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Interview: Spitfire director David Fairhead

24 October 18 interview: Ashley Carter

We caught up with David Fairhead, co-director of the new documentary Spitfire, ahead of its screening at Broadway Cinema...

Featuring interviews with Geoffrey Wellum, Tom Neil and Mary Ellis, as well as narration from Charles Dance, Spitfire is the euphoric, visually stunning story of the plane that helped turn the tide of World War II during the Battle of Britain.  Like all good ideas, it began in the pub with a conversation between co-directors David Fairhead and Ant Palmer, and four years later, Spitfire has had theatrical releases in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, as well as a digital release in the US and Canada. As the feature-length documentary prepares to return to Nottingham for two screenings at Broadway, Fairhead tells us how he convinced funders to back the project, why Spitfire needed to be cinematic and how an incredible moment of coincidence during the film's production came to pass...

The London Premiere of Spitfire was live-streamed in cinemas across the UK on July 17, how has the reception been for the film so far? 

The reaction has been really, really positive.  The personal feedback from people who have seen it has been brilliant.  From Newcastle to Southampton, people have been telling us how it got a round of applause, or even a standing ovation.  A lot of people expressed disappointment that it was only on for one night, but that was the strategy of the distributors to try and build it up as an event.  Documentaries can be hard to sell.  It did very, very well on its big night, and has been on a little tour of the country since then.  The critical reaction has been been great too – we’ve had some really good reviews, which again, for a documentary is very pleasing.  So hearing all of that stuff come back to us is just fantastically positive and very heart-warming.

The film feels very contemporary, particularly with the sense of emotion and innovative visuals.  How did you manage to avoid making Spitfire into a traditional historical documentary?

We absolutely wanted to do something different.  I’ve been a film editor for thirty years, and for ten years I’ve been doing feature documentaries.  We were always aware that we didn't want to make something that people would just see on television.  It’s got to feel different.  So much of that History Channel stuff is just formulaic: interview and archive, rather dull repetition of stories that have been told before.  My background is in science and history feature documentaries, whereas my co-director Ant Palmer’s background was more character-driven documentaries, so we made a good team.  Between the two of us we tried to fashion something quite different, and hopefully we’ve achieved it. 

How did you manage to access such a wide variety of different archive material, rather than just using the same footage that appears in most Battle of Britain documentaries? 

First of all, all of those TV docs go to the same place.  They go to the National Archives in the US because it’s free, which really limits what material they’re going to get.  We knew we’d have to pay for material, so we went to the old newsreel companies, live MovieTone and Pathé, and found that they had a massive untapped resource of archive that no one had really used before, perhaps because they thought it was going to be too expensive.  We also hired an archive researcher called James Barker who use to work at the Imperial War Museum.  He knew all of their card indexes that hadn’t been computerized yet, so he got hours and hours of material that had anything to do with Spitfires.  One of the ladies that was helping us at the Imperial War Museum actually said to us, "You know, I hate that phrase ‘never been seen before’ but I have to admit, a lot of this footage has actually never been seen before!"  

How much of a challenge was it to film new aerial footage of a Spitfire in flight?

That was a huge challenge, and one that a decent amount of the budget went towards.  Each Spitfire costs £3,500 per hour to fly, and on our first day of shooting we had three Spitfires and a Hurricane, so it was a pretty expensive day!  When we first came up with the idea of the film, we really had to think about how we were going to show a Spitfire in flight.  We discussed using CG, but then we came across some contemporary footage of a Spitfire flight shot by a guy called John Dibbs.  I knew his name because he releases an aviation calendar every year which my Dad always gets!  I got in touch with him with a taster trailer I’d made, in which I’d included some of this footage he’d shot, to ask whether he’d be interested in us using it for the film.  He said that he’d be really interested in being part of the project and actually ended up being a Producer.  He brought an amazing eye and set of contacts to the production, giving us access to the inner sanctum of the aviation world.  Because we had someone who really knew what he was doing that had specific experience in that field, we were able to get some amazing shots.

That’s the unfortunate reality of filmmaking! It’s not all jodhpurs, berets and megaphones.

Was that the biggest challenge?

It was definitely one of the challenges, but in some respects getting access to the veterans was one of the hardest things.  They’re all in their 90s, and they’ve been interviewed so many times already.  We really had to convince them that there was something special about our production, because they probably get asked a couple of times a week to appear in filming projects, most of which never get made.  We had to convince them that we were genuine and the right people to tell this story.  Also, I'd say that the single biggest challenge of the whole process is raising the funds.  That’s how independent cinema lives and dies – if you haven’t got the money, you can’t make the film.  That’s especially true with a film like this where there were big bills to pay, it can be very tricky.  That’s the unfortunate reality of filmmaking!  It’s not all jodhpurs, berets and megaphones. 

