Published on: 30 November 2016 in Longform

Coky Giedroyc: “I love directing more and more the older I get”

Reading time: 18 minutes and 6 seconds

Coky Giedroyc is the BAFTA-winning director of Women Talking Dirty, The Virgin Queen, The Nativity and The Sound of Music Live. Before stepping down earlier this year, she was also a longstanding member of the Directors UK Board.

To celebrate her time on the Board, we caught up with Coky to ask her a few questions about her career, the industry and her collaboration with actors and writers.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

I didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I got to university. I got into art school but didn’t take a place because I didn’t fancy being a fine artist. So I went to uni and the minute I got there I felt really creatively frustrated and so I joined the film society. It was full of biochemists, all male, and I literally had to bang on the door for three weeks for them to give me a camera.

Not much has changed.

Not much has changed there! Thank you. Put that in the article! Eventually, they shut me up - they gave me a Bolex camera, 16mm camera, and I started making pop promos for my friends who were in bands – and I just completely loved it. It suddenly made total sense. It was a pure art form, but collaborative. I wasn’t just sitting in a garret on my own trying to be creative; I was with people, making it together. So it just went from there. I got into film school after uni, and then came out of film school, big boots on, ready for it.

How did your family react to that?

They were great. None of my family at that point were in showbusiness. Literally, they didn’t have a clue what to do. To be honest, they didn’t expect all that much from their girls. They were very old fashioned! So all the pressure was on my brother, and us girls we could do anything and they’d be really thrilled. This somewhat dismissive attitude kind of worked for me, because it just spurred me on. It meant I had nothing to lose.

How did you take your first steps into professional directing, and how easy was it to make that move?

It was quite tricky coming out of film school. For the first year I was employed as the back end of a crocodile in the West End. I didn’t want to do anything in the film industry that wasn’t directing. I didn’t want to go through running, or any other route. A healthy mix of naïve and arrogant, probably. So I just stuck it out – I hid basically – in this West End show.

“I wasn’t just sitting in a garret on my own trying to be creative; I was with people, making it together”

I got my first break doing a short film for Thames Television with a friend of mine, and it just sort of snowballed from there. But it was very slow at the beginning, and I did a lot of strange things like super 8 footage for Club X and Channel 4. I went to acid house and warehouse parties with my super 8 camera and then sold the footage like some sort of dealer! It was so unstructured in those days; it was very, very free really. And then I got to direct loads of short films for Channel 4, which were my real break into the industry. I did that, I did documentaries as well - lots of documentaries and arts programmes. And then gradually started getting more longer form drama.

My first big drama break was a movie for the BFI called Stella Does Tricks, which was a film about a runaway prostitute starring Kelly MacDonald. That went down really well. It was brilliant to do, with loads of artistic freedom. I kind of leapfrogged from indie films to drama, and started doing bigger drama projects.

Do you think it’s harder for young directors to get those breaks now? Are those opportunities still there?

I think it’s tough for young people – especially young women actually – to get those first breaks. I think what’s different now is you can make your own film on pretty much any device, upload it, cut it yourself, stick it out there and people can see it. We didn’t have that at all - we had to find a broadcaster. My niece and my nephew for example just went and made a short web series and it’s doing really well. You have to make those opportunities though.

I think the real bottleneck in our industry is that transition to authored pieces. You can get started in soaps, you can start on longform series, but it’s just so hard to get the break to do an authored piece – a single film or a serial, something you can really make your mark on. For those short films that I did, there were loads of schemes. Channel 4 used to do Short and Curlies and He Say, She Play, and the BBC used to Screen One, Screen Two, all these slightly alternative places where you could place your drama - and they just don’t exist now.

That’s not to say it was easy for us. It was ever thus really. It’s a very competitive industry. You’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to be good and do something different. I benefitted from a wave of intention in the film industry to encourage women. If I hadn’t caught that wave it would have been much, much harder for me.

Looking at your list of credits, you’ve managed to get a lot of those more authored 9pm dramas - what do you attribute that to? 

I’ve been really lucky. I’ve got the most amazing agent, who has the ability more than anything else to say no to things and taught me to really think about who I want to work with. And I’ve just worked incredibly hard. It’s a tough game for anyone and it’s a tough game for a female director and I’ve just learnt over these many, many years that you have to be best you can possibly be at all times. You have to prep incredibly hard, you have to know your stuff, you’ve got to know how to deal with actors, and gather people round you who you really like working with, who you’re loyal to and they’re loyal to you. It’s a long game, that’s what I feel. It gets better and better actually. I love it more and more the older I get. It kind of gets more exciting in a funny way, because I feel like I’ve got less to lose.

