Riccardo Servini talks to us about starting his career in editing commercials, before helping filmmaker Nick Taussig piece together the true story of his as co-director of documentary A Space In Time.
It's around the time of the online release of A Space In Time that I sit down with its co-director Riccardo Servini. We've 'known' each other for some time on social media in the way many people in film do, but this is the first time we've actually ever talked - and we talk a lot!
The main reason for our chat is to discuss the making of A Space In Time, the feature documentary co-directed with Nick Taussig, whose young family shares their story about living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. However, now having the chance to get to know Riccardo a little more, I first ask about his journey as filmmaker and how it began.
"When I was in my teenage years, I was really into comics. My dad dying quite young sent me into comics because it was like an escape for me to dive into these worlds. I would spend a lot of my time reading Spider-Man. So, I think that made me want to tell stories. Then I wanted to be an illustrator and to make comics, but to be honest, I just wasn't good enough at drawing, so I stopped pursuing it.
"And then one day a friend said, 'Why don't you make films?'. I said, 'Don't you have to be, like, Ridley Scott's son to make films?'. I must have been 16 or 17, had left school and I think I was working in Subway at the time. No direction, no idea what I wanted to do. I didn't have any interest in anything other than comics and films. I told my mum I wanted to make films, and my mum, good on her, she was always very helpful. A few weeks later, she found an ad in a newspaper that said 'Want to make films?'. Yes! So, I went off on a two week film course at a place called Futuretrend, a course that taught you the basics of how to make films. A guy called Martin taught me the basics of editing in two weeks, and I fell in love immediately.
"We made short films, a comedy and a horror, a big group us. It was a cool little course actually. It was free and it was just these people helping kids do something creative. I fell in love with it so much. I ended up doing a Media and Moving Image course at my local college in Enfield, and then from there went to university and did film production at UCA Farnham. Then after I left there I went freelance and that's what I've been doing ever since."
So after choosing the path towards filmmaking and completing the studies to send him on his way, how did Riccardo go about forging his career after university?
"During my uni years, in the summer, I started applying for running jobs and ended up running for a company called The Edge Picture Company, which is a corporate video company in Covent Garden. They were really good to me, they let me come and go around university, so I just kept going there. That gave me an idea of what the business is like, especially on the corporate side. I would go on film sets as a runner and then assist with edits. They were very open to letting me learn, and when I graduated, I went and worked there.
"After a few months, I got offered a job in Amsterdam by a post-production and VFX company called Glassworks. It was initially a production assistant job, but they wanted to train me to do a bunch of things. So, I moved to Amsterdam, and ended up doing more editing courses while I was out there, and surrounded by editors and VFX people who would just throw me stuff to edit. I started piecing together commercials and checking rushes for Adidas and Nike, seeing these big companies and how they work, which helped me understand the industry a bit better, especially the commercial side."
Leaping a few chapters closer to where Riccardo finds himself now, how did he end up becoming a feature documentary filmmaker with a nationwide cinematic release?
"Yeah, so that's a complicated one! I'm 35 now, and probably when I hit 30, I was a bit like, 'What am I doing?'. I think a lot of us in this industry hit that at some point or multiple times, maybe even every couple of months. 'Why? Why am I making films? What's the point?'. I've lived with a chronic autoimmune illness called Crohn's disease for over 10 years now, and it's kind of dictated a lot of my choices in my career and life. I started thinking a lot about how I wanted to raise awareness of invisible illnesses and mental illness, and I was trying to work out a way I could do the thing I love while raising awareness of the things I care about.
"And, as with most of my things, while in a conversation with a friend they said, 'Hey, why don't you try a documentary?'. I had a warped idea of what documentary was. I found it very corporate, and my mind wasn't really open to it. I'd watched documentaries but hadn't been immersed in them. Then I watched a documentary called Notes on Blindness, which completely changed my perspective. This documentary had come from a very artistic point of view, and without wanting to sound pretentious, I've always seen myself as an artist and trying to create strong visuals. I watched that documentary and it was exactly how I would make a documentary if I could."
With his interest in documentary filmmaking now piqued, how did he come to be involved in A Space In Time?
"One day, someone tagged me on Facebook saying, 'Hey, this person's looking for an editor for their feature'. This was Nick Taussig, who co-owned Salon Pictures, which is a big UK documentary company in this country, and he had a very low budget film idea. He has two children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which is muscle wasting condition, and as probably part therapy for himself and just a way to deal with the situation, he'd been filming stuff and keeping a diary. He invited me to the office and interviewed me to edit the film.
"There was no real plan. He just had hard drives of his life and asked, 'Do you think there's anything we can do with this?'. I went away and for months tried to work out if there was anything we could do. Then just over time talking to each other, it went from essentially a very corporate 'thank you' video to a building firm who had helped make their house more accessible, to a semi arthouse documentary that was a meditation on life and death. About three months into me digging through the footage, Nick asked if I wanted to co direct it with him."
Never intended to be crafted into a documentary, the directors soon came to the conclusion that the film needed something more, and decided to shoot new material to compliment the candid footage. However, having that base edit helped to identify the shots they needed to enhance the story they wanted to tell.
"Yeah, 100%. Initially, I'd say 90% of it was stuff Nick or his wife had shot on mobile phones. Nick had also shot some nice stuff on like a 5D and C300, and is a really good cinematographer in his own right. It was all very candid, very personal, but it didn't feel like it was working by itself. It felt like a home video, so Nick and I were happy to try things to express ourselves artistically as best we could on the budget. We shot his wife in a water tank, for example, because she had spoken to me about the feeling of drowning in that situation. It was kind of on the nose but it works.
