Q&A for International Women’s Day with Olivia J. Middleton
Q: Thank you so much for virtually sitting down with MTP today for this interview! Getting right into it, the first question I'd love to know is when you decided you wanted to be a filmmaker?
A: I've always loved films. Growing up, I’d watch films coming home from school and I’d spend the weekend watching films - we were a ‘TV’ family. It was pretty much exclusively Disney and musicals, there wasn't an eclectic mix of cinema in my household, but I’d always had this passion for films. But it was actually when I was in my fifth year in secondary school when I took a media studies course, that something clicked. I took that class because I was into everything performance-related. I did drama and musical theatre, I attempted music, although I had no musical talent whatsoever. But while editing a film trailer for this class, something made sense and there was almost an immediate decision. I'm becoming a filmmaker! I always liked performing, but I wasn't good enough to have been able to make a career out of it, so as soon as I realised that there was a career behind the camera, I thought, oh, that's exciting!
Q: From that passion early on, how did you start your journey into filmmaking?
A: During high school I didn't really understand what any of the roles within the industry were. I didn’t understand what a director or a producer was or what anybody did, so, I applied to a film course at Edinburgh Napier. I lived up in Ellon in Aberdeenshire. It’s a very small town, so not much going on, and so I moved for the course and that’s where I started to understand how films were made. It was an extremely practical course and while there was still so much that I didn't learn, it helped to develop my love for filmmaking. I know that lots of people say, 'you don't need to go to film school' but, if you live in Scotland there's no industry here. If you come from where I come from, it wasn't really a place that considered anything in the creative arts a job, or career. I think that if I didn't go to film school, there's no way I would have pursued a career in film.
Q: After graduating, how did you get into the industry?
A: I'd been told so many times that it was too difficult to be a director and I was never one who liked to fail, so I decided to see if there was somewhere else that I could fit that wasn’t directing. There was an awareness that I was still young, and that I didn’t know what half the departments or roles available were, so I decided to just go and try it out. After working as a runner on commercials during university, I really wanted to get into dramas because I wanted to start seeing how sets actually worked. After putting my details on Film Edinburgh, I got a call from the Assistant location manager on ‘Trainspotting 2’. You can imagine at the time, I was absolutely giddy, it was ‘Trainspotting 2’! The job wasn't a biggie. They needed marshals, but as soon as I got on a set, I thought, I want to keep doing this. I want this to be my living. This is fun! I remember being on set up Arthur's Seat on my birthday, on a searing hot day watching Danny Boyle directing…
Q: Best birthday ever!
A: It was! It was really inspiring. I kept doing the marshalling, and then eventually they asked me to come on board full time to do location running with them. After that I wanted to look at the AD (Assistant Director) department because it just looks like the coolest one. They're all walking about like they own the place, and I thought, I want to be there! That's actually probably something left over from my high school years of wanting to always be with the cool kids. I AD’d on a couple of films, including ‘Calibre’ and ‘The Vanishing’, but eventually I missed making things. Running was a massive help. I learnt so much and there were some wonderful people that I got to work with, but at that point I hadn't made anything since I left university. Crewing was pretty much my entire income, and there was no way of simultaneously balancing making films because it's such an all-encompassing job, so I stopped taking runner work and decided to find a part-time job and focus on making films.
Q: What was your first project?
A: I made ‘Avoiding the Unexpected’ immediately out of university. When you're at university, you spend four years building up to that big grad film, which everyone puts on a pedestal as if it's going to be the best thing that they ever make. It's probably going to be crap, but after I graduated I wanted to make another one immediately, because I didn’t want that to be the last thing I made. I saw a competition online to make a one minute short film based on the theme ‘avoiding the unexpected’. We spent 30 quid on the location and did it in three hours. Everybody chipped in for free and I dressed the actors in my clothes. It was just pals doing a film together.
Q: It was such a funny film. I didn't know what I was expecting - the unexpected! – but it’s very different to your other work, like ‘Rosalyn’.
A: I was having a Michel Gondry phase. I wanted something a little more magical and surreal. It was an odd film, but it's one of my favourites that I've ever made. The others are quite dark and grey, but I have fond memories of making ‘Avoiding the Unexpected’, it was fun.
Q: That sense of fun really shows in the film. So, after you stopped running, what was your first project?
A: That would have been ‘Rosalyn’.
Q: How did that come about?
