When I called James, he was at The Oval in South London watching the cricket which was perfectly topical for our conversation. James has previously directed One Night in Turin which looked at the England football team’s defeat at the 1990 Football World Cup. This time, he focuses on a sporting triumph looking at the 1981 Ashes Test match.
Read on to find out how he got involved in the project and what you can expect. If you missed the trailer, you can watch it here.
HeyUGuys: How did you get involved with the project?
I made the film One Night in Turin last year and I wanted to do more on British Sporting heroes. One Night in Turin had been about a British loss and I wanted to make a film about a British victory and the heroism. I was rooting around for ideas and the 1981 Ashes stood out to me as not just an incredible sporting achievement but a really fantastic human story. A story of leaders, of kings – Apparent super human loses power which needed to be resorted and it had big epic themes as well as fantastic sporting moments.
HeyUGuys: How old were you in 1981 and do you remember it happening?
I remember it but not the political context. I remember watching the TV and watching Botham being a hero and going out at buying a Duncan Fearnley bat like Botham in the local sports shop in Stockport and constructing my own cricket net in the garden with the help of my dad so I could smash a tennis ball around!
HeyUGuys: With movies like From the Ashes, Senna and TT3D: Closer to the Edge all out this year, do you think we’ll see a resurgence of documentaries based around sporting achievement?
I think in a way, documentaries are the perfect form for sport in cinemas. There are amazing achievements that arise, you’re seeing something that you can’t fake. If you take a movie like Gladiator with Russell Crowe, you can suspend disbelief, but we’re so close to sport, we watch and consume so much sport. We know the difference between a moment of genius and self expression can come once in a decade. To see that, it’s best to see it in its original with a dressing of the film around it rather than attempts to create it. I think that’s why there is an emergence for sports documentaries with Turin and Senna. It is a fantastic way of seeing it. You’re seeing it on a big canvas and I think the more the better. The more people go to the cinema and see films like that, they’ll just enjoy it., it’s like being there. Sports stadiums are one of the few places we go where they’ll be hundreds or in a stadium tens of thousands of people sharing the same collective emotion. There’s almost something religious about that experience. It’s very different from being on your own on the sofa watching the tele.
HeyUGuys: Did you have hours and hour of footage you had to go through to get the final cut?
Actually our initial cut was just 95 minutes. I wrote a script so we went through a huge amount of material but we were very careful not to get lost in a five hour version. I think our original cut of Headingly on it’s own was 45 minutes but then we reduced that down. We went through a lot of footage, particularly photos and remember that in that period where was no Sky Sports. Off the pitch, there was very little footage. We had to go and open up films cans that had been covered in dust for 30 years in the ITN archive and in Australia then get it transferred and find shots of Kim Hughes not on the cricket pitch. There’s actually not that many and believe me, we were extensive and we were pulling those pretty much from the dust bin. The great things with stills though and there were so many photographs taken at the time. Sports events have always been well covered by photographs. We went through thousands and thousands of stills and checked that we had more angles that might have previously existed.
HeyUGuys: I loved the way you cross-fade between the live footage and the photos…
It was interesting because it’s the photos which really bring you closer to the person. You’re not getting a close up like you would in a movie. In a video, you can put a brave face on very quickly when you’re dismissed for zero but in a photo you’re frozen for a thousand years.
HeyUGuys: How did you find interviewing the players?
We interviewed a lot of people who didn’t make the final cut. We wanted to focus on our key players. There’s sort of three perspectives, the England perspective, the Australian perspective and the audience perspective and in a film you want to know your interviewees so we were very careful to scale those back.
The great thing was with the Australians. The English interviewees were great but the Australian story wasn’t a story I really knew at all and a lot of it emerged in the interviews. The Kim Hughes is extraordinary; he’s the forgotten man of cricket. He’s kept his silence for years and never really talks about it but clearly carries the scars of something that happened 30 years ago.
Here’s a question that I ask at the end of the film, ‘which would you choose, would you choose to be the hero or the leader, a king?’
Thanks to James for his time. From the Ashes is also released on DVD and Blu-ray 30th May and you can order your copy here.