Published on 07 February 2024 in Career

Directors UK Inspire: An Interview with Joe Simmons

We spoke to Directors UK member Joe Simmons about his time on our Inspire scheme, including his experience shadowing Tom Shankland on upcoming drama The Leopard.

Joe Simmons on the set of The Leopard

Tell me about your background as a director.

I picked up a camera for the first time when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Manchester, and I found a non-profit film group called Kino where I met other filmmakers, travelling around the world and making independent films. From there, I did a Masters at the Northern Film School in Leeds and honed my practice. I was a location assistant for a stretch and worked on some high-end TV and feature films. I was always looking for ways to develop my craft as a director, and was recommended the Directors UK Inspire scheme by another director, Stephen Gallacher. It’s been brilliant.

Can you tell me more about why you decided to apply for Inspire?

I didn’t quite know what kind of pathways were available to me as a director, and I wanted to find out how I could develop my career. I took the recommendation from Stephen seriously because he’s someone who has worked in the industry for a while and has a real understanding of how things move along. I thought it would be valuable to learn from established directors, understand their processes, and incorporate them into my own, which would give me the skills I needed to take work in the industry. I was then introduced to Tom Shankland, who would become my mentor. We got on really well and I knew that I could learn a lot from him. 

The set of The Leopard

Why did you decide on Tom, and how did you first approach him?

We had a mutual connection, which was an actor he worked with on SAS Rogue Heroes on the BBC. He’s also repped by the same commercials company that I am, so he was on my radar. We met for a meeting and he was very kind and generous with his knowledge. He had also worked on a whole different range of projects, including genre, which most of my work falls under. He was somebody that really understood the way that the industry worked, too. I gave him a sense of where I was at in my career and explored the ways that he could help me during the program, and once my application was accepted it developed from there.

You shadowed Tom on the upcoming Netflix series The Leopard. What did that involve for you?

I was very fortunate to go through the whole process from pre-production to post, so it was really eye-opening. I saw how he created a shared understanding of what the project was across departments, and how important that clarity was to ensure shooting days were as smooth as possible. And then I had the opportunity to shadow for two weeks on set in Sicily, and every single day I learnt different things. The first night we were filming a big set piece with horses in the rain, explosions, fires — all that exciting stuff. I gained a better understanding of how you direct that scope in a way that’s appropriate for the story but also works with your schedule and budget. Having also been involved in pre-production, I saw how those early creative decisions impacted the production.

The set of The Leopard

I had a couple of days shooting interiors and working with actors, too. I saw the different problems that arose each day and the ways that those were creatively solved. Tom also created a healthy environment on set, which is something I believe is really important. He made the cast and crew feel comfortable and was always trying to bring people together so everyone was working toward a collective vision. It was great to see how things were achieved technically, whilst also by making it a place that people wanted to be. I also got to see parts of edits and speak to Tom about the decisions he was making in post-production, so everything tied together.

What were some of the other ways you were mentored?

Tom was very generous with his time, so as well as discussions about the craft we had lots of very frank conversations about the reality of working as a director in this industry, and how to protect yourself and your relationships whilst trying to progress your career. He also offered to help me with my own projects, and would read through pitch decks, treatments and beat sheets to understand what my intention was, and we would then have conversations about how to expand it. He just took a genuine interest in me and my work, and I’m very grateful for that.

Joe Simmons on the set of The Leopard

Do you have any advice for anyone that is considering applying to Inspire?

I’d encourage anyone considering to apply. It’s not only beneficial from a career perspective, but for your personal development too. As directors, our work is quite solitary and we’re often taking on challenges by ourselves. Through Inspire, you realise there is a community of creatives that can identify with your experiences and give you advice. When it comes to choosing a mentor, it’s helpful to look at yourself and what kind of things you want to strengthen, and then look at directors you admire and have conversations to work out if you would be a good match. It’s important to remember that whoever you approach will likely be very busy, so you have to be reasonable with what you ask of them. That being said, it is useful to set out realistic expectations for what you want to get out of the mentorship and outline them upfront to see how feasible that is. Think of it not just as an opportunity to get on set, but to learn more about the life of a director, and that will help you get the most out of it. 

The set of The Leopard

Has Inspire opened new doors for you?

Yes. It encouraged me to reflect on my experience and develop new goals. I’ve looked at my filmography and quite a few of the projects that I’ve made have been working with younger actors, and since I’ve moved to Manchester where BBC Kids are based, I realised that working in Children’s would be an area that is well-suited to my skillset. 

What are you currently working on?

My BFI short film Vestige is continuing to travel film festivals, and I have a short medical drama called Remember to Breathe (which I made in collaboration with writer Stanley Rawlings) about to start its festival run. I'm also developing long-form projects now with the aim of pitching to production companies soon.

The Leopard is coming soon to Netflix. 

Find out more about Joe’s work as a director here.

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