On a sunny, autumnal morning, Artefact met with Sam Wilkinson, a south-London based documentary filmmaker. He is known for his extensive work with Reggie Yates, and with over 17 years of experience and successful TV work, Sam has much to tell about his journey so far – as well as where he’s heading.“I was born down the road, in Greenwich. My parents had a charity, like, all my life. It was for young and underprivileged kids from Lewisham. When I came back to London, I ended up with a girl who was living not far from where we are. I didn’t really like it here to be fair, it was just edgy. No-one was moving over here, everyone was in East London, but as the years have gone by everyone decided that house prices in East London are too expensive. Peckham became cool, and then Camberwell became cool, and then New Cross, and then Brockley. Well, it is cool – Reggie lives in Brockley, he just bought a house. It’s a small community of TV people that live in Brockley.”
Do you ever get tired of London?
“You can’t get tired of London with my job. I’m out of London so much that when I’m back I’m like ‘Whoaa, I Love it’ and then I go ‘Byeee’ and I’m off again.”
How did you get into documentaries?
“I started in 2002. I graduated with a business degree, which I was bored of, to be fair. I came to London hoping to get into the advertising industry. 9/11 meant there was a complete advertising freeze, they weren’t employing any kind of work experience, or interns, or whatever.”
Was it 9/11 that affected your career?
“I guess so, if it wasn’t I’d probably be working in advertising and getting paid a lot more but… yeah, quite possibly. I was just cramming around, doing bits and pieces, filler jobs, bar jobs. I really didn’t want to work in TV. I was playing football with my cousin’s friends who worked in TV and they were like ‘Mate, you should work in TV, it’s so much fun’, and I was like ‘Really?’ It sounds like a fucking silly job to be fair.”
Can unpaid work experience be good for you?
“Yeah. I mean, it’s tricky. I was sleeping on my cousin’s couch, they paid me 50 quid a week, it was expenses work experience. And that’s a bummer, they shouldn’t really do that. I took out a graduate loan when I first came to London, so I had a bit of cash in my pocket. I guess I was in a privileged position to be able to do work. I would say, if you can afford it, and not everyone can, then do it.”
What’s the next big thing in your schedule?
“I don’t know if I can say that, but I’m doing -” (A survival show shot on an island – Ed.)Is it only participants going through the survival exercise, or do you have to…?
“It’s really, really strict as well. As cameramen, and directors, we don’t get any food, you have to kill your own food. They strip search you before you go, and they check every single thing, so you can’t take anything on with you. They don’t give you any kind of preferential treatment, at all. If you’re starving, you’re starving, that’s it, that’s part of the story.”
“So I can break the routine. Cause the TV world I so, kind of, like… I went in for an interview the other day, it was for a job that I could do standing on my head. They were like, ‘Oh, I’m just looking at your CV. You haven’t done anything other than Reggie documentaries recently. Why is that? Cause I enjoy them’, and they were like ‘Oh yeah, we don’t think you suit us’ I was like ‘I was doing this, like, six years ago, this kind of TV show’. So, I’m doing the new show just to kind of break away from ‘Oh, Sam & Reggie, Sam & Reggie, Sam & Reggie’.”
How did you two meet?
“In the slums, in Kenya. Yeah. In fact, if you read his book, there’s a whole chapter. I’m in most of his book.”
Did he consult you on the book?“He sent me a video note: ‘By the way, this is the introduction,’ and it was about me and Reggie going off on a shoot, and he talks about my white pastry legs- which I disagree with. I turned up wearing a pair of shorts, and white pasty legs, I didn’t… I had a very good tan. Oh, fuck no, I didn’t.
“It was 2010, I did the, what was it called, Famous, Rich & In the Slums. I did the Famous, Rich & Jobless too – that was with Meg Mathews (Liam Gallagher’s ex-spouse). That was when I guess my career started going in the direction I wanted to, doing stuff like that I really wanted to do. When you’re young and you’re in the TV crew, unless you’re super lucky, you’ll go ‘I was offered a job, I’m going to take it’.
“I was relatively young in terms of making my own films. The first series we did in South Africa, Reggie was raw, we’ve both were kind of learning. He wasn’t arrogant, I won’t say that. He was confident in his ability. He’s got a character obviously, otherwise, he wouldn’t be doing it. He knew what he was doing so my job was to clean it, making “Psst!”. I think he and I have different stories about how he developed. Reggie’s polished version is that he learned on the job. I mean, we had loads of debates along the way. Like ‘Reggie, you just can’t say that’.
“He came from Live. Live is basically, you go in. Three questions you need to ask. The producer goes ‘I need to get that point, that point, that point’. He would go in and do it, and then go ‘Are we done? Have we got it?’.
