Published on 01 September 2023 in Career

Top tips for working with your Inspire scheme mentor

Taking place across the year and open to directors across all genres, the Inspire scheme pairs mentees with experienced director-mentors to support career growth and exploration.

To help anyone thinking about taking part in the scheme, we spoke to director Neil Ben, who was part of our 2022 Inspire cycle, to learn more about what prompted him to apply and to get his advice about how to make the most of working with a more experienced director as a mentor.

You can read Neil’s top tips below.

Neil Ben headshot
Neil Ben headshot
Image credit: Neil Ben

My introduction to TV was working as a Trainee Assistant Producer within BBC Schools, where I made educational programmes which were full of comedy and larger-than-life characters inspired by my background in children’s theatre and presenting hospital radio at Great Ormond Street.

I became a freelance director in the mid 1990s, working in both multi-camera studios and on location, directing everything from Teletubbies to poker programmes. In 2002, I became creative director of a small production company, and I continued to write and direct children’s programmes for a variety of different broadcasters. In 2010, I was nominated for a BAFTA, an achievement I’m incredibly proud of.

So, with a twenty-year career, extensive experience of different formats and for different broadcasters, and a BAFTA nomination behind me... why did I decide to put myself forward for a directors mentoring scheme? 

 In 2011, I became a single dad, which resulted in me stepping away from broadcast TV. I thought I would never work in the industry again, but I found I really missed directing as well as working with crews and actors. So, two years ago, with my kids now teenagers, I decided to try and work my way back into the industry.

Around the same time, I saw that Directors UK were looking for members to sit on their Equality and Diversity committee. As someone with a disability and as an outspoken advocate for diversity, I decided to apply and joined the committee, where I helped to establish a disability working group within Directors UK, working alongside another amazing disabled director, John Maidens, as co-Vice Chair.

 This involvement with Directors UK led me to the Inspire scheme, which really struck a chord with me. After a long break from working as a director, I was worried that I had no contacts, my confidence was low, and I didn’t know if anyone would take me seriously. I needed someone to guide me, support me, and cheer me on, which is what Inspire seemed to offer.

 Whether you’re starting out and looking for guidance to help you navigate the industry, you’re hoping to make the change from directing shorts and documentaries to feature-length films and high-end TV or, like me, you’re hoping to rebuild your confidence following a career break, I’ve put together some of the advice and lessons that helped me make the most of working with my mentor whilst on the Inspire scheme – good luck!

Tip #1 - have a clear goal in mind

When you apply for the Inspire scheme, you should have a clear goal that you can focus on. For me, that was to re-enter the broadcast industry following a long career break, and to direct scripted comedy / drama or entertainment programmes again.

 Although much of my early broadcast career was in children’s and educational TV, my focus within those areas was always on narrative comedy or comedy-drama, and I also wrote many of the programmes that I directed, and I wanted to draw on this further whilst finding a route back into directing.

Similarly, during the years I spent away from the TV industry, I continued to write but for a more mature audience. This led to one of my scripts being optioned and pitched to Channel 4 Comedy at the end of  2021, which further evolved my goal to include directing the comedy / drama series I had written. 

Tip #2 - find the perfect mentor  for your needs and interests

I would advise finding a mentor who is both not too busy, as this may mean they only have limited time to support you, but at the same time, has a degree of relevant, ongoing work that you could shadow. The Inspire scheme aims to pair participants with mentors who are more experienced directors, meaning you still have plenty to learn from your mentor and in return they have plenty to show and teach you, without it creating an unnecessary sense of “competition”.

For my own mentor, I wanted to find someone who shared my passion for narrative comedy, telling stories and working with talent. I was also on the lookout for someone who had directed both multi-camera studios and locations, as I had experience of doing both and wanted to develop my existing skills.

This is the most important part of the process in my opinion, and I would advise finding or thinking about the most suitable mentor in advance of applying, as it will be up to you to contact them. I had a few conversations with the Directors UK team about who would be best for me to work with based on the criteria I had for a mentor, and I was presented with a list of members who fitted this, but it was ultimately my responsibility to reach out and see if they were available and indeed up for being my mentor. 

 I spoke with several potential mentors, but the person that I really clicked with was Ed Bye, who directed British comedy classics such as The Vicar of Dibley, The Young Ones, Red Dwarf, and French and Saunders.

I think a number of things helped Ed and I connect – I was lucky enough to have him read the comedy script I had written, and I was even luckier that he really liked it, which helped foster a shared vision of bringing my writing to the screen one day.  

If you have created something that you’re proud of, that could make a good impression on a potential mentor, or give them an insight into your work, such as a showreel, a short film, a script, or a review of a show you directed, it is always worth sharing it with them.

Ed and I also discovered a shared love for comedy, which helped us build a strong, positive working relationship, and I think my previous experience and rigorous training with the BBC also helped. I was trained to direct by working out which shots you need prior to shooting, and to shoot within a strict time-frame, which isn’t necessarily how some younger directors work, and I suspect that Ed recognized a lot of his own approach and background in this.

