Stephen Shearman: Filmmaking in the wild

Stephen Shearman , Bristol-based director, producer and writer, has been creating and producing action/adventure television for Channel 4, National Geographic Channel, Discovery International, NBC and more. In this podcast, Stephen discusses helicopter crashes and earthquakes in Man vs Wild, the black book of TV and season 9 of River Monsters. Check out the podcast, transcript and images below.

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Photo credit: Jasin Boland 2013

Hi there I’m George from Movidiam, and today we’re speaking with the director Stephen Shearman. Stephen’s had twenty years in the industry making factual TV. For six of those he was the go-to director for Discovery’s Man Vs Wild and he’s currently working on a documentary series, River Monsters, with Jeremy Wade. Hi Stephen, great to have you on the Movidiam Podcast.

Thanks very much for inviting me on, it’s a pleasure.

So Stephen, we’ll dive straight into Man Vs Wild because it’s very much in the public psyche as a series and a program, and obviously working with Bear Grylls. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey just before you were doing that and how you got into it?

Yeah I mean, it wasn’t like it was at the beginning of my career — I’d been in the industry for about ten years at that point I think. I remember watching the first one on Channel 4 when it came out, but I joined series two. I remember watching the first series and was blown away by it, it was something that I had never really seen before, this very experiential, very sort of in your face action and adrenaline, all housed within a factual format. Initially I was absolutely desperate to work on it and I remember writing to Diverse in Bristol to get on board, and was politely refused or put on file. Then a year later an AP, who I had worked with previously, said ‘we’re looking for a PD on this show in Sumatra for Man vs Wild’, so I took to the opportunity. It turned out to be one of the most arduous shoots of my career and certainly the most arduous Man vs Wild that I made. We had helicopter crashes, earthquakes, all sorts of things. In terms of the challenge, you know, the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.

Yes I mean it really is, it sounds like from a production process and the things that you faced…you get a sense of that a bit from being a viewer. What were the component parts to make that such a phenomenal success? The front of camera personality, the ambitious nature of the production? What really made that zing?

Yes I don’t think many people quite realize how much the production was made. It might be a bit controversial here but I actually think it’s a testament to the filmmakers that it’s so realistic. Of course it’s controversial, with a lot of people saying we were cheating and all that sort of stuff, but I really don’t see that at all. It was a crew of about 11, 12 people; very strong AD controlled shoots, stunt controlled shoots…we didn’t have the traditional sort of hierarchy that you’d normally associate with the stunts — they weren’t performers. There wasn’t a stunt coordinator but we used mountain people, mountain rope experts and people of that nature to control and build stunts, but each stunt that Bear did was rehearsed and planned meticulously. So it did have quite a long run up on location and a team of about five of us would go out there for about three weeks before the shoots, choose the right waterfalls, choose the right place and everything else and then we’d have cam rehearsals, you know all that side of things. I think that’s probably the biggest reason for its success really. It was so meticulously planned by such a great team, and the icing on the cake of course is that Bear became such a strong on-screen personality. You can really throw almost anything at him and he was so adept and so skillful. The scale and ambition of the show grew, really, with him.

Something now that he’s used, and I definitely get a sense as well, being based in the in the UK, that there’s a transition to the US for Bear as well, he’s very much a real personality.

Well that’s another aspect that most people don’t realize — the show started in the US. The Channel 4 version of Man Vs Wild, Born Survivor, was only a buy-in by Ralph Lee. They had no editorial control over it, it was all controlled by Discovery US to start with and all of its success has come US-first. Only in the last two years really has he grown in the UK. So I have kind of backed away from that a little bit, I’ve edged away from Bear’s shows, just to explore different avenues and different things.

Sure, that ties us quite nicely to the concept of Movidiam and the Movidiam podcast that we’re speaking on now, which is about this global talent pool and the ability to interact with people in a different way to collaborate. For example, you think the best visual effects individuals might be in the center of an urban epicenter, but actually through Movidiam we’re seeing some amazingly talented people in different parts of South America, Barcelona…this global, collaborative, potential is massive and I think that’s something that really rings true to what you were saying about wanting to work with excellent and brilliant people, it’s what makes these things special.

Absolutely, and you asked me earlier what are my next steps, and what are the things that I’m thinking about in terms of my next challenges. Well, I’m approaching my fifties, I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and I’m very conscious of the fact that potentially this is a young man’s industry. The roles for older people in the industry are, in my mind, pretty dull; the exec producing or series producing or consulting kind of level, and I’m not really ready to hang up my boots or spurs yet. So for me, the collaboration and something like Movidiam — because the collaborations I want to do next are outside of broadcast, away from the traditional models of freelance, picking up gigs, doing the job and so forth — that’s for me the most exciting aspect of Movidiam, as a fledgling filmmaker outside of the sphere of TV. To see all this inspiring work that’s going out there and to be in contact with these people is tremendously exciting.

