Nick Broomfield on making his most personal film yet: “I felt incredibly insecure about it”

The legendary documentary filmmaker discusses his most recent film, which explores his relationship with his father – industrial photographer Maurice Broomfield.

Nick Broomfield (GETTY)

Since he first started making documentaries in the 1970s, Nick Broomfield has covered some incredibly daring topics. In the early ’90s he spent time with South African neo-Nazis during the final days of Apartheid, while he interviewed notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos on several occasions for two separate films in 1992 and 2003. He’s also made acclaimed documentaries about subjects as diverse as Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, Sarah Palin, and the Haditha Killings during the Iraq War. 

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There’s one subject, though, that Broomfield has always been too scared to cover – until now, that is. His latest film, My Father and Me, is by far his most personal work to date, chronicling his own relationship with his dad, Britain’s pre-eminent industrial photographer Maurice Broomfield, and explaining how they came to value each other’s work over many years. A documentary like this one had been a long time coming for Nick, and he admits he’d always had doubts about making something so personal.

“I felt incredibly insecure about it to be honest,” he tells RadioTimes.com from his home in Los Angeles. “Because I had no way of judging it, whether it was going to mean anything to anyone else.

“I’ve always admired people who have managed to do things about their families, but I thought it might be indulgent. And I think you worry about doing something that is so personal you might rake up something that is really difficult to deal with.”

It was the Victoria and Albert that eventually persuaded Nick the time was right to make the film. The museum had told him they were planning an exhibition based on Maurice’s work – which will eventually open this November after several pandemic-related delays – and Nick reckoned a film would make for a nice tie in, especially given the wealth of material he had sitting around. “We’re like a bunch of pack rats,” he explains. “We’ve got film and photographs and stuff going back ages and ages, so I just thought it was an opportunity to try and do something that I was frankly a bit frightened of doing but I thought would be interesting to do.”

And so Nick set out to properly familiarise himself with his father’s work, while also searching the vaults for old family videos – some of which he had to rescue from a state of disarray.

“It was all a bit of a mess,” he recalls. “My father had bought this old water mill in Sussex which was completely run down and most of his stuff was all in there, so we spent ages sorting through a mixture of rat and mouse turds just seeing what we really had.”

Some of the footage unearthed for the film was stuff Nick hadn’t seen since his own childhood – and in some cases that he had no recollection of having seen at all. He remembers when his father used to make a big performance of showing home movies with his enormous projector – but he often struggled to get it to work, meaning some of the footage had never been properly seen since it was shot. He says the process of digging through these personal archives was thoroughly rewarding, though, and he hopes the film will encourage others to do likewise.   

“You obviously have to create the time to do it, but it was very therapeutic because it brings back so many memories and so many things that you’ve forgotten about,” he says. “And you get a much more rounded picture of your family and the way things were and also how different the world was. It’s incredible looking back, just in my lifetime, just seeing what an incredibly different world it was.”

Born in Derbyshire in 1916, Maurice Broomfield would become one of the country’s most prominent post-war industrial photographers, winning several awards in the process. His signature style was characterised by a romantic view of industry, and his work came to represent an optimistic spirit that Nick says perfectly summed up his father’s own view of the world.

“I think what was great about my father was quite early on in life he just decided he was going to enjoy it to the max,” he says. “It was very much about the simple things in life that brought him pleasure.

“He just had that ability to celebrate things that were good and I hadn’t realised that to this extent until I started making the film and just saw all the various things that he was up to.”

Although Nick had a very happy childhood and came to develop a very strong relationship with Maurice in later life, he and his father didn’t always see eye to eye, especially when it came to each other’s work. Whereas Nick’s documentaries were always concerned with spontaneity and being in the moment, his father’s art form required a far more painstaking approach – with a single photograph often taking more than three or four hours to compose. Because of these extremely different styles, they didn’t always have kind words to say about each other’s works – and indeed Maurice was fiercely critical of some of Nick’s earlier films. What, then, would he have made of this work?

“Well, I tried to make something that I thought was fair and loving,” Nick says, before taking a long, thoughtful pause. “I think he would probably really like it,” he eventually adds. 

“I think it’s about understanding and coming to recognise each other for who we are, which I think is often really difficult for father and sons. It’s difficult for the father to realise that the son is not a model of who he is, or necessarily has the same attitudes or opinions, or indeed wants to lead the same kind of life that he does. And it’s only when there’s a kind of acceptance of each other, for who they are that you have a really good relationship.”

For Nick and his father, that acceptance did come, and in the final years of Maurice’s life the two became more close than ever – their relationship further strengthened by the arrival of Nick’s own son Barney. The film contains some great footage of the three generations clearly enjoying each other’s company, and Nick says these are some of his warmest memories. 

“I remember my father and his second wife Suzy had this ability to find something to celebrate every day,” he says. “Suzy had this enormous collection of liqueurs and you would have to try all the liqueurs out, by which time you were pretty much legless. I found myself in this ridiculous position where the people I got plastered with more than ever, more than anything, were with my father and Suzy and Barney.”

As well as including this great footage and showcasing some of Maurice’s stunning photography, the film also features snippets from several of Nick’s previous pieces, including Kurt and Courtney, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer – essentially serving as a nice overview of his own career. Nick says that revisiting his own films is not something he tends to do often, but he does think of them as interesting records of a particular time in his life. And there are some films he looks back on particularly fondly. 

“The Leader, His Driver I felt was a good political historical film as well as being a step forward in filmmaking terms,” he explains. “It was funny as well as being poignant, so I enjoyed that film. Then the Aileen film I didn’t enjoy terribly but I was very proud of it, and then films like Battle for Haditha. I think you’re probably proudest of the films where you’ve taken a risk, where you haven’t done that particular thing before and the risk works and maybe it opens your work out and emboldens you to try other things.”

With that in mind, My Father and Me seems like a film that Nick will be particularly proud of. And now that he’s made the step into more personal filmmaking, he says he’d like to make further documentaries in the same vein. 

“Making a film that is so personal is very rewarding and I would like to do more of that,” he says. “I’d like to do something about growing up in the ’60s I think.

“I think that would be quite personal as well as being about a very interesting historical time – in a way the Marianne and Leonard film was that as well and I very much enjoyed doing that, so maybe that’s what I would do next.”

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My Father and Me airs on BBC Two on Saturday 20th March at 9:45pm. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.