Do you find it gets easier?

Every single job is butt-clenchingly nervous. People say if it stops being like that then there’s no point doing it any more. But for every job I storyboard everything. I sit in my tiny office at the end of my garden and I just kind of go, ‘oh fuck, I’ve got to do it again’. I sit and I draw and I think through and I prep every scene, really, really carefully. Not in a sort of schematic way - not that I force actors or DoPs to do anything - but just simply to know where I want it to go and what I want it to be.

You’ve worked with some incredible actors throughout your career – actors who were already famous and others who went onto massive things afterwards. How does your relationship with actors work and can you tell when someone’s ‘got it’?

I think you can really. I certainly feel it in my gut, who’s got it and who hasn’t. We were auditioning for The Virgin Queen and a very young Tom Hardy came in, and he was a complicated, difficult person in many ways - he would admit that actually - but you just knew the minute he walked in that he absolutely had it, he was going to be huge. He’s uncompromising, method. He sat on the sofa with his head between his hands, kind of growling, grumbling, but when he did the lines he inhabited it so incredibly. I’ve just worked with Samantha Morton and she’s similarly completely brilliant.

You mentioned earlier how important collaboration is to you, and you’ve worked with some incredible writers in your career, people like Abi Morgan (The Hour), Paula Milne (The Virgin Queen) and Tony Jordan (The Nativity). Can you tell us about the way you work with writers?

I have huge respect for actors and writers. Without a brilliant script my film’s going to be shit. Without a brilliant performance it’s not going to work. And because I can’t do either of those things - I can’t write and I can’t act - I’m in awe of them. So my first base for working with writers and working with actors, is respect. And I honour the words they’ve written. I really like collaborating on scripts because I like honing them, finding ways of making the scripts better, but together. I think it’s a mistake to think you can control writers or control actors. You have to nurture a relationship where they blossom and feel free, and they trust you. That is the bottom line in filmmaking: you have to like and trust each other, and then it’s going to be better than the sum of its parts. If as a director you’re squashing anyone, or you’re controlling anyone - not letting someone really be free, to explore and experiment - it’s stifling I think.

You’ve worked on a number of international co-productions recently, like Penny Dreadful and Spies of Warsaw. Do you think the explosion in the number of these productions has been a good thing for the industry, and in particular for directors?

I think it’s a good thing - it’s shaking it all up. There are a load of things that we can learn from the States in terms of running big shows. Co-productions bring money, so we can be more ambitious in the scale of what we’re making, but also, they can learn from us. The Americans really love our serial television, they love the miniseries. So they come and seek out lots of talent and inspiration and advice on how to do those shows. But I think the whole system of showrunners and producer-directors, and that very muscular way of running a writers’ room, I think all that is really, really exciting. As long as there’s space for a director to be creative in the middle of it. I think certain shows probably stifle and squash directors, but so many don’t.

“I benefitted from a wave of intention in the film industry to encourage women. If I hadn’t caught that wave it would have been much, much harder for me”

You get fantastic opportunities through co-productions, because you can have better gear, better facilities, more extras. It frees things up. To be honest we are a bit of a cheap backwater for the States, because directors don’t get paid nearly so well here as they do in America. We don’t have nearly as good deals. In real terms I earn less that I used to. It’s woeful. While in the States you get paid really well, you get really good residuals, and you get loads of support.

So I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’ve literally just finished another one – Harlots for Hulu and ITV. There was a lot of talk about how we should structure it - should we have a showrunner? Should I be a producer-director? - and in the end we went with a very British system for lots of reasons, but I think if the series went further we would absorb more of the American style for running the show.

You don’t feel like there’s too many voices on international co-productions?

You get a lot of voices on the top layer, you get many, many exec producers and producers, who all have a say in what you’re doing, but actually British television is getting like that anyway. I’ve got about ten producers, exec producers that I’m answering to on Harlots, and that takes a bit of getting used to, but I think the showrunner’s voice and the producer-director’s voice simplifies things in a way. It’s clearer and cleaner as a process.

Not naming any names, but have you had experiences in your career where a production hasn’t gone the way you wanted or the way you expected, and how have you dealt with that?

