In Praise of Migrants


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I want to write about our freedom to work in other countries. As UKIP and the Front National are voted into the European Parliament, this basic human right is again threatened.  I have just come back from Cannes Film Festival which celebrates international cinema and welcomes filmmakers from around the world.  No one suggested that Jane Campion, Sophia Coppola or Leila Hatami should ‘go back where they came from’.

I have certainly learned the most in my life from working abroad.

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Shooting in Poland

I studied directing in England but was given the chance to make a film at the renowned Polish Film School thanks to a European MEDIA grant.  Suddenly I was able to work with filmmakers from all over Europe. For the first time I saw my own films in a wider context and realised there were other ways to tell a story. Learning your trade in another country is a life-enriching experience I wish all people could try.

My greatest love has been America. I dreamed of studying there but couldn’t afford the school fees, and as a young filmmaker, couldn’t get sponsored for a work permit. After many years of visiting as a tourist, of writing and pitching ideas for US television and sitting in on screenwriting classes, I finally got sponsored by a TV company for an employment visa.  I was there, working in both the UK and US, refining skills learned in both countries, comparing the differences, following in the footsteps of writers and directors who have taken the foreign as inspiration and used their outsider’s eye to see a little differently.

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Directing ‘In Search of Food’ in the US

We desperately need this broader perspective if we are to move forward as a country.  This year, as I crossed the US border into Mexico to see the moving effects of a mass deportation policy on migrant families, I was reminded of how rich and privileged I am to have a British passport and enough money to travel freely. Why do we deny the same right to people who can’t rely on privilege but just want to earn a living and contribute?

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Deported migrants in Mexico

As thousands of migrants die in deserts, overheated trucks, under the wheels of trains or at the hands of people traffickers or border guards, we don’t make the connection between this huge economic migration and our own privileged ability to travel the globe for vacation or employment.  I am tired of politicians blaming migrants for the recession and angry with an electorate that votes for the far right by way of complaining about house prices.

Now we have a government that believes we should study only English writers. I teach at an international film school that welcomes young actors, writers and director from all over the world to England so that they – and we – can learn from working with each other.

Closing our borders to people who want to contribute to our society is like locking ourselves into an air-tight room and then wondering why we can’t breathe.  If we walk away from Europe and close our borders, we create an island fortress that holds us captive as surely as it keeps our neighbours out.

 

 

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A Girl’s Eye View of True Detective

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‘Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?’  That’s how I feel about True Detective.  It’s silent, brooding and masculine as hell.  All the guys I know love it but to begin with, as a girl, I wasn’t so sure.

It’s true there’s double the eye-candy – you can choose between Matthew McConaughey as the moody intellectual with the razor-blade cheekbones, or Woody Harrelson as the fresh faced, good ole cop with a naughty twinkle in his eye for the ladies.  But the only ladies you’ll see are hookers, wives and pissed-off girlfriends.  Nothing new there you might say.  So what’s the hook for this girl?

This is the old made new, the generic buddy cop movie made strangely particular by the beauty of the language and the stillness of the pauses between these two men as they drive through the Louisiana landscape.  Nic Pizzolatto’s writing is elegant, often spare but sometimes dense, intellectual and witty.  This is dialogue worth tuning in to, by turns philosophical, self-loathing and slyly funny.  As a film it’s impossibly beautiful, the big skies, the yellow skin tones,  the Southern heat and dust made visible by director Cary Joji Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw.

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And then there are the two star turns – McConaughey the initial draw as the screwed up anti-hero, but with Harrelson subverting your expectations as his character becomes less charming and more a drowning man clutching at women like straws.

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Like my other favourite ‘slow-burn’ series from last year – Hannibal and Top of the Lake, True Detective ain’t in no hurry to tell you the plot, using the now common device of ending a quiet episode with a sudden glimpse of horror.  The momentum keeps building.  Like House of Cards, you’re watching one long story unfold over a series.  There is the odd flashy set piece but it’s the incremental gains you watch for.

It’s a masculine vision of the world that reminds me of The Godfather, not in its description of mob life but in its belief that it’s ‘kill or be killed’.  The characters are in the grip of ancient laws, desires and grudges beyond their control or understanding.

