The Edges of Things

"I didn't want to be a woman looking over my shoulder. I rather go towards things that frighten me – and draw attention to the situation." (Penny Woolcock)

Penny Woolcock, born 1950, grew up in Argentina's English ex-pat community before settling in England in 1970, working in factories and other jobs. Even as a school girl she was more interested in the edges of things - for example the life in the favela underneath the bridge she passed every week on the way to church. She only took to filmmaking in her thirties and never formally trained as a filmmaker, which has led to some crew members commenting: "You work really differently." Penny says: "Ignorance can be bliss!"

Here are some of Penny's approaches to filmmaking across documentary and fiction:

  1. Be mindful your "characters" are people, and it's their lives you're documenting. I don't like calling people in my docs "characters."
  2. I always have the fear of failure. It's never left me. Something really amazing can happen when you're not in your comfort zone.
  3. When you're casting non-actors for your film, cast them as close to their natural emotional range as possible. All my fiction films are based on heavy documentary research. I realised there is a depository of wasted talent in places like an estate (for example, for the film Shakespeare on the Estate)
  4. You never regret what you don't use in the edit, only what you haven't got. Better to shoot a bit more than not shooting it at all, or redoing a take.
  5. I'm interested in the disenfranchised and their inventive ways of dealing with their situation and the connections between people. I wish I could make a "quiet film" - mine are usually quite "populated". I choose not to make socio-political "lament films" along the lines of Ken Loach.
  6. For my fictionalised work, my scripts are very specific, but I put no dialogue in it. Often my sound or camera people don't know what happens before the first take. This gives my films a spontaneous and documentary feel.
  7. As my dear friend Peter Symes once said to me: "Take risks - at worst it's a disaster - at best it's fantastic." It's good to be honest about what you're doing, and not try to make it sound easy.
  8. If you know it's not going to work out with an actor you have cast, for example, you have to let them go as swiftly and as quickly as possible. If you have that nagging feeling something is wrong, you have to act on it fast.
  9. I fictionalise when I realise that what I know through my extensive research can't actually be put  in a documentary. (eg. Tina Goes Shopping)
  10. Whatever it is that turns you on, and gives you passion - that's where you have to be. It's too hard otherwise.
  11. I feel so lucky being a filmmaker - I look forward to going to work. I think success as a filmmaker is largely about how much and how hard you are prepared to work.

Penny Woolcock gave a masterclass at Scottish Documentary Institute on 14 Jan 2011.