Briar March on directing Valerie Adams: More Than Gold

Posted Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

Briar March on directing Valerie Adams: More Than Gold

On the eve of her documentary feature's cinema release, we talked to director Briar March about making Valerie Adams: More Than Gold, and about directing a sporting superstar.  The 90-minute documentary is in NZ cinemas 20 October.
Produced by Leanne Pooley, edited by Margot Francis.

Click here to watch the trailer.

WIFT NZ: What sparked the idea for a documentary on Dame Valerie? Was it easy to get her to agree?

BM: Leanne Pooley invited me to come on board this project at the end of 2020. I was surprised that a film about one of Aotearoa's most decorated athletes had not already been made. There have been many films about athletes in Aotearoa, but almost all are about sportsmen! Dame Valerie is unquestionably one of New Zealand's most decorated sportspeople and arguably the greatest female shot putter in history. And so, even though a film on her was well overdue, the timing couldn't have been better. Dame Valerie was preparing for her very last Olympic Campaign in Tokyo - an Olympic fraught with complications and controversy and already delayed by a year. She is no longer at the peak of her career and is now the mother of two young children.  In some ways, these could have been reasons for Dame Valerie to not want to participate, but I think she really appreciates the power cinema has to inspire and empower people, and this is why I think she agreed to do it. 

WIFT NZ: What were some of the practical challenges involved in making it, and how did you overcome them?

BM: One challenge was the fact that we could not go to Tokyo due to Covid travel restrictions at the time. Covid also meant that we would not have access inside the Olympic village and stadium, making the point of traveling there somewhat pointless.  But we found a way around this by giving Dame Valerie a camera, and in many ways, this has resulted in more interesting footage. We also had to work with remote crews in many different countries in order to film interviews, but given the amazing developments in technology, this was not too impossible.

WIFT NZ: Tell us about the challenges of working with an elite sportsperson while they are competing at a top level competition?

BM: As you can imagine, if a radio mic is strapped around an athlete's waist or a lens flashes into their periphery vision, it can be incredibly off-putting, especially during a competition. Getting the best camera angle or clean sound was something we have to let go of in these moments. 

My cinematographer Mark (Lapwood) came up with a discrete way around this by communicating with me through his mobile phone. We would call each other up at the beginning of a shoot, and leave our phones on for the entire time we were shooting, talking quietly into the speaker part of the headphones. This meant we could keep our hands free, and it is a much less conspicuous way of working than using Walkie-Talkies. It also meant that I could stay right away from the action we were filming but still remain a voice in his ear (excuse the pun)! This definitely helped reduce the noise around Dame Valerie while she was training and competing.  Most definitely, knowing when to let go of perfection, when to keep filming, and when to stop completely, was probably the hardest part to navigate throughout the directing of this film. This is because it's about human relationships and trust, and that is something you have to follow intuitively as well as respectfully, and every time it is different.

WIFT NZ: Will the viewer get to see the more personal side of Dame Valerie and get more understanding of her as a person?

BM: Most definitely this film shows an authentic view of Dame Valerie the person as well as the athlete. She was incredibly open with us, and I am very grateful for her bravery and willingness to be so vulnerable on camera. She has gone to places few celebrity sports people are prepared to go, and I think she has done this because she can see the value her story has for others.

WIFT NZ: How much direct access did you get to her? Does she have a manager you had to go through?

BM: Throughout the entire production, we worked with Dame Valerie's manager, for every meeting, arrangement, shoot, etc. This could have appeared to be a hindrance but it was actually really effective and useful. Nicole Antonelli, Dame Valerie's manager, totally understood our vision for the film and supported it, and worked with us in the planning around our shoots. She also helped to streamline the information that Dame Valerie needed from us so that she could continue to focus on her Olympic campaign without feeling overwhelmed by the demands that came from being part of a documentary.

WIFT NZ: On competition days how close could you get with the camera ?

BM: When Dame Valerie was competing we had to stay in the areas only allocated for media, and this did mean we had limited angles to choose from. There were safety considerations to consider too, as you wouldn't want to be hit by a shot, it can be deadly! In these instances, we used longer lenses and locked-off cameras to get different angles. But the results we captured are surprisingly intimate. I think this is because throughout the film we have an understanding of how Dame Valerie is feeling, and it allows us to watch her competing with fresh eyes, knowing the challenges and sacrifices she has been through to get there.

WIFT NZ: How involved in the final cut was Dame Valerie?

BM: This is Dame Valerie's story, not mine, and so we have designed the documentary in a way that allows her to be the narrator and storyteller. However, she has also trusted us with her story, understanding the need to allow the space for us to craft the film into something universal and powerfully connecting. So the process has been collaborative, sharing aspects of the authorship, but not all.

Dame Valerie has seen a rough cut of the film and we have talked about our vision for the documentary throughout all stages of the filmmaking process. There are some aspects of the documentary however that could not have been made without her direct consultation, these include some of the animation scenes, which we wanted to make as authentic as possible.