Doug Turner wanted to tell stories. But after a decade of telling his own, he realized there were bigger fish to fry. This is the story of how he came to make The Wake – a documentary about a fisherman’s fight against industrial trawling on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
Growing up in a family of medics, Doug was the classic black sheep. Both his parents were doctors, and all his siblings went into science. Doug realized quite young, that he didn’t really fit in.
“I wanted to tell stories.” he says.
So at age 18, Doug did what many young Westerners do; he left his London home and flew to South East Asia in search of tales to tell.
“We’ve all seen The Beach. I wanted those experiences and adventures.”
Though he found some of both during his time in Thailand and Vietnam, Doug was plagued by growing dissatisfaction. He was seeking stories beyond the hedonism of full-moon parties and fishbowls with backpacker hordes. His travels were not providing him with the wealth of untold tales he had hoped for.
“I started to have this realization that I wasn’t doing anything particularly productive. It was not the journey that I wanted to go on at all.”
Moving Down Under
Saying farewell to Asia, Doug moved on to Australia. He picked up work on festival sites and in bars but ended up back on the well-worn gap-year highway he had hoped to exit by leaving Thailand. He found plenty of backpackers having good times, but none of the novel experiences he sought.
It was at this time Doug struck upon a new idea; he would walk a 1000km stretch of coastline from Melbourne to Adelaide – alone. It would take six weeks.
Pouring over Google satellite images, Doug spent months planning his route. It would guide him along a coastline of craggy cliffs, dune lands, tarmac, bush, scrub, and a lot of sand. Most of his path would not be part of any marked trail, giving Doug the sense he was finally doing something different. Crucially, the journey would provide him with a story never before told.
The Long Walk
By day, Doug plodded along, pushing a three-wheeled buggy containing his gear. By night he camped on the beach. Despite attack from sandflies, a soaking by a freak wave, and getting hypothermia during a rain storm, it was finally the experience Doug had been seeking.
“It was the best six weeks of my life.”
Documenting his trip via a handwritten notebook and photographs, it was during this journey that Doug started playing with film. Shot on his iPhone 5 and a Canon 500d, the result was a four-minute film he named ‘Left, Right, Repeat’.
It was Doug’s first attempt at telling a story in video format, and he is somewhat shy to share it.
Near Death on the Neretva River
Returning to the UK, Doug toyed with the idea of being a writer. He went on to study English literature at university and undertook several more foreign forays – including a 42-day walk across the French Pyrenees – using them as opportunities to film and photograph.
Then in 2016, Doug conceived a new journey; a first descent by stand-up paddle board, of the Neretva river in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was meant to provide him with photos, video, and a story worth telling.
The resulting materials, which include a ten-minute film, document an enviable adventure. Doug captured beautiful Bosnian scenery and spliced it with admirable on-camera honesty. Before the trip, Doug had logged just three days’ experience on a SUP. Out of his depth at times, he battled white water beyond his skill level, struggled against strong winds he had not planned for, and even broke his paddle. The first descent adventure could easily have become Doug’s last.
Doug’s filmmaking was much improved since his Australian odyssey. Indeed, by now, Doug had entered the working world of commercial videography, shooting people and products for a living. But though he had found adventure on the Neretva, the artistic recognition he sought for his storytelling, eluded him.
“I submitted my Neretva story to an adventure travel magazine I really respected. They rejected it because the photos weren’t good enough. That was hard for me to take. It made me realize I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.”
Doug didn’t give up, however. He kept conceiving new journeys and travels to document until he had another big realization; he was telling the wrong stories.
Doug was perhaps a little harsh on himself with that assessment. Plenty of films document travel adventures in exotic locations. But the realization shifted Doug’s focus from recording journeys of his own, to finding stories of others worthy of telling.
Dissolving Lord Ganesh
Ganesh Chaturthi – a 10-day festival in Mumbai – was the first time Doug traveled somewhere specifically to take photographs. Ten-meter-high statues of Lord Ganesh built from plaster and metal are celebrated with much pomp, before being submerged into the sea, which symbolizes Ganesh leaving Earth.
“The story there is what’s left behind; metal, muck and all this mess in an already polluted ocean.”
