Job title: Director
Industries: High-end TV
“I arrived in London with my backpack and a dream of working in theatre,” says Lisa Clarke. Her original plan was to be an actor but she hated auditions so much that her drama teacher suggested she think about training to be a director. At that time, the Donmar Warehouse had just launched its Resident Assistant Director scheme. Lisa applied, but didn’t make it on.
Undaunted, she found a place on a post-graduate course in Directing at the Central School of Speech and Drama. On the back of the experience, she got a call to work as the director’s assistant to Anthony Paige at Wyndham’s Theatre on a major production starring Maggie Smith and Frances de la Tour.
Lisa started to direct her own projects on the fringe, before reapplying and this time being selected for the year-long assistant director residency at the Donmar. She spent time attached to various Carlton Television productions, including Soldier Soldier and London Bridge. After her year in London, Lisa went on to direct regional theatre but realised that she really wanted to direct TV. Her break came as a script editor on EastEnders, where she worked for two years.
Lisa got an agent, Ian Benson from The Agency, and was offered the chance to direct the opening block of series three of period police drama WPC56. She was keen to maintain momentum and make the step to directing primetime high-end series drama but knew from experience it was not going to be an easy or a smooth road. Lisa’s agent advised her that to move on she would need to be available for whatever work came along. She had meetings for a range of high-end drama productions but nothing came from them.
Then in 2015 Directors UK sent a newsletter to its members with details of a new pilot scheme for mentoring high-end drama directors. Directors UK shortlisted candidates for partnering productions and Lisa got a call from Red Planet Pictures about working on Dickensian and was interviewed by the director, Harry Bradbeer, who offered to mentor her on the production. She worked alongside Harry for 10 weeks from May to July 2015.
“I have shadowed on shows before but only for a couple of days of the shoot. What made this experience especially valuable was being able to start the process during the prep period,” says Lisa. She was able to observe meetings with directors of photography, designers and producers. They covered issues such as casting, discussions with the historical advisor and the composer, editorial meetings with the producer, execs and script team. Pretty much everything from camera testing to extensive discussions about the look of the show. “All these meetings helped me get a handle on the complicated jigsaw that is required to launch a show the size of Dickensian.”
“Understanding Harry’s vision enabled me to engage with the shoot more actively. The discipline of camera planning the scenes the day before was also really helpful,” she adds. The experience reaffirmed her belief that the more you plan in advance, the more you achieve. “There is never enough time or money, so staying in control of the compromises is a key part of the job,” she realised.
Not having gone to film school, Lisa was also keen to learn more about the technical design aspects of production. “I spent a lot of time talking to the VFX designer and tracking the process. I can now confidently say that I understand how it works. Part of my toolkit I am constantly trying to develop is my understanding of the camera and knowledge of camera kit. The second camera operator generously spent time explaining aspects of camera technique.”
Lisa directed some of the second unit shoots on the production. “I had the opportunity to shoot some material, sharing the main set with Harry and working with some of the regular cast. It was a fantastic opportunity to put into practice some of what I’d learned over the previous couple of months.” It was also helpful information for Lisa’s agent to be able to tell prospective producers.
Throughout the attachment, Harry made time to talk to Lisa about his process and explain why he was making certain decisions and to share with her the most important things he had learned over the years. He also advised her on how to pitch herself and her vision as a director for a show. Lisa has put his advice into practice ever since.
For many experienced directors wishing to take the next step into high-end TV drama one of the biggest obstacles is demonstrating to potential employers that they have experience on a high-end set, along with the right knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to approach a high-end directing role. According to Lisa, “to overcome this you need a combination of hard work, opportunity, and the availability to be able to seize your chances.
“The Directors UK scheme is a wonderful opportunity and has been an invaluable experience. It has helped me make the step-up from long-running and daytime drama to primetime high-end series drama. It really has been the springboard I needed.”
It allowed her to follow her agent’s advice to be available for meetings about future work rather than committing to long-term contracts that absorbed all her time. It was a stressful leap of faith, but Lisa is lucky to have a supportive husband who also works in the industry. “The scheme has helped me grow as a director and to take this confidence into meetings. I did my first interview for Call the Midwife in March 2015. I didn’t get the job. I did my second interview whilst shadowing the shoot. I got the job. I know I did a better meeting because of my time on Dickensian and Harry’s mentorship.”
Lisa’s mentor Harry Bradbeer says, “I couldn’t fault the Directors UK template that I was working to, or how it was done. And of course, I was lucky, very lucky in having Lisa come forwards. So I just think it’s a fantastic scheme. The apprenticeship gives an aspiring director a taste of working with a bit more money and a bit more scale. Lisa found that watching how I worked gave her confidence. She could see what was different, and she could see what was just the same.”
After her experience on Dickensian Lisa went into Call the Midwife with complete confidence that she could do the job. The scheme gave her the confidence to not be scared of moving up in the scale of storytelling.
After two series of Call the Midwife her agent, Ian, was pushing her to make the next move. She’d watched and enjoyed The Good Karma Hospital and told her agent “OK, that’s what I’d like to do. How are we going to do it?” She and Ian pitched for the work and secured the closing block of three episodes. For Lisa, The Good Karma Hospital was an amazing experience, shot on location in Sri Lanka and working on a much bigger scale than before with a crew of two hundred, and more than a hundred extras.
About the High-end TV Drama Directors Career Development Programme
The Directors UK High-End TV Drama Directors Career Development Programme aims to help progress and improve the diversity of directing talent in High-end TV drama by giving directors a broader understanding of working in the genre from prep to post. It provides participants with practical training and professional opportunities - including the challenge of working on set with leading industry professionals. The scheme is open to all directors wanting to make the step up. Applications from directors from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and women are encouraged. Placements are paid an income for their time on set with production companies and broadcasters across the UK.
In 2018, the scheme was renewed for its second year running. For more information about this programme and other ScreenSkills-supported schemes currently open for applications click here.