Published on: 23 February 2024 in Longform

Thea Sharrock on Wicked Little Letters: “Directing a movie is a bit like having an army behind you”

Reading time: 17 minutes and 4 seconds

Based on a real-life scandal that shocked 1920s Britain, Wicked Little Letters is a black comedy mystery centered on neighbours Edith Swan and Rose Gooding in the seaside town of Littlehampton. When Edith is subjected to a series of obscene letters, suspicion falls on Rose. As the situation escalates, Rose risks losing her freedom and custody of her daughter, making Police Officer Gladys Moss and a group of other local women determined to find the real culprit. 

We spoke to Wicked Little Letters director Thea Sharrock about working with the film’s lead actors Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, her approach to directing comedy and how her career has shifted from stage to screen. 

Wicked Little Letters is in cinemas now.

Image courtesy of STUDIOCANAL
Image courtesy of STUDIOCANAL

Tell us a bit about your background as a director. You started out in theatre before moving into film — what inspired that shift? 

I fell in love with theatre as a teenager and started to go as often as I could. I have a profound memory of seeing two versions of Hamlet, when I was about 17 or 18 - one had Alan Rickman and the other had Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet. There was something about seeing two very different actors approaching the same text in such completely different ways which totally blew my mind! I also realised around this time that, when I went to the theatre with my mum and we chatted about it afterwards, her reaction would always be really different to mine — we had such different ways of looking at things and interpreting what we had seen. When I think about it now, this was probably my first insight into what “being a director” meant — seeing something from a completely different perspective compared to another audience member or viewer and thinking about what prompted these reactions. 

One of the things I love about directing is that you can only be a director by doing it — one of the biggest challenges is knowing how to get started, which is something I love talking to younger directors about, as this is unique to each individual director. I think your passion and your determination to forge your own path are critical and, for me, this was through falling in love with the theatre as an audience member. I was also lucky enough to be an assistant to lots of different directors very early in my career, which was a hugely important turning point for me. I learnt very quickly that every director is unique in their technique — whether it’s their priorities on set, on stage, or in rehearsal, how they approach text, how they work with actors, how they collaborate with colleagues... everyone has such a different approach.
I love the complexities of directing — the fact that the work is project by project means that every experience and outcome is different, even if you often find yourself working with the same people. It teaches you a lot about identifying the type of people you work well with — both from a human perspective, and from an understanding of your craft, so that you’re thinking about choosing actors, collaborators, producers, and designers who complement your approach as much as possible. The more you do it, the more you learn what the job really is and how best you can do it as an individual. 

My shift into directing for screen came about ten years into my career when I was approached by Sam Mendes about directing part of The Hollow Crown series (BBC Two / iPlayer). He and executive producer Pippa Harris were keen to use different directors and directors from a theatre background. It was a great experience. It taught me not to be afraid of what you don’t know because the experiences you bring to set, both personal and professional, are all important and useful when you stand behind a camera and start making choices about how best to make a film. 

I was lucky enough to work with some great stage actors who weren’t afraid of working with Classical text, some of  whom I had worked with previously, which really helped boost my confidence and taught me a lot about the importance of building the “right” atmosphere on set. If you can create an environment that allows people to feel confident, I believe you’ll get the best result possible. That’s what my job as the director is — to make the cast feel confident and comfortable so that they feel able to really push the boundaries of what they can do on camera.

Your latest feature film is Wicked Little Letters – what appealed to you about this project and how did you become involved?  

I was sent the script and Olivia Colman, who plays Edith Swan in the film, was already attached. So, I knew pretty much straightaway before I even started reading the script, that this was something I was going to want to do. And, as soon as I started reading it and picturing Olivia in the lead, I loved it! It’s difficult to find words that people don’t use constantly, but she’s an extraordinary talent, and working with somebody with that level of talent and experience is a real gift and a privilege for a director. 
That initial casting plus the script appealed to me instantly. I also loved the fact that the script had come to Olivia early, and that she was immediately drawn to it and had made the time for it in her calendar, which meant that by the time it came to me, the dates were fixed. Similarly, because she was a producer on the film as well, we had the fun of casting the other characters and Jessie Buckley, who plays Rose Gooding, was the first person we thought of. They had previously worked together (on The Lost Daughter), and they had got on brilliantly. They brought a wonderful energy with them on set, which really helped set the tone for the experience and for everyone else. We had a great laugh, as you can probably imagine. But comedy is tricky — it should look effortless and the only way to do that is to hone your craft by doing lots of it.
Being a comedy meant that one of my challenges as the director was to assemble a cast who really understood this specific craft and had a lot of experience in comedy. It helped that Jonny Sweet, the writer, is also an actor and a comedian. 

