Published on 04 June 2024 in Career

Directors UK Inspire: A Roundtable with Alex Di Cuffa, Katerina Philippou-Curtis and Markus Meedt

We recently sat down with Alex Di Cuffa, Katerina Philippou-Curtis and Markus Meedt, three directors who were part of cohort 1 during the 2022-23 cycle of Directors UK Inspire.

We spoke about how being part of the peer-to-peer mentoring scheme helped them navigate the next steps in their careers and what they learned along the way. We also got their advice for prospective applicants who are inspired by their insights! 

To kick us off, it would be great to hear about your backgrounds and how you each got into directing.  

Alex Di Cuffa: I started life as an actor, but I often found myself frustrated at the lack of work and I decided I would make some of my own instead. I initially started out as a producer, because I felt I didn’t have enough experience to try directing at that point. After working on my second or third short film, I found I was constantly arguing with the director about his creative choices — to the point where he said, “why don’t you bloody direct a film then?” And I thought, “actually, I will.”  

It took me six months to prep and direct my debut short, and it was a natural fit for my skills and interests. This gave me the confidence to then take directing seriously, and it made me want to learn more. I worked as an Assistant Director for a while, I taught kids how to make films, which was an amazing crash course in getting a film made very quickly with no help whatsoever. From there, I decided I wanted to start making my debut feature, and this led me to Inspire... 

Katerina Philippou-Curtis: I’m a writer-director and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to make films. I’m originally from Greece where there weren’t many female directors when I was growing up in the 1980s, so I felt like I really had to prove myself and my storytelling — I started out making 8-minute Super 8s and Super 16s, before moving onto digital and eventually making short films. In 1999, I received funding from the Greek Film Centre and the Minister of Culture to make my first feature, which premiered at Thessaloniki International Film Festival. That’s when I was bitten by the directing “bug”; it felt like I really belonged on set, where I could tell stories and express myself creatively.  

However, I felt that staying in Greece would be very difficult for me as a female director and that moving to England or America would hopefully give me more opportunities to write and make films. I worked at Warner Brothers, I did a lot of theatre and a lot of films in New York and LA... It was great to be able to add so much to my CV! Thirteen years later, I’ve just made my second feature film, something I’m really proud of. It’s very much independently produced and independently funded by money we’ve scraped and made, and it’s really consolidated the fact that I’m an indie film maker, which I love.  

Markus Meedt: I initially came to London from Germany to study film. And, although university didn’t do much for me, it introduced me to various film production companies for intern opportunities. Through this, I interned at DNA Films, where I eventually got a job as an assistant. And they put me in touch with a lot of their Heads of Department which opened the door to being an Assistant Director on bigger films — that was my introduction to working on big sets.  

My goal had always been directing but I got sidetracked and ended up doing a lot of assistant directing instead. But, through this, I met a lot of like-minded people who would help each other or do zero budget directing challenges together where everyone takes a role and collaborates. Being able to experiment opened the door to commercial directing, which is the format I’ve mostly been working in alongside trying to get into long-form drama. 

Image courtesy of Markus Meedt: shadowing mentor Jamie Stone on location

What appealed to you about the Directors UK Inspire scheme?  

Alex: I’d been a Directors UK member for a couple of years. I’d been to a few screenings and been able to use some of the resources on the website, so I knew being part of this community was useful. I’d also seen previous Inspire cohorts or information about applying via the website and I thought it was a great idea. The hardest part of being a director is that it can be very lonely. I’d always wanted someone who was further along in their career to guide me because I felt like I’d been bumbling around for a few years but not always knowing if I was making the right decisions.  

When I saw the opportunity to take part in Inspire, I set myself the slightly mammoth task of getting all my professional ambitions in order so that I was in the best possible position to be part of the scheme and to start making my debut feature. The fact that there was support from a mentor and from Directors UK, whatever form that took, was important to me. I felt it could be a great opportunity to put me on the path I wanted to be on as a director, so I put all my efforts into doing everything I could to be part of it.  

