Documentary maker unearths new approaches

When Randall Wood commissioned the music for his most recent documentary, he asked composer Brett Alpin to create a score that would suit a James Bond adventure.

A 007-type theme was a highly unusual choice considering the subject: the quest by some of the world’s top earthworm scientists to find rare species.

Wood will show his docu, The Worm Hunters, and explain his unconventional approach to filmmaking at the next session of the Australian Documentary Forum at AFTRS on August 14.

Produced by Gulliver Media and financed by National Geographic and the European networks ZDF and ARTE, the film won prizes at numerous festivals including Wildscreen, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, St Petersburg Science Film Festival in Russia, Greenscreen in Germany and the US’s International Wildlife Film Festival.

Ozdox’ Martha Ansara says Wood’s work “challenges the conventional, ‘respectable’ notions of documentary form,” with animated graphics, fast cutting, layered editing and multi-character stories.

Wood relishes that reputation, telling IF, “Who wouldn't want to challenge descriptions such as 'conventional' or 'respectable’? To make a film about earthworms and those who obsessively love them was always going to be a challenge.

"If worms had fur, big teeth and were aggressive predators of humans, the film would have been easy to pitch and make.  So how to make a film about slimy, unseen, unloved worms and the science of soil and imbue it with drama, humour and cinematic festival potential? For me it came down to one thing – character development.

"Studying feature writing and directing at Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam taught me to place character development at the core of a film. But rather than develop the worm film as an easy single character narrative I chose a multi-character structure after watching Michael Winterbottom's 1999 film Wonderland.

"Juggling multiple character stories is much harder in terms of structure but energises the narrative and allows for multi-faceted entry points to the exploration of theme. So I travelled to international earthworm taxonomy conferences in Romania, Poland, London and Turkey to cast a pose of obsessed worm scientists. These scientists and their journeys become core to the story and structure of The Worm Hunters."

He got the idea for the Bond-like score after interviewing a woman who fled Poland years ago after being interrogated by the Polish equivalent of the KGB and moved to South Africa, where she assembled one of the world’s largest collections of earthworms: roughly 50,000.

Unusually, the writer-director started out by asking Alpin to compose drafts of the score, to which he cut the film initially, before they got together for the final mix and cut.

Wood sees the project primarily as a “human story about how obsession can take over peoples’ lives.” On another level it’s about ecology, taxonomy and solving the Earth’s need to feed its citizens.

His film Rare Chicken Rescue, the story of rare chicken breeder Mark Tully’s mission to protect the endangered chickens to which he owes his life, was named best Australian short film at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival.

Wood’s The Curse of the Gothic Symphony (2011) followed 600 performers who came together to stage Havergal Brian's Symphony No. 1, a challenge that had eluded others for decades.

The Grammar of Happiness (2012), co-directed by Wood and Michael O'Neill, was the chronicle of former missionary Daniel Everett’s quest to translate the book of Mark into the tongue of the Pirah people in the Amazon.

Wood is now a documentary lecturer at AFTRS. He’s mulling several ideas for his next project, including the efforts of scientists to design the next generation of condoms, with the lure of a $100,000 prize from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.