How British film director Sophie
Robinson and Executive Producer,
Sunshine Studios turned one
young woman’s story of recovery
into a work of art
Pushing the boundaries of documentary film making, My Beautiful Broken Brain explores how the true power of the human spirit shows itself to us at the times we least expect it. With trademark touches of the film’s executive producer David Lynch’s oeuvres, the documentary has rightly earned its global critical acclaim.
Interview by Grace Banks
Sophie Robinson had only met fellow filmmaker Lotje Sodderland once before when Lotje called Sophie from a London hospital days after suffering a sudden brain haemorrhage. Sodderland had remembered her meeting with Sophie only a few months before, and from her hospital bed sketched out a picture of a horizon: she was trying to draw out the TV programme that she remembered Sophie had worked on, BBC 2’s Horizon documentary series. A filmmaker herself, Lotje had instinctively recorded the first moments after her haemorrhage on her iPhone 6, she wanted Sophie’s help to keep a record of what was happening to her as she was worried her memory was damaged and she still didn’t understand what was going on herself.
“My first thought was to make this as a documentary for a broadcaster such as BBC” says Sophie, who before Sunshine worked at the BBC for over a decade, “but at the stage that we were talking about what to do with it Lotje had just started having full time rehabilitation in a special unit at Hommerton Hospital and with Lotje we decided it was not the right time.” Instead, Sophie decided to tell Lotje’s story as an independent documentary, drawing out the elements of Lotje’s journey that millennials can relate to. “This isn’t just a story about a brain injury, everyone can identify with Lotje’s story – it’s essentially about that moment when your life changes completely.” Here, Sophie talks about bringing one young woman’s personal narrative to the forefront of culture, the merits of independent filmmaking and the enduring power of documentary film.
How did you meet Lotje?
I was making films for the BBC and major broadcasters – (at the time I was making a film about an adventurer on Everest) and Lotje was working at the advertising agency Mother. It was 10 days after she had experienced her brain haemorrhage that she reached out to me. She had started to film herself on her iPhone 6 because she wanted to make sense of it all.
So I went to see her the day she came out of hospital and we talked about how we might continue to film her story. The long and the short of it is that we filmed for over a year, me coming in and filming her every few weeks – hospital appointments, everything.
This is the first time you’d made an independent feature length documentary film; did you have to adjust your approach to production and editing?
I had made lots of documentaries for broadcasters before but I’d never made an independent feature length film and so I thought, well, let’s see. I thought it would be a new challenge and something fun to do and I’d never done it.
We raised the funds to make the film ourselves through a Kickstarter campaign and applying for film funds and then premiered it at IDFA Film Festival in Amsterdam. That’s where Netflix came in (they were at the first screening of it in Amsterdam) and were really great. They took the film on as a Netflix Original and put more money into the film so that we could get amazing VFX created which you can see in the film. They then relaunched the film at SXSW in Austin, Texas. It’s fantastic to have a platform behind you that believe so strongly in good filmmaking and the power of documentary.
Why was it so important to bring Lotje’s story into the mainstream?
Lotje’s story is about living your life, everything changing in the blink of an eye and then you having to renegotiate the rest of the life you thought you had along a different route. That feeling everyone has when they realise the future they thought they would have is going to have to take a different direction. We wanted everyone to be able to relate to her story so made it much more about having to start again halfway through your life, whether that be because of a stroke, a breakdown, a new job, a divorce etc. That was the impact we wanted the film to have, we wanted the audience to relate to it and think that if that happened to them, what would they do?
“Lotje’s story is about living your life and everything changing… That feeling everyone has when they realise the future they thought they would have is going to have to take a different direction.”
How did you come to work at Sunshine?
Kit and Al got in touch with me about their Chime For Change project with Gucci – they were looking to make a series of documentaries for it and so I came on board to executive produce them; it was at the very beginning when Sunshine has only just been founded. I was in the early stages of My Beautiful Broken Brain, they offered to come on board to help me with raising funds to finish the film and our working relationship developed from there. Four years later and I head the documentary division of Sunshine Studios where we make long form films both independently and with brands.
Sunshine invested in My Beautiful Broken Brain by investing in me. Their support meant I was able to edit the film and put it into film festivals. I was down in Brighton in an edit for fifteen weeks and during that process we talked about setting up a production company within Sunshine, rather than outsourcing. For me that was interesting, if I could make long form documentaries potentially with brands that was the future, that was the way forward. I wanted to see if we could bring my world and their world together – and so far it seems to be working.
If they can tap into the things a documentary does, which is all about access, truth and trust, with those three things, they’ll build trust and communication with their audience.
What does this film show brands that are looking to make documentaries or simply tell their story?
This film proves that we are all storytellers in different ways. I was at the BBC for eleven years, and what I’m doing here is similar to what I was doing there but for a different audience; telling stories. It proves that storytelling is a brilliant way of communicating with people and getting them to know and trust their brand.
How do you make a branded film that feels genuine?
- Follow the rules of documentary making.
- Give your audience access to your brand in a way that feels like they have never been given access before.
- Be truthful and transparent; if your audience know you and believe you they will follow you faithfully for a very long time.
- Tell your story in an entertaining way. Stories stay with people forever and if told in a good way will bring your audience back again and again.
Sophie Robinson is an award winning filmmaker and
Executive Producer, Sunshine Studios.