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Documentary Filmmaking Through the Eyes of Louis Myles

February 03, 2020
  • 2,500
  • 15 min

Every amateur filmmaker dreams to see his or her film going on screen all across the world, getting the best reviews and earning prestigious awards. Naturally, learning from some of those who have already gone up that ladder can give you some ideas on where to start. For this occasion, we’ve taken our chance to speak to Louis Myles, a British director and producer with an impressive professional track record whom we’d love to learn from. 

Over the course of his career, Louis has worked in different forms of media including live TV programming, various commercial projects, documentary projects, and feature films. “I specialise in beautiful aesthetics and brilliant storytelling,” – that’s how he describes his work. And indeed Louis Myles knows something about storytelling.

His first feature film, “Kaiser! The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football” has been nominated for numerous awards while receiving a high amount of recognition from world-famous media outlets such as “The Guardian”, “The Telegraph” and many more. The documentary tells the story of a Brazilian football player Carlos Kaiser. As you can tell from the name of the film, the character never actually played the game. Still, he managed to shift between the most prestigious Brazilian football clubs, live the life of a sports superstar and get away with it for 26 years. How on Earth did he do that? While you can find out the answer by watching the movie on Amazon Prime, take a look at the trailer below to get a glimpse of this extraordinary story with a truly dramatic ending. Read on to find out what it takes to make a film like that and how to start on such a project on your own. 

In the final scene you got the character literally breaking in front of the camera – did you plan this somehow, or did it just happen?

Kaiser was a crazy film because how we filmed it is how it comes out on the screen.The story of this character is amazing, right? It’s almost like “Catch me if you can”, but that guy just forged some checks and put on a doctor’s coat, and he only did that for a couple of years. What Kaiser did has never been done by anyone on that scale. And he did not play, he could not play, but he actually went to football clubs, stayed there and had some of the most famous people of Brazilian football backing him up. So when we started filming him, obviously he wanted to give us his side of the story – that he was actually quite good, which couldn’t possibly be true. So over the course of those 18 months we were trying to find out some resemblance of the truth. Did he actually go to all those places? What was he actually doing there? We did 72 interviews for the film. Eventually we discovered that he’s never been to France and so he never played in “Ajaccio”. And he took it really bad and had that massive breakdown. I think he’d never been challenged before, he managed to get away with telling lies. And eventually he got found out. The interview lasted three hours, and eventually we managed to convince him that it’s something worth having on screen. So what we did have in the end is all those stories to build up, and a truly Shakespearean end point – because it is like a Shakesperean tragedy. This guy has built his life out of lies and exploiting other people, and eventually it kinda comes back to hurt him. 

That dramatic moment when he takes off his glasses in the end… Was it staged?

No, that wasn’t staged. Basically, there were two things that Kaiser had never really done. First of all, you’d never see a photo of him made recently without sunglasses. He’s got really bad eyesight on one eye, and I think that really hurts him. Because if you look at his early photos and videos, he was a very good-looking man. Also he would never allow us into his flat. We would always have to film outside our take him somewhere amazing. So that is his flat, in town, in Flamengo, a sad and lonely place – a complete opposite of what he was trying to portrait to us. He never earned money out of being a footballer, what he earned was an amazing lifestyle for a very long period of his life. But obviously that doesn’t necessarily buy you nice big mansions or big beach penthouse and all the rest of it. 

How do you make people feel comfortable and be so discrete with you? Does your drama degree somehow help you adjust to them?

Good question. I’d found my way into creative filmmaking when I became a producer at BBC in 2010, but before then I didn’t quite know what to do with my life. I did a drama degree and I had done some work in journalism – asking questions and all the rest of it. I had quite a varied career path. I haven’t had a clear strategy, I’ve always done different things just making my way into different situations. When I was growing up I went to state school, and I stayed in a private school for four years as well. And my dad worked at building sites, he ran big projects there, and I worked as a labourer there. I’ve always been exposed to different parts of society, and you just try to fit in. When you have to spend time somewhere, it’s better to make friends. So I think that helped a lot. I always think that personal stories are most important. People have motivations to do things, they don’t just occur. You have to get to know them, to find out their story, and you have to get them to trust you. They have to know that you’re not going to unfairly represent them. You can make people look very bad or make them look amazing. In the case of Kaiser, I think I intentionally left it so that people can make up their own mind about him. Actually I think his story has probably been improved as a result. He could have become a drug lord or a criminal – Rio is an incredibly expensive place, and if you’re not earning lots of money, you really can’t do the things that many people can do. Kaiser’s lived an amazing life – a very different one. 

Did you try to plan the script in advance, and is that something you’d advise doing? Or do you just go and start filming and take it from there?