Image courtesy of STUDIOCANAL
Image courtesy of STUDIOCANAL

That leads us neatly on to casting and finding your actors – can you tell us a bit about this process and what you were looking for? 

I don’t want to make it sound easy because it’s not, but everybody reacted to the script in such a brilliant and positive way — everybody who read it or that we approached were keen to try and make it work. It then became a case of finding the right balance of people, which is crucial when you’re making an ensemble piece. If you take the group of three women, for example – Eileen Atkins, Lolly Adefope and Joanna Scanlan; they’re all completely different actors but what they’ve all got in common is that all-important comedy craft background. As soon as we sent each of them the script and I’d had a conversation with them, I just knew that they would be perfect as they understood the unique tone of the film. 
I also love the combination of how those three actors look and feel, as well as the dynamic they have with each other — they’re a perfect example of why casting is the most important part of a director’s job, in my view.

You mention the film’s unique tone — how did you work with the actors to explore and find this?  

The key thing is communicating clearly with everyone. When you first meet somebody and they’ve read the script, inevitably they will have their own interpretation of it because everyone responds in their own way. With Wicked Little Letters, a lot of the actors said how much it made them laugh. Which is great, as comedy is such an important part of it, but what was really touching was that some people also responded to the more serious dramatic storylines that ran through the script. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are some underlying themes that different people have had very different reactions to, depending on their own personal experiences or perspectives. I think it’s a film about quite big universal themes, presented in what I hope is a very un-patronising, but thought-provoking and entertaining way.
For example, Eileen (Atkins) is 89. I think she was 88, when we were shooting. She’s lived an incredible life and to see her react to some of the film’s bigger themes and to hear her share what it was that particularly resonated with her about these women who were living a hundred years ago and dealing with the patriarchy in a particular way, was fascinating. More and more, I realise that directing and filmmaking is a people business — surrounding yourself with the right people who want to tell the same story as you do is the most important thing. 

How do you approach assembling and working with your crew and Heads of Department? Are there any collaborators that you work with regularly? 

There are a few considerations when it comes to getting your crew together. Obviously, availability is key. With your DP (Director of Photography), for example, ideally you need them for a significant chunk of prep time, so that you’ve worked together to prepare the film as clearly and as wholly as possible, then you then need them for the shoot, but you don’t need them much in post-production. Whereas your editor, for example, you need with you throughout the shoot and throughout post-production. Finding the right people is a balancing act. I love working with people for a second, third, fourth time if I can because there’s already a dialogue and shorthand, which is fantastic but it’s not always easy to line up your schedules.
I was very lucky on this project that I was able to work with both old friends and fantastic new colleagues. For instance, Jina Jay was my casting director and I’d worked with her on a film that I’d just shot before this one - our dynamic felt like a conversation that we put down for a moment and then picked up again, which was great. On the other hand, on Wicked Little Letters, I worked with DP Ben Davies for the first time, and he is just brilliant — partly because he comes with a team of people that he’s worked with so many times and you feel their connection and collaboration immediately. 
Directing a movie is a bit like having an army behind you. You’re going into battle every day and if you can work with people who understand each other, it makes everything so much easier. You can find solutions to challenges more quickly because a shorthand is established, and strong communication makes all the difference. But one of the other great joys of this industry and being a director is working with new people all the time, building new connections — I was lucky to have both experiences on this project.

Image courtesy of STUDIOCANAL
Image courtesy of STUDIOCANAL

How did you go about creating the film’s visual language and the tone? 

The film is based on a true story, so we made the aesthetic choice quite quickly to make the setting feel real and believable as a way of showing respect to the original characters whose stories we were telling. However, there are also some fictional elements that we’ve added to make it dramatic and entertaining. A big part of establishing the tone and visual language was bringing the creative teams together beforehand — the DP, the production designer, the costume designer and make-up and hair designer, and making sure their choices would be cohesive and feel organic on-screen. I wanted to make the world feel true to its 1920s setting whilst maintaining a level of modernity, so it felt like an easily accessible period piece. 
It can sometimes feel very restrictive if you’re trying to exactly replicate a period setting, so we decided to reflect the mix of modern dialogue mingled with these real letters that were written 100 years ago — by bringing together the essence of reality with the fictitious world that we were creating.

