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…!

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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

CREATE ENERGY AROUND YOUR SCRIPT

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CREATING ENERGY

How do you create energy around your feature film script? Forward momentum is essential, not just to keep you motivated as you write but to cut through all the other projects being pushed equally hard by everyone else out there.

TAKE ACTION.

I’ve just decided to go to Arizona to research my feature script, ‘Anchor Baby’, and recce locations. It was already a goal for this spring but setting the date and checking out flights has created a huge swell of energy and excitement. I feel like I’m in production already.

DON’T WAIT FOR PERMISSION

Features are so expensive and take so long to develop and make that you can often die of old age while the deals are being done – and undone – and done again.  As a first or even second time director you are under a lot of scrutiny – can you carry a multi-million dollar movie? A lot of money is at stake so it’s a fair question but if you wait for someone to say yes, it’s OK, you could be waiting a  long time. The popularity of Kickstarter and Indiegogo is testament to film makers who don’t want to wait for permission anymore.  The digital revolution and the internet mean you now have the option to take some or even all of the movie making process into your own hands.

ACT LIKE IT’S TELEVISION.

The long development period on features can get you down. Working on TV shows I’ve learned that things happen fast. You are given a deadline and you have to stick to it. And with a lot of prep and hard work, everything can happen on schedule, on time and turn out pretty damn good too. Instead of looking forward into an uncertain future, be your own commissioning editor and give your project the green light – and a delivery date.

THINK LIKE A DIRECTOR

Go to the location that inspired your script – and take some shots, even shoot a trailer, visualise the scenes you’ve written.  Make mood boards of inspiring images – costumes for characters, colours for sets. They could become part of your development package and, even if they don’t, they’ll help you be more specific in your writing as you’ll know what your world looks like.

JUMP BEFORE YOU’RE READY

If the script isn’t there yet, write it while you’re looking at the locations. Rewrite it while you’re casting, finesse it in rehearsals. The script has to be strong, but if sitting behind a desk is getting you down, start planning the movie and use that pressure to work harder and faster.

All these ideas come down to one thing and one thing only. Don’t let your movie exist only in your head… MAKE IT REAL.

If you’re not sure how to do this, brainstorm ideas with friends.  How do you create energy around your projects?  Leave a comment here or tweet me @emlin32 on Twitter.