world events. There was also the attraction of showing something we hadn't seen before.

 We wanted to challenge the way we think about doing the right thing - which is really what leadership is all about - or at least should be.

What is it that you wanted people to understand about leadership?

That changed as we got deeper and deeper into the subject matter and understood more ourselves. To begin with it was simply a question of how you live with yourself when you've a guilty past with worldwide consequences. Then we discovered how tough it is. And that even when you're trying to do the right thing, there's a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made that most sane people would shirk from but are still quick to judge.

We did a screening and Q&A in Jenin where the people had suffered at the hands of Presidents Peres and Arafat and are critical of both. It was quite a tough Q&A - that crowd didn't need to be reminded of the facts, they'd lived through them first-hand. But there was a lady in the audience who summed it up with, I don't think I understood how hard it is and in some small way that was important to us. By the time we'd finished the first three films, it was something different again, in Film 3 we discovered how a very unique leader, without military force, can bring about a peace that was thought to be impossible...

The Price of Kings

How did you manage to secure funding for the series? Were there any conflicts of interest, considering the complexity and sensitivity of the subject matter? 

It was very hard to find the right funding - especially with a series where you've got leaders speaking so openly about politically sensitive issues. It's not unusual for us to start filming before getting funding and this was no different - except the scale of the project meant there was no way we could afford to film the entire series without significant financial backing. Politics aside, no broadcaster believed we could get world leaders to open up in the way the series needed them to. Access was only half the battle.

What's the highly media-trained President of Israel going to say that hasn't been heard before? Is he really going to reveal anything worthwhile? Those were understandable doubts - and recently, when looking back on my production notes I remembered how nervous we were before each interview session. Asking the wife of a President if the man she loved deliberately targeted civilians isn't as straightforward as it sounds. But for some reason, call it naiveté, we never doubted for a moment that they wouldn't deliver and I think we got lucky - Peres was at a place where he wanted to off-load, you can see he's a very conflicted man. Suha Arafat was also ready to open up and spoke very frankly on corruption, terrorism, her husband's death - it was the first interview she'd done since he passed away.

Also, because we were coming from an honest place, without an agenda, not interested in a hatchet job, I think the interviewee senses that. We just wanted them to dig deep as if they were confessing to their wife or a son - perhaps warning them with absolute honesty of the genuinely dark side of serving your people. Essentially, we did the rounds with broadcasters and got a feel for whether they'd be interested, once we had enough confidence and enough funding from outside investors we went into production and crossed our fingers - hoping that at some point before we ran out of cash the broadcasters would emerge from the black art of their decision-making process. We're also lucky to have a distribution business which can support us whilst we're in production.

Ho do you deal with compromises? 

We never compromised. In fact we fell out with Shimon Peres's office because they wanted us to change the ending and we refused to do it. President Peres spoke to us after a private screening, saying how he thought we'd captured his heart etc. Not long afterwards we were having a blazing row with his office over the ending but we stood our ground.

Some broadcasters were keen to fund something far more salacious - Bill Clinton with Chelsea and Monica Lewinsky kind of thing - but we never really considered compromise and I think ultimately that was the right move, though it's always a tough choice.

As a filmmaker you just want the backing to be able to go and make films - it's easy to get sucked down a path which leads to making a film you're never going to be happy with because it's not the film you wanted to make. Six months down the line you realise you're putting your heart and soul into something you don't want to be doing. Maybe we were wrong - we now know Lewinsky's dry cleaning was more interesting than you'd have suspected - but frankly I'd rather be probing the conscience of a self-confessed terrorist who feels he has no other choice, where the implications of their decisions have a global impact.

The Price of KingsYou managed to get very interesting contributors on board (e.g. Arafat’s wife). How did you secure access to those people?

That's my co-director and co-producers bag - Joanna Natasegara. I'll say I think we need to speak to a bona fide terrorist and she'll come back with much more, someone like Bassam Abu Sharif, Time magazine's face of terror in the 70s. The Internet's made tracking them down much easier but ultimately that's just legwork, I think the art is in making the right choice in the first place.

So with Bassam it was a question of getting the baseline right - he was considered a terrorist. But he's also articulate and has a breadth of experience that brings much more to the film. He named and trained Carlos the Jackal, was the public face of the Dawson's field hijacking - when 3 aircraft were hijacked and brought down to the Jordanian desert and blown up (the 9/11 of it's time). He was the subject of several assassination attempts - lost several fingers, his hearing and half his face to a Mossad book bomb, and on top of all that, became an aide and confidante of Arafat, was right at the heart of some epic decision-making.

Combine all of that and you've got someone who's fascinating to look at on screen, speaks incredibly well and has anecdotes that chill your bones. When he shouts at the camera, Yes! I'm a terrorist you know he means it.

We got so much out of Bassam that it was heartbreaking to edit - we settled for putting as much of the out-takes as we could on-line and in the DVD extras. I guess that's a long way of saying securing access is long-winded and hard work, but that's not as important as finding the right person. 

How much do you tell your contributors beforehand to make them agree to be filmed?

We're absolutely honest. We tell them exactly what we're interested in, what we want. We may even show them a rough trailer.

Again, I think if you're making a film with an up-front legitimate purpose that's a real help. You've got nothing to hide. As a result of that we got tremendous co-operation, hospitality and access. The key is to have your interests aligned - the interviewee should want to answer the questions. If there's a tough question explain why it's important. If they haven't answered a question, explain that they haven't answered it and that the viewer will know they haven't.

The Price of Kings

Your interviews feel like very personal accounts of the events. How do you make your contributors open up in front of the camera? 

We're the opposite of someone like Paxman. We take a strictly non-confrontational approach to interviews so hopefully the interviewee is comfortable. We also use a device invented by Errol Morris nicknamed the interrotron which allows the interviewee to talk directly into the lens by projecting the interviewers face onto an autocue machine in front of the camera.

If you think about it, you can tell when a persons looking directly at you from 50 yards away in the street so in an interview you subconsciously know if they're looking at you or not. The interrotron makes you feel like you're sitting opposite them over dinner in the most intimate conversation.

What’s going to be the next film in this series?

We've just signed off on the Arias film so that's out next but it feels like we'll be filming in Africa or Asia soon. Unfortunately heads of state have more pressing concerns than hanging out with a film crew for several days so it's impossible to know until you're actually home with the footage in the can.

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