The best things happen on camera. You know it’s a really odd process, those documentaries. First you pitch for them, and it’s always nice to get a commission as opposed to having to raise money. But in both cases you need to justify why you need this film to be made. When you raise money, that’s people’s money, they want it back at some point. So you have to convince them what they get out of doing it. A lot of broadcasters want you to have a plan, too, because they want to know what they’re getting into before they commission it. So you gotta have a plan for sure, but it very much depends on the documentary. If we’re talking about films that are describing something in the past – take the documentaries about Senna or Maradona – it’s good that you can script those, because you can get a sense of people’s lives. But I think you also need to have things happen on camera. So in short – you have to draft a plan, but you also have to let things happen organically, because the best stuff is real life. 

How many people are needed to make a good quality documentary?

The short answer is one. But that one person would therefore need to do all the filming, to do sound work, and then edit it, and then all the rest of it. If you want your film to look amazing of course you would need more than one person. So one is a short answer, but it is not really correct., you really need more. You need people who shoot it with you, who set it all up, you might need the sound recorders, a cameraman, a lighting designer, a producer, perhaps an assistant to handle all the paperwork… So I think, well, if you’re just starting out, you can absolutely do it with one, but that’s always about how you tell a story. So if you’ve got talent and you can do it…You better off go and make something rather than waiting for an opportunity to make it. The more you do it, the better it becomes. 

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How much does post-production process usually take? Do you sit with the editors 24/7 during the editing process?

Well it largely depends on budget. Kaiser took about 6 months, and that’s reasonable for a feature. You always benefit from longer. I know that “Maradona” was in the edit for a lot longer – maybe for a year or more. Because you need to get every minute right. Generally it’s better to have editors, and they have to be very talented. Editing is a real skill, because it’s interpreting what people want with what’s available and how you construct the story with that. I’ve done a lot of the editing by myself, but it’s always got better when someone else is with you. Sometimes it is quite as easy as “I need to get from A to B to C, and by 10 minutes we need to be here and include this and this”. And then sometimes you need to be almost second-accurate with how you’re doing it. I think when you’re in that relationship in the edit suite it depends on the day. Steve, who’s cut Kaiser – some days he’d have moments of genius and he’d put some bits together and you’d look at it and say, that’s genius, I love it. And other days I do the same. And then there are some days when Steve wouldn’t know how build something up and I’d come in and step in, and then we’d move it on. And that’s how this relationship works well. But you can do this all as one as well – there are a lot of jobs that you can do as one, and I often just do it myself. 

What qualities or skills you need to become a good director?

I think you need to have your own vision and you need to be passionate about what you do and how you tell your stories. You really need to be a people person, because if you’re doing documentary, it’s all about getting people to tell their life story. You also have to be able to think really far ahead, because you have to know instantly how it’s gonna fit in the edit. You might be doing an interview four months before you sit down to cut the film. 

You need to do So you need to do all the research, and you sometimes have to get it out from someone who might not want to tell you the truth. And its a similar thing to drama when you’re working with actors – you have to get them to do their job. You have to make them understand what you want but also react to what they suggest, because their idea might be better. You have to be really collaborative to make something work.

Say, I have an idea and I want to do my own project, where do I start?

You really have to think whether it’s worth it, what is the real story here, or what you want your film to say. If you have access to a kit, there’s nothing wrong with just going out and trying to start it all yourself – if you can shoot or have some friends who can do it, it’s a great opportunity to just go and do it and learn some new skills. And just go and start something. The beautiful thing about documentary is that it’s generally real life. And that will always affect what happens in your story. Like, let me give you an example – right now I’m working with a guy who made a film about his best friend he grew up with. He had a double fracture on his skull, went through two major brain operations and was in a coma for a while. And the guy who filmed it wanted to tell the story of the massive change that happened overnight to this guy. And it’s done really well, because it’s a very sensitive story. It doesn’t necessarily affect large groups of people, but it’s something we can all attach ourselves to. So look at the story, think if it has any connotations for the society you live in, the world society, or is it something really unbelievable, or did it change the world, or was it something amazing that happens? If it’s none of those things, is that something really personal that people can relate to? That an audience would get into? You can make a story out of most things, that’s the beauty of real life. And someone somewhere will always react to it, because people always have shared experiences. 

Do you think longer-form documentaries and formats in general are still relevant, or are we coming to an era of short videos? Which are easier to make?

I think there’s a big explosion in short forms, particularly in the commercial sector, and I think it’s a really good thing. Everyone has a phone these days, and it’s easier to watch shorter clips on it. Does that make long form less relevant? No, I don’t think so. There are probably less opportunities for long form to thrive. Partly because the main streaming platforms, Amazon and Netflix, are generally looking for repeatable programming – more like mini-series maybe. I do slightly worry for stories that deserve to be told in longer forms but won’t get necessarily commissioned because they don’t fit the format. But they’re still gonna get made and people would still want to make them. In terms of what’s more difficult to make, a lot more stories are more achievable in short forms for all sorts of reasons – budgets. time, etc. At the same time a story might be so intense that you desperately need longer. Like now I just finished that apartheid film and it’s one that we could have probably done in three films I guess. Just because the amount of the stuff that kept on happening and the context. At the same time I’m very glad the time and the budget to do it at the time that we did.. But short form is great because it obviously democratises the market. Which means more people can do it, right?

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