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Make Us Dream Steven Gerrard Documentary Sam Blair

Make Us Dream (2018): Steven Gerrard documentary filmmaker Sam Blair

When I came across Make Us Dream (2018), a documentary about footballer-turned-manager Steven Gerrard on Amazon Prime, I didn’t need to watch the trailer, nor check out its IMDb rating (a geeky habit, I admit) before committing to it. I hit Play. But – and it’s a big but – I had my reservations as soon as it had begun…

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I’m a Liverpool/England fan; given I am of a certain age (clinging onto my 30s at the time of typing), I’m also a huge Steven Gerrard fan. I read his autobiography a few years ago and felt I knew pretty much all there was to know about a true legend of the sport.

Was I about to waste the best part of two hours of my life watching another run-of-the-mill-albeit-nice-production-values sports documentary?

Sam Blair Director Make Us Dream
Director Sam Blair, Make Us Dream

Well, no, it turns out I was not. About halfway through, in fact, I felt compelled to visit the documentary’s IMDb page after all and check out who had made this brilliantly realised film.

One thing led to another, and UK-based director (and – shock! – Manchester United fan) Sam Blair took my gushing compliments and agreed to the following interview…

FF: Why documentary filmmaking?

SB: I grew up around filmmaking. My dad made films for TV, so I am afraid I am the classic nepotistic cliché.

It’s not necessarily that the red carpet was laid out for me, but I grew up with the sense that a creative endeavour like filmmaking was possible as a career, which is a huge advantage.

The irony is that my dad came from a working-class, northern, minority background, where being a filmmaker was never on the cards, but he was of the generation of filmmakers who found platforms making Play For Today’s for the BBC and so on.

Falling in love with filmmaking from an early age

Growing up, I was only ever really interested, or good at, creative pursuits, and was always messing around with cameras. But, despite my dad’s work, cinema still seemed to be a really specialised, elitist environment, and it was only when Premiere and desktop editing arrived that it really became accessible to me practically.

I made a little documentary about my grandparents and just fell in love with the process. Firstly, of looking outwards and framing the world, and then the magic of editing – the rhythm and poetry of it. It was just a wonderful way to express myself that I couldn’t find anywhere else, and the way it forced me to connect with the world, people, and lived experience, was something that I really needed.

FF: Looking back, do you think that your time at the NFTS was a necessary transformative experience for you, or do you think you would have made it to where you are now regardless? In other words: what did you learn there that made a tangible difference to your filmmaking career?

SB: Absolutely, it was transformative for me. Other people obviously ‘make it’ with no film school, but I needed that structure and to be in that environment to push me forward.

National Film & Television School: practical experience for filmmakers

The contradiction of learning to be a filmmaker is you can only really learn by being a filmmaker.

The NFTS is fundamentally practical, and you are pretty much forced to make film after film, each time challenging you in different ways. By the end, I had made a load of mistakes but had worked out a few fundamental things that I carried forward, and I had gone through the process of making a film a number of times so understood much more about the different stages and processes.

Collaborating was a big thing that came out of the NFTS. I had come to filmmaking by doing everything myself, and I was forced to work in a team and forced to try to express my ideas rather than just relying on instinct. Essentially you are learning a language and, in parallel, learning how you want to apply that language.

I now do work at the NFTS and love to be part of that process for other people.

FF: How did it come to pass that you were the director to helm the Make Us Dream (2018) documentary? Was it a case of being in the right place at the right time, a personal connection, or something else?

SB: Getting approached about films was the biggest change in my career and it came about because I had managed to make a feature doc called Personal Best that played in cinemas in 2012.

Making that feature was torture. The producer, Jessica Levick, and I managed to raise money via Adidas to make a short film for the 2012 Olympics, but instead somehow stretched it to make a feature, which I also edited.

From Diego Maradona to Steven Gerrard documentary

I didn’t know what I was doing in terms of going about making a feature, and it was a genuinely painful experience. But at the last minute, the BFI backed it and it got out there.

I wasn’t happy with the film and spent a lot of time giving myself a hard time about it, but then out of the blue I was asked by John Battsek at Passion Pictures to make a 30-for-30 for ESPN (Maradona ’86), so I must have done something right. After that, I started to get approached for films.

With Make Us Dream, I was called out of the blue for a meeting with James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin. I had met Paul before briefly about something else and I guess I was on a list of potential directors having already made a couple of films about sport.

Steven Gerrard Make Us Dream Documentary
Steven Gerrard sitting in the LA Galaxy changing rooms at the end of his playing career.