The trip helped Doug cut his teeth on photo stories, providing him with valuable experience shooting in an unfamiliar, crowded, noisy environment. However, he concedes he probably wasn’t qualified to tell such tales.
“Lots of westerners head to places like India, eager to fill their memory cards with ‘exotic’ imagery, without doing the narratives themselves, justice. I was no different. Looking back, as a twenty-something English guy who had been in the country for less than two weeks, was I really the best person to tell these people’s stories?”
Nevertheless, Doug’s numerous travels allowed him to continually hone his photography and filmmaking skills and motivated him to keep improving.
A Fisherman’s Tale
It was during the aftermath of Brexit that Doug’s interest in telling a story of a UK heritage industry became piqued. The supposed benefits to farmers and fishermen of leaving the EU that had been used to sell Brexit had not come to fruition. The reality was that they were now in a worse position than ever. The more Doug learned about the fishing industry and its self-destruction, the more it angered him.
“It fueled my desire to make a film about fishing, to tell the truth of how it actually is.”
Whilst scouting for subjects, he stumbled upon Bally Philp. An outspoken Creel-boat fisherman from Scotland, he had been making waves (and enemies) in his fight against industrial trawling off the Isle of Skye.
The story had all the ingredients Doug was looking for; a David and Goliath battle in the environmental arena, a local anti-hero full of fire, and a beautiful location brimming with camera candy.
After a decade of making films about himself, Doug had finally landed a story the world needed to hear.
Making films is not cheap. Or easy. Even a short documentary like The Wake would cost £10,000 ($11,200) plus. And that would cover only equipment and legal fees. None of Doug’s three-strong team would be taking a penny for their time.
Doug didn’t have £10,000 to make a film. Undeterred he began the hunt for funding. Doug prepared his pitch and applied to Fujifilm’s GFX Challenge Grant Program. Doug’s initial application was rejected. But then Fujifilm got in touch with an even better offer. Explaining that they had been impressed with Doug’s ‘above and beyond’ treatment of The Wake – which he had prepared in Craft – they were willing to offer not just funding, but new camera equipment perfect for Doug’s marine-themed film.
The offer was a huge boost to the project and Doug’s confidence. Ten years of learning, improving, failing, and trying again had led to this point. With the support from Fujifilm, Doug was finally able to realize his vision and tell a story he believed needed to be heard by more people.
“My hope is by amplifying the voices of people like Bally, we can help create action towards a more sustainable future.”
Selling your film concept is one thing. Making it is another entirely. Doug did not have the luxury of being able to work on The Wake full-time. It was a weekend and evening project only, fitted around the day job (by now Craft’s in-house filmmaker).
Doug was under considerable pressure. Could he bag the beautiful shots he’d promised? Could he draw out those memorable quotes from Bally? Could he really capture the drama of a one-man creel boat battling the entire trawler industry?
Add those worries to major life changes (Doug became a first-time father during the project) and he had plenty on his plate.
Making the 10-hour round trips up and down to the Isle of Skye where Bally’s boat is located, was taxing. Many planets had to align. The weather, people’s availability, the tides – all had to be right to get the footage required. And shooting at sea comes with hazards of its own. Deckhands have the fourth-highest death rates of any job in the UK; there’s plenty to go wrong onboard.
“On day one, I dropped and smashed a £3,000 lens.”
Such is the unpredictable nature of documentary making. Especially in choppy Scottish seas.
But Doug’s expedition experience was now proving invaluable. At home in harsh natural conditions, Doug had no qualms about doing things that others with less mileage on their outdoor-adventure clocks would have politely declined.
“I was quite happy putting on a wetsuit and jumping in to the North Sea to get the underwater shots.”
Doug’s do or die attitude enabled him to get what he needed for the film – one way or another.
“It was guerrilla filmmaking.”
A Filmmaker’s Journey
The Wake has now been two years in the making, but over a decade if you account for the personal and professional growth that Doug underwent to get to where he is now. Yet he is happy to state that he is still very much a student when it comes to making documentaries.
“I acknowledge I have a huge amount still to learn. And I’m comfortable with that. I still have time to reach my peak over the next 15 years or so.”
For now, it’s a wrap with The Wake, but Doug’s personal and professional journey into storytelling continues.
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