Sam Dwyer Interview: The Accidental Archivist

The archive producer, acclaimed for her work on films such as The Stone Roses: Made of Stone and Marley, discusses her baptism of fire on live television, remembering thousands of images in her head, and gives her top tips for aspiring archivists. 

Published 30 May 2013

Words by Oli Goldman

Sam Dwyer’s career changed dramatically over the course of one weekend. While working at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, she happened to answer the phone. "It’s one of those cases of right place, right time. I was working in the bookshop on a Friday and someone who had previously worked there phoned up. She had left to go and work on This Morning with Richard and Judy for Granada Television. She said 'I’ll get a promotion tomorrow if I can find someone to do my job; will you do my job?'" The next day, Dwyer was trained in half an hour to be film researcher and librarian. The following Monday, she began working on live television.

Dwyer was part of a team whose job was to source footage of guests appearing on the show, which was used to illustrate their career. She remembers how they’d sometimes have less than two hours to find a clip and have it line fed up to Liverpool, where the show was based. "These days you can send it through WeTransfer or Quicktime. In those days a person would have to book a phone line and have it transferred in fifteen minute chunks. Someone in Southampton or London would put the tape in the machine and press play, and at our end we’d press record. It was a real baptism of fire."

Despite being thrown in at the deep end, Dwyer believes that the experience she gained working on the show gave her a great grounding for the rest of her career. "It was an incredible place to learn because it was all pre-digital," she remarks. "I feel I got in 2 ½ -3 years the equivalent of ten years’ experience." Working in a demanding environment also taught her to think quickly on her feet. "You learn early on that 'no' isn’t really 'no'. If you can’t find something or you can’t clear it, a way of going around that is to present a solution to it… You have to be very flexible and resourceful, and keep a really open mind about things."

After taking on a variety of roles within television – including work as an AP, a producer and a director – Dwyer’s first film opportunity came as the archive producer on Julien Temple’s documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007), "and I’ve never really looked back."

Dwyer breaks down the role of an archive producer into three main stages. The first is investigative research, which ranges from footage, stills and tracking down specific people. The second is clearance, and making sure that all the rights for the material have been legally obtained. The final stage is technical, the process of presenting the archive material in the best way possible for the finished film.

"You have to be very flexible and resourceful, and keep a really open mind about things."

Dwyer generally prefers to work in small teams, in order to have a close relationship with the director and editor. On Marley (2012) the team worked in two adjacent rooms, which she and director Kevin Macdonald would be in and out of all day. "On a big team you don’t often have a direct link to the director which I find less rewarding. I think that things sometimes fall through the gaps if you’re not working really closely with people."

Despite working on a number of high profile music documentaries, including George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) and Crossfire Hurricane (2012), it’s interesting to note that Dwyer doesn’t necessarily take on projects where she already knows a lot about the artist or group. "In many ways, not knowing a huge amount makes you approach it really forensically without any preconceived ideas. I wasn’t an expert on Bob Marley at all. You can come in with a completely fresh, almost academic approach and study it."

One of the major challenges that Dwyer faces is the explosion of material that is now available online. Although she believes that YouTube is a fantastic resource as a first point of contact, she also feels it can be real hindrance. "What I’m finding more and more is that I’m being approached to do a job very late in production and they’ll come to me and say 'we’ve found all the footage, we just need you to clear it'. What they mean is that they’ve gone on YouTube and found what they want to use."

This raises a number of issues for Dwyer. "From my point of view, if it’s on YouTube it’s already been seen, and I always want to find stuff that hadn’t been seen before. Also the masters often can’t be located and the footage isn’t of a good enough quality." It can also be much more costly for the production companies. "They may have found 16 clips on YouTube. What they haven’t thought about is that’s 16 different sources and you have to pay 16 different people. If they’d come to me at the beginning that problem could be bypassed. People don’t always factor in the clearance side of things and how complicated it can be."

"Not knowing a huge amount about a subject makes you approach it really forensically. You can come in with a completely fresh, almost academic approach and study it." 

Dwyer describes the end of a project as "a lot of information baggage to be carrying around with you." The amount of material an archive producer works with can be absolutely vast. For example, they sourced approximately 6,200 stills of Bob Marley to choose from (it helps that Dwyer has a very good memory!). People also tend to contact her with more footage once they’ve seen the finished film. "What always happens is that two months later someone will come to you and say '[I’ve seen the film], I’ve got this great footage, you should have contacted me'. You’re thinking 'If only I’d known about that!' But you have to resign yourself to the fact that that always happens and you can’t contact everyone in the world." She also states that it’s not always too late, as "things can pop up after the film is finished and end up as DVD extras."

One aspect of her work with Dwyer finds highly rewarding are the relationships she forms with the people she meets through research, not least because it may lead to previously neglected material. "You find that they often tell you a lot of personal stuff, and it’s only through those conversations that you kind of jog their memories." She recalls a particularly memorable example while working on the Joe Strummer documentary. "I’d found a man who’d gone to school with Joe and they’d known each other since they were ten years old. He said 'I haven’t really got anything to tell you'. Then two weeks later he phoned me up and said ‘I came across some rolls of film when we went on a scout trip. I don’t know what’s on here but you’re welcome to have a look’. I borrowed his home movie footage and there’s some great footage of Joe Strummer going camping with the scouts! Moments like that are just brilliant. They make the job worthwhile." 

5 tips for developing your career in documentary filmmaking

1. Try to find ways to avoid the established conventions of the genre (e.g. talking heads, reconstructions etc).  Many of the most effective documentary films of the last few years have used devices to tell the story in a different or unusual way.

2. Watch as much as you can and develop a critical eye to establish why some films are effective and some aren't.

3. If possible try to get experience in different aspects of production, so that you get a rounded picture of what the overall production of a film entails - it often leads to a greater understanding of how your own role fits into the structure.

4. If you are working on a project where you are conducting interviews you often find that you can do better research by meeting and talking to a person rather than via email which for a number of different reasons can lead to misinformation or a lack of detail. 

5. If you are starting out and looking for experience or work placements, do not be afraid to write 'fan letters' to filmmakers whose work you admire, explaining specifically why you like their work. One day it may be a case of 'right place, right time' and you get a great opportunity to learn from someone who is established in the industry.

5 tips for working with archive footage

1. Go to free resources like the BFI Mediatheque etc, where a huge variety of archive collections are available to view. 

2. Make a note of end credits which list the copyright sources for archive material.

3. Make a concerted effort to develop your visual memory both in viewing documentary work that contains archive material, and in watching films and programmes in general.

4. Keep up-to-date with available software that is useful to the job (FCP, QT, Snapz, Elgato etc), and familiarise yourself with formats past and present (from film and early video formats to the current raft of HD tape and file options).

5. Be aware of developments in copyright law and on-going legal cases where definitions and laws are being challenged - there are plenty of websites out there that can inform you about these.