For Directors UK, an anonymous director reflects on a professional experience that sadly feels increasingly common – one where they found their role as a creative lead on a project being challenged and their voice as a director being diminished, resulting in them questioning their future in the film and TV industry.
Here, they share their story to help anyone who finds themselves in the same position and to highlight the importance of protecting the role of the director and the craft of directing.
I recently directed a factual single for a UK broadcaster, an experience where my role as director became eroded as the project evolved, and my professional and personal well-being suffered. In sharing my story, I hope to highlight some of the issues I faced, and to emphasise the importance of the director’s role in generating the highest quality films and TV programmes across all genres and formats. Directors are creative leaders, and we need creative freedom and responsibility to deliver our best work for audiences — this principle should be at the forefront when it comes to decisions about spending on screen.
A breakthrough opportunity
A couple of years ago, I was invited to direct an independent feature documentary for international release, with a cutdown version on order for a UK broadcaster. I was over the moon – I have over a decade of experience in a range of genres and formats; however, this was a big breakthrough opportunity for me. More than half of the finance for the project was coming from a private investor, the rest from the broadcaster who had commissioned the cutdown version. The private money was contingent on the broadcaster signing on.
I met the lead contributor, prepared and submitted a carefully crafted treatment and started to reach out to key crew, sharing my ideas, generating enthusiasm and developing a shared vision. We got the sign-off on the treatment I had submitted from the broadcaster. My agent requested contracts. It was exciting.
Change of commissioner
But before any funds were released and a few months before the scheduled release date, there was a change of personnel at the broadcaster. This resulted in a new commissioning brief, which included many elements that had not been agreed previously. It felt very different from the treatment that we had signed off with everyone, and I was worried that the creative vision I had for the project — which had excited our key collaborators — was at risk of being lost. The new requests were also going to have a significant impact on our schedule and workload, as well as the budget and scope for production, which made me concerned about the overall feasibility of this new brief.
In particular, the broadcaster specified adding A-list celebrities and a voiceover narrator for the film — which was completely out of keeping with the intimate, quietly observed and visually evocative style that I had developed and had been looking forward to bringing to life as the creative lead on the project.
I raised my concerns with the film’s producer, and it was clear that the expectation was that either I signed up to this new brief or the project wouldn’t happen. They were optimistic and believed that we would still be able to make the feature documentary as we intended, despite the commissioner’s changing requests, and deliver a cutdown version to the broadcaster. They were hopeful that the broadcaster would be open to compromise and collaboration, noting that the broadcaster was not the only party funding the project and that my version of the film should therefore be respected.
Creative freedom vs funder demands
In reality, the broadcaster’s requirements increasingly drove production. As the shoot went on, the commissioner became more and more vocal in wanting what they believed they had been promised. I felt as though my original feature treatment, and my creative voice, were sidelined as a result.
A couple of weeks into the edit, a new funder was onboarded with an order for a one-hour single only. The producer scrapped the planned feature documentary altogether: we were now making two slightly different shorter versions. I flagged the fact that there is a significant difference between making a 90-minute film and a one-hour, both narratively and structurally, as well as creatively. I also flagged the impacts this would have on the edit, the schedule and budget implications. Rather than my concerns being taken on board, or there being a discussion about how we could make these changes so that they suited everyone, I was simply told we had to make it work.
The broadcaster and the new funder were very keen on viewing material prior to me sharing the director’s first cut, just four weeks into a four-month edit. After seeing a few scenes of work in progress material they requested further changes to editorial — which I felt took the work even further from the original agreed brief.
We were now conclusively not making the film I had signed up to direct, in the way I had been hired to direct it. Despite my best efforts otherwise, I started to feel like my creative voice and leadership were being eroded — the funders had strong opinions on everything from the style, tone and narrative content of film to the choice of contributors. We went back into production, and it was all systems go. I had to cast and shoot nine new interviews in three weeks, plus a raft of B-roll and supporting material, while supporting the edit and archive requirements for the film.
Managing the ever-changing nature of the project, as well as ensuring it was delivered within the originally agreed timeframe and budget had serious knock-on effects — I really felt the pressure working out how we could accommodate the additional practical requirements from broadcasters. My workload increased and I had no work/life balance. I was working unpaid evenings, weekends and overtime, and later, I continued to work after my contract end date without pay.
Morale was badly affected. As my creative freedom was increasingly eroded, I felt less valued in the project. The crew was also impacted — another key senior creative who had signed on to the original feature left our production when it became clear our creative ambitions had been compromised.
Surviving the edit
We were required to deliver one version of the film to the new funder initially, and then an adapted version to the broadcaster subsequently. The new funder offered thoughtful and constructive notes and allowed a reasonably healthy level of creative freedom to me and the editor, which was brilliant and meant we could deliver their cut in a timely manner.
Working with the broadcaster was sadly very different. They wanted much more than just an adapted version of the film for their channel and, at times, I found collaborating with them on the edit to be challenging, certainly not something I had anticipated when I signed up for the project.
