‘LIFE and Death on the A9′ is an one-hour documentary about the notorious A9 road, including – says the BBC – “access to Police Scotland, Transport Scotland and businesses like House of Bruar”.
It is being broadcast on BBC One Scotland tomorrow evening, at 2100.
Here, producer-director, Fiona Wilson, at programme-makers, IWC, answers to the questions…
Who commissioned the series?
Ewan Angus at BBC Scotland.
Explain the thinking behind the production’s ‘look and feel’.
It’s easy to look at a documentary about a road with access to police road traffic patrols and imagine it’s going to be either a high-paced motorway cops-type of programme or a sensationalist debate piece talking about the dangers of this particular road.
This documentary was always going to be very different from that – we knew we could find fantastic characters living or working on the road, and we already had a great precinct in the A9 – the road that everyone loves to hate.
We also had access to a BBC documentary that was filmed during the upgrade of the original A9 in the ’70s and ’80s and wanted to include the road as a character, telling its past, its present and its future rather than purely as a location where things happen.
Music was also very important – it’s a year in the life of a road which spans an incredible amount of varied and challenging terrain. The storylines span a huge emotional range, from the trauma of a car crash to the beauty of day-to-day life at a quaint harbourside restaurant at the road’s most remote point.
I had a chat with John, my editor, about music on day one of the edit. We wanted the music to have a big expansive feel to it during the beginning stages, to get that sense of space across, but there are also incredibly quiet and funny moments where the music ended up becoming quite quirky. I think it’s important for music to provide comment on a character or a situation wherever possible and hopefully we’ve managed to achieve that.
Finally, the voice-over had to have a certain amount of gravitas and warmth because of the range of emotion in the stories. I didn’t want the voice-over to lead the viewer into thinking this way or that about a particular character or situation. I think James Cosmo fits perfectly.
Who are the key personnel?
The documentary was executive-produced by Elspeth O’Hare at IWC Media; Elspeth oversaw the project from the original idea right through to the final edit.
I was brought onto the project as producer-director in the lead up to the Summer months. I spent the Summer driving north and south on the road meeting potential characters and filming stories. Both of the crashes that feature in the documentary happened during the Summer and they were very challenging to film – and during the Winter – to edit.
Jennifer Gilroy and Laura Blount were crucial during the development stagesm negotiating tricky access to the police road traffic patrol teams and Transport Scotland, among other organisations. Lesley Shields and Jill Pryde researched potential storylines and characters and, together with Gillian Maclean, Jill Greenwood and Joanna Langan, organised the complicated logistics involved with filming on Scotland’s longest road.
Peter Strachan and Iain Robson filmed the Winter footage, Pete Stanton filmed additional footage at Rockness and on the Kessock Bridge and I filmed the rest. Finally, John Wilson, my editor – he was fantastic in navigating his way through all of the footage that comes from a year of filming – and helped me trust my gut instinct about the natural way to pull our stories together.
What kit and software?
The majority of the documentary was self-shot on a Canon xf305. We also used mini cams in the police car – Sony MC1P’s – one for each police officer to give that face-on view. We used the Go Pro Hero 3 a fair bit too – sticking it on the bonnet of a car to get a driver’s view of the road or, in the case of a very long truck journey from Scrabster Harbour to Glasgow, using it to provide an extra angle to cut to when my arm got sore and the camera started to wobble. We edited on Avid at Serious Facilities in Film City Glasgow.
What were the main production challenges?
The logistics of filming on Scotland’s longest road with one camera was a big challenge. For a big event like Rockness I had another cameraman to help cover both the bus travelling north and the father and son in the campervan. At most other points, specifically with the police filming, I had to accept that, whatever happened on that day, I could only be in one place at one time.
After a year of filming, we had a fair amount of footage so the major challenge was finding a way to intercut so many characters and storylines in the edit without reverting to a linear January-to-Decemeber (or a ‘meanwhile, ten miles down the road’)-type of structure.
I ended up grouping our stories into themes. We started with our most compelling story in the edit and moved on to whichever story or theme seemed to link with that. It’s ended up as a bit of a patchwork but it feels like a really natural progression from one story to the next.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
I learned that amazing characters can be found anywhere at all – quite literally, in some cases, at the side of a road. I learned that persistence pays off; we had a limited amount of time with the police road traffic patrol teams and a lot of the cases that I filmed were very routine – but I kept the camera running as I was never quite sure where a routine stop might take us (in the end, the waiting paid off as some of the police storylines take an unexpected turn).
I also briefly saw, for the very first time, the Northern Lights a couple of hours north of Inverness on a very long drive up to Thurso one night; a beautiful sight on the A9 which I didn’t manage to catch on camera, unfortunately.