Published on: 29 November 2011 in Longform

Career advice: Dan Reed and Sarah McCarthy

Reading time: 8 minutes and 44 seconds

We recently sat down with documentary filmmaker Sarah McCarthy and Dan Reed, who has experience in features, docs and TV drama, to hear their thoughts on getting ahead in the industry, and what tips and secrets they have learned from directing over the years. Read their answers below:

Directors UK: How did you become a director?

Sarah McCarthy: I went to film school in Australia, before coming back to the UK to work in development. Documentary directors can tend to stumble on to one story then have no other work opportunities; working in development was useful in that it helped me realise the importance of developing ideas.

I stayed in development for four years, then was given the opportunity to make a film for First Cut (Channel 4 strand). Once you’ve made your first film, you think you’ve made it, but that simply isn’t true – it’s still really difficult to get projects off the ground. So I went back to development for a while, before quitting once more to make a trailer for a documentary in Mumbai. Although I wasn’t able to raise any real finance, I went ahead and made the full-length film – The Sound of Mumbai - on a minimal budget.

The film was selected for Toronto Film Festival, and was eventually acquired by HBO. Again, after this success, I presumed pitching for my next project would be far easier, so went to HotDocs feeling confident. But although certain buyers expressed an interest, there was no follow-up. It seems getting money for docs is a long-term problem!

Dan Reed: I think the career path for directors has changed since the introduction of the docu-soap in the nineties. Creativity and vision is no longer important, as these shows are so heavily formatted.

I began my career in television as a researcher for Adam Curtis on Pandora’s Box, no doubt as a result of my ability to speak Russian! I learnt a lot from working with Adam about directing, and was given the opportunity to try my hand at it at the BBC on Mandela. It was a fairly quick journey from researcher to director, and it was also fairly blinkered, as working for an institution such as the BBC means there isn’t the need to go out looking for financial backing.

Clearly my career path is quite different to Sarah’s, and I think that between us we illustrate the two major options open to directors; either work your way up within the BBC, where creativity is limited, or go it alone, maintaining your “vision” but struggling for cash.

I then worked on Modern Times, a formatted series in-house for the BBC, before Channel 4 picked up a feature I’d written. I also directed the film (called Straightheads), but it didn’t turn out as I would have liked. I had so many people giving me notes – sometimes conflicting ones – that I just wasn’t able to maintain my creative control over it.

After that, I directed a few “blue chip” dramas – Waking the Dead, Poirot – which I found really useful, and prepared me for a return to features in the future.

DUK: What advice would you give to someone trying to become a fully-fledged director?

SM: That you’ve never really made it.

DR: If you are able to secure a job in production, try to make sure it’s the sort of production you would like to direct. Directors in the film and television industries can find themselves quickly pigeonholed, so consider what genres you wish to direct before applying for work on all and any productions.

SM: Ensure your projects ideas are as developed and realised as possible before taking them to producers. Film ideas need to be saleable and appeal to one or several demographics.

DR: Conversing with other directors can be really beneficial – assuming they’re willing to share their secrets! Working with Adam Curtis gave me confidence, and I saw the importance of self-belief and decent leadership skills.

I stayed in development for four years, then was given the opportunity to make a film for First Cut (Channel 4 strand). Once you’ve made your first film, you think you’ve made it, but that simply isn’t true – it’s still really difficult to get projects off the ground. So I went back to development for a while, before quitting once more to make a trailer for a documentary in Mumbai. Although I wasn’t able to raise any real finance, I went ahead and made the full-length film – The Sound of Mumbai - on a minimal budget.

The film was selected for Toronto Film Festival, and was eventually acquired by HBO. Again, after this success, I presumed pitching for my next project would be far easier, so went to HotDocs feeling confident. But although certain buyers expressed an interest, there was no follow-up. It seems getting money for docs is a long-term problem!

Dan Reed: I think the career path for directors has changed since the introduction of the docu-soap in the nineties. Creativity and vision is no longer important, as these shows are so heavily formatted.

I began my career in television as a researcher for Adam Curtis on Pandora’s Box, no doubt as a result of my ability to speak Russian! I learnt a lot from working with Adam about directing, and was given the opportunity to try my hand at it at the BBC on Mandela. It was a fairly quick journey from researcher to director, and it was also fairly blinkered, as working for an institution such as the BBC means there isn’t the need to go out looking for financial backing.

Clearly my career path is quite different to Sarah’s, and I think that between us we illustrate the two major options open to directors; either work your way up within the BBC, where creativity is limited, or go it alone, maintaining your “vision” but struggling for cash.

I then worked on Modern Times, a formatted series in-house for the BBC, before Channel 4 picked up a feature I’d written. I also directed the film (called Straightheads), but it didn’t turn out as I would have liked. I had so many people giving me notes – sometimes conflicting ones – that I just wasn’t able to maintain my creative control over it.

After that, I directed a few “blue chip” dramas – Waking the Dead, Poirot – which I found really useful, and prepared me for a return to features in the future.

DUK: What advice would you give to someone trying to become a fully-fledged director?

SM: That you’ve never really made it.

DR: If you are able to secure a job in production, try to make sure it’s the sort of production you would like to direct. Directors in the film and television industries can find themselves quickly pigeonholed, so consider what genres you wish to direct before applying for work on all and any productions.

SM: Ensure your projects ideas are as developed and realised as possible before taking them to producers. Film ideas need to be saleable and appeal to one or several demographics.

DR: Conversing with other directors can be really beneficial – assuming they’re willing to share their secrets! Working with Adam Curtis gave me confidence, and I saw the importance of self-belief and decent leadership skills.

DUK: Dan, how did you make the jump from directing documentary to directing fiction? Did working on docudramas help?

DR: Not particularly. It was more just a case of having success in documentary, and the plaudits and offers came from that. It was tricky making the transition though; I definitely think directors need more support for this. It taught me how important preparation is; the more fully realised your idea is, the easier it is to protect. You also need to maintain some semblance of ego – there are so many conflicting opinions in features that you have to be confident enough to defend your vision.

DUK: How did you make yourself known to production companies or broadcasters when you were starting out?

SM: It’s important to identify and approach the production strands that provide opportunities for new talent: Channel 4 has First Cut (documentary), Comedy Lab and Coming Up (drama), and BBC Three has Fresh.

DUK: How important is the showreel in opening doors to becoming a director?

DR: I’m not sure a showreel is all that useful anymore; they just sit and gather dust on broadcasters’ tables. I’ve got a webreel, which I keep updated fairly regularly. A producer or commissioning editor is far less likely to load a DVD than they are to click a link on your email.

DUK: What else can directors do to ensure work comes their way?

DR: Form bonds with people, so that they trust you to tell you their life stories. Or give you cash!

SM: Yeah, maintaining relationships with other people in the industry is really important. I find networking nights can be useful, and worth attending.

DR: Befriending editors is a worthwhile pursuit. Learning how a proficient editor cuts a film will develop your own skills as a film or programme-maker.

SM: Be prepared to work with tiny budgets, as money is not always easy to come by in film and television. This might mean developing other skills, such as researching or shooting.

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