Katerina: I applied to Inspire because I thought that would be a wonderful way to be supported, and to help me cross over from the indie film world into TV — I felt like the writing in TV was sometimes more suited to the worlds I created as a director and this was something I was keen to explore. 

I also thought it would open doors and give me a chance to meet people and establish relationships with other like-minded artists. I’d seen other Inspire cohorts’ stories and I thought they were so inspiring; they were creating and doing something tangible that could help everyone in the same position. It just seemed like a great opportunity.  

Markus: I already knew my mentor, Jamie Stone, before I was accepted onto the Inspire scheme. We had tried on several occasions to see if I could shadow him, sit in on an edit, or meet agents he had relationships with but hadn’t got very far. Connecting with Jamie had been a natural fit — he wanted to learn more about commercials, and I was keen to do more drama. But, because our professional relationship wasn’t clearly defined, whenever we tried to help each other or he reached out to people to make introductions on my behalf, it usually was met with a friendly email saying ”nice to meet you”, but nothing really happened.  

When the opportunity to get involved with Inspire came up, I thought it would help Jamie and I to have these conversations but with the added “Directors UK” seal of approval, and it really did. I think it helped that people knew that Jamie was very clearly responsible for me as my mentor, that it was part of a wider scheme and that our professional relationship was much more clearly defined as a result. That’s what attracted me to it, having the support and the acknowledgement, but also being able to approach people and be clear about what it was for and why you were being introduced to them. 

Image: Katerina Philippou-Curtis in action; credit Paul Curtis

What were you looking for in a prospective mentor? 

Alex: Obviously, I was looking for someone who could help me take my next steps. But, even more so, I was looking for someone who understood the path I’d been on and understood the path I wanted to go down — that’s why Giles (Alderson) was the perfect mentor for me. He’d also started out as an actor before moving into producing and directing indie films, which really aligned with what I wanted to do.   

When I got in touch with him, he was instantly open to it. He’d been mentored through Inspire and had benefited from it, so he made the process easy for me in terms of talking to him and reaching out with what I needed. I was really lucky that I found someone who was so open and helpful from the start. 

Katerina: For me, it was important to meet with my mentor to chat and to have a coffee, and for them to understand where I was and how I could progress. What I wanted, and what I had in the end with Steve Kelly, was somebody who had successfully crossed the bridge between indie films and TV. He’d done what I’d done in the past in terms of his filmmaking, but he’d also managed to juggle that with television. He was there at the beginning for Doctors and he had a long-established relationship with the producers and with the BBC, so it felt extremely valuable to talk to him and to see whether moving between film and TV and juggling both was possible.  

Markus: It was less about someone who had more experience than me, and more about someone whose work I really liked. With my mentor Jamie, I think what brought us together was just that I really love the work he does. He's done Doctor Who and lots of uplifting, fantastical stories, which was something I wanted to do more of – working with someone who inspired me, and my work really appealed to me. It helped that we already knew each other, and that he’d always been supportive in the past, so I knew he would make time for everything the mentorship involved. 

I think the key is to find someone whose work you like. That did the trick for me, and it also meant that from the start, it was clear where his strengths and my interests would overlap and speak to each other. 

How did you know, and make sure, that you had found the right person to be your mentor?  

Alex: The simple answer is that I knew instinctively that Giles was the right person. Not just because we’d been down the same path and he’s the same type of filmmaker as me but because he said yes. When many people would have said no, he said yes. The fact that he was open to the whole process and was open and responsive from the start really helped — it was always straightforward. I think it also helped that he’d been part of Inspire before as a mentee himself; he knew what I wanted to get out of it and what he had wanted from his mentor so he could give that to me. 

Katerina: I have a lot to thank Directors UK’s Career Development and Skills Manager Sean Thomas for! When I first started Inspire, I struggled to find the time to connect with my initial mentor, and I didn’t know how to handle the situation as it wasn’t what I had expected. Luckily, I could chat to Sean about it. He suggested lots of other names and even put me in touch with a few people, and I had some great insightful conversations while I was looking for the right person to mentor me. 