What was your strategy for getting funding?

The first hurdle was getting the first amount of money in.  Ant and I were working on this film for four years, and for the first two we did it all unpaid – the crew worked on a deferred basis – it was really hand-to-mouth stuff.  The most important thing for us was to just try and get those veteran interviews in the can.  Then, it was a matter of doing justice to the story, which was when one particular investor, a producer called Steve Milne came on board from the British Film Company, and he was the first person to bring substantial sums to the table which enabled us to film our first aerial shoot.  Once we had that under our belts, people could really see the quality of what we were trying to achieve, and that’s when other people started coming in.  Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith, because it’s easier to convince people to give you money when they can actually see what you’re doing rather than just imagine it. 

Spitfire. Photograph: John M Dibbs

How much of a sense of urgency was there to interview the veterans?  Particularly considering that Geoffrey Wellum, Tom Neil and Mary Ellis, all of whom appear in the film, have sadly passed away since the film's release in July.

There was a definite sense of urgency.  When Ant and I first met up to discuss the film, the very first thing we realised was that we had to get those interviews with the veterans.  We’re now doing another film – Lancaster, the sequel to Spitfire, and just yesterday we were shooting a veteran interview.  Again, we’re just doing it in our spare time because we know we have to get it done as soon as possible.  One chap we interviewed last week, as he put it, was 99 years and 7 months old – these guys definitely aren’t getting any younger.

With the film being made on such a large scale, how important was it to try and attract a large audience?

We knew that the film couldn’t just be for aerial enthusiasts, it needed to be emotional, so that it transcended something that just plane spotters would want to see.  We also wanted to make a film that women would enjoy too, so there had to be a female aspect to the story.  Ant has two daughters and felt really strongly about that.  By getting the female pilots in, as well as the WAAF plotter, we felt like we were making a connection with another audience entirely.

I think that in about 400 years time, people will look back at the Battle of Britain in the same way as we do about the Spanish Armada and think, blimey, that was a bit close.

How much pressure did you feel to honour the legacies of the pilots you interviewed?

I think it’s really important.  One of the things that Geoffrey (Wellum) says in the film is that all he asks is to be remembered.  I’ve got two boys in their early 20s, and whilst I’ve had a lifetime interest in this stuff - I was born only 18 years after the war - they were born two generations after it ended, so they don’t have that same interest as I did.  I’d say that’s probably the same as a lot of people in their age group.  We wanted to make a film that everyone could go and see, and not just another dry historical thing, but rather something which can show that these veterans were so young.  That’s something that hit me.   These pilots were the same age as my sons, yet they were flying Spitfires and Hurricanes over the skies of Kent and saving the country, which is an incredible thing.  I wanted people of the younger generation to watch the film and think, "Wow, I’ve got a kinship with these men. They’re not just old people, they’re men who were once the same age as me, who did some truly amazing things."  I think that in about 400 years time, people will look back at the Battle of Britain in the same way as we do about the Spanish Armada and think, blimey, that was a bit close. 

There's an incredible moment in the film where Mary Ellis is reunited with the Spitfire she signed during the War.  How did that come about?

It was one of those weird coincidences.  I’m a great believer in that saying ‘you make your own luck’, but sometimes these things just happen.  We interviewed Mary in 2015, and we’d done all of our research on her, and had heard that she’d signed several planes during the war.  When we asked her, she corrected us and said that she’d only ever signed one plane on one occasion.  And that was it.  Then, later on during production when we were looking for aircraft to film, we got a lead on a Spitfire mk.VIII, which I wasn’t particularly keen on filming as it wasn’t one of the more significant planes we were after.  I was then told that it was the exact plane that Mary had signed, and it was a lightbulb moment.  She flew over 1,000 aircraft during the war, 400 of which were Spitfires, and only ever signed one plane during that whole time.  What are the odds of that plane surviving, let alone us finding it?  And not only that, but it had never been rebuilt at all – it’s still the exact plane she flew and signed.  It was just one of those bits of happenstance – just absolutely amazing.  We were so pleased with how it turned out. 

After the Premiere, we all went for drinks at the RAF club which Mary attended.  She was still there at the very end of the evening, and she grabbed me and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."  It meant everything to me that we’d done justice to her story.  She passed away just three weeks after that. 

What are your future plans for the film?

It’s been released digitally in the US and Canada, and theatrically in New Zealand, where it’s been in the Top Ten for five weeks.  It’s also getting a theatrical release in Australia in November, then there will be a DVD and Blu Ray release just before Christmas. 

Spitfire is screening at Broadway Cinema on Thursday 25 October.  You can find out more information about the film, as well as updates on Lancaster, the next documentary from David Fairhead and Ant Palmer, at the Spitfire website and Facebook page. 

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