At the end of 2016, Directors UK Members Christine Lalla and Lotus Hannon spent several days together in Liverpool as Lotus shadowed Christine on the set of Lime Pictures’ Hollyoaks. This shadowing and mentoring opportunity was supported by Lime and Directors UK and was the first of many partnerships to be nurtured as a result of our new mentoring programme.
We asked Christine and Lotus to tell us about their experiences as directors, how their professional working mentorship came about and what they learnt.
Tell me about your background in TV and Film. What made you want to be a directors in the first place?
Christine Lalla: I was a sports photographer for many years before becoming a filmmaker and had directed a short film before completing a Masters in Filmmaking at the London Film School (LFS). With my stills background I was a natural cinematographer and shot over 20 shorts before directing again — though I still self-shoot docs and light shorts.
My love of filmmaking began with a storyboard — a comic book to be exact, when as a child I bought The Silver Surfer with my weekly pocket money. Years later, when I was a pro photographer, I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s Born On the Fourth Of July and thinking every scene was a great standalone still. I started shooting more reportage soon after and then progressed into film from there.
“Storytelling for me started with visuals” — Christine Lalla
Storytelling for me started with visuals and I was soon at the Royal Festival Hall watching any silent film they screened, inspiring me to make my first short – Grandad’s Dead, a silent film made with deaf actors in British Sign Language.
After LFS I directed my first feature The New Boy which premiered at the East End Film Festival in 2015 and my self-shot short doc Save Me, was a finalist at the Sheffield Doc Fest in 2016.
Lotus Hannon: I wanted to be a director ever since I can remember, long before I even knew the word. As a kid I loved to watch the Saturday matinee on BBC 2 with my grandma. After a screening I’d draw the memorable scenes from films like Wuthering Heights, Doctor Zhivago and Brief Encounter and write the characters’ lines in speech bubbles.
“Aged 18, I was too shy to say I wanted to direct, as I saw women becoming actresses at that time but not directors” — Lotus Hannon
I went to drama school, (thinking I’d move from acting to directing at some point). Aged 18, I was too shy to say I wanted to direct, as I saw women becoming actresses at that time but not directors, and I wasn’t sure anyone would take me seriously in terms of the perceived ‘authority’ I imagined a director needed. So it wasn’t until my early twenties that I was brave enough to articulate that I wanted to be a director and that’s when I wrote, directed and co-produced my first short film, Man of Me Dreams!, which was selected by The British Council, The Cinema Programme and screened at various international film festivals. I worked my way up through various production roles, culminating in directing VT inserts and 1st A.D. work, primarily at Open Mike Productions working for Jonathan Ross, Mark Lamarr, Jack Dee and Peter Kay.
While I worked in production, I continued to develop my screenwriting when my children were very young. In 2009 I was the winner of The Script Factory Development Scheme with my first original feature screenplay, Render, which led to a meeting with Film4. I was selected for WFTV mentoring Scheme in 2014 and the Creative England Talent Module 2015. I’ve also been building up my directing portfolio, with my recent short, The Expiration, inspired by the poem by John Donne.
Have either of you had any formal training, and if so was it useful?
Lotus: My 3 year Acting Diploma from East 15 Acting School has given me a huge amount of confidence directing actors. East 15’s method approach to character has also been really valuable to me especially as a writer. I still sometimes break down a scene into units and objectives as this helps clarify the structure and track character progression.
In 2009, the training and script development I received from The Script Factory was absolutely amazing. Not only because I learned the fundamentals of screenwriting but also how to deal with script notes, how to approach re-drafts, etc. I’m very grateful to Lucy Scher, Justine Hart and Briony Hanson, the then co-directors of the Script Factory for everything they passed onto me.
“Most of the directing skills that I’ve acquired so far, I’ve learnt from observing all the directors I’ve worked for in my professional production employment.” — Lotus Hannon
Most of the directing skills that I’ve acquired so far, I’ve learnt from observing all the directors I’ve worked for in my professional production employment.
Christine: Apart from the MA at the London Film School from 2006-2008, I also did the Directors UK/ITV Multi-Camera Continuing Drama Training at Emmerdale in 2015. Following on from that, I was shortlisted into the final four directors’ workshop day on the Directors UK/Lime Pictures 2016 initiative to introduce more women directors to Hollyoaks.
How did you meet and how did the mentoring come about at Lime?
Christine: I met Lotus at a Directors UK meeting for the 50/50 gender equality campaign. She was very confident, and had clearly done her homework on me. After a chat I knew I wanted to help her and offered my time (pending approval from Lime) regarding her potentially shadowing me on my next block on Hollyoaks. It didn’t take long to organise and a few weeks later Lotus was with me in Liverpool for prep.