Sean also knew that I was keen on getting on-set experience. It was something that I had really missed since being in the UK, and I wanted to see what it is like working on a structured set, so he suggested I approach Steve Kelly. And it was immediately easy. Steve invited me to Birmingham where he was shooting Doctors so that I could be on set with him; it was a fantastic experience seeing how everything worked. We were able to chat about the differences between independent filmmaking and television and seeing him working so fluidly and naturally on set was inspiring.  

Markus: My first official meeting with Jamie set the tone for our mentor-mentee relationship. He was pitching for a TV show and had a call with the producers later that day, so he took me through the whole process. However, we were at his house, so it was quite intimate. This meant that Jamie introduced me not only to the technical and professional side of the process but also to the challenges and things like fitting your day-to-day life around filmmaking. It was so helpful. 

I think being mentored isn’t just what you can learn from textbooks or roundtables. I was part of Jamie’s journey and having him share his vulnerabilities and the stresses we all have as directors with me was useful. I think we often see people who inspire us as people who know everything and feel super confident at all times and, although Jamie does know everything and is very confident (from my perspective, anyway!), it was reassuring to see that the emotions I had felt as a director were universal and part of the process. Having that initial meeting in that home environment made me feel like Jamie was someone who would invite me in on a much more personal level, which was great. 

Image: Alex di Cuffa and mentor Giles Alderson

It would be great to hear how you found working with your mentors — from building professional relationships to deciding your priorities and everything in-between. As well as the positives, was there anything that you found challenging or surprising? If so, how did you navigate these moments?  

Alex: Giles was great at asking important questions early on about what I wanted to achieve. What was my priority? To make my first feature film. How are we going to do that? Where was I in the process? How far had I got on my own? We had this conversation in our first meeting. At that point, I had an idea for a rom com which I really liked, but he suggested that for my first feature as an indie director, it would be better to go down more of a genre route and do something that would be more sellable. Giles’ advice stopped me going down a rabbit hole; I really liked the script I’d found, and I really wanted to make it. And I probably would have done and would still be trying to get somebody interested if he hadn’t guided me towards other ideas. Instead, I started reading different scripts, thinking about different ideas, and pitching them to him for feedback, as I knew he would give me constructive insights.  

After a couple of months, it was clear that I hadn’t found the right project to take on. But, what I had realised was that I had an idea that I would probably have to write, and Giles was really supportive of this; we chatted about how this would be better for me as a filmmaker rather than just taking on someone else’s project. During these first few months of working together and deciding what my focus would be, Giles was always on the end of the phone, or we’d meet in person. I was able to ask him all the questions I had about becoming a working director and he was so generous in return. If I wanted to know how to create a pitch deck for investors or better understand what to look for in contracts, he’d send me examples of what he’d done before. He was a real font of knowledge. 

It was great to find this focus, however, it also meant that I got about three or four months into the mentorship and realised that I was going to have to hide away and write a feature film for the next year rather than doing more hands-on learning. Similarly, as much as he tried to make it happen, there wasn’t an opportunity for me to get any on-set experience. This was a little bit frustrating, as I really wanted that experience so I could see how Giles worked as a director. However, he was always up for discussing things I needed to know or understand about directing and was so generous with sharing resources and encouraging me to go out and create my own film project. Once I’d finished writing my feature, he also gave me feedback and shared ideas for different creative choices to make it more interesting — what’s great is that he is still mentoring me now, two years after Inspire finished. 

Katerina: Although it took me longer than I expected to find the right mentor, it meant I was able to have some great conversations with different directors to pick their brains about their processes and experiences, especially about working in TV and especially when talking to other female directors or writer-directors. I was also weighing up whether I was a TV director or an indie film director as, speaking from my own experience, female directors could seem quite compartmentalised in terms of moving between genres and formats. For example, if you’re a TV director and you’re doing drama, it can be difficult to break into independent filmmaking, and if you’re an indie film director and used to being self-sufficient, it can be difficult to get into TV directing — it almost felt like two different mentalities and it was so useful to have these conversations while I was figuring out my next move.  

