Director Irshad Ashraf on mentoring support

Director Irshad Ashraf on mentoring support

Mancunian Irshad Ashraf has taken huge strides from being a runner at Granada in the 1990s, to directing and edit producing numerous documentaries and magazine shows. Now with the helpful hands of ScreenSkills and Directors UK through the Back on Track mentoring scheme, he is making the transition to drama.

After many years of working in unscripted TV and documentary-making, Irshad developed an interest in working in high-end TV. So, when an email popped into his inbox about the Back on Track: Mentoring for Returning Directors scheme, funded by ScreenSkills and run by Directors UK, he decided to apply.

“I had just got back into work after paternity leave and was keen to further my knowledge and experience of working on dramas,” he says. “Fortunately, I was accepted and partnered with British TV director Paul Wilmshurst as my mentor, who’d had a similar journey from documentaries into drama, so it was a great pairing.”

Paul initially watched a lot of Irshad’s work and got to know him and his taste. Then the two of them made it more formal and constructed a road map of what Irshad wanted to achieve. This mostly involved discussing how to pitch ideas involving both reconstruction and drama.

“A lot of our work involves finding an idea, pitching it and finding the right people that will back it,” says Irshad. “I realised talking to Paul that it was a tough road I’d chosen, but he was very inspiring. He listened to me a lot and valued my ideas and the things I was interested in.”

Paul also introduced Irshad to his own agent who provided a frank appraisal of what agents look for in a director, which was not what Irshad thought it would be. “I assumed it was track record, but actually they’re looking for someone with potential who they can make money with,” says Irshad. “Paul helped me tailor my approach to suit agents’ requirements.”

The two are actually planning to work together with Irshad hoping to do some second unit directing for a forthcoming indie movie that Paul is planning to direct. Irshad is also using what he has learned from mentoring to set up a development deal as a writer/director on a project of his own.

“I’ve got a feature film script written, which has got an executive producer and some financing attached and is going to cast soon,” says Irshad. “It’s a conspiracy thriller set in South America called Ripped and Torn about a journalist who discovers that one of the companies she works for is using paramilitary death squads to control workers. It’s based on the Colombian death squads. I wanted to maintain my factual background as I’m interested in dramatising current affairs issues.”

Indeed, he is not turning his back on docs and unscripted TV, but instead utilising his skills to pursue his current passion for dramas with so many stories he wants to tell and now feels confident to do so thanks to the support he received on the ScreenSkills-funded Back on Track mentoring scheme.Irshad started his career at Granada where his first break as a director came pretty quickly. “There were plenty of programmes to work on because they had satellite channels producing lots of content,” he says. “My first show as director was Predictions with the psychic Derek Acorah where we went out to allegedly haunted locations and he would read what was in the ether. It was right up my street because it was spooky and psychic, so you could make it weird and experimental.”

Working at Granada was a good schooling in the basics of putting a production package together and “learning what you needed to do”  as he got to work with experienced camera operators and sound recordists. He went on to make about 30 or 40 shows there in quick succession, building a decent showreel.

Then in 2000, Irshad saw a job advertised in The Guardian newspaper to work in London as a director on the BBC magazine show Holiday. He applied and got it. The experience proved fruitful, getting him further gigs on magazine shows such as This Morning.

At the same time he decided to freelance as a director of art, social issues, history and crime reconstruction films. He also got to work on a series of docs, predominantly for The South Bank Show.

More recently, he became more immersed in, and passionate about, the historical reconstruction shows, like the BBC’s Back in Time for Tea, in which families would experience what it was like to live in a particular time period. “It was similar in set up to a film set, with a full-on art department and costume team,” says Irshad. “I was really enjoying the experience of these retrospective story-telling shows, and started doing a load more, including crime reconstructions.”

These became his bread and butter, but the desire to work on a scripted drama became very strong. So, he decided to test the water by directing a BBC Four Northern Lines drama about internet extremists called The Believers Are But Brothers. This whetted his appetite for directing dramas, but he knew you can’t just say, “I’m going to direct dramas now”. Having completed the Back on Track: Mentoring for Returning Directors scheme, however, he’s one step closer to achieving his goal.

If you enjoyed reading about Irshad's experience, why not share your story with us and showcase your skills and experience. The Back on Track: Mentoring for Returning Directors scheme is supported by ScreenSkills using National Lottery funds awarded by the BFI as part of the Future Film Skills programme. ScreenSkills is the industry-led skills body for the UK’s screen industries.

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