Family & Companions
One of the most prolific and controversial documentary filmmakers of his day, Nick Broomfield explored such topics as urban blight, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and sensational murder trials in a career that spanned well over 20 films. After graduating from Britain's National Film and Television School, he embarked on a professional journey marked by his effective use of the no frills cinema vérité style of filmmaking. Projects such as "Juvenile Liason" (1975), "Tattooed Tears" (1978), and "Chicken Ranch" delved into a variety of social issues often overlooked in more mainstream documentaries. Broomfield's approach began to shift with the film "Driving Me Crazy" (1988), in which he not only recorded his subject, but the often combative process of making the film, as well. Possibly his most affecting work, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" (1994) attempted to glean a humane insight into the troubled mind of America's first female serial murderer. He made a splash with his timely exposé "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" (1995), and stirred the waters of conspiracy theory with "Kurt & Courtney" (1998). Nearly 40 years after beginning his career, Broomfield continued to explore controversial themes in films like "Battle of Haditha" (2008), reinforcing his reputation as one of cinema's most persistent provocateurs.
Born Nicholas Broomfield on Jan. 30, 1948 in London, England, he initially studied law at Cardiff University, then political science at Essex University before graduating from, the U.K.'s National Film and Television School. Borrowing a wind-up Bolex camera from a friend, Broomfield shot his first documentary, "Who Cares" (1971), a short film about urban redevelopment in Liverpool which was eventually used by the British government in a reassessment of public policy. In his first film school project, he exposed his more ribald side with "Proud to Be British" (1973), a send-up of the British peerage. It was at this time that Broomfield met Joan Churchill, who would become not only his professional collaborator for years to come, but his personal companion and the mother of his son, as well. He again explored socio-political issues in his film school graduating project "Behind the Rent Strike" (1974), an examination of life in a lower-class housing project that aired on the BBC. This was the beginning of what would be known as Broomfield's cinema vérité period of filmmaking; a bare-bones technique employing little narration and a direct, often confrontational use of the camera.
Broomfield's first true collaboration with producer-director Joan Churchill was on "Juvenile Liaison" (1975), a study of police policy aimed at keeping youthful offenders out of the court system; a policy which frequently verged on strong arm tactics and verbal abuse. The documentary later served as the basis of a British government study to assess the effectiveness of the heavy-handed approach. Crossing the Atlantic, he took it a step further with "Tattooed Tears" (1978), a harrowing look inside California's disingenuously named Youth Training School, a detention center for delinquents. Working for Granada TV, Broomfield made "Whittingham" (1980), examining daily existence in a U.K. mental asylum, and "Fort Augustus" (1981), focusing on life inside a monastery. "Soldier Girls" (1981) brought him stateside once again, this time to follow a group of young female recruits making their way through the U.S. Army's rugged basic training program. The film would go on to win Broomfield Britain's Robert Flaherty Award for Best Feature Documentary. Broomfield received a good deal of publicity for his look into contemporary sexual mores with "Chicken Ranch" (1983), an often humorous and thought-provoking study of legal prostitution in Nevada, co-directed with Sandi Sissel.
Now on a professional role on both sides of the pond, Broomfield and Churchill found themselves embroiled in legal controversy in 1986 when Lily Tomlin sued them to block the release of their documentary about the mounting of Tomlin's Broadway show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," claiming that it would act as a spoiler for her actual performance. After an agreement to not put the film into wide theatrical release was reached, "Lily Tomlin" (1987) eventually aired on public television, and footage shot by Broomfield and Churchill was used in the video release of Tomlin's stage show. "Driving Me Crazy" (1988) - which also documented the process of putting together a large theatrical production - marked a shift in Broomfield's directorial style, as well as his first appearance on screen in one of his films. With the production troubled from the start, a desperate and frustrated Broomfield decided that the only truthful way in which he could tell the story was to record the arguments, confrontations, and concessions which occurred regularly throughout the shoot. Perhaps as a result of the difficulties with his last non-fiction film, Broomfield took a stab at a dramatic feature with "Diamond Skulls" (1989), a muddled psychological thriller starring Gabriel Byrne and Amanda Donohue that even he acknowledged as being sorely lacking. He revisited several of his (now adult) subjects from the earlier film in "Juvenile Liason II" (1990), prior to chronicling Spalding Gray's attempt at writing a novel in the filmed adaptation of his monologue "Monster in a Box" (1992).
Returning to non-fiction, Broomfield won plaudits for what became termed "ambush journalism" with his frequently hilarious stalking of the former British Prime Minister in "Tracking Down Maggie" (1992). Placing himself directly into the film's narrative, Broomfield was crafting an approach that would later be adopted by such future documentarians as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. With "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" (1994), he presented a disturbing glimpse into the craven exploitation of Wuornos and the media frenzy surrounding the trial of America's first female serial murderer. Later used in one of Wuornos' subsequent trials by her defense team, the film went on to win the British Film Institute Award for Best Documentary. He was one of the first to tackle the saga of "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam" (1995), in a delightfully nasty "he said/she said" expose on the prostitution scandal that rocked Hollywood. By now the director had perfected a non-threatening, yet persistent persona that established a love-hate relationship with his interview subjects, who, in turn, opened up in surprisingly unguarded ways. His "Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandora's Box" (HBO, 1996) provided unfettered access inside a New York S&M sex club, causing a stir when it was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. While some found certain segments staged and unrealistic, others praised its detached depiction of the touchy subject matter.
Even more controversial was "Kurt & Courtney" (1998), a look at the tumultuous lives of grunge rockers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Love was shown in a particularly negative light in the documentary, which considered - and then rejected - the notion that she may have had a hand in her husband's 1992 suicide. Scheduled to premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary was pulled at the last minute after threats of legal action by Love, who threatened to sue if the film was shown. "Kurt & Courtney" received a hurried screening at the rival Slamdunk Film Festival where it met with a mixed critical reception. He followed with "Biggie & Tupac" (2002) an investigation into the unsolved slayings of two of rap music's biggest stars. With "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" (2004), Broomfield revisited Wuornos on death row in an effort to elicit the unvarnished truth from the tormented woman in the days leading up to her execution. He directed another dramatic feature with "Ghosts" (2006), a heart-rending story about Chinese illegal immigrant workers in the U.K., revolving around the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, in which 21 workers lost their lives while picking the edible crustaceans known as cockles. Next came "Battle for Haditha" (2008) a dramatization loosely based on the massacre of more than 20 men, women and children in Iraq, allegedly by U.S. Marines in retaliation for a roadside bombing that killed one of their own.
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Made documentary "Who Cares" about urban redevelopment in Liverpool; followed with "Proud to Be British", an award-winning satire of the British aristocracy
First collaborated with Joan Churchill, "Juvenile Liaison"
Documnetary "Lily Tomlin" released after protracted legal battle with star
Feature directorial debut, "Dark Obsession"
Directed Spalding Gray in film adaptation of his one-man show "Monster in a Box"
Made award-winning documentary "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer"
Wrote, co-produced, directed and narrated "Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam"; shown on Cinemax; later released theatrically
"Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandora's Box", which explored the world of S&M, aired as part of the HBO series "America Undercover"; released theatrically in 1997
Signed exclusive deal with Britain's Channel 4 to produce four documentaries
Premeried documentary "Biggie & Tupac"