When I started working with Steve as my mentor, it was great to have a chance to join him on set. Being there with him made me certain that I’d love to be directing for TV because I was able to see first-hand the enjoyment and satisfaction in creating the stories and in directing the actors and crew. It showed me that it was worth fighting for what I wanted to do as a director, too. 

Markus: I direct a lot of commercials, and used to be an assistant director in film, but I had no experience in TV, and this was something I wanted to change. When Jamie and I first met up, it was something I was really clear about prioritising, and it was where his experience and strengths were. We looked at how to pitch as a director for TV shows and how to pitch shows themselves. There were also some scripts and pilots and proof of concepts that I had written or was involved with that Jamie took the time to read and give me feedback on, sharing pointers on things like where he thought they might find a home on TV. These insights were so helpful. 

We tend to think about what we would like to watch but TV is very audience-focused and having someone with this understanding look at pitches and ideas and give constructive feedback on what different broadcasters might be looking for and how to adapt a pitch accordingly was brilliant. Sometimes, Jamie even asked for my thoughts on something he had worked on, which was helpful in me gaining a better understanding of what it takes to be a TV director and how to get that kind of work.  

He also very kindly managed to arrange for me to shadow him for a couple of weeks while he was shooting on location overseas, which was incredible. As we were still coming out of the Covid pandemic, there were a lot of different factors to navigate, and it was inspiring to see how Jamie adapted the filming schedule around things like cast and crew illness, and to see how much his putting patience and kindness at the forefront of his work carried the crew. Directors UK have a small budget which they’re able to use to assist with expenditure directly related to your mentorship, and they were really open to chatting about how I could make the most of this support to join Jamie overseas as it was a great opportunity. 

Early on, Jamie and I worked out that, when communicating via email or text, it helped to be specific and short in my questions as Jamie was juggling a lot of different responsibilities. For instance, if I’d written a script, I’d share a one-pager and ask to hear his thoughts on that instead of the full script. If he liked it, I’d ask if he wanted to read the script before sharing more. I think what helped was to give each other the space, time and understanding that life can get in the way, and to keep it bite-sized in terms of information I was after.  

I think the biggest challenge when you’re working with a mentor is that you never know when you’re asking for too much or when you’ve maybe become a burden, especially if they haven’t replied to your emails for a couple of weeks because they’re busy juggling other things. That’s always challenging to navigate. I think this is where trust and an awareness that we’re here to help each other comes in, especially with Directors UK as there’s a collaborative spirit and people are happy to talk about any issues that come up.  

Image courtesy of Markus Meedt: shooting on location with Jamie Stone

How have you found that working with a mentor, and being part of Inspire, has supported you in evolving and developing your practice as a director? 

Alex: It was so helpful. Giles helped keep me focused and stopped me going down rabbit holes that would have wasted a lot of time. If I’m honest, I didn’t particularly like horror films, but the advice he gave me about going down the genre route made me watch and appreciate them, which gave me the inspiration I needed to go down that road. I’ve now written the script and am 20% funded through the independent funding journey that we’re doing — if it wasn’t for Giles and the advice he shared, like how to pitch and how to talk to investors, I don’t think I’d be in this position. Asking people for enormous amounts of money is terrifying but, because Giles and I had practice conversations and ran through different scenarios, when I went into those meetings, I was prepared and felt comfortable. I wouldn’t have felt that way if it hadn’t been for his mentoring and support.  

I’m really lucky that he’s also attached to the film — I feel that being able to mention Giles’ name has helped embed the film in people’s minds a bit more, whether it’s with post-production houses or with independent investors. He’s given me the confidence, industry knowledge and understanding that you can only learn from someone who’s done it themselves, and this has been so important in furthering my journey. 

I really believe that I am where I am today because of Giles’ mentorship and because Directors UK helped facilitate this through Inspire. It took me on the path I needed to follow and taught me what I needed to know to get to where I am now, with the benefit of being part of a scheme with other directors where we could keep each other going when we needed extra support.   