“I’d be like ‘Nah. Those are three points I want you to get, but not just ask those questions. I want you to kind of get the actual true essence of what those questions mean, bring out their character. And kind of fucking really make friends with those people’.”
He does it pretty well.
Sam laughs. “He does now. Reggie’s fucking likeable at the end of the day. He has a charm, he has that kind of smiley face. If you don’t like Reggie then you don’t like people I think.
“I’d say we’re very similar in the way we think about things, we have a very similar outlook on life. It means that you’re working in tandem. And it’s much, much easier. I have confidence that he’s gonna deliver and he has a confidence I’m gonna cover it well and make it look nice.”
Is it all scripted?
“The best thing about TV is that it’s not a script, so along that journey you may get an opportunity to veer off and get something amazing. I find it essential to keep your eyes and ears open. If you’re on an amazing, kind of, path and you go ‘Woah, that’s actually way more interesting’, and you have the gut to actually follow that story, you can see where that will steer the narrative at. Then you can take your storytelling to another level. There will be a better story than the one you planned.”
Do you detach yourself emotionally from the subject?
“You really can’t.”
You’ve shared your life with the people on The Insider.“Oh yeah man, totally. That’s the difference between the Extreme and The Insider. The Extreme would be go in, film a scene, go off, have a lunch, maybe come back, meet, and go home to sleep, stay in your hotel.
“The Insider is, you live, sleep, eat it. You rarely break from that. So, when we go to bed, we go to bed. And up till that point, we were filming all day. We go sit down with them, then eat and I film it, so I may not eat until I’ve finished, and I’ll eat what they’re eating. You sleep where they’re sleeping. You get a full understanding of where they come from, their background, their troubles, their thoughts. This is embedded, immersive.
“There is an element of Reggie, where he won’t embed himself emotionally. He’d have no recovery time. He has a therapist, which he sees quite often, after the shoot. And he doesn’t keep in contact with those people, where I have.
“I love the immersiveness of documentaries, and kind of grittiness, the accomplishment of getting through these kinds of hardcore situations, meeting these people, getting their stories told, I love all of that. But if you do that for too long, then you kind of get burnt out, It does take its toll. You do comedy just for laugh. You can go ‘Let’s just have some fun with this’, this is a different kind of enjoyment, it’s one that actually lives.”
What happens when someone with a machete or a huge knife asks you for a picture?
Do you still get nervous before the shoot?
“If I’m going into prison, or if I’m going to Iraq, if I’m going into a slum where there’s going to be a reaction, and there’s gonna be people pissed off, initially there are nerves. It’s kind of like ‘Oh god, here we go, breathing in, let’s go’. Assuming you’re in that situation, all you’re thinking about is the film. If the scene is dull then you’ve not really got a scene, so you want people to get angry, you want people to be pissed off. If they’re pissed off at me, as long as it’s not detracting from the story then I don’t mind. You’ve got to suck it up.
“I guess the scariest was going into a jail because you’ve got no idea what to expect. They wouldn’t let us meet anyone before we went in, we had a rough idea what the topic was about – mental health in a prison system. We weren’t allowed to meet any characters. It could be me and people who instantly dislike me, so that was kind of scary. But when you go in, you want to be scared because you want to see this confrontational, interesting stuff on camera. If you’re not scared then the viewer is not scared, or the viewer is not engaged.”
What’s your favourite country out of those visited?
“I love Peru, Peru is brilliant, and amazing, and cool. I love Iraq. Iraq is great. But that means going into the war-zone. We were in Kurdistan, we weren’t allowed anywhere near Mosul, we had to, like, drive around it. It was beautiful, and the people were amazing. I mean, that was most surprisingly cool cause you always see how people’s perceptions are a little bit off. It blew my mind how friendly everyone was, how beautiful the scenery was.”
What about the visual language then?
“Starting with the Extreme series, I didn’t want it to look too polished. You want to feel that you’re in the moment. We were in among, kind of, the dodgiest situations, and you don’t want it to look like a glossy film. Certainly, some of Reggie’s latest stuff, the one they did in Chicago looks like an advert for a fucking milk tray or whatever. I mean it is good, but it kind of detracts from the story. Like, if it’s too pretty, all you do is “oh that’s a great shot, that’s a great shot, that’s really well framed”. It doesn’t feel like you’re actually there.”
How do you edit afterwards?
“All you do is listen to the sync. The key is the sync, which tells the story. You start moving scenes around, as long as it doesn’t affect the story, I mean, um, how much detail can we go into. Within reason, they allow moving the scenes around.