I was obviously incredibly keen to work with them, as like everyone else I loved Senna. But, I have to admit, my initial reaction when they told me about it wasn’t that positive (though I didn’t show it!), partly because I come from a family of Manchester United fans.

But I really clicked with the way they spoke about the film and was really intrigued by how they spoke about Gerrard himself. I then had another meeting with them and Asif Kapadia to talk it through again, before flying out to Los Angeles to meet Gerrard – at which point I really felt there was a good film to be made here.

Make Us Dream: a fresh take on the Steven Gerrard story

FF: Well, when I watched Make Us Dream, as a Liverpool supporter, I was surprised at how the documentary managed to provide different perspectives and a fresh take on Steven Gerrard’s story. I’ve read his autobiography and followed his career very closely. How do you feel you managed to achieve this?

SB: It’s great to hear you felt it gave a fresh take. My biggest fear was just regurgitating what was already out there or the film only speaking to fans of Gerrard and Liverpool.

Because I wasn’t a ‘fan’, I had never succumbed to either Gerrard’s story or Liverpool’s before. I came to it both fresh and in need to convince myself it was a story worth telling. Once I dug into it, I felt there was a classic, almost mythic, tale there, with really strong, universal themes, and that it could say something about the culture we live in, beyond football.

The particular pressures that he faced wouldn’t have existed if he had been born 10 years earlier, and that added layers to the film that took it beyond the classic Roy of the Rovers stuff.

We also worked really hard to create a subjective experience on the pitch. The way Gerrard spoke about the experience – and psychology – of playing the game was something I wanted to bring to life, and I guess that subjectivity gives it a unique perspective.

Steven Gerrard, Liverpool Legend and Villa Manager
Steven Gerrard: a Liverpool legend and Aston Villa’s manager

The challenge of sculpting a narrative and working with archive film

FF: What did you learn in the process of putting together Make Us Dream as a documentary filmmaker?

SB: I learned a lot about working with archive material. I had made an archive film before, but not a feature. It’s hard to quantify what that learning is – partly it is the process of sourcing material and the more mundane, but vital issues around licensing and the restrictions that can put on the film you want to make.

Partly it is the challenge of sculpting a narrative with a lot of, in this case, sports broadcast material that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cinematic storytelling. You can have all kinds of wondrous visions of how the film will look, but you are always wrestling with the limitations of the material you can get your hands on.

Interviewing Gerrard was also a learning process. He is someone who has faced a thousand interviewers and however much he was invested in the process of making the film, there is a lot of baggage that comes with sticking a microphone in his face. I think I earned a few more stripes going toe-to-toe with him.

My biggest mistake when leaving film school

FF: What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring documentary filmmakers that perhaps you wish you’d been given when you started out? Perhaps mistake(s) to avoid?

SB: The biggest mistake I made after I left film school was shutting myself away when I made my first films. You need to be open and you need guidance – or at least I did. The earlier you can face down the problems in your film, the better, but there is so much to deal with, and often so much stress and anxiety that I would put my head in the sand.

So, I would suggest trying to find mentors who you can refer to during the process and not be precious, but rather be open to constructive criticism and advice.

There is this myth of the omniscient director who makes everything happen when really I feel the most important skill is to listen and be open to suggestions. There is so much to learn about making films. It is a complex, multi-faceted process and you will always have strengths and weaknesses that you need to build on and develop. And you always keep learning.

Another simple way to help yourself is to make sure you screen your film as you work on the edit as much as possible, to a variety of audiences, however much you feel it is or isn’t working. Other eyes on the film will tell you so much about how it is working.

Make Us Dream Steven Gerrard Documentary
Make Us Dream (2018). Steven Gerrard Documentary.

FF: What does the future hold for you? What are you working on at the time of this interview (August/September 2021)?

SB: Well, firstly I simply hope to keep making films and helping other people make films, through editing and through my mentoring work at the NFTS and beyond. My ambition, ironically, is to make ‘smaller’, more personal, more idiosyncratic films, but for the time being, I will keep working in the realm of the beefier feature docs and series. I have been involved in developing a film that is set at the cutting edge of politics and technology – a film that would speak to the world we are living in now, which I feel is important for documentary makers now – but it is proving challenging to get off the ground. I am currently working on a couple of things that unfortunately I can’t talk about, but they are in the realm of sports again.

Credits

Headline/Intro/Artwork & Editor: Richard Williams
Stills provided by Sam Blair, Lorton Entertainment / Box to Box Films