Published on: 10 August 2023 in Longform

“You don't need to be a filmmaker to relate to Kwabena's struggles”: Joelle Mae David and directing on Dreaming Whilst Black

Reading time: 13 minutes and 22 seconds

Dreaming Whilst Black is a new BBC comedy series which follows Kwabena, an aspiring filmmaker, as he tries to swap his dead-end job for his movie mogul dreams. We spoke to Joelle Mae David, Directors UK member and one of the series’ directors, about the show. 

Here, Joelle shares an insight into what appealed to her about this project plus tells us about her experience of transitioning from directing short films to working on a large-scale series, and shares her advice for directors hoping to make the same move.  

Read our conversation with Joelle below. 

You can watch Dreaming Whilst Black on BBC iPlayer now.

Image credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still
Image credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still

Tell us about your background – how did you discover your passion for storytelling and how did this lead you to directing?

I was born and raised in East London; growing up in between the boroughs of Newham and Barking & Dagenham specifically. I always had a passion for storytelling, but I had no idea how to gain access to the TV and film industry or that there were even jobs for me within it, so I leant more towards fine art. I later attended Southampton University to study English Literature and Film, which sparked an initial interest in filmmaking. After graduating, I struggled to find work on set, so I worked as a production assistant for several different production companies, before becoming an assistant director in film and television and a sub-editor for several national newspapers. 

While I was working as a production assistant, I began creating short documentaries. I saved my money and bought a DSLR camera, learned how to shoot and began documenting local people, which became a short series called Hidden Talent, which featured on BBC3. This then led to my being commissioned by BBC3 to create a short poetic documentary about how regeneration affects young people in the Gascoigne Estate in Barking called Losing My Home in The Name of Regeneration (2019).  

After making several short documentaries and films, I used my experience to start my own production company, Bluebird Pictures, to focus on more narrative storytelling plus deliver outreach programmes in my local community.  

I finally released my first narrative short film; Greasy Spoon, a comedy-sci-fi about gentrification, in 2021. It was selected for BAFTA-qualifying festivals such as Aesthetica and London Short Film Festival and was nominated for the Hijack Visionary Award and the Taash Comedy in Film Award. This was the film that I felt best reflected my voice as a director, and it was the job that helped land me my agent, Independent Talent, allowing me to become a filmmaker full-time. 

Since 2021, I have directed a read-through of Sarah Keyworth's comedy Manbeast, directed the non-TX pilot Great Brittons (written by Ava Pickett) for Channel 4, directed two episodes of Dreaming Whilst Black, become the lead director of Channel 4's Queenie, and written a pilot for Audible. 

Let’s chat about Dreaming Whilst Black – how did you first get involved with this project and what excited you about being part of the creative team? 

I was sent the scripts in early 2022 and straight away, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I actually previously pitched to direct the pilot, but that went to Sebastian Thiel (a fellow Directors UK member) who did an amazing job, and I ended up directing the episodes that were the best fit for me.  

Whenever I receive a script, I always ask myself: “am I the right person to tell this story?”, and if I’m not, I will kindly pass on it. Dreaming Whilst Black is about a Black filmmaker from a Jamaican background trying to navigate his dreams whilst making a living, as well as keeping his relationships on track. I think most filmmakers could relate to Kwabena’s journey and coming from a Caribbean background, there were jokes that felt like my own lived experience, both in the workplace and at home. However, I don't think you need to be a filmmaker to relate to Kwabena’s struggles - I could imagine my parents and friends watching it and saying, “that’s happened to me” or “I’ve felt that way before too”, which sealed the deal for me. 

Plus, when I found out Nathalie Pitters would DP my episodes, I was VERY excited as I had been following her work for a couple of years and couldn’t wait to work with her.

You were responsible for directing two of Dreaming Whilst Black’s six episodes – how did you approach working with the other directors on the series to ensure a sense of continuity in tone and style whilst still retaining your own unique voice and identity as a director?

Sebastian Thiel, who directed the first episode, did such an amazing job setting the tone of the show that we were able to springboard off the pilot by looking at the shots that really landed the comedy and emulate these in other episodes.  

I knew Koby Adom before we worked together on the show, so we already had a good rapport. Jermain Julian was so kind and generous with his time — as a first-time TV director, I really appreciated his guidance and I learned a lot from him.  

The visuals were guided by our incredible DoP Nathalie Pitters for episodes two through to six, which ultimately helped define the look of the show. She worked with all three directors, so she had to pivot between our individual styles while still keeping the look of the show on track, and she did a wonderful job navigating this and ensuring a sense of continuity.  

I was able to inject some of my own voice and style because the story had inevitably evolved by episode four and I was shooting on locations that only appear in my episodes, so I had a little bit more freedom in choosing how to move around them and the shots I wanted, whilst still honouring what had already been shot. 

Image credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still
Image credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still

How creative were you able to be with the ways that you played or experimented with form and tone when you were directing your episodes? Was there anything you particularly wanted to use with regards to how they were shot or edited, for example? 

My episodes lean a little more towards drama, so I was able to add more of my voice without taking anything away from the look of the show because the story warranted this. For instance, in episode four, we shot in a real hospital with a lot more space to move around, so I opted for Steadicam to have the family sweep through the corridors as though they owned the place! This was something that had not been used as much previously in the show.