Lotus: I met Christine at a Directors UK 50/50 Women’s Campaign meeting. I was already familiar with her name, (a cinematographer friend of mine had recommended Christine’s debut feature) and I got chatting. I felt instinctively she was someone I’d really like to shadow and I was very excited when she offered me that opportunity.
Tell us more about the actual work you did together at Lime.
Lotus: I shadowed Christine for 4 prep days, 4 shoot days and 1 edit day spanning over her block of episodes at Hollyoaks. I wanted to get an overview of the whole process.
For me, prep is really important and I was thrilled when Paul Wroblewski at Lime approved my access to the pre-shooting scripts, as well as the subsequent shooting scripts and amends. I was excited to see how easily I’d visualise the scripts and imagine how I’d direct them.
I thought it was important to shadow Christine in prep time, as prep is usually less pressurized and might provide Christine more opportunity to chat and for me to ask questions.
At the pre-shoot meeting, Christine, the HODs, script editor, producer and scheduler met for a ‘page turn’ of the scripts and to discuss any potentially problematic areas of the schedule. I was really impressed with how committed everyone was to the story detail and to finding any necessary solutions.
During this time, Christine was able to share with me how she approached the visualising of the script. In Christine’s block, a sensitive issue-based storyline was coming to a head, so we talked about how she was planning to realise this tonally.
“It was reassuring to see that at times she and I had envisaged similar camera moves or blocking for the actors, and then also really interesting to see how differently we had envisaged the same scene” — Lotus Hannon
Christine also does camera/floor plans so I did the same for all the scenes with the sets I was familiar with. I compared these with what Christine had planned and what Christine actually shot on the day. It was reassuring to see that at times she and I had envisaged similar camera moves or blocking for the actors, and then also really interesting to see how differently we had envisaged the same scene.
I then went to the first 2 days of the shoot as it’s always interesting to see the dynamics of a new crew beginning to gel and work together. Christine generated a great working atmosphere — she has a lovely laid back manner and is very secure in want she wants from the scene. She has the humility to recognize any good suggestions and confidently took the ones she felt worked and politely rejected those that didn’t.
What I learned most from shadowing Christine is to keep your Hollyoaks directing ambitious but realistic, it needs a logistical simplicity that will work within the schedule.
What do you think makes for a good mentor — and a good mentee?
Christine: I think a good mentor shares knowledge, offers tips on how to solve the inevitable problems that arise during shoots and helps the mentee navigate the unique prep/shoot/post process of their particular production. Time is always in short supply on any production but setting aside periods during the production to answer questions, explain procedure etc. is key.
“It’s also vital to introduce the mentee as a bonafide director to fellow crew/cast/production as there’s a tendency for shadow directors to be seen as ‘pupils’” — Christine Lalla
It’s also vital to introduce the mentee as a bonafide director to fellow crew/cast/production as there’s a tendency for shadow directors to be seen as ‘pupils’ which can be problematic further down the line.
A good mentee asks a lot of questions - preferably at a time when you can answer them all. There’s a skill knowing when to remain silent and let the director and production get on with their jobs and when to enquire. Lotus is very good at it and soaked up knowledge by alternating between observing and inquiring. She was always scribbling away in a notebook and got on with the cast and crew really well, bringing an additional lightness to our set with her presence.
Lotus: For me what makes a good director also make a good mentor. Christine is very good at making everyone feel they are there to fulfill their potential, and that included me. I really appreciated how she chose to introduce me as a fellow director to everyone, and I mean everyone, not just on our block, but just about every other block too, so I also got to talk to other Hollyoaks directors
A good mentor has an openness, someone who doesn’t mind you asking questions — but as a mentee you need to be sensitive enough to know when is the right time to ask.
Often the most useful lessons can come from the things we get wrong, so having a level of honesty and trust with a mentor allows you to develop and learn much quicker.
Do you think this kind of practical, work-based mentoring has helped you both? What’s your next move?
“When I offered to help Lotus I didn’t realise I’d also be helping myself” — Christine Lalla
Christine: When I offered to help Lotus I didn’t realise I’d also be helping myself. Though directors are surrounded on-set by highly skilled creatives from various departments, it’s rare to have another director by your side, who is looking at the production from a similar POV.
Like most directors, I do a lot of prep on all my shoots and I tend to power through a shooting schedule on muscle memory without too much mind to exactly how I’m achieving my results. Having Lotus with me meant I had to think about my methods in more detail in order to communicate to her properly.
It was very good to have another set of eyes on set and in the edit, plus Lotus was privy to the original, shooting, and amendment scripts so it was very interesting to hear her thoughts on how I had visualised them.