Katerina: Being part of a Directors UK scheme was almost like having a stamp of approval; it gave me the confidence to approach other people I knew in the industry in a way that I hadn’t before. For instance, there was a producer I’d met previously, and I was always a bit worried about approaching him but having the “endorsement” of being part of Inspire made me go for it. And I was extremely lucky, as he invited me to spend some time on the set of a Netflix series that he was working on. It was like nothing I’d experienced before, and I was proud to be able to say that I was part of “Directors UK Inspire” when I was talking with crew and Heads of Department on set.  

It was a fantastic opportunity that opened a lot of doors. I had a chance to chat with James Strong, the director, as well as Matt Charman, the writer. Matt was especially generous; he took time over his lunch break to talk to me about my projects and what I wanted to do. We carried on the conversation after the set   visit, too — I sent him my script, he shared his feedback, suggested people to send it to and even introduced me to an American producer who was running a writers’ group that I’ve since joined.  

I think being part of Inspire has made me more confident in talking to people in the industry and in thinking about what I want to achieve. It has opened so many doors and, as I keep evolving as a director and as a writer-director, I know that being able to say I’m part of a Directors UK scheme has been a huge benefit. 

Markus: Watching Jamie on set for a TV shoot, I realised I already had technical skills and knowledge from making short films that I could transfer to other formats; the budgets were just bigger, and the days were longer. What was important was building relationships, problem solving and trusting your instinct as a director – this never changed. I think knowing that I had what it takes was inspiring and made me more confident going into new projects. After my time on Inspire finished, I found myself working on an incredibly challenging and exciting shoot, but thanks to working with Jamie and having a chance to see how complex TV set are managed and how shoots on this scale work, I felt a lot more grounded and confident. It really helped that I knew the most important thing is to trust yourself and the people around you, and that you’re all there to make a good movie or TV show and, as long as you can remember that, then you will do. 

One great piece of advice that Jamie gave me (which might give away too much of his wisdom but it’s a good one!) was that every battle you have, especially in TV where there are so many executives and stakeholders and different people with different interests, is a little like playing roulette. Every time you have to make your case or fight for something, you have to put your “chips” in and decide how much you’re willing to fight for it. If you go all in and it pays off, people will trust you the next time you have an opinion. But, if you put too much into small arguments or really minor things and you don’t get what you want, you’ll start running out of favours and people might be less inclined to trust you. Similarly, you need to be smart when you decide to go all-in, because it might not always work. Now, whenever I need to make big decisions, I imagine I’m playing roulette and I think about what’s worth gambling on. Finding confidence and enjoying the process, I think that’s the key and that was the biggest thing I learned. 

Image courtesy of Katerina: BTS on set with mentor Steve Kelly

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about applying to Directors UK Inspire?  

Alex: Know what you want to get out of it and think about who you want to approach — why this director and how could they help you? Then just enjoy the process! Trust your mentor, trust what they’re telling you and use everything to your advantage. If you’ve got a WhatsApp group with other directors, talk to them. If your mentor offers you an opportunity, take it.  

Katerina: Be clear about what you want and have a list of different mentors you might want to approach, rather than just one. Be honest about how it’s going with your mentor, too.  

As Markus said previously, it can be difficult if you don’t know whether to nudge them for follow-ups or how many emails you’re supposed to send, especially if you don’t always get an answer straight away. Don’t be afraid to chat to the team at Directors UK if you feel the connection with your mentor isn’t quite going the way you thought it would — if they don’t know you’re struggling with something, they can’t support you to find a solution or put you in touch with people who might be a better fit.  

Be yourself, be honest, and be open with your mentor, that’s the key. 

Markus: I really agree with Alex and Katerina about being open and enjoying the process. I also think it’s important to remember that your mentor is there to teach you. They’re not someone to compare yourself to or measure yourself against, you’re not there to try and convince them you know everything already or to show them everything you’ve done.  

Ask questions, too! If you’re not afraid to do this, it will really help you in the future. I think asking questions or admitting we don’t have a clue is something a lot of directors are embarrassed to admit to, because we’re supposed to be leaders. So, be clueless, ask questions, and learn how to ask questions rather than trying to impress, I think that’s key.  

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