"The important thing for us was to create something that was different in the space. We didn't want to create a depressing film about this disability, as a lot of the films in that space are, but I think a lot of people actually think this film is as well because it's really hard for people to understand this actually has a hopeful message and is looking at disability in a different way.
"The thing that changed the film completely was interviewing a guy called Jon Hastie, who is the oldest person living with Duchenne in the UK. He's in his late 30s, which is amazing because most quite often don't get past their teens or 20s. I did a long form interview with him to get his perspective on life and living with this condition for so long. It completely changed the film. It gave this film a whole new voice, and to be honest, as soon as I heard his stuff the structure became very clear to me, and became clear about what type of film we wanted to do.
"We finished shooting and I locked the edit a month before the first lockdown in 2020, but the rest of the film - the grade, the score, the sound design - was all done remotely in the first few months of the pandemic. Then it was a whole process of working out what to do with the film. Thankfully, a company called Bohemia Media had come on board to distribute it, and we kept applying for things to try and help distribution costs. The BFI very kindly gave us some distribution money and we had a little country-wide cinema release for 2-3 weeks, and now it's available on digital."
Having spent so many years on the project, and telling a story that was so truthful and revealing of the experiences felt by Nick Taussig and his family, what was it like to see the film with an audience for the first time?
"Yeah, that was weird [laughs]. I should say though, that I always thought of this as Nick's film - a personal story of his family, which was so brave to put on screen - so I was able to detach myself from it in a way that maybe I couldn't have if it felt like just my film.
"Building up to putting it on the big screen was just anxiety inducing because in my head, even though we were trying to make a cinematic film, I'd never imagined it being on the big screen. Also, because of the pandemic, I hadn't been able to test anything on the big screen. Much of the footage was shot on phones from 8 years ago when they weren't as good as they are now, so I thought it would just be a blur [laughs]. I hadn't tested the visuals or the sound. I'd just been sitting at home on my computer hoping the film would look good on the big screen. I'd done a 5.1 mix for the first time in my life. We had a small screening at the Dulwich Picturehouse and I was completely covered in anxiety for that, all I wanted to do was get through it. Thankfully, everything was fine.
"Then about three days later, we had a bigger premiere at Picturehouse Central, and that was incredible. Afterwards, we spoke to people for hours about the themes of the film, life and death. It was an unbelievable feeling of, 'Wow, we've done something important here'. It was very easy for me to just sit there and just be a filmmaker, but I don't know how it felt to be Nick or his wife, and seeing that with an audience. A whole different experience. For me, after having that first cinema experience and getting past all the technical shit, I could sit there and watch my film for the first time as an audience member and didn't think about anything else other than like I'm watching a film. That was an amazing experience."
With that first experience of a feature documentary and release now complete, is it a format he plans to return to?
"Yeah, so right now I am in pre production on my own feature documentary but also in production on another one with Nick.
"The documentary I'm doing myself is about chronic illness, which relates back to my own experiences and is a very personal project for me. I'm almost going into that space that Nick was in, but it's not about me. It's actually a very experimental documentary, basically my attempt at creating an immersive experience for people who have no idea what it's like to have a chronic illness. A lot of it is set in a car, it's got dance numbers, it's got all kinds of stuff in it that is just all the madness in my head trying to come out. I have no idea if I'm going to get full funding for it, but we've started making it and we'll see what happens. I just want to do something that shines a light on chronic illness. So many different conditions and diseases are invisible and people don't know much about them.
"And then with Nick, where we're tackling something that's ambitious and going to be another long haul. We're diving into the part trauma plays in creating violent men, and whether people who have gone down that path can change or not. We're trying to approach it in a way we haven't really seen trauma approached on screen before. That's going to be interesting."
I also ask if there is any advice he would offer new documentary filmmakers, or perhaps other filmmakers looking to create a documentary for the first time.
"The great thing about documentary filmmaking, and all filmmaking these days to be honest, is you can literally just do it. You have a phone, everyone has a phone. The good thing about documentaries is people are more forgiving about the visuals. Just focus on finding a great story, and an interesting subject, and not worry too much about the technical side. Just film it. Also, watch as many documentaries as you can, because like I said, I had a warped idea of what documentary was, but there's actually a billion ways you can make a documentary. There's so many different ways, which is something I've learned on this journey.
"There's so many ways to tell a story and everyone has a story. I think a lot of people get given the advice of do something that is personal to you but I don't necessarily agree with that. I think people should be able to dive into wherever they want. If you find the subject interesting, then someone else probably will as well. So just make it."
And finally, what advice would he give himself back at the start if he could?
"Honestly, I would say things are gonna be really hard, but always go with your gut feeling. Trust your gut. I know that's a cliché, but I think as filmmakers, that's what separates us, our heart and our gut. And if we follow our heart and our gut, that's probably going to take us to the most interesting places. A lot of people will tell you what to do, and a lot of people will tell you to stick to these rules of filmmaking, and that just stuff just pisses me off.
To be honest, I think we need to just do whatever we want. And you know, if it's bad, it's bad. If it's good, it's good. But at least you tried to do something you wanted to do and tried to do something different. And not everyone's gonna like it and you should just accept that because we're never going to make it in this industry if we want everyone to like what we do. So, yeah, just always go with your gut and follow your heart."
You can follow Riccardo on Twitter: @RicBebop