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It creates a view of the male psyche, trapped in a world limited by the very pleasures used to drown his sorrows.  Sex, drugs, alcohol and violence  are seen as useless aides in the face of the loneliness of life, they only make things worse by confronting you with a vision of yourself you can’t stand to be around.   You could argue many male-oriented films indulge in these activities while revealing them as hollow and self-defeating – but it’s the quality of the writing and the silence enveloping these characters on their long, existential drives that demands our attention and evokes a desire to understand them.

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That and they’re just so goddamn cool. Like Billie Holiday, I am in love with the ‘No Good Man’, but I also want to whisper, ‘Don’t Explain.’

How to Shadow a Director

Shadow_cat I’ve just spent a week shadowing a director on a popular BBC1 pre-watershed drama series and as a way of seeing how you create a big primetime show it takes some beating.

Directors rarely get to watch each other work.  A director needs a second director on set like a fish needs a bicycle and it’s hard not to feel like a spare wheel when you’re just visiting a set.  But if you make it your job to really follow the action, you can learn what you need to step up to the next level.

So how do you shadow without stepping on anyone’s toes?

1.  Persuade a Producer.  Asking to trail anyone on a production is a delicate negotiation.  Producers (rightly) have to protect their cast and crew from distractions.  You have to make it clear you won’t disrupt the flow.  Let them choose a time when the pressure is less and find a friendly director who is open to the idea.  Shadowing is an unpaid gig so be prepared to pay all your own expenses – it’s worth it.

2.  Stop, Look, Listen.  If you follow closely enough you can see the mechanics of a show without having to ask a load of redundant questions.  The series producer generously gave me access to all aspects of production.  Be aware that folk are working fast and time is money.  However –

3.  If you don’t understand something, ask.  People enjoy explaining their job, and, if you show a real interest, you can find out how different members of the team solve problems and work more efficiently.  You can learn how to work smarter and adapt to the changing demands of each day.

4.  Learn from someone else’s style.  David, the director I followed, was supremely relaxed on set and created a great atmosphere for cast and crew to work in.  Watching how he achieved a variety of shots with elegance and economy in a limited time frame was fascinating and he was happy to explain his thinking and share his prep methods too.

5.  Be your own person.  When people asked me why I was shadowing, I just said I wanted to learn how the show worked.  People will respect your desire to understand what they’re doing and why.

6.  Be positive.  On most sets the workflow is similar – rehearse, watch with crew, light and then shoot. But every set has a different dynamic, an energy that shifts according to what’s thrown at it, or who comes on board.  You are part of that so always bring energy and enthusiasm and be a positive reflector for those around you.

7. Be realistic.  Being an over-reaching breed, we directors tend to think we can shoot anything.  So watching another director take on a role you covet is the best preparation for actually doing it yourself.  That way you are aware of what’s actually required and can prepare for when you get the chance to go for it yourself.

8. Enjoy it!  It’s not often you get to be on a shoot without all the responsibility that comes with directing one.  It was a real pleasure to spend time with David and the crew, cast and production team and an experience I’ll remember with gratitude and affection.

Who have you learned from by watching them work? Leave a comment here or find me on twitter @ emlin32.

Happy Shadowing…!

House of Cards

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I’m a little late to the party but I want to write about House of Cards.  First of all, if you haven’t seen it, watch it now.  Second of all, here’s why.  It’s the future.

It’s beautifully shot with a fantastic cast led by Kevin Spacey, an Oscar nominated writer, Beau Willimon and set in a captivating world of power and deception.   As each episode ends the next begins, with no recaps, very little story of the week.  This is a giant 13 hour movie.

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When I saw the trailer I wanted to watch it.  Instantly.  And was prepared to pay for the privilege.

And this is key.

This is premium content for a subscription paying audience.  It has to be outstanding to cut through all the noise, all the ‘filler’ shows, all the not-quite-right, ‘quality’ series available on Freeview.  Cable has to justify its cost and so now does Video on Demand. Netflix had to design something so good you would sign up to monthly payments to see. Here’s why.

