Read how BAFTA-winning writer/director Esther May Campbell got started in the industry.
Interview published 10 December 2012
What first inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I grew up watching films. After the wrestling and Tom and Jerry, I would watch Saturday afternoon films with my Dad. It wasn’t until my teens, through filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Spike Lee and the Coen brothers that I could sort of see the seams and how they were made. It then dawned on me that films don’t just drop from the sky like that.
During my teens I was wanting to make sense of the world that I was in. So that need to find stories to open up the experience of being in the world was something that I felt very strongly. I was taking stills and I had a strong photographic eye. I worked in theatre for a few years, but felt that theatre could often preach to the converted. So, I liked the idea of making something that could enter lives in a much more unexpected way.
How did you first break into the industry?
I don’t feel that I did break into the industry. I think it’s important that young people don’t have that question on the front of their mind. It’s more curious to think about: what stories do I want to tell? How do I develop my craft? How can I improve the way I’m making work? How am I going to reach my audience, and who are they? I think the rest will follow. My desire then, like now, wasn’t to work in an industry, it was to make compelling work. So I think that focusing your mind on the process of the work is more important than how to break into something.
Were there any people who supported/mentored/championed you early on? How important are these kinds of relationships?
They’re massively important. There are producers I’d met once or twice and they really helped, like Simon Relph and later Robyn Slovo. They give you a kind of confidence which is wonderful. But what one cherishes are the collaborators who shine a light on your work, and who you can shine a light back towards. That’s when it gets really exciting. And there are people who facilitate your process, such as a great agent, and I’ve got a lovely one.
If you hadn’t managed to break into filmmaking, what was your plan B?
I have a compulsion to create and I think if you stuck me, like others, in a room with nothing to do, we would make stuff. We are compelled to conjure something (while putting food on the table). For some people there’s not so much of a choice. It's a way of being in the world.
Which professional figure in your field do you find the most inspiring?
I love rule-breakers and film makers who work inside and outside the system. Terrence Malick, for his work and his craft. Werner Herzog, less for his work but his approach. Then there are filmmakers who are very playful with form such as Lars von Trier. I find contemporaries inspiring – Duane Hopkins for example – filmmakers who are pushing the ways in which they are doing their work.
Which film/TV programme do you wish you could have worked on and why?
I would have loved to have seen Days Of Heaven (1978) come into being. I don’t watch television and wish that there was a show in particular I’d worked on. That might be because I know how incredibly tough TV can be. But there are some films that when they come out I think ‘Why didn’t I do this?’ When I saw Rushmore (1998) I thought ‘Yes!’ and to a degree Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012). For me it’s often first-time features. I get excited because they’re throwing lots of ideas in and pushing against the form. Although I found Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005), less exciting on a second and third watch, when I watched it the [first] time I thought ‘Yes, this is how films can be made’.
What single piece of advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker trying to stand out from the crowd?
No one knows better than you. I’m quantifying that by saying it doesn’t mean go out there, elbows out - but rather look deeper. You know what you need to make and what you need to do. No one can tell you that.
How do you think the UK film/TV industry will change in the next few years?
I’m hopeful that the BFI is going to be radical in its cultural choices. Clearly films based on guaranteed products like existing books and sequels are taking over the marketplace. I hope there’ll be some kind of explosion between marketplace filmmaking and something with strong cultural value that raises our spirits in difficult times. I think film can do that. We need cinematic dreamers in England, and they’re there. We’ve got them, and they need to be given chances to make work.