Directors Nicola Quilter and Robert Del Maestro started out as a mentoring partnership with Directors UK Inspire — now they’ve collaborated together on a project for the BBC, and have even more on the horizon.
There are many different kinds of successful mentoring relationship. When the pandemic struck, Nicola Quilter and Robert Del Maestro saw an opportunity to develop theirs, moving from a traditional mentor/mentee dynamic towards working together.
We spoke to Nicola and Robert about their remarkable story, and you can read all about it below.
Let’s begin with how the mentorship started. Nicola, did you approach Robbie?
Nicola Quilter: I really wanted to do some sort of mentoring, and I spoke to the Career Development department, who recommended a director called Robbie Del Maestro to me. He had already done a bit of mentoring and was up for doing more. I thought, ‘That sounds great. Okay.’ I think we got together at the AGM and we had a chat.
Robert Del Maestro: Yes we did. We met then but we were already set up.
Nicola Quilter: Yes, and so we started to work long-term. I think we were quite lucky, actually. The experience turned out be unique. Robbie, what about you? Why did you want to do this?
Robert Del Maestro: Well, we directors get letters all the time from people wanting to shadow us. I’ve done that before the Directors UK schemes, on a piecemeal basis, whatever production I was on. I started on the Directors UK program with a director called Waris Islam — who now I see is directing on Vera, which is brilliant — I was shooting Mr Selfridge and he joined me for three whole weeks. That cemented an idea that you can really get these things to work if you try.
It was great, then, that Nicola came to see me in Germany and get a similar experience of working on set. But actually, the culmination of this was that when it came to the beginning of the pandemic we said we should work on something together. To cut a long story short, we ended up shooting a BBC short and Nicola got a TV directing credit.
Cut to a year and 15 months later, and we’ve gone through a series of projects together that we’ve been developing, aiming to direct together. It started a really fruitful and delightful working relationship, so it morphed - beautifully I have to say - from being mentor and mentee to being partners.
Nicola Quilter: Yes, it began even before SOKO Leipzig, the show Robbie was working on in Germany. Robbie had been reading a lot of my writing, so we’d had a great connection through that. I feel that we were very lucky, we were sympatico.
Nicola, why did you feel the time was right for you to get some mentoring?
Nicola Quilter: I’ve done a lot of short films, and I’ve written, directed and produced. But I was finding it very difficult to get my first television gig, because there’s only a couple of things that you can really apply for during the year. It just didn’t feel like you get enough opportunities to actually apply for something. Once you’ve done an episode of television then it’s much easier to get the next one, but to try and get that first episode of television is still really tough. There needs to be more opportunities to get that first episode.
So what were you hoping you might learn from Directors UK Inspire?
Nicola Quilter: I didn’t really have any massive expectations, to be honest. I just wanted somebody who’d done more directing than me, to be able to see how they worked. Directors work alone a lot of the time. This was a beautiful opportunity to see how somebody else works and be able to talk things through/see why they make the choices they make.
Robert, from your perspective, when you knew you were going to be mentoring was there anything you were keen to establish? Or was it more, ‘Come along, ask questions’?
Robert Del Maestro: Yes, I think it’s that. It just so happened that when we got put together I wasn’t on a production, and the next production that happened was in Germany. Nicola I think you came for near a week, didn’t you?
Nicola Quilter: I think it was 5 days.
Robert Del Maestro: If you’re stepping up for the first time into directing, you need to see the realities of what television directing is. Apart from it being obviously a fantastic and wonderful thing to do, there is a schedule. All manner of great cinematic ideas, which you absolutely have to have, have to be tempered by the stark reality that there is a schedule and you’ve got to get through the day. If you don’t get through the day, horrible things are going to happen..
You can’t really teach directing. You can talk about it, you can talk about what works for you and why you like things, and why Nicola might like something, and we can talk about the importance of performance and how to guard an actor and look after them, but in the end you’ve got to do it. In advance of doing it, it’s really useful to see that you have to cut your cloth all day long and rarely do things go completely to plan. There’s always something or other.
The other thing, which I don’t have to worry about with Nicola, is that you are leading a team. So there’s both the technical aspect of directing, but I think there’s also a very beautiful collaborative aspect of directing and how you need to embrace people with you as you direct, and how that makes a huge difference to the whole feel of a shoot.
Nicola Quilter: With SOKO Leipzig, the show that Robbie works on, the team are amazing and they’re really gorgeous people on top of everything.