We have no more free time. We only have an hour or so to spend watching a show so it had better be good.

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We want to watch it when we like. I don’t want to have to wait until 9pm to watch a great drama series on TV.  I want to watch it in bed when I wake up, on the move, when I’m in the mood.  I want to watch it where I want, on a portable screen or screens.  And I’m prepared to pay.  Not a huge amount, but enough.

I want a show that is exactly tailored to my requirements.  Not too old, not too young, not too male-skewed, not too girly –  but I don’t want to be pandered to or second-guessed or dumbed down any more.  That’s what ‘House of Cards’ gets right and all those over-targeted niche TV shows get wrong.  I  want the best.  And with the migration of top-flight talent from cinema to television, fleeing from the tent-pole culture of blockbuster movies, I am getting it on the small screen rather than the big.

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At Cannes I heard someone ask ‘What is the future of cinema?’  The answer was, ‘Television’. Correction – it’s Viewing on Demand.  Kevin Spacey was right in his Edinburgh address.  Binge viewing is what we want and what we can now have.  I overhead a guy on the tube telling his friends that watching a whole series this way is ‘like reading a book, you are so immersed in the world and its characters you keep going back for more’.  And more.  And more.

Once the Emmys are over, will there be more pale imitators of House of Cards?  Cheaper series we will mainline like cheap candy when Netflix and Co have to produce much more original content at a lower per programme cost?  Or will quality continue to win out over quantity?

I hope it will.  I always think better in silence than in noise.

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What kind of series inspire you and why?  Leave a note here or contact me  @emlin32 on Twitter.  Happy viewing!

The Rise of the Slow Burn Series

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Inspired by the end of ‘Top of the Lake’ and still missing ‘The Returned’, I steel myself to watch the misty nightmare that is Southcliffe.  The slow-burn drama series is enjoying a (long) moment – but what’s the appeal of these cult shows and what can they teach us about great storytelling?

My favourite show for many years was the fast-moving, action-packed and slickly edited ‘CSI’ series in the US.  These days I’m watching the hypnotic yet relatively slow moving ‘Hannibal’.   Scandi-Noir series ‘The Killing ‘and ‘Borgen’ have no doubt had a big influence on this new movement with Danish drama, ‘The Bridge’, the latest show to be remade for Sky Atlantic.

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So is slow the new fast?  These cult series demand your attention but in different ways.  How?

Less is more.  Less plot means more time for atmosphere and emotion.  The characters take centre stage, and the primacy of relationships is reiterated, allowing us to connect more strongly with their journeys.

You have to concentrate.  It’s much harder to second screen when watching as the plot is not as formulaic.  You can’t predict the sudden revelation or shock event as you are not set up for it with heavy music cues and other tension building devices.  So you give it your undivided attention, like watching a movie. The fact you can pause the show or watch it On Demand means you can sit down and watch it when you’re ready, with no ad breaks.  So less time doing recaps and flashy end of act breaks and more time telling the story.

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The Show Runner as Auteur.  From ‘Buffy’ to ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’, to ‘Breaking Bad’, the Americans have led the way with the rise of the creative writer/producer who has a vision for a new kind of TV show. But with the migration of cinema stars and directors to the small screen in search of funding for mid-budget drama, Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh are now directing for television and Video on Demand.  Which means…

Television is the new Cinema.  These series are high on visual style.  The dialogue is minimal.  There is nothing ‘domestic’ about these dramas.  The landscape is a big attraction.  The beauty of New Zealand, of the French mountains, creates a form of visual-tourism, we can escape to these worlds and feel our world expanded by them.  And yet…

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They are Other-Worldly.  Supposedly real settings feel decidedly unreal.  Artful cinematography mediates nature creating a feeling of isolation from the real world.

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The Village is Key.  Most of these series are about a community in peril, the multi-protagonist storylines perfectly suited to TV’s broader canvas.  We have time to get to know whole families and learn about their world as it implodes around them.  This is not a new idea but the village has been reinvented – as unstable, damaged, at risk of flooding, occupied by squatters, or terrorised by a gunman who lives there.  And we are all shown as culpable because each character is connected to the main event in a very real way.