I’ve had two or three really, really bad ones, but that’s over 28 years. It’s not bad is it? There’s loads of good people in our industry, fantastic people to collaborate with. Those three jobs were all to do with how the whole show was set up from the top. It was either not enough money for the ambition of the show, or bad management and therefore employment of the wrong people. The third thing that I’ve found is you can get creatively stifled, and if as a director you’re not allowed to do your thing you’re never going to flourish and blossom. If they think of you as just the pain in the arse between the commission and the BAFTA, if you’ve got people above you endlessly clipping your wings, then the project is going to be horrible. If they’re questioning you, changing things, demanding changes, stopping you doing your thing, that’s the worst of all worlds. 

But only three times isn’t bad is it?! It’s great. I love it, I love this job!

Congratulations on your BAFTA for last year’s The Sound of Music Live. You spoke about trying lots of different things in your early career, but in many ways this stands out from the rest of your credits. How was it working in multi-camera and doing something that seems so different?

It was so much fun. It was the most brilliant job! I collaborated with a multi-camera director, Richard Valentine. I basically planned it, storyboarded it, rehearsed the actors, designed it with my team, and then Richard translated that into a multi-camera plan. He’s a genius on that front; he’s done a lot of huge live shows, and music, a bit of drama, so it was a proper collaboration. On the night, he was sitting in the OB truck, I was on the floor and I was connected to him, I could see all the 17 cameras, I could see what they were all doing and I was talking to him the whole time. We did it live over four stages, and we literally ran between the stages in the ad breaks, and there were four Steadicams running with us.

There’s such a buzz on the set of a live multi-camera production.

Buzz is not the word! I was high as a kite. The next day I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move, and it took about a week to get over it. The adrenaline is insane! The show was two and a half hours, but can you imagine the build-up as well with the actors preparing to sing live? Oh my god, it was so exciting. I loved it.

The Sound of Music Live was me searching for more challenges I would say. I’m just about to embark on three films I’m attached to, because I would really love to go back into movies. Now that my kids are old enough I can do those more high-risk adventures.

How have you found the experience of trying to secure funding for those film projects?

It’s slow, isn’t it? Very slow. I’ve learnt that one key thing is to collaborate with people who have a good track record of making films. I’m tired of developing things with people on the never-never – I don’t do that anymore, I just can’t be bothered. At the moment I’m working with three different film companies who actually make films every year, so that seems like a good bet.

Looking at your career, you’ve done a number of literary adaptations. Do you approach those projects any differently at all? Does the fact that you’re adapting a sometimes beloved text affect the way you approach it?

I come to them with trepidation to be honest. I really do. Things like Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, The Sound of Music, you come to them knowing that they cast a long shadow, and that people love them passionately. I went to Salzburg and I went on this special Sound of Music tour of all the locations and the tour bus was full of Chinese tourists dressed as Maria and the Captain, singing their hearts out to all the songs, and I just thought, ‘I’m coming into very delicate territory here!’ And with Wuthering Heights I had to contend with the blooming Emily Brontë brigade – they’re pretty fierce!

“I love it, I love this job!”

So you have to come in with care and respect, and also I think you have to be a bit bold, and go, I’m not going to do Julie Andrews, I’m not going to do that movie Oliver!, I’m going to come in and wrap my arms around it and make it mine, reinvent it because what’s the point of doing it otherwise? It’s the only way. There’s no point trying to deliver the same thing, or trying to be too imitative. 

My take on The Sound of Music was that I wanted to bring the drama back in and the backdrop of the political story. With Oliver Twist, I wanted it to feel gritty and scary, the story of a child losing their mother and being lost in the world. You can always find new material if you dig into the story.

What piece of work are you most proud of?

I’m always proud of the most recent one, so at the moment that’s Harlots. It’s a fantastic script. It’s so wild and there are 22 lead female characters, which is unprecedented. It was such a joyous job because I was given real freedom. It was made like a film production with film producers, and film producers have real respect for directors in a way that a lot of television producers don’t quite have. It was great.

What’s the importance of the Directors UK Board? What would you say to members who’re thinking about standing in next year’s elections?

The Board is a really important thing to get involved in. You feel the enthusiasm from all these other directors who are taking part. Directors UK is a wonderful thing. It’s now a proper campaigning body - it’s not just running events and giving you royalties, it’s fighting for our position. We need more respect and space to do what we do, and Directors UK is leading the way in securing that. So members should absolutely stand for election. It’s really good fun, and it’s a great place to see single-minded, outspoken directors thrashing it out with each other!