I'm just about to shoot another two blocks of Hollyoaks and am in prep for my next feature shooting in 2018.
Lotus: Yes definitely! It keeps you fresh, and you also gain insight into how another director might do something completely differently to you, which can then become a tool you can use and apply yourself.
It’s especially useful to shadow a director on continuing drama, where you learn the nuance of the ‘house style’. At Hollyoaks there is also an element of collaboration with fellow directors and you may direct another director’s pick-ups or re-shoots.
My next move is to direct my first feature Orion’s Belt, a thriller drama, which I hope to shoot this summer in Northumberland. Or another short that demonstrates a more narrative style, that may lead to work on Hollyoaks and other TV drama.
Finally, who are your own directing idols and why, and what are your favourite shows or films?
Christine: There are great films - and then there are the films that have just stayed with me – Night Moves (Arthur Penn), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson), Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull) and Duel (Steven Spielberg) are among them. There are so many directors I admire — Ang Lee, Billy Wilder, David Lean — the list is endless. I’m a big Hitchcock fan — for the tension and the frames.
I watch Andrew Niccol’s brilliant Gattaca every year, and learned much about visual storytelling from King Vidor’s The Crowd and hope to see William Wyler’s The Heiress on the big screen again one day.
Recently I’ve loved Norwegian thriller Okkupert, as well as Peaky Blinders, Humans, The Flash, Black Mirror and American Crime Story: The People Versus O J Simpson for its great acting, especially Sarah Paulson. The creators took a story the public thought they knew well and gave us the unknown — the POV of the prosecutors and defenders.
Last year’s Hidden Figures was wonderful and it’s a shame that a positive film depicting real, highly intelligent and groundbreaking African-American women wasn’t more richly rewarded.
Lotus: I have so many. A few are Susanne Bier, Jane Campion and Danny Boyle – they all explore deep, raw emotions and I love the open, profound performances they get from their actors. I love Suzanne’s use of extreme close-ups, the potent sexuality within Jane’s work and Danny’s bold, dynamic use of energy. I love films that use symbiotic choreography between the camera and the subject that you especially get in action thrillers. I like directors that use theatre/circus/martial arts techniques and smoke and mirrors visuals, such as The Wachowskis, David Fincher, Luc Besson and Bharat Nalluri.
My favourite films at the moment are those that resonate with Orion’s Belt, the thriller drama I’m currently working on. So I’m looking a lot at 127 hours, as the protagonist in Orion’s Belt is also trapped and has to shift something within herself to survive. I’m currently obsessed with Sicario – because Emily Blunt’s character is again a seemingly passive protagonist and I love the soundtrack.
The directing style I envisage for Orion’s Belt is similar to Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, Paul Andrew Williams’s Murdered By My Boyfriend and Jane Campion’s thriller In the Cut. All these films deal with violence that is mixed up with love. Their characters have to try to focus and see through a world where there is a blurring of emotional boundaries. A similar visual softness and beauty, juxtaposed with hard, violent and painful subject matter is what I aspire to achieve.
Who has helped you along the way? Any champions? What’s the very best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Christine: My training at the London Film School was funded by Creative Skillset and the initiative that opened the door for me at Hollyoaks was supported by Directors UK and Channel 4. I will also forever be indebted to Alison Poltock and Andrew Simpson, the director/head programmers at the East End Film Festival who believed in The New Boy and gave me my first premiere. Kate Hughes, ex-Head of Marketing at LFS, and Umpha Koroma, head projectionist at LFS, have championed my work since I arrived there in 2006 and fellow filmmaker Gilles Mackinnon has passed on a lot of sound advice - he once told me, “…remember, the best film makers don’t pander, ingratiate or imitate - original thinking and audacious theft is the best.”
Lotus: I’m grateful to many amazing individuals and organisations like WFTV, The Script Factory and Directors UK. Director Bharat Nalluri has been a particularly inspiring mentor and incredible champion for me. When I was 22, Bharat and producer Richard Johns ran a seminar at the Tyneside Cinema about how to make an independent feature film. This was a eureka moment for me. I wrote Man of Me Dreams! because I thought it would be fun to direct. Bharat and Richard were both very complimentary about the script, which gave me a lot of confidence. We reconnected in 2014 and he again mentored me on the Women in Film & TV scheme where I also got to shadow him on Spooks: The Greater Good. I wanted to get back to directing but felt daunted after such a big break from production work. He reassured me that all the skills and experience I’d developed as a screenwriter were totally transferable and it was just a matter of doing it again. What I’ve gained most from Bharat is a “just do it” approach; essentially as a director you have to a confidence and belief in your vision and it’s your job to convince everyone to come along on the ride with you.