Grant Fraser on ‘Strangers to the World’ and documentary filmmaking
To Grant Fraser, making a documentary shares similarities with being a lawyer, his former career. You’ll pull together your information and witnesses, verifying everyone’s credibility, and presenting the story to an audience to try and sell them on your side.
His latest film Strangers to the World focuses on two civilians during World War 2, and the roles they played in the war effort. It’s a unique take set in a well-known backdrop, giving a civilian perspective on the great war we all know.
In honor of the film’s success, we sat down with Fraser to speak with him about Strangers to the World and his journey from the courtroom to Hollywood.
Tell us about your filmmaking journey. What did you do before becoming a filmmaker?
I came to filmmaking after a 35-plus-year career as a lawyer. I was a reluctant lawyer, but never brave enough to leave the security of the legal profession. I had always loved film and did some television and film acting in the 1970s. Through that experience, I got to know something about film art and craft from the inside.
What one film inspired you to be a filmmaker?
There are many, but Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal was a standout for me.
Why did you choose to become a documentary filmmaker?
I suppose making a documentary is a little like preparing a case for trial. You follow the trail of the evidence, evaluate the credibility of the witnesses, and present the whole mass of material coherently and cogently. At least, that’s the aim!
Why do you think documentaries are important?
I am very taken with the notion that you can, in a documentary, create a compelling, dramatic record of history, with the opportunity to include quite precise reflections along the way.
How did you discover the stories of Etty and Franz?
I first read about Franz in an essay by Thomas Merton. At about the same time, I happened on a copy of Etty’s diaries and letters.
What inspired you to create Strangers to the World?
I was most impressed with the monumental decisions with which they were faced and the quiet courage each found within the depths of themselves: the nagging voice of conscience which asked them to relinquish so much of what they loved.
How do you feel Etty and Franz’s stories relate to those of activists today?
I don’t think either of them would have described themselves as activists. Neither of them belonged to any political organization. They did not call on others to emulate them. Rather they wandered in the lonely land of conscience.
Do you think Strangers to the World encouraged more conversation about the civilians living through World War 2?
I hope so. Most civilians were called upon to simply endure the horrors and privations of the times; yet it is in the small things that they found the hope to continue. Friendship and loyalty became particularly important to people of the time, many of whom were forcibly separated from all that they knew and loved.
It was in small acts of kindness, often from strangers that they found their strength. If you speak to people who survived those fraught times they will largely tell you about the small things that others did for them. That was enough to keep them going.
During production on Strangers to the World, you wore a lot of hats. What was that experience like?
Because I was pretty new to filmmaking I thought I had to do most things; it seemed one practical way to ensure that the story I wanted would be told in the way I wanted. But it soon became evident that filmmaking is a very collaborative process.
It is essential that you learn to trust the artistic instincts of professionals around you who have had many years of experience. I was surrounded with marvelously talented people, including Ellery Ryan, our cinematographer, who brings a masterful gift for composition and lighting; Richard Pleasance, who composed a stunning musical score to add a further dimension to the experience; Aphrodite Kondos, our Art Director and costumer who has captured the look and feel of the times; and producers, Caroline Waters and, particularly, Jannine Barnes who knows everything about film that I don’t, and understands that films don’t magically sell themselves.
I found that all of those wonderful professionals were quietly tolerant of my enthusiasm, ignorance, and eccentricities.
Talk us through your creative process.
Having a strong script was paramount. With my background as a lawyer and a poet I always start with words. Gradually, as I began to consult and work with brilliant professionals, I learned that it is essential to listen and trust the judgement of those who bring so much else to the art and the craft of filmmaking.
What would be your dream documentary subject?
I would like to make a film about the life of Robbie Burns, The Scottish poet, or the life and music of Hoagy Carmichael whose music I admire enormously.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Alive, I hope, and still sustained by my wonderful family and acute creative passions.
If any director could direct the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
I don’t know their name, but I was most impressed with the work of the director on The Lives of Others.
Do you believe it’s important for documentary filmmakers to tell stories that change the conversation on their topic? Why?
Definitely yes. Even the fact that some people just ask different questions is important. For me, my most memorable film experiences have always involved me in being unsettled, delighted, unnerved, and challenged, all at once.