Published on: 6 April 2023 in Case Studies

“I feel so much more prepared”: On placement on A Town Called Malice — an interview with Kelly Holmes

Photo: Kelly Holmes and Jamie Donoughue

Last year, Directors UK member Kelly Holmes joined lead director Jamie Donoughue throughout the production of Sky Max’s A Town Called Malice.

Through a placement organised with Directors UK, Kelly was able to join Jamie in prep, throughout the shoot in London and Tenerife, and even went on to direct some 2nd Unit.

We spoke to Kelly about her experience of the placement below.

Tell us about yourself and your directing work to date!

I’m a writer/director from the Midlands who tends to work in genre, and I’ve also worked a lot in period drama. I’ve made a lot of short films and have been broadcast on France 3 TV in international co-production. I’ve also received funding from Creative England and BFI Network, as well as other films being independently financed. I have features in development, particularly one called Year of the Heart, a menopausal body horror, which won at JETS in Berlin, was selected for Frontières Co-Production market, and has recently received further development funding.

Why did you first decide to apply for the placement on A Town Called Malice?

I’ve interviewed for all sorts of opportunities including features and continuing drama, but it’s so hard to get your first break in television. When I saw this placement advertised I knew it was a fantastic opportunity. But also as a working class filmmaker I really appreciated that it was a paid opportunity, because otherwise it would not have been feasible for me to spend four months on placement. I’ve shadowed briefly on other shows like BBC’s Sherlock, but those opportunities were very short-lived with a few days on set. The chance to see the whole first block through was huge to me because I needed to see what the job really is.

I loved the sound of A Town Called Malice as well; my early childhood was in the 80s and so I remember the music and the clothes and of course I knew of Nick Love. Before I was even interviewed I started mood boards because I just couldn’t help myself. The only information I had on the show was a short blurb that Sky had released to the press, but I knew I understood what they wanted to do with the tone and that the show would be a breath of fresh air. And I mean…who wouldn’t want to be paid to work in Tenerife?

How did you approach the application?

I watched Jamie Donoughue’s short film Shok and episodes of The Last Kingdom, and I’d already watched some of his other television work by chance. I cried at Shok, and I could see similarities between his filmmaking and mine — it’s emotional and cinematic. I wrote my cover letter quite quickly, outlining why his work impacted me and what correlations there were between our work, as well as what the opportunity would mean for me at this stage of my career. I guess when I submitted I didn’t hold out much hope for being interviewed, because you get very used to rejection. I was really quite nervous about the interview because the opportunity meant so much to me, and even though it was over Zoom it seemed to go fairly well. When I was offered the placement I genuinely couldn’t believe it — but I also didn’t really have time to process it. I dropped my entire life in one day and drove down to London to join the location tech recces and the whirlwind of being a part of A Town Called Malice started there.

Your placement started in prep. What did you find most useful about being involved in that process?

Being a part of prep was integral. The shoot is one thing, but prep in London (and in Tenerife) was incredibly educational. A Town Called Malice is a brand new show, and so speaking to Jamie about how he wanted to design the show and the responsibility of being lead director was highly instructional because I was given access to his aesthetic decisions and how he wanted to collaborate. Jamie has been where I am and we talked a lot about how hard it is to break out of short films, and how he started on The Last Kingdom, and he was very honest about that leap. I know how to shoot my own work, but the psychology of TV, the politics of the job, and the stress of leading a new show is all new to me and what I needed to learn. I also decided that although I was playing catch up on the show when I joined, I had to do a deep level of my own prep as if I were directing the show, otherwise I was wasting the opportunity.

Prep on shorts is usually a huge amount of work for both me and my producer, as we can’t afford to bring crew on early enough so you end up doing a lot of other people’s jobs. Being a part of Malice’s prep allowed me to really focus on directing; being in read-throughs, watching all the casting tapes, being in the production office, doing tech recces, visiting all the departments and seeing their prep, having access to Jamie’s prep and also being in meetings with execs, producers and the creator Nick Love, was just a deep dive into episodic high-end TV and the trust that is given to each department and most importantly the director.

When it came to the shoot itself, what were the most eye-opening moments for you?

Budget and schedule is so interesting in High-End TV. Something as simple as how many SAs you can have in a scene was wild to me. Coming from a shorts background, I always try to design films that don’t require SAs due to cost. So being on the shoot itself and seeing all those SAs in full 80s costume, hair and makeup, during COVID where the crew and cast had to be incredibly careful and diligent, and seeing the dance of how all that works within a tight schedule, on our first day of shooting, was incredible. However even on a budget far beyond what I’m used to receiving, there’s still a huge amount of compromise that has to be made, and as a director you have to find as much production value on the shoot as you can in that budget. It taught me that some things will always be the same and it’s still a hustle.