So how long was there between this, and you deciding to work on something together? How did that get started?
Nicola Quilter: Well, even before I went out to Germany, Robbie was reading a lot of my stuff.
Robert Del Maestro: Yes, I read Nicola’s scripts, and then it so happened that the pandemic hit literally as I came back from shooting in Germany. So, then it looked like we were going to effectively have no production for a year and necessity became the mother of invention. There was no chance in the foreseeable future of Nicola coming to work alongside me and watch me direct, if that’s what she might have wanted to do. How could I keep the scheme working? And so, rather than saying, ‘Well, I’m sorry, for a year we’re just going to have to have a coffee on Zoom together,’ we said, ‘Well, we should do something, we should shoot something that is Covid-proof.’ The point was we wanted to keep things going, we wanted to do something, and then this opportunity came. But we wanted to do something together rather than just wait for the pandemic to blow over and resuming the on-set shadowing as before.
Nicola Quilter: There was this opportunity at the BBC to make something for Culture In Quarantine, and we applied for it with our film, Treasure — and got it! Then we had to figure out how to do it.
Robert Del Maestro: That’s right.
Nicola Quilter: We had said that’s what we’re going to do, but then there was the reality of doing it… we had to figure that out together because nobody had actually really done it before. We had to direct via Zoom and teach the actors how to film themselves on smartphones, because it was in the first lockdown and no one was allowed near anyone.
Let’s move onto the series, is that your next big partnership?
Nicola Quilter: So, there’s a show we’ve completely collaborated on together that’s in its infancy, we’re nearly ready with the Bible, we’ve got a bit of stuff to think about on that — that’s one show called Aftersight. And then, there’s another show called Combustion which I’d written the first three episodes, and the bible. That’s the one that’s been signed to Story First. I’ve written that, but Robbie’s had been reading as I was writing it and fed back. It’s six episodes – each an hour. He’s going to direct three and I’ll direct three.
Are you allowed to tell us what happens in Combustion?
Nicola Quilter: So, it’s based on a true story about a tiny Italian town that was experiencing spontaneous combustion and other unexplained phenomena for 10 years. I’ve changed the name of the town and invented a British journalist who goes to explore what happened. It’s in both languages, but mostly it’s in English. It’s a really fun project.
Robert Del Maestro: Plus we have two other ideas on top of those.
Nicola Quilter: We now have a slate of things that we’re now looking at. It’s been really great. And we really enjoy each other’s company. Robbie’s very easy to work with, of course. We’ve just had a really easy, lovely time of it together I think.
Robert Del Maestro: Absolutely. Coming back to the mentoring scheme — I think this is an example of an unexpected success that goes beyond what anyone could have expected. From my point of view, what’s brilliant about it is that inevitably, at the beginning of it, you are the experienced director and the other person is the person that wants to learn. And actually, what’s happened to us is that we’ve balanced each other out. I’ve actually learnt a lot from Nicola about stuff, because I’ve been a gun for hire in my drama life, and never got involved in entire projects from the beginning. Nicola’s been doing almost the exact opposite, and so what’s happened is we’ve learnt so much, and it’s been so brilliant like that. So, just to say that the “inspire” in Directors UK Inspire goes both ways actually, and it’s a very beautiful thing.
So, finishing with Directors UK Inspire, what do you think makes a good partnership?
Nicola Quilter: I think it’s just the same as all relationships. You have to be really open to what happens. Not have a fixed position on things and to try and roll with what is really going on. You have to be open to what is between you, not what your preconceptions are, or how you think it might turn out. And because I really trusted and was confident in Robbie and both a human and collaborator, I was prepared to go on whatever ride we ended up on, rather than going, ‘No, I need this,’ in my head, ‘This is what I need.’ I was more prepared to just sit with it and see what happened.
Robert Del Maestro: In the end, it’s about respect. Nicola’s industrious, never stops, very hard working – and what more could you want in a partner? And like Nicola says, in a sense, it’s like any partnership, you’ve got to really work hard at it, and if you coast it on one side it doesn’t really work. We got more and more serious about what we were doing there, that’s the point really. Partly because the pandemic was a cauldron that shoved us together, we had the time and the opportunity to really crack it. But even so, it’s like any relationship, it has to have a spark — but then you have to work really hard at it. And I think that’s what we did.
Directors UK Inspire is currently open for applications. Find out more here.