An Interview with Charlotte Fantelli, Writer/Director/Producer – Journey to Le Mans

Charlotte Fantelli

“Challenge yourself to do something you know you could never do – and what you will find is that you can overcome anything…” – Anon

The motor racing documentary “Journey To Le Mans” ( reviewed here ) was an intense and exciting look at the JOTA Sport Team’s entry into the 2014 European Le Mans Series (ELMS) culminating in the race at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. What made the film even more impressive was that it was the debut film for Charlotte Fantelli, who wrote, directed and produced the documentary. Wanting to know more about her amazing journey I managed to track her down and she very kindly agreed to be interviewed. Read on for an inspiring story.

Documentary Dude You had no previous background in film-making, had never made a film before.  Most people without that sort of experience would never dream of making a film.  Explain how you got the idea and the belief that you could make it happen?

Charlotte Fantelli I had always written films since I was a kid, albeit for my bottom drawer so it was a lifelong dream. I suppose the belief came from a place where I didn’t believe anything was impossible. I’d faced quite a few challenges in my younger years and I think it kinda toughened me up enough to know that I wasn’t scared of getting up again if I failed, which really is quite a liberating state of mind. I also believed if other people had done it why couldn’t I.

The idea came a couple of years before-hand, I have always loved motorsport and while hearing a drivers talk from JOTA Sport while watching the ELMS I was captured by the real feat of human endurance, dedication and physical fitness it took to race. I’d always looked at the cars in awe and yet the men (and women) that drive them and the team that surround them tell the real story, a story that captured my imagination and one I wanted to bring to life.

DD From getting the idea to completion of the film how long did the whole process take? How much of that was actual filming?

CF So the idea was bubbling away for a year or two while I was in business and busy with family and work, it wasn’t until I gave up the business to pursue my film dream that pen hit paper on the project. I pitched it to ITV in Feb (2013), when I had a positive response from them, as in, they agreed to air it (if I funded it). I set about looking at other platforms and financial opportunities for it.  This process took a lot of time and energy, in fact it was still going on after filming started.

We first shot a frame in September 2013 at Paul Ricard Circuit, we finished official race filming at Le Mans June 2014, and picked up a few days filming after this. The post-production started at the end of June and would have finished before our premier day in November 2014, however we had a few issues with this and the international edit took far longer.

DD I understand Simon Dolan was already an investor in one of your businesses.  Given that you had already worked together and that the film revolves around his team JOTA Sport do you think that made things easier for the film than if it was someone completely unknown to you?

CF Of course, Simon was my way in to the team, and without that sort of relationship where you can really be accepted into the heart of the action it couldn’t possibly have been the same. I also think that us being a small production crew and really getting close to all the members of the team helped portray the emotional side of things, for example when Simon had his crash we made a very awkward, very unpleasant few minutes viewing, as well as it being sad it is also very chilling and unnerving, we lived those long minutes (nearly 30) not knowing and our investment in what was going on allowed us to portray it much more realistically.

DD How did you go about assembling your team?

CF I wanted the very very best team possible so I started by finding out who had made films/programmes of this nature. I knew I needed a very experienced crew as I was so inexperienced myself. The obvious productions that came to mind were Top Gear, Fifth Gear and F1. So, I set about contacting directors, producers and crew who had this experience. I met with as many as I could, I learned as much as I could, I asked, I listened and I grew contacts.

I ended up with two guys Stuart Keasley and Adam Parkes from Black Flag TV. Black Flag had fantastic equipment and knowledge of this type of shoot and understood filming cars from every angle, especially the specialist mini cameras as these at times had to be worked into the car – a car that needed every gram to win a race, the aero, the weight etc etc all had to balance and I needed experts to help. It turned out that Stu and Adam were fantastic guys and ended up being my DOPs (Directors of Photography)  and helped shape the whole production with me. I learned that giving them my vision and listening to their expertise, feedback and direction enabled me to get the story I wanted and learn about filmmaking as I went. It was a very give and take dynamic.

The biggest shoot we had a crew of about 20, this was when we hired Blyton Park circuit, here we were able to get tracking shots and other bits we simply couldn’t in race conditions, but usually on race days we were a crew of about 3, I remember Spa circuit where I decided to save money and AC myself… Never again! To all directors, never underestimate the job of an assistant cameraman – I think I still have the scars on my feet! At Le Mans we had three crews who covered the 24 hours, most of them Top Gear guys.

DD As a new unproven film-maker, obtaining funding must have been difficult?

CF Funding was very very difficult. Many people have said surely Simon or Jota helped fund it, but no, firstly it would’ve been a complete conflict of interest and secondly even if we all wanted it, ITV, our biggest UK platform wouldn’t allow any funds to come from that direction, it was made very clear as an impartial editorial piece and not ‘an advert’ it had to be third party funded.

I put in the first £40k from savings my husband and I had from our wedding gifts and house deposit. Next I maxed out my borrowing with two whacking great £25k loans and nearly £10k on credit cards… NOT how I would suggest anyone does it, but I was in deep and kept digging, at one point my £3k overdraft was maxed too and I had two jobs while doing 70hours + a week on Journey to Le Mans.