I think the world is changing a bit isn’t it; it’s more about short turnarounds, high production value. The workflow process is massively changing actually. I’m doing a talk at the Amazon Media and Entertainment Symposium later on this week about how people are coming together and the process is changing. Technology has enabled so many people and there’s this new generation of creative entrepreneurs coming into the workforce or into the marketplace for producing films. Do you think branded content might be something you’ll investigate now?

Absolutely, but it has to be the right kind of thing, you know. I’m never going to be interested in making content for a brand that I don’t have an investment in and I’m not going to become a brand whore in that sense, because, well, I just don’t need to. But I think branded content in terms of the production value is tremendously interesting to me. At the end of the day, what do you want to do as a filmmaker? You want to be able to create scenes, create arresting moments, create these extraordinary visual experiences and for me, where the money comes from, who you’re making it for, what you’re doing…as long as they allow you to be able to do that, it’s the most exciting thing.

It’s about the storytelling and that side of it, and I agree. In terms of just coming back to what you mentioned there about your context inside the industry and the time that you spent in it; it has traditionally been quite a closed and ‘black book’ space where people know people and they work with people, the same sort of people that they worked with in the past. Do you think that’s changing a bit, networks like ours are beginning to cause a bit of disruption?

I’m deeply interested in this social media thing. At the same time, I’m a little bit skeptical and I’m thinking, hang on a minute, what about my black book? All my people are people that I’ve spent twenty years developing relationships with, why do I need this? But then really what I’m proposing to do over the next five years is to completely upset my own apple cart. I want to break down the barriers between who commissions the content and who pays for the content and the highlights achieved. So I’m finding myself suddenly thinking, well actually this is exactly the sort of tool that I need, because I could probably just stay in television for the next ten years and slowly moulder away, but that’s not what I intend to do. For me, meeting people, especially some of these younger guys and seeing their work and seeing how they work, I think it has to be the way forward.

I think it’s very interesting, again to your point about putting the emphasis on story and creating those arresting moments in film; If there is a team of best fit out there, why search for it only from your network of 150? Why not search from a global pool that has a whole range of different experiences and again, totally enabled by the technology. It’s something we’re very aligned on here at Movidiam, the team of Best Fit. Also there is an element of this, certainly with 2D and 3D visual effects; do we need to report into the center of a Soho production facility? Can we use remote workers, can we use people sending files around and feeding back inside the production tools that are actually on the platform?

Yeah I couldn’t agree more. Remote working — I’m based in Bristol, and I cut a lot of my stuff here, but for the productions it really makes no odds where you are in the world at all. I think the only time we have to get together is when you’re actually gathering the content.

In fact I was listening just this morning to Joe Gebbia from AirBnb on the TED stage talking about the sharing economy. He makes a very interesting point there because it’s a term that I have actually tripped up with in the past, this idea of a transaction but also a human connection. It’s both — it’s business as usual, there is a transaction for your service, but it’s actually the ability to create a human connection with some remarkable people. That might work in different walks of life to you or to your experiences.

Absolutely, I think British TV, the world that I’ve spent most of my career in, is an incredibly closed shop and it frustrates the hell out of me that within TV your horizon is so limited.

To drill down on that a little bit; why do you think that culture of small groups of people in television has developed? Is it because the distribution was only channel 1, 2, 3 and 4 back in the day when it was being established? What was it about?

You know I don’t think that even when we were doing stuff for Discovery and Nat Geo, it’s still the same. If you’re going to get to the nub of it, it’s trust. We grew up in a culture, well we grow up in a culture, in TV where recommendation and people who’ve worked with other people, it’s the only way that you would trust to bring them onto your project. I don’t know how Movidiam or platforms like this, how you get round that.

I think it’s a question of developing testimonials and referrals and seeing people who are connected with each other, and also the credits.

I think for content makers like myself, we can see this huge expansion outside of broadcast that is incredibly exciting and I think definitely myself and other program makers are very keen to get into this sphere and to make content for completely different disparate people.

Well it really is very interesting to speak with you. Could you just tell us a little bit about six months down the line or what you’re working on at the moment?

We just started production on season 9 of River Monsters. I’m making a two one-hour special, which is focusing on the sinking of the RMS Laconia in 1942, a second world war tragedy, and It’s very challenging. It’s really really interesting, we’re going to have to recreate elements from that disaster, so we’re going to be shooting in a tank with a curved green screen wall. It’s going to be a challenging project but one that I’m very excited to be involved in.

And when’s that going to be airing?

Probably the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.

Fantastic, that’s something we can look forward to. So that was speaking to Stephen Shearman and thanks very much indeed for your time Stephen.

Nice to talk to you George, thanks very much indeed.

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