Tip #3 - collaborate with your mentor to develop an Inspire action plan

Once you’ve found the best mentor for you and the programme starts, you will need to build an action plan; this means setting up monthly virtual or face-to-face meetings, plus planning your objectives for each meeting to ensure you’re making the most of these conversations by keeping them relatively structured and organised. A lot can change in a year, so your plan should have a level of flexibility; however, if you put this plan together with your mentor, this will encourage them to hopefully be as invested in following it as you. 

 For example, Ed knew he would be directing Murder, They Hope for UKTV over the summer whilst he was mentoring me, so this meant we were able to pencil in some location shadowing days in June and July, plus some post-production shadowing in the Autumn. Before this practical experience, we also planned to review and refresh my CV and website, review my comedy writing, and create a strategy that would help get my face and name out there in the industry.

When I started the Inspire scheme, I had a clear vision of what I wanted to get out of the process - to discover whether I had the skills and the experience needed to re-enter the industry as a director following a long break. Following my second meeting with Ed as my mentor and after chatting with him “director to director” about different ideas for a shoot he was about to direct, it became clear that I still had the vision and the understanding as well as the skills and expertise to direct comedy. This helped evolve my next objective (and challenge!), which was to ensure that people in the industry knew I existed and that I had the skills and experience to direct their programmes, which is where reviewing my CV and website with Ed’s support came in.

Neil Ben pic 2
Neil Ben pic 2
Image credit: Neil Ben, BTS on Murder, They Hope

Ed Bye, Inspire mentor, said of working with Neil:

In my experience, a director needs two CVs - an “at a glance” document (one page maximum) that lets an employer or commissioner quickly see the extent of your experience, and then a long form version that goes into more detail as and when it is required, which is why we reviewed Neil’s CV as part of his action plan and the mentoring process.

In terms of the comedy writing, we had several meetings about Neil’s strengths and how we could utilise them to create a script that could focus on comedy and disability. Once the script we worked on together was written (by Neil), I managed to short track the script to the BBC.

Tip #4 - be respectful of your mentor’s time

It goes without saying that directors are busy people and even though in this instance they are acting as your mentor, helping you build a successful career or being at your constant beck and call will not be their biggest priority - a lot of this ultimately comes down to you.

 I kept this at the forefront of my mind, and I was always respectful of Ed’s time and availability whilst working with him - I avoided sending him lots of questions or demands, and instead I would message to ask when he might be available to chat, and I respected his time by being ready and focused when we did talk about something specific, such as advice for a job interview, or how to pitch an idea.

Tip #5 - Use your budget wisely

When you’re on the Inspire scheme, Directors UK will allocate you a small budget to cover expenses incurred during the mentoring programme - use it wisely! The mentors that you’re connected with aren’t being paid for encouraging and supporting you, so it is important to appreciate what they do and to remember to say, “thank you”. 

I personally used my limited budget to make sure I kept Ed happy. When time allowed, we had strategy meetings over lunch, which I used my budget to pay for, and I always made sure I bought him a beer at the end of a shadowing day as a sign of my appreciation for spending the day on set - in my experience, these little acts of courtesy go a long way to making a good impression.

Tip #6 - be realistic; don’t expect your mentor to find you work

Although your mentor probably has plenty of contacts that could be useful to you and your career progression, it is not their responsibility to find you work. They may be very generous and make suggestions of people you could talk to, or maybe even make an introduction or two, however it is up to you to put in the necessary time and effort to turn any potential contacts into contracts. 

It is important to remember that you still need to network and make connections, and to work hard on those jobs that might not be perfect for you but will provide invaluable experience - TV is a tough industry that requires a lot of hard work, self-belief and determination. Being paired with your mentor throughout Inspire will give you an insight into how a more experienced director approaches their work and will provide you with an opportunity to learn from them, which will then hopefully give you something to draw on during moments of uncertainty in the future.

During my mentorship, I was very lucky that Ed introduced me to the production team on Murder, They Hope (UKTV), and that I managed to impress them enough to be given some second unit directing work on two of the one-hour episodes. This allowed me to see more than just a couple of days of Ed in action, which was a fantastic bonus and completely unexpected.

If you are lucky enough to have some shadowing days with your mentor, my biggest piece of advice is to learn when it is appropriate to get involved, to ask questions or offer suggestions, and when the most useful thing that you can do is to stay out the way and keep quiet when everyone is working.

Similarly, small acts of politeness such as always saying thank you, being willing to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in if it’s needed, and buying everyone a drink once filming is wrapped if it’s appropriate - these little things can go a really long way and will help you be seen as part of the team

... And finally...

When I started my career in the TV industry in the 1990s, I was offered two pieces of advice, which still feel relevant today:

Life is too short to work with difficult people - don’t be a difficult person, remember to pitch in and be a team player.

Have fun - when you’re having fun on set as the director, the camera captures it. A lot of the time I spent shadowing and working with Ed was spent laughing, joking with the crew and generally creating a relaxed working environment, which in turn made for a happy set.

Achieving my goals feels so much closer than it did a year ago, and I have a lot of the work I did with Ed as my Inspire mentor to thank for this. Although Ed is no longer my mentor, the time we spent working together helped to make us close friends, and I hope we continue to stay in touch well into our respective working lives (and beyond).

Whether you are thinking about your own career development, or you are interested in helping to support and guide the next generation of directing talent as a mentor, you can learn more about the Inspire scheme here.

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