I was turned down by 147 potential sources of funds as I pushed on with filming regardless. One day I had T.J. Scott the amazing director of Spartacus/Longmire/Black Sails, flying in from LA, he was coming to Silverstone with us and I didn’t even have the money for our passes let alone a film crew… About an hour before his plane took off I secured the £6k I needed and Stu and Adam also chipped in and now own 3% of the film.

Finally on the home straight I secured private funding and one sponsor pontjago.com and together we made it to Le Mans…

DD How did you manage to get  such a big star as Sir Patrick Stewart onboard as a narrator?

CF Again, getting Patrick Stewart came from the same bloody-minded determination as everything else. I asked my husband who he thought should narrate and he said Patrick Stewart, I said ‘fine I’ll get him’. I managed to get his email address and sent a personal note. Knowing he was a huge motorsport fan helped and before long I had his commitment, I just had to talk numbers with his agent. 

DD When Simon Dolan had his crash at the beginning of the season, this must have made you think that the whole project was over?

CF Ha, funnily enough no. When Simon had his accident those first 30 – 40 minutes we only thought about Simon, will he live, walk, you know I don’t think I even thought about the project.  Adam Parkes and I were in the pit lane waiting for Simon to come in when it happened, my son, husband and friends were in the garage and a deathly silence hit, my blood ran cold when I saw what had happened, I just wanted to be with them and the team. Adam however is ex military and was absolutely resolute in his role as DOP to capture everything, so that whatever the outcome we could have made something very special (obviously family and team willing) but as I say it wasn’t really thought of in that way, we all just acted in the moment.

DD Not wanting to give too much away, although the results are in the public domain, the season ending must have been a dream come true for the project?

CF Indeed, I remember being asked the night of the premiere what did you think when the team won. My response then is the same now, I said ‘I thought shit I might actually make my money back’… That week had been full of ups and downs and when we lost Marc Gene on the Wednesday, that was really when I thought it could be over, I mean losing our platinum driver just before the race, if the team didn’t make the finish line there is still a story, but not to make the start line?? So yes, it was very emotional, obviously I was ecstatic and emotionally invested in the team, but selfishly my thoughts were with my own personal family investment as I had given up SO much to be there myself.

DD What was the most challenging part of the film making?

CF All of it. I think though I underestimated the post production, I thought it would all just fall into place as it was a real life story and we had captured it for a season, but it wasn’t like that at all. We had 100 hours of footage and some very big problems in the process, these maybe not the most challenging parts for most filmmakers, but for me they were due to my complete underestimation of the process.

DD Did you ever have any self doubt during the filming and how did you get through it?

CF Self doubt? I probably doubted myself 100 times a day but I didn’t let silly doubts get in my way. I actually and probably very egotistically, had told myself failure wasn’t an option and I truly made myself believe it and live it as if it were a foregone conclusion. I say look at each problem like a hurdle and not a dead end, this way there is ALWAYS a way to jump it, you just have to find the solution.

One night I remember it really hitting home, I was £60k in debt, had no money to film the next stage and on the phone to a friend asking for money. I’d stooped lower than I thought I could, they said no. I just remember hitting the floor in tears and I’m not the crying kind… Ah well, 10 minutes later I’d pulled myself together and tried something else. You just do – when failure isn’t an option.

DD If you were to do it again what, if anything, would you do differently?

CF The post production process. Let’s just say I was let down by my first choice edit suite despite it being booked for months. In haste to find another, I chose poorly and from going with very experienced crew to film with, I went to an inexperienced suite in post production. It turned out to be a very costly mistake and while I admire some of the people who worked hard with me to make it work, I have a £36k insurance payout for a ‘faulty edit’ and a year of my life I wont get back.

DD What has the response to the film been like?

CF It has been very good, although IMdB reviews are mixed, which frustrates me due to the fact 50% of them were American 6 months before the film was released stateside which means people either saw it illegally or gave fake ratings as we were not available in their country. IMdB takes no notice or responsibility of this. Amazon on the other hand, we have awesome 4/5* reviews and have been very well received.

I think you always take criticism to heart when you work so hard and invest in something emotionally, but the whole process has made me a much tougher person and to those who criticise I say ‘I have a film I made from scratch available in around 100 countries across the world, show me what you have done better’.

DD What advice would you give someone wanting to make their first documentary?

CF Surround yourself with experienced people, never pass up an opportunity to learn, throw yourself in and just ‘do’ it. I would suggest people secure funding before they jump in, as I probably risked too much, especially with a family. That said if I hadn’t risked everything, if I had not filmed that season, we wouldn’t have captured the most incredible story, yet to be replicated.

Ultimately believe in yourself and your dream and work harder than you ever thought possible, that is the only route to success.

DD What next for Fantelli Productions?

CF I am having a little time away, time with the family, the process was tougher than I imagined, I have some fabulous opportunities to be part of a production company at Shepperton Studios with Black Flag TV and some TV and film projects that just seem to find me, but I am concentrating on today before I rush in to the next ‘dream’.

DD How can people follow Charlotte Fantelli online?

CF Follow me @Cfantelli

Charlotte Fantelli