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Complex and Real Characters.  With less plot, the characters have time to breathe and have all the quirks and desires of real people.  Even if they behave in extreme ways we understand the psychology behind what they do, and so can relate it to our own experience.  The genius of ‘The Returned’ was to ask what real life questions and emotional damage the return of a dead loved one would create…

The most exciting revelation of these slow-burn series is this –

We are focused on the inner not the outer life.  Rather just the depiction of reality – the illusion of progress with a logical plot and cause and effect reactions, we are faced with the unpredictable and illogical world of a dream.  Isn’t that closer to the reality we face every day?

The writer with something to say and directors with new ways of saying it are at the heart of this new wave of dramas.  No more pretty pictures tied up in a bow for us to sleepwalk through.  Jane Campion and Co are plumbing the depths of the lake,  drenching us with images and ideas that wake us up, pushing us into new ways of seeing.

We are active viewers again.  And it feels good.

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How have you been inspired by recent TV drama? Leave a comment here or find me on Twitter @emlin32.  Happy viewing…

Pitching for the International TV Market

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So many film-makers I know live and work around the world.  So how do you pitch yourself and your projects to this brave new global market?  I have spent the last five years between London and New York, producing and directing for US and UK television.  I recently gave a talk on how to pitch beyond the UK  for the BBC and Creative Skillset  – here’s what I came up with:

1)   Get Moving. Go to international TV festivals to meet TV Execs from around the world – MIPCOM and MIPTV are well-established markets; for factual try Realscreen and Realscreen West in the US and Sheffield in the UK.  NYTVFest can put you in a room with networks like Fox to pitch your comedy pilots directly.

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2)   Get Online.  There are many online briefings available   – Radarscreen offers global factual briefs and commissions; Cynopsis is great for US TV news;  our own TVMole serves up excellent UK and international commissioning news, not forgetting Broadcast which covers not only the UK but the latest  international deals too.

3)   Partner Up. You can find a UK Indie that has a presence in the country you are targeting, or contact the Indie Unit at BBC Worldwide for advice on where to pitch your projects and who to contact, which can act as your sales and distribution company.  Or use your agent or approach foreign channels directly through your own company if you prefer.

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4)   Watch their Shows.  Sounds obvious but if you want to make shows for a foreign audience, you need to key into what already works there, it’s a different country, a different culture with different audience expectations.  Ignore this at your peril… because

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5)   Style matters. Identify the many differences in format for the country you’re pitching to compared to say the UK version of the same show and adopt this style in your pitch, written treatments and teaser reels.

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6)   Speak their Language – Each country has it’s own particular business culture, which you need to learn and operate within. The best way is through living and working there, but you can also ask advice from colleagues who’ve been there and learn from their experience.

7)   Treat Co-producers with Respect. A commission from another country is not just gap-financing, they are buying a say in the final product and if you have more than one country in play, you need to balance the needs of all of them with your own taste as a writer/director or producer.

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8)   Be your own Brand. Be you – internationally. Your programme ideas are could be universal in their appeal if you think outside country lines and reach out to the audience you identify with most – wherever that may be in the world.

Good luck! And see you Up in the Air….

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You can leave a comment here or contact me @emlin32 on Twitter…

The Miracle of Mentoring

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I am wearing waterproof mascara for the last day of our Women in Film and TV Mentoring Scheme.  Six months after we started, twenty talented women are now firm friends and, together, helped by our industry mentors, we have changed our lives from the inside out.

If this all seems a little sentimental, consider this.  In a recent survey by Directors UK, the average percentage of TV dramas directed by a woman was found to be 8%.  This means that in the already highly competitive field in which I work, I am in a distinct minority.  I have never been one for special pleading.  However a series of diverse and challenging jobs and the death of my mother had left me feeling low.  I wanted to move forward in my career but I needed someone to talk to.  In my interview for the scheme, when I was asked what the hardest thing about taking part would be, I said I had already done it – it was asking for help.