A: Very strangely! I was absolutely gasping to make a film and, of course, you apply for so many things, but you're not an experienced filmmaker and you don't have a track record so it’s difficult to get funds. But, someone I met on the film course was producing a film and didn't have a director attached, and so I got in touch with him to express my interest. He messaged me back to say, ‘yes, although it may not be your cup of tea, because it’s a horror set on a farm’! I was up for doing anything at this point, because I enjoy every genre and kind of film, and so we went from there. He had asked writers on his course to do the script and they kept dropping out, and so eventually, for the film to meet the deadline, I ended up writing the script as well. ‘Rosalyn’ was the first script that I felt I was embarking upon as a writer, but it came out of nowhere. Out of necessity.
Q: And so it began! Alongside ‘Rosalyn’ and ‘Avoiding the Unexpected’, you make a lot of short films. What do you think short films can achieve that features can't?
A: I love shorts and I think they're so ridiculously undervalued. They get dismissed as stepping stones for filmmakers which takes the standard of shorts down. Lately though, established filmmakers have been making shorts, like ‘Nimic’ by Yorgos Lanthimos. One of my favourite films ever, never mind it being a short or feature, is the short film ‘Interior Design’ from the ‘Tokyo!’ series, an anthology of three short films, directed by Michel Gondry, Bong Joon-ho and Leos Carax. I think short films should exist as their own standalone medium. They shouldn’t just be considered as a stepping stone, or a way of developing talent, because they’re much more than that. Shorts give you the opportunity to explore abstract expression and they also force you as a filmmaker and a storyteller to tell stories in a succinct manner. Also, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, You come home from a long day and you’re trying to look for a film to watch – ‘how long's that? Oh, it's over two hours long, no, let's go find another film’. It's just what happens in our day-to-day. Why not allow shorts to thrive in that environment, where people are able to get a story, but they don't have to spend two and a half hours doing so? I'm never going to get bored of shorts. I'm quite interested in working on music videos and commercials for that reason. Obviously, I do want to make features as well, it's just that they're separate. They should be separate mediums with their own benefits and negatives.
Q: Touching on music videos, your latest collaboration with Lunir, 'Learning' was recently released. I'm really interested in how you adapt your filmmaking process from shorts to music videos? Or maybe it's the same?
A: I think it is the same. With every initial project, what you initially react off is always different, but the way in which you react to it ends up being the same. With music videos, the script is written for you because you have a song. You just need to respond to the story in the song and find a way to visualise that. I actually think I enjoy music videos so much because I do really love music. I'm not a proper music buff, and I know nothing about music, but I love it and I will listen to every genre. I listen to Aqua and then immediately after Edith Piaf! Different kinds of music also make you feel and do different things, because, similar to film, music affects you emotionally. It doesn't matter necessarily how intelligent you are about those genres or mediums, it's about how well they target you and how you respond to it. Whenever I was looking at bands to work with, something just wasn’t clicking because the story wasn't coming across, until I found Lunir. They're such talented musicians, so it’s really good to be working with them.
Q: Could I just touch on your style? You wrote that you tell stories that reflect the moral grey areas in human existence, which I found really interesting. What draws you to tell those stories?
A: It’s a good question. I believe most creatives are in the same vein of thought. Nothing in our lives is black and white. There’s no simple answer to anything. I also think exploring the grey area is more exciting and more complex. It provokes more empathy in audiences, because you’re revealing parts of themselves that they don't want to face or acknowledge. We're all just victims of our own actions, right? We're just a mess. Also, an upbringing of classic Disney animations teaches you that your bad guys are never just bad guys.
Q: It's so true. Everyone loves a filmic villain with a heart of gold.
A: Exactly. I get a bit frustrated nowadays that they're doing all these solo pieces on the villains of old Disney films because they were far more interesting when we didn't know why they were messed up. My favourite villain in a Disney film is Lord Frollo from ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, because he's a religious man conflicted between his beliefs and his desires. The conflict that exists within ourselves is an interesting thing to explore. We want to see people falling apart on our screens, even if it's in a funny or sad way, because that helps us get a much better understanding of why we're here, what humanity is and who we are as individuals. I think we also want to be able to vividly explore what we are and who we are. We need to provoke more empathy and understanding in one another. It has never been more important with everything happening now, because we're getting further from that as technology separates us.
Q: Speaking of technology! You do all your own editing and so you have a lot of control over your visual style. You describe your visual style as expressionist and poetic. How did you come to hone that style and are there any filmmakers that influenced you?
A: It's a hard one. There most certainly are filmmakers whose work I really admire, for their approaches to their work, and for the work itself. But, every story dictates a different approach and a different style, visually and audibly. Three filmmakers that come to mind are Sidney Lumet, Lynne Ramsay and Paul Thomas Anderson, and that’s because every film that they make is completely different and their visual style is never the same. Everybody assigns a visual style to Lynne Ramsay, but if you actually watched her films back-to-back you'd see how vastly different they are. Anderson is the same. ‘Inherent