I’d seen early on in my career how directors can use schedule to their benefit when I shadowed the lovely Douglas Mackinnon briefly on Sherlock. But seeing schedule in motion on a whole block on Malice, how it changes and moves due to the needs of the show and how difficult it is to work on tight schedules in TV was really eye-opening. Jamie is brilliant at reworking a scene in the moment when they’re up against it. And although I’ve had experience of having to do this on difficult short film shoots, I watched him like a hawk in those moments on set when it got difficult and time was incredibly limited. Creativity usually came out of those moments, and I think Jamie’s fantastic because he seems to thrive on that pressure. It really taught me about keeping your cool as a director, and not letting panic overtake the moment. You’re going to get it, rely on your crew and allow yourself to think creatively on the spot.

I’m so grateful that the team on Malice let me do some 2nd Unit directing because by that point I was really ready to do more. I had a whole day doing drone work, which meant going out with my own small team for location recces, doing my own planning, and presenting it to Jamie and the producers. I was also shooting the day with doubles and a lock off crew in some pretty spectacular locations with a vintage Rolls Royce.

It also meant I was on set a lot picking up odd shots and partial bits of scenes that needed to be picked up, and troubleshooting simple ways of getting insert shots from London out in Tenerife. I also worked with some of the main cast and that felt very special as the talent in the show is massive…I can now say I’ve directed Martha Plimpton’s hands haha! But in all seriousness, the talent in the show is incredible and I feel very privileged to have been able to be a small part of directing them. And its hugely gratifying to see a lot of my shots used in the final show.

How did the experience of being part of something like A Town Called Malice differ from your own experiences of directing – and what turned out to be surprisingly similar?

One of the things you obviously have to learn is that the show is not entirely yours, especially if – unlike Jamie in this instance – you’re not the lead director on the show. Jamie and I talked a lot about fitting in to an existing show and how really the most important thing is ‘make your day and provide coverage’…and then you can find ways of showing your own directing style within the episodes you’re given. When you’re directing shorts all you’re trying to do really is show who you are as a director, but coming in to do a mid-block for example is a very different thing. You’ve got to learn how to carry the baton. And I tried to do that with my 2nd Unit work, as there’s little point going off on a tangent and the shots not being used.

Shadowing on something much bigger than I’m used to is revelatory in watching a large crew work together. Some of the aspects of shooting that take far too much time on a short film melt away when you have enough crew dedicated to achieving the look you want. We had a day with a 75-foot Technocrane, and it was beautiful watching the crew move that beast around the location. It was also comforting to see how the HoDs have the director’s back on shoot, knowing that when I move into High-End TV I I can trust that the shoot is going to run as smoothly as it can, and the HoDs will react to changes because they’re experienced.

But some things are just surprising similar. The same issues come up, there’s never enough time at the end of the day, weather is always going to screw up your day, and oddly a director’s prep isn’t that different – it’s just a lot longer and more intense. What’s different is working with a large team of producers, execs and having to answer for the day in a meaningful way.

What is the most valuable thing you took from the placement as a whole – and what do you think made the placement an effective one?

The most valuable aspect was knowing what to expect, and the biggest thing for me was the length of the placement. Being a part of prep and seeing a whole block shoot, and thus understanding the physicality of going through 40-odd days of shooting was the most important part. I haven’t been on a shoot that long before, and now I really know what to expect. Not just how tiring that is, but how to mentally navigate that as a director and how important it is to look after yourself. You’ve got to keep the energy up and not lose focus on such a long schedule that bounces around scenes from three different episodes sometimes in one day. And so the mental load a director takes on board is hugely significant.

The access that I was provided with is also what made the placement so effective. Being a part of a crew for four months and being in the directors/producers circle means understanding the show on a whole other level. That honestly means that I feel so much more prepared for when I’m directing TV in the future, and although I’ll face my own new problems on whatever show that might be, having been a part of a show and seeing it through allows me to pull on the knowledge I’ve gained from this placement. And that gives me confidence that I’ll be able to deliver my own episodes in the future.

What are you working on next?

I shot a short for BFI Network at the end of last year, and I’m in postproduction on that now. I’m also about to go into a new draft of my feature Year of the Heart that I received a large development grant for last year from Okre, which includes monies for research with creative collaborators and being able to start casting the lead character. So, I’m very excited about that and we can hopefully start working with a sales agent in the near future. I would also like to start taking generals soon — I would like to look for a mid-block of directing on an existing show as a good starting point to move into TV directing.

Cookies help us deliver our services. By using our services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn more