The director of the critically-acclaimed documentary The Last Man on the Moon has spoken about his time as a student at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) and revealed what his next major project will be.
Mark Craig, who graduated from DMU with a BA (Hons) in Graphic Design in 1981, released his documentary last year to universal praise. It was selected for the UK’s biggest factual film event – Sheffield Docfest – as well as South by South West Film Festival, Austin, Texas.
Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan on the moon
It tells the story of 81-year-old Captain Gene Cernan who, as the title says, was the last of the dozen men to ever walk on the moon when he was commander of the Apollo 17 space mission back in December 1972.
Earlier this year, Mark returned to Leicester to show his documentary to DMU students and staff, in association with the Alumni Department, and held a Q&A.
Now he has taken time out from his latest project to answer questions about his work, his time at DMU and offer advice to aspiring film makers.
Mark Craig at the Phoenix Leicester for his alumni event screening
How did your time at DMU help you achieve your goals?
"I had no big aspirations to become a film-maker whilst a student at DMU / Leicester Polytechnic, and was primarily focused on getting some kind of a job as a graphic designer. But there were several creative modules that were part of the course, such as advertising, animation, film studies, photography and so on that laid the foundations for what was to come later. Then in year two a visiting TV industry practitioner gave a guest lecture and really inspired me through his TV graphics work, and that set me on a course for a career in television."
What was your favourite part of studying at DMU?
"In year two we 'specialised' in our chosen area (in my case 'Audio Visual' as it was called then) and I began to really enjoy working with various aspects of photography and graphic animation. It was still graphic design, but it moved, and had sound. That made it all extra interesting to me. Plus the fact by then I'd had a year to settle in, so I was enjoying student life in general, a few extra-curricular activities, and Leicester itself."
How did you feel when The Last Man on the Moon was first shown and what was your reaction to the critical acclaim it received?
"I was proud and relived when it first got selected for the UK's biggest factual film event (Sheffield Docfest) and also at a number of other festivals such as SxSW in Austin Texas.
"I really enjoyed doing the Q&A sessions with the man himself, Gene Cernan. That was the best bit, working with a historical figure and seeing the impact of the film on the faces of people in the audience. They seemed to be really moved by his story, and the way I'd told it, which was very gratifying after such a very long journey in trying to get the film off the ground. I'd had numerous docs shown on TV, but you don't get to see or meet the audience.
"Yes, there was some critical acclaim, and the film has picked up a few awards, and that's all great, but quite frankly when you're working with historical figures who have actually been to the moon as well as others who helped get them there, you have a clearer perspective of your own achievements! Thousands of people have made films. I still look at the film and see how I could have made certain things a little better. But at the end of the day, you eventually run out of time and money or energy and you have to live with what you've got. I know I gave The Last Man on the Moon my very best shot and I'm happy with the end result. But that's done and dusted now and I'm keen to move on..."
Cernan and Craig during the filming of Last Man on the Moon
So what are you working on at the moment and why?
"I'm currently making another feature documentary about legendary Cuban Olympic athlete Alberto Juantorena - a story which involves a complex mix of sport, politics, money, poverty, overcoming obstacles and dealing with uncertainty... and all working in a language I don't speak.
"It's a real challenge for a one-time graphic designer like me! Why am I doing it? Because the subject of the film and Cuba itself are fascinating to me at this point in time and, once again, I'm hooked. I can't help myself. I'm a doc-a-holic. Independent, non-English language doc projects are harder to fund so it'll be a journey and a half for me. But knowing the man and the story as I do, I feel strongly it could be a great little film given half a chance, so I'm pursuing it like a dog with a bone. I'm also brewing another space-related project for 2017, and another personal perspective story after that.
"In between these bigger projects I need to keep working, so that may include any short-turnover engagements that turn up, as well as some guest lecturing spots at various universities and colleges. You certainly have to juggle a few balls as a director / producer. But if I didn't love it all I wouldn't do it."
Cernan's official Apollo 17 mission photograph
Do you have any advice for DMU students wanting to enter the world of documentaries based on your experiences?
"It's a big subject area to be honest and takes time to understand, but the best place to start is to watch as wide a range of TV and Feature docs as possible.
"Start identifying the stories and sub-genres within the world of documentary that interest you most and find out the individuals and production companies that made them.
"They are the people you want to be working with. Go to the Sheffield Docfest in June and attend the numerous workshops and panel sessions. Get among doc people. Talk docs and films and storytelling for the screen. Go out and shoot and edit home movies or music promos on whatever camera and kit you can get your hands on, as you can learn a lot from these short form, low budget projects.
"You gradually start to learn what works on screen, and what audiences like, while at the same time shaping your own voice. If you're more into the camera, sound, editing or technical side rather than production, then there are various courses long and short you can do.
"But nothing teaches you better than being in the game, so a work placement at a production company is really valuable, even for a week. Get three or four of these on your CV and you'll start to look and sound like a serious contender. You might be making a few cups of tea and running errands along the way (as I did in the first year after leaving DMU) but sooner or later if you keep your eyes and ears open you'll get a break..."
Anything else you would like to add?
"A public health warning! The TV and film industry is full of talented, opinionated and passionate people operating under pressure in a wide range of disciplines, and lots of people want to get into it. You can't afford to be timid. Don't be afraid to be proactive and start knocking on doors. Jobs are often not always advertised so you need to get in the game by your own initiative. You may well find (as I did) that the job you first wanted to do is only a gateway to another one within the industry that you discover later on. It's a world of deadlines, budget limitations, and people focussing on their own agendas. The hours can often be long, and it can compromise your social and familiar life. You can find yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. It's not for everyone, but it's full of opportunities and great experiences. So if you have some drive, some raw talent and some good creative ideas, or even already know someone in the business, then you probably already know in your heart the general direction you're headed in. Enjoy the ride, not just the destination!"
Posted on Wednesday 3rd August 2016