Similarly, I wanted to approach the scenes between Maurice and Funmi with more tenderness as I felt we were stepping away from comedy in these moments and I needed the audience to understand this. I didn’t want to shoot these scenes in the same way as everything else, which had a focus on comedy. I wanted to have slower movements when they were alone in the hospital, and I used a lot of hand-held footage to reflect Maurice’s increasing anxiety – escalating from the shaving incident to the car journey and to his getting kicked out of the hospital. We needed time to absorb what had happened to Funmi and as well as to relate to Maurice, so the edit took us to a slightly slower pace, which is then amped up once we know everything is okay.  

Episode five also had some dramatic moments but was driven mostly by the comedy in the diversity scheme plot - it was a balance between making the comedy land and ensuring the drama had space as well.   

Did you have an opportunity to meet with the actors at all before you started filming? If so, how did you collaborate with them to workshop and rehearse any specific ideas that you had to establish the tone and feel for your episodes? 

I met with the actors briefly. I actually wish I had had more time with them, but we were on such a tight schedule that some conversations had to be over Zoom and the phone.  

I love collaborating with actors - they are your biggest teammates on set. I like delving into the characters’ world with them, going back and forth on ideas and motivations for the scene; it’s one of my favourite things about directing. As I mentioned before, my episodes lent a little bit more towards drama, so it was important to discuss this with the actors, as a lot of the previous episodes had been pure comedy. We needed to find the right balance, or we could fall into the trap of making light of some quite serious situations.

Your previous experience is in directing short films and documentaries – how did you find the transition from working on shorts to being part of a TV series? Was there anything you found particularly surprising, challenging or inspiring? 

With short films you can be completely autonomous, you can say what you want to say and shoot however you want to shoot. Once you start working on a TV show, there are a lot more voices in the room. You don’t have the same autonomy that you do on short films, but through this process I’ve learned what is worth fighting for and where you sometimes need to compromise. It’s a difficult balance - you need to have good problem-solving skills in TV!

However, I generally find working with talented cast and crew is the most inspiring thing about working in TV. After all, we are all collaborators on a project that we all believe in, otherwise we wouldn’t be there.

Image Credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still
Image Credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still

What advice would you give to other directors who are making a similar transition from shorts to working on a TV series? 

I have two pieces of advice; one practical and one personal. The first piece of advice is that, to go from shorts to TV, you should focus on initially creating two or three solid short films that you can use as your calling cards for the wider industry.  

I spent a lot of time creating short films without the right planning behind them, or by taking a “fast and loose” approach, which really helped me learn my craft and make lots of mistakes at the same time. However, you eventually need to take what you've learned and create a short film with a little more thought, time and money behind it. I don't say this lightly - it took me a year to save for Greasy Spoon, to write and re-write the script and look for extra funding. I wanted to make a short that really spoke to who I am as a filmmaker, and I also needed a strategy that meant it would be seen. Greasy Spoon was the first short film I created a marketing plan for - thinking about film festivals, releasing the short on the Million Youth Media (MYM) YouTube channel, reaching out to agents, designing and creating a poster, making and sharing a trailer... Essentially, taking everything I'd learned and putting it into a single project!

The second is that while you are trying to carve out a career in TV, make sure you have other things in your life that make you happy! This could be your family, friends or a hobby that’s nothing to do with filmmaking - you will probably hear more no’s than yes’s during your career as a filmmaker but when you do get a yes, it will feel so much sweeter. 

You are also Creative Director of Bluebird Pictures. Can you tell us a little about the organisation and its work?

I started Bluebird Pictures when I had absolutely no idea how to get into the TV and film industry. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, and I didn’t want to wait for permission to make anything or call myself a filmmaker, so I just went for it - I started the company, saved money from my corporate production assistant job, bought a DSLR camera and started making short films and documentaries.

As I’ve grown as a filmmaker, the company has taken on a new life - we have started to make more high-end short films and are currently developing our own TV and film slate. I really love ideas that are a bit weird and off-beat but at their heart still have say something about the world in either a macro or micro-perspective. We are also running a Writers in Residence scheme for the first time this year and are working with a wonderful writer, Afshan D’Souza Lodhi, on some magical realism scripts she has.  

I have also always loved working with communities, and I used to be a teacher, so I love that through Bluebird Pictures, we deliver outreach programmes where I work with schools and colleges to help upskill young people from Barking & Dagenham so that they can go on to find jobs in the industry. 

Our World Cinema Film Festival is an extension of this – it acts as both a community outreach programme and as a way to connect to new emerging talent. The festival is Barking & Dagenham’s first and only international film festival and it celebrates culture and community. We are now in our sixth year and each year we host screenings, guest speakers and immersive workshops. This year, I’m excited to introduce some new elements to the festival, including a family day, which focuses on parents working in the industry, parents whose children want to work in the industry and has child-friendly screenings and activities.

Finally, what are you working on next? 

I just directed four episodes of Candice Carty-WilliamsQueenie for Channel 4 and Disney, and I am editing those episodes as we speak. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the future holds, but I would love to direct a feature film and return to working on some of my own scripts as well as build up my production company. 

Image Credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still
Image Credit: Dreaming Whilst Black filming still

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