Through our Inspire scheme, Directors UK member Tom Gentle went from creating short films to working on The Rig, an Amazon Prime series of massive scale. We spoke to Tom about shadowing The Rig’s director John Strickland, what he learned from the experience, and how he hopes this will inspire future projects.
Video via Amazon Prime on YouTube
Filmed entirely in Scotland, The Rig is a character-driven supernatural thriller following the Kinloch Bravo oil rig crew as they fight for survival after a mysterious fog severs communication with the shore, leaving them stranded in the fierce waves of the North Sea.
After approaching John Strickland about a mentorship, Tom Gentle became involved in a project of a scale he had never worked on before, from pre-production to gaining experience on set.
Read the full interview with Tom below.
Tell us about yourself and your directing work.
I’m a writer/director from Glasgow. I’ve worked across a variety of genres, including documentary and drama. I’ve made three or four shorts that have done well on the festival circuit, and I’m currently developing features whilst also working on commercials.
Typically, I use improvisation workshops to develop scripts, which involves working with actors on scene ideas or scenarios, recording the sessions, and then going back to the studio to try and make sense of it all.
What made you apply to Directors UK Inspire?
Primarily, I felt like I needed to gain experience on projects that had a larger cast and more coverage. On The Rig, John was shooting scenes with VFX and SFX on huge sets that incorporated 12 main actors, plus a small army of extras. You just don’t get that kind of experience working on a short film, so I wanted to see how he approached and tackled it all before I had an opportunity to shoot something of similar scope myself.
Image via Tom Gentle
How did you approach the application process?
My approach to applications has evolved and become a lot quicker over the last couple of years. You can sit there and agonise endlessly over words and phrasing, but the best thing to do is to get it done as quickly as possible. It’s much more natural that way! Of course, the first thing I did was approach John to see if he might be interested. We knew each other already from a show that I worked on previously, and I knew that he had a huge amount of experience which I felt it would be a good fit. Luckily, he felt the same.
What form did the mentorship take? Which stages were you involved in?
I was very lucky because my application was accepted just before The Rig was greenlit, so just a few weeks after John became my mentor, he started prep. I sat in on almost everything: castings; art department calls; VFX meetings; site visits. And then I was there for a lot of the shoot days, sitting with John at the monitor or standing by the sidelines when he was rehearsing. It was an amazing privilege to be in the room during all these different elements of production, and I learned so much.
What did you learn from shadowing John?
The key thing I learned was how to break down a scene and understand the coverage. John started out as an editor, and I got the impression his previous experience informed how he approached this as a director, so I gained a good understanding of what shots you need and neither undershooting nor overshooting.
Working on such a large production also taught me a lot about balancing time. There are huge demands on your time on such a big show, and it’s impossible to be everywhere all at once. However, John was very aware that he had some extremely talented people around him — a lot of whom he had worked with before — so he knew he could trust them to use their initiative.
Video via Amazon Prime on YouTube
What stands out for you as the most useful piece of advice you received?
I would say the most useful thing that I took from John was his manner on set. He’s been directing for so long and has developed an impressively relaxed demeanor, so even on this huge, high-stakes production, he was still chatting and joking with the cast and crew. He spoke to me about how this filters down, too — if you turn up to set it in a bad mood, you soon see it reflected in the crew. He was brilliant at creating and maintaining a positive atmosphere and working environment on set, even when conditions occasionally became challenging.
What was your favourite experience whilst working on the placement?
I loved observing John and everything that was going on with the main unit, but I would say my favourite days involved shooting some material of my own. I’d say my favourite day was going out of the studio with 50 extras to stage climate change protests in the middle of Edinburgh. The street had to look like Westminster to match some stock helicopter footage we were using, so putting everything together with this in mind was a challenge. On top of that, making 50 extras look like they are hundreds of people is complicated, so I was really pleased to get a lovely message from John that evening saying he was happy with the material.
How has this experience informed you as a director?
I feel way more relaxed about what I'm doing now. Coming up through shorts, you develop your own way of working, but you never get to check that this is the “right” way. What I learned from my mentorship is that there is no right way, just the way that makes you feel the most comfortable. I feel better equipped for bigger projects now, and more intricate scenes with more actors and coverage.
Most of all, I feel like I’ve absorbed John’s calm and fun attitude. It’s a total honour to be able to do this work, so every time I get on a set now, I remind myself to enjoy it!
What are you working on next?
At the moment, I’m spending a lot of time writing in my studio. I’ve just finished a commercial that will air in a few weeks, so my main focus this summer is ideas development and finishing some treatments for features and TV. My short film, Close, is also currently doing the festival circuit. We played it in Berlin at the start of the year, so I’m hoping for another festival somewhere nice — maybe California, or southern Italy!
Directors UK Inspire is a year-round mentoring scheme that accepts applications from members and more experienced directors working in a similar field.