They requested new cuts by unfeasibly tight turnaround deadlines and were often slow to view or provide notes by return. Their notes, when they arrived, were regularly confused and contradicted previous notes given. I felt that their criticism seemed to focus on superficial elements, sometimes contained loaded language, and did not have clear rationale behind it.
They requested new interview material but showed no understanding of contributor sensitivities — when we notified them that we were having access issues with the lead contributor, they referred to them as a “diva”.
They showed no positive regard, appreciation or acknowledgement of the film’s sensibility, pace, style or my creative vision. I felt a total lack of respect for and no acknowledgement of my creative role and responsibility as the film’s director. This was heartbreaking — I had been excited about the project and had been looking forward to establishing what I hoped would be a positive and collaborative relationship with the broadcaster.
At this point, the edit reached breaking point; there was a breakdown in the relationship with a key crew member due to the creative treatment changing so significantly and additional pressures being brought into the process with no extra time. This meant we had to find a new person to step in and complete the film.
With just a few weeks to go until delivery, the broadcaster insisted on the inclusion of a voiceover narrator plus extensive cuts to the film due to an Editorial Policy issue around funding that had suddenly been brought to their attention. I pushed back heavily on the voiceover, even escalating the issue to top management, but was ultimately overruled. Casting and recording the voiceover added time, cost and pressure in an already stressful situation and led to me feeling further disenfranchised from the creative process.
We delivered the broadcaster’s cut just days before its scheduled TX date.
Impact on my health and well-being
After the project ended, I suffered with the effects of stress, waking up each day with a feeling of “fight or flight”, exhaustion, lack of motivation and generally feeling disillusioned with the process. The experience had a profound impact on my emotional well-being due to the sense of disempowerment, and it seriously knocked my confidence — I even questioned my future as a director.
This was my first major broadcast documentary and during the project I’d experienced feelings of isolation and overwhelm as a relatively new director. There was no pastoral or well-being support from within the production company. My work/life balance had been non-existent for nine months — it had been necessary to work evenings and weekends, including holidays, to turn everything around on time
The broadcaster’s demands had had a massive impact on my workload and stress levels, and I suffered a sense of total disempowerment. I felt disenfranchised from the creative process, as though my creative authorship and control on the project had been totally chipped away, and I felt uncomfortable knowing that decisions I strongly opposed were, in my eyes, negatively affecting the quality of the film. I sought out counselling and needed a significant period of support to help make sense of what had happened.
Reflections and learnings
Looking at the films now, it seems a miracle to me that any of my original intentions and style or sensibility survive, but they do. Both the international and the UK broadcast versions have been well received by audiences, but they are not the films I set out to make.
I invested genuine care into developing and making a certain kind of documentary and even after huge changes were made to the films, I was still dedicated to making two high-quality adapted versions. From all the crew, there was a real commitment of creative energy and desire to create a unique, distinctive, original and beautiful piece of work. It was hugely disappointing that I felt I couldn’t properly honour the efforts and hard work of all the creative professionals who contributed or have experienced a positive collaboration with the broadcaster.
I believe that this isn’t how directing should be. For me, the role of director is crucial to the making of a film – its style, tone, aesthetic and meaning. I’m now committed to working only with people who believe in a simple and compelling idea: empower the director and you get higher quality in return.
I hope my story helps other directors going through similar experiences feel less alone and adds to the many voices lobbying to put directors at the heart of programme-making. We need funders and broadcasters to acknowledge and respect our role as creative leaders, recognising that directors are vital to the financial and creative success of a production.
Obstacles I faced: in a nutshell
• Unpaid work in development.
• No production schedule or budget made available.
• No work/life balance and a culture of long working hours throughout – working evenings, weekends and holidays.
• Poor management practices – overloading staff and not providing enough resources or budget but expecting all additional demands to be delivered at the same high quality.
• Producers often absent or unavailable: not present for day-to-day issues.
• Poor communication between producers and crew (we lost some crew simply because their emails weren’t responded to in a timely fashion).
• Poor Health & Safety, including lack of Covid tests and protective masks/PPE on shoots, no risk assessments done and no advance calling to locations.
• Limited commitment to creating an environmentally-friendly workplace – i.e. not recycling waste from set.
• Conflict of interest in funding model – undue and disproportionate influence of minority funding partner.
This experience happened on a feature that was commissioned during the Covid-19 pandemic, undoubtably a challenging time in our industry. However, as our anonymous director lays out, inadequate editing time, ever-changing briefs and conflicting priorities from different parties always have the potential to seriously compromise a director’s ability to do their best work or feel empowered as the creative lead on a project.
If the difficulties that our anonymous director highlights have resonated with you, we encourage you to share this story with your peers and to share your own experiences with Directors UK. We can bring these matters to the table at the new Directors and Producers Forum and reflect the reality of your experiences so that we can work together to push for fairer, more collaborative ways of working with broadcasters and commissioners, that protect and respect the role of the director.