Tell us a bit about the choices that you made so that the film hit specific comedic beats, whilst still digging into the drama and emotional nuance of the story.  

I think there are two key things that helped us find the right comedy and dramatic pacing. Firstly, the actors’ instincts are vital. I always try to create a space where actors can share their ideas, but still being clear about what is important to me in terms of the beats and the nuances so that they get on board with the vision — explaining why a specific moment or line is funny and important tonally, but also what’s important in terms of the overall dramatic narrative. You also have to be clear when you give notes or ask an actor to try something in a different way. Time is always of the essence.
I love it when an actor asks, “Can I just try one more?” That’s when you know you’ve created a world that works because your actor feels strong enough to want to follow a new instinct. It might be that something has just settled in them that they want to explore, and it can seem only marginally different, but the difference on screen can be like night and day. Or sometimes an actor wants the opportunity to do something hugely different.

Secondly, I like having the writer as close to me as possible, it’s a vital component to being able to react and create something new in the moment. We were lucky as Jonny Sweet, the writer, is also a performer and he was so generous about the actors playing with the script to find new things. I think as long as you get a version where you’ve created what the writer intended with their script, but you’ve also given the actors room to come up with something else, you’re going to give yourself freedom in the edit. 

Do you think directing and crafting comedy on screen requires a different approach to drama? 

Definitely. It’s a completely different craft. I think drama often comes from a much more instinctive place, and comedy can be a lot more complex — just because you found something funny in the moment, when you come to the edit and start to put the film together, the “funny” doesn’t necessarily read or land in the same way as it did in the room. Often with drama, if somebody gives a performance that’s very moving, you can feel it on set — you can feel the crew reacting. Nine times out of ten, when you watch that moment back in the edit, you will be moved in a very similar way. Sometimes that’s the case with comedy, sometimes it absolutely isn’t, and you find yourself sitting in the edit, thinking: “I know this was funny when we shot it — I remember the crew killing themselves laughing.” That doesn’t always mean it’s going to work on film, it can translate in a very different way when you watch it back.
If there was a scientific answer as to why something funny works on screen, I think directors would make comedies all the time. Comedy is its own difficult beast. It’s an alchemy that works with some moments but not others, it’s deceptively hard to predict.

How did the film find its shape in the edit?  

We played around with it a lot, and we had lots and lots of different cuts, which is quite normal. Melaine Oliver, the film’s editor, and I pulled ourselves in different directions and had versions of scenes that were much lighter or much darker. We also played around with the storytelling chronology, which affected the drama and comedy and how these moments played out. What I find amazing about film is that in prep and during shooting, the script is everything because it’s the biggest unifying reference point for everybody involved, but once you get into the edit, your relationship with the script changes because the footage takes over. A film almost takes its own journey as it unfolds. It’s incredibly mailable. 
When you’re making a film, you become so close to it that you can fall in love with a particular version or direction for the story. Then, in the edit, you can find yourself creating something totally new, either by playing with different choices that the actors made in certain takes, or by exploring different ways of cutting a scene together. You can create a whole new colour for the film that works brilliantly, but equally, you can get lost in creating a new perspective that you think is fabulous but that doesn’t hold up when you show it to somebody else. For this reason, I find that bringing different people in to watch either a scene or two, or the whole film at different stages during the edit is crucial.

Finally — why do you think the director is so important in the filmmaking process? 

The director is the person who ultimately takes responsibility. We are the direct conduit for the audience, but we also need to protect the original intentions of the script. When we’re on set, crucially we need to look after our actors — something I feel very strongly about. Often what we ask the actors to do on camera can make them incredibly vulnerable, but it can also make or break an audience’s experience so we have to try to protect both. 
The director constantly has to balance, manage and navigate lots of different people and departments. You have to be comfortable with taking responsibility for ultimately deciding what is best for the film, and bringing everyone on board with your vision and decisions. Your cast and crew need to feel confident in what they’re doing and why; ensuring this is the case is probably the most important element of what lands on every director’s shoulders.

Cookies help us deliver our services. By using our services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn more