Malik Bendjelloul’s debut documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, tells the story of Rodriguez, an obscure American folk singer who became a cult icon in apartheid-era South Africa. The film was five years in the making and many scenes shot on an iPhone. Bendjelloul charts the journey with Tom Seymour…
You pitched Searching for Sugar Man at the Sheffield Doc/Fest MeetMarket in 2008. How did you prepare the pitch and how did you explain such a complex, layered film?
I didn’t actually have much success when I pitched this film, and I never made any money pitching it. I thought it would be easy to pitch because it was the best story I’d ever heard. It is a complex film to describe in three minutes, and the money guys didn’t seem to go for it. It’s always hard to get funding and that was very much the case with this film, so the first three years of this film were very hard.
What were the lessons you learnt from chasing funding?
The film took a long time because of funding – that’s true – but it’s a good thing that it took so long. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and wish you hadn’t struggled so much, but it’s dangerous not to struggle, and you learn the most from the hardest stretches. I was very angry with a lot of people who had promised me big production grants and then suddenly – and I mean literally from one day to the next – pulled out. I was angry about that, but anger is a great fuel. I developed a mindset that no one was going to stop me.
People talk a lot about how cheap filmmaking is these days, but is it true you shot some of the scenes in the film on your iPhone?
Yes it is, and the rest is shot on a Sony PMW-EW1, which is the cheapest HD camera on the market, but it’s enough.
How did you go about structuring the film?
The main structure was cemented in my mind very, very quickly, but then I fiddled around with the margins for almost two years. The film was 80 per cent finished after six months, and then I spent the rest of the production on the details.
Which parts of the film were the hardest to complete?
I would always try and work on the worst scene, or the part that didn’t seem to work. I really focused on trying to give some of the smaller characters their own little story arcs. A lot of those little exerts were added quite late. I really felt the story was 10 out of 10, even without my involvement. To make a film about it, you are having to confront maybe 40 or 50 separate elements; if you get all those elements right, you have a masterpiece on your hands. But you can’t do that, and you have to learn to be satisfied with some elements that are seven or eight out of 10.
Why did you choose filmmaking as a career?
It is a challenge to make a film that works. You work for a long time, and many people never make more than 10 films in their lifetimes. But it’s all about making things that matter, and it’s easier to make 10 things that matter to you than 1,000 things that don’t.
What’s your advice for young filmmakers?
The hardest thing is to start. You think to yourself, “I can always start tomorrow, or next week.” But as soon as you start, it becomes a lot easier. It’s like riding a bike; if you stop and start, it takes too much energy. But once you get going, the momentum can carry you, and it can feel great.
Searching for Sugar Man is out in cinemas today.
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