“In the episode of the Australia film that I didn’t edit or have anything to do with, they edited the scenes out of sequence. They put in one party where the Aboriginal people were drinking just after a wake. And it was really bad. The story behind it is that the director on location quit because he had a really bad time, he paralysed his arm because he was wearing a thin sack with loads of batteries in it. He didn’t get on with Reggie, kind of, Reggie needs to feel confident that you’ve got an ability to lead.”
So, does it always go smoothly when you’re on the location?
“One time, well, that was tricky. We went into a boring prison, basically. I flagged it the second I arrived in the prison and I just said I don’t think it’s gonna work in here. As we filmed, people were like ‘oh yeah, it’s great”, and what we felt between me and Reggie was ‘it’s alright. It’s not brilliant’.What about Mexico?
“In Mexico, they were trying to limit us. We told them that we wanted to do a story about the Mexican army going into Acapulco, they had to take over from the police because of what was going on with the cartel’s activity. They were like ‘yeah, yeah, that’s fine’. When you’re filming with a big, big military organisation, the armed military, they wanna know what you’re gonna film, when, how long that’s gonna take, how long will you be filming. It’s restricting, and it’s not the way we normally make TV.
“Their lawyers in Mexico City were talking to the BBC’s lawyers, with the production team in the middle. And I’m going ‘Any news?’ ‘No.’ ‘Hold fire, we can’t start.’ They were giving us nothing, we still approached them the same way, but they were going ‘No, no, no. It’s already nice’ when we know for a fact that there’s naughty stuff going on. It was a long process of going back and forth, back and forth.
“They wouldn’t sign the contract’s agreement because they wanted editorial control, they wouldn’t allow us to talk about cartel activity, like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We can’t do that’. We had to delay the shoot by a whole day for the BBC lawyers to tell them to go fuck themselves. We are the BBC and we’re not allowed to be dictated to on how we report.”
Did you have to wear uniforms as well?
“There was a debate about that, but we ended up not, no. I mean, it was dodgy. Whenever we left the barracks, we had our own security. They were paranoid as fuck, they actually had someone spying on us and listening to us.”
Do you ever shoot on a short notice?
“If somebody called me today and said, ‘Oh, we need you to go on the shoot’, I tell them I can’t, I’m sorry, I’ve got another job in a week so. I was in the USA, in Georgia when this hurricane was coming through, and if it had gone crazy in Georgia then I was prepared to call the BBC and go ‘All right’. In fact, my friend works for the military defence and he had access to the naval boats which were around the Barbuda, and so he was like ‘If you can get a channel interested we can give you access to these’, so I was prepared to do that.”
How have drones changed your work?
“My work? It means I don’t need someone else to do it. It means you’re freer to use it. I can get some amazing shots, which I would not necessarily be able to get before. You’d have to plan it and pay a lot of money, three or four thousand pounds for it. I can just chuck that up in the air and go for it.”
What is your dream camera?
“The [Sony] Fs7, at the moment. What you want is something relatively light, sturdy as hell, relatively waterproof, with a good sensor, and lens-compatible. It shoots 4K, but I don’t mind 4K, I’m not shooting 4K. The first one I’ve shot in 4K was last week, and that was for a documentary that is coming out in 2021.
“I decided three years ago to buy a Sony FS7 because the company that was making Extreme just kept sending us with Sony PMW 200, and I hated that camera. The most commonly used camera for like three years running was the Canon C300. It’s not really a camera, it’s one of those with an eyepiece. Anyway, I was about to order one, I just wanted my own kit, but my friend’s like ‘No, no, no, no! Wait, wait, wait, wait. Sony is bringing out a camera which is gonna blow away the C300. It’s out in like five months’. I’ve put myself on a waiting list, and I’ve got the 50th, my camera is number 50 in the UK. When I worked with it, everyone was like ‘What’s Fs7?’ but now it’s the most popularly used one.
“Production managers don’t know much about the actual camera side of it, they just go for simplicity. And the simplicity is that everyone’s using the same camera.”
Saves money, saves time?
“And that’s where there’s a bulk of an answer. The budget has strong, strong shrunk over the years, I’m now doing four jobs, a producer, a director, a cameraman, a soundman, quite often the runner, too. Shooting time is getting shorter and shorter, you used to get like four weeks to do the prepping and 10 days to do the filming. Now, it’s like two weeks for prep and it’s not enough.”
Any solid advice?
“You have to think on your feet, be resourceful. It’s one of the misconceptions that people working in TV have to have a media degree. When I was still quite young in the TV terms, I was speaking to somebody who was very experienced, and he worked on The Big Breakfast. He used to get sent thousands of CV’s ‘Media degree – no, media degree – no. Oh, That’s kind of interesting, a History of Arts degree or Economics’. Certainly, there was an idea that media degree was just… easy?”
Featured image by Kinga Dulka