Gil Marsden part one – Finding a point of difference

It is the documentary that captivated the football world. 

When all seven episodes of Amazon Prime’s Making their Mark dropped onto the streaming service on March 12, AFL fans were given a unique look into their favourite teams and how the sport operates from the top down. 

Following six unique characters from across the league, the series documents an AFL season from beginning to end and lets the public into areas of football club’s previously reserved for those lucky enough to work within the four walls. 

Speaking with The Inner Sanctum, director Gil Marsden describes how the idea for an access all areas AFL football documentary came about and his special connection to the game. 

“We started talking about this series in February 2019,” Marsden said. 

“[Although I am American] my Dad is from Australia and moved over here when I was 15 and absolutely fell in love with AFL and as we were chatting with Amazon they were talking a bit more about breaking into Australia. 

“Having that close Australian connection and my wife also being cousins with Carlton legend Kade Simpson, we pitched this idea to Amazon who are the best in their class when it comes to sports documentaries and it all kind of went from there.” 

When it comes to any television of documentary series, coming up with a point of difference and unique edge is critical in bringing in an audience and keeping them engaged with the content. 

This was a high priority throughout the planning stages of Making their Mark, as Marsden and his crew went about creating a storyline that differs from the average sports series found on Amazon

“The market was filled on Amazon’s side with these team follow documentaries where you were just in the one place following the one storyline,” he said. 

“What we wanted to do was a little different in the sense that we didn’t want to put all of our eggs into one team and one culture, rather we were keen to do a survey of the entire industry and get a feel for the league as a whole, 

“We looked at those crossover moments and tried to build our storyline on that, we just spent about a year documenting everything and at one point we had every single player, staff member and coach on a massive data base of over 1700 people.

“This would include things such as statistics, performance history and backstory and we just began to put together this major recount that would be interesting to follow, working out which storylines would be most interesting to follow for each team.” 

With a solid format decided on, Marsden and the team were now faced with the crucial task of selecting a group of characters that would bring this idea to life in the most intriguing manner. 

Easily the most important decision to be made in the documentary’s planning stages, he explains the reasoning for deciding on protagonists Rory Sloane (Adelaide), Nic Naitanui (West Coast Eagles), Stephen Coniglio (GWS), Eddie Betts (Carlton), Stuart Dew (Gold Coast), Peggy O’Neal and Brendon Gale (Richmond).

“I think casting is the most important thing not just in documentaries but in feature films as well,” he said. 

“We spent a massive amount of time figuring that out [which way we wanted to go], and I think the results speak for themselves.

“We got a great sense of story from each of them and felt like we got some very different looks and different individuals even though they held some some similar values, for example with Rory and Cogs they were both first year captains, however, one who has a much longer transition into leadership whilst the other dives in head first, 

“Ultimately the casting was a long process in figuring out ways we could get a lens over the entire industry whilst also keeping it quite personal, we didn’t want to have it be limited and just have figures talking about footy, we wanted to see the values people practiced on a daily basis rather than the ones they preach to the public, so that was definitely a big factor for us.” 

Another key factor in the planning process of this documentary was gaining inspiration, as the team looked at a host of different series across a number of different sports to motivate some key ideas. 

Marsden describes the process of looking through some of the industries most critically acclaimed projects and searching for that all important point of difference. 

“There is obviously this long legacy of excellent sporting documentaries, so if you’re not surveying the market and trying to figure out how you can evolve from that you aren’t really doing your job,” he said. 

“One example I have been really inspired by is Last Chance U which is truly an incredible series, so we looked at it and took little bits of how you interacted with different characters and how you crossed over narratives but then at the same time almost every other show is bound by a place whether that be Last Chance U or Amazon’s The Test.

“We had this unique scenario of being spread across multiple different teams and multiple different places and yet somehow having it feel like it’s a narrative so that was probably our biggest challenge.”

He says he also looked at sporting films for inspiration for this project, with the similarities between the industries becoming more and more apparent. 

“I think when you look at inspiration in this industry the lines between documentaries and scripted feature films are breaking down very quickly,” he said. 

“The flexibility of the camera gear, the flexibility of the lensing is better than ever so you are able to shoot and design a show in a way that is almost as if you were doing a traditional sports film such as Any Given Sunday or The Wrestler.

“Visually we were far more inspired by those than most of the documentary world and narratively and editorially we were just trying to tell that heroes journey story, so we are as much inspired by fiction as we were documentary.” 

With a core idea and motive in place Marsden and his team then began the eight month journey of documenting the AFL season. 

Little did they know the challenge that was 2020 would come and effect them in a way nobody could have foreseen. 

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