A questionnaire helped me identify my concrete goals.  Although I had enjoyed the last few years directing factual programming I wanted to move back to directing my first love, drama.  And after working in the States for some time I needed to re-introduce myself to the UK industry in that light.  I was lucky enough to be paired with the inspirational Emma Turner, Senior Executive Producer, Worldwide Drama at Fremantle Media.  Encouraged by our monthly meetings, my focus, energy and application to finding and creating new work tripled.

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Mid-career is exactly when you need a mentor most.  Re-positioning to get what you really want takes a lot of time and effort and, as a freelancer, having a sounding board is a huge plus, while having someone you have to report to really makes you get on and do stuff!  Emma was warm, practical, straight down to business, which suited me perfectly.  She also got the range of my work and saw it as an asset, not a drawback.  This was not psychoanalysis or cosy chats about the industry, this was ‘What can you do to get where you’re going?’ and it suddenly all seemed possible.

Nadia and Kate.aspx copyForging a supportive network with the other twenty women on the scheme came easily.  The weekly seminars we each had to deliver on our specialist subject helped us realise what we already knew, and share it with others.  Although I have lectured professionally, I still found it quite nerve-wracking and that fear bound us together and made us look out for each other.  I also found it cathartic as it allowed me to articulate what I had been feeling and had noticed in the industry for a while now – that my role as a director was changing.  There was a point one evening when it all just came together, the group gelled, we had become more than colleagues, we were all friends.

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So what did I gain from all this camaraderie and support?

Not just a warm fuzzy feeling – real benefits.

  1. Contacts.  It’s a hard fact that this business is built on who you know and whether you are starting out or starting over you wonder how you’ll ever get to know all those fabulous people who are going to give you work. What you come to realise is that everyone is connected, so the industry meetings generously set up by my mentor led to many others.  The group also went out of their way to help each person make contacts and shared advice and support along the way.
  2. Soft Networking is a vastly underestimated skill.  Going to screenings and industry events, helping friends promote their work, sharing contacts and ideas all help build a community that you are part of, so important if you are a freelancer.  You get to hear about funding opportunities and it can lead to great work relationships.
  3. Confidence. Everyone always says this about mentoring but it’s true.  Having discussed approaches and solutions for six months with Emma, I now know what she would say in most work situations.  Her mantra is ‘Just do it’, and the more you do, the more confident you feel pushing out of your comfort zone.
  4. Emma directing Us series 'In Search of Food' download 092 New projects.  In the last six months I have written the first draft of a new feature script and am preparing for my first trip to Cannes.  I am directing a new short written by one of our group.  I have written a prize winning pitch for a TV drama series.  I started this blog which has now had almost 1,500 views and been reposted on industry websites; and I am delivering my  seminar on directing at Cardiff Digital Week.  I have also recut my showreel, reworked my C.V. and improved my interview technique, all using professional industry coaching and feedback on the scheme.
  5. Jobs. I am hearing about more jobs now through my new network, and I am much more focused about what kind of work I am looking for.  This might sound counter-intuitive in the recession hit world of ‘take what you can get’ but trying to please everyone and do everything wasn’t working for me.  Now I’m doing what I really want to do and so can be 100% dedicated to making it happen.  And although range is useful, everyone loves a specialist.
  6. Goodwill. You hear a lot about how difficult this industry is and how cut throat but not much about how people genuinely want to help you out. Experienced practitioners love passing on knowledge so asking for advice is much more profitable than gunning for a position in their company. Mentoring brings out the best in people and makes them feel they are giving back.  So believe in a benevolent universe.
  7. Passion.  No one does this job for the money. We do it because we love it, and we can’t imagine ourselves doing anything else.  Mentoring someone or being mentored reignites that passion and the desire to make someone proud.  I am extremely proud of everything we have achieved on this scheme.  We are a community who care so much about the stories we tell and our desire to tell them.  Why not offer that same care to each other along the way?

So, to sum up, to Women in Film and TV, especially our gifted scheme producer Nicola Lees, huge thanks.  My fellow mentees and new-found friends, I know we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other.  And, as my lovely mentor and namesake, Emma, said at our last meeting, ‘Shall we just keep going?’

Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse… Thank you.

Who has been your most memorable mentor, or are you still looking?  Have you enjoyed being a mentor yourself?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @emlin32