Sabrina Doyle: Brits to Watch

Writer/director Sabrina Doyle is one of BAFTA's 2011 Brits to Watch, an initiative showcasing new British talent to the international industry.

Doyle's credits include romantic mystery Polanow, which won 1st prize at the Cologne International Short Film Festival.

What first inspired you to get into your craft?

My earliest childhood memory is looking at a picture storybook of The Little Matchgirl, which I now realise is a very cinematic story in that it's about a little girl's visions of a better life.

Bizarrely, my favourite movie as a young child was 10, which is about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a younger woman. Something about the use of Ravel’s Bolero combined with the iconic images of Bo Derek captured my imagination and alerted me to the mysterious power of movies.

It was while studying at Cambridge University that it occurred to me I could make films myself. I’d spend long, luxurious afternoons in the Cambridge Arts Cinema dissecting French New Wave and ‘70s American classics for an elective I was taking in cinema. Watching the jungle explode to the psychedelic strains of The Doors in Apocalypse Now was the moment I knew I wanted to direct.

During the Easter break of my final year at Cambridge, I was fortunate enough to do a week's filmmaking course at the Cambridge University Moving Image Studio. I made a film about a stalker (classic first film territory) and I was hooked. I realised I wanted to communicate my creative ideas through cinematic means: camera movement, framing, editing, music, facial expression. The combination and orchestration of these (and other elements) is unique to cinema. It's a difficult feeling to describe with words because it's so visceral, but if, say, a camera movement synchronised with music has ever sent a shiver of excitement down your spine, you should consider becoming a filmmaker. 

How did you first break into the industry?

I was fortunate enough to spend a month interning for David Heyman's company Heyday Films in the summer of 2000, just as he was getting Harry Potter off the ground. I was able to help out with the auditions for Ron Weasley, and I also did script coverage, meaning I read screenplays and wrote reports on their feature film potential.

I would advise any aspiring filmmaker to get as much work experience as possible – for the CV points, the contacts, and the possibility of working alongside people who really know what they're doing.

I also think it's important to branch out on your own. Shortly after Heyday, I shot a film called Remember Remember with a VX2000 my Dad bought me as a graduation present. It was a sweet little story about about a lonely young man who straps fireworks to his body and sets himself alight to get the attention of a girl he likes. Sadly, it was never completed. But the lessons I learned from it were invaluable, enabling me to make my first successful short, Polanow, which won the first jury prize at the Cologne International Short Film Festival.

Each film is a unique learning experience, and makes you a better filmmaker. So if you've got 50 quid in your pocket, go out and make a movie. It's the best education you'll ever get.

Which professional figure in your field do you find the most inspiring? 

As a woman director, I greatly admire the women directors who are making a name for themselves in this industry: Kathryn Bigelow, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold, who, like me, went to the American Film Institute.

If you hadn’t managed to break into your field, what was your plan B?

There is no plan B. I am one hundred percent committed to filmmaking, and that's irrespective of whatever success I may have. I don't think I'm unusual in that. Filmmakers are more committed to their craft than almost any other group of people I've met – an obsession that sometimes comes at great personal expense! That said, I may have to do other jobs to support myself while I'm making my films. I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic job as a BBC journalist for a number of years (a job that, incidentally, is also about storytelling).

I'm hoping to get straight to work as a director once I graduate from AFI, but even if I had to wait tables, I'd never sacrifice filmmaking for something more stable. Filmmaking is in my DNA and I don't think I'll ever be able to give it up. Incidentally, tenacity is a very important characteristic of filmmakers. Even the great master Krzysztof Kieslowski was rejected from Łódź film school twice.

A directing professor at AFI recently gave me a great piece of advice: “fortuna audaces iuvat” or “fortune favours the brave.” So forget the plan B and go for it!

Which film do you wish you could have worked on?

The child in me (and we are all children when we're at the movies) wants to say Star Wars.

What single piece of advice would you give to a young person trying to break into directing and get themselves noticed?

Stop making excuses! Put together a team of like-minded people and go make some movies. It's a collaborative art, and you can't go it alone. Most successful directors use the same folks again and again – whether it's cinematographers, production designers, composers, or whatever. Find people who share your vision, and make it happen. The Australian Blue Tongue Collective are a great example of what you can achieve with a bit of will, a bit of teamwork, and not very much else.

How important is 'knowing people'? Is raw talent enough?

Raw talent is decidedly not enough, and it's never too early to start networking.  I was always extremely shy about putting myself forward. I come from a modest working-class background, and suffered from fears of illegitimacy. Why would anyone want to meet me? What could I possibly bring to the table? Turns out people are a lot more generous with their time than you'd imagine. You will get meetings – they may not be life-changing meetings, not to begin with, but slowly you'll build up a network, and that network may prove to be invaluable to you. Remember, you can't make movies alone.

How do you think the UK film industry will change in the next few years?

I think we're going to see much more short-form content. Short films were always a means to an end for filmmakers who aspired to make features, but the internet has created an appetite for shorts now, and I look forward to seeing how the craft of short filmmaking develops.

More broadly, I am confident about the future of narrative filmmaking. As human beings, we need drama to make sense of our lives. The Ancient Greeks needed it, we need it, and our descendants will need it. I have no time for the doomsayers who predict the end of film. It's an art form that's still in its infancy, and if I could predict where it was going to go, I'd be a visionary.

For my part, I want to make films that borrow from US genre conventions but have some of the poetry and contemplativeness of European cinema. And as for British film, I am wildly optimistic about its future: Brits have a unique brand that's extremely sought after, witness the success of The King's Speech. In the short to medium term, we have to struggle with the challenges posed by the closure of the Film Council and the search for new funding models. But when I see films like Joe Cornish's Attack The Block, I know we'll find ways of making commercial films that still have a quirky and uniquely British edge. I watched that film at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, and you have no idea the laughs it got from a US audience.

As a final thought, I find abundance can often be the enemy of creativity, so if we do encounter challenges going forward, we should see these as an opportunity rather than a problem. Culturally, the UK has a great deal to offer the rest of the world. I see that now, living in Los Angeles. And I for one can't wait to be part of what I think will be an exciting future for British film and British filmmakers in the years and decades to come.


Sabrina Doyle's Profile On IMDB

Brits to Watch Portrait: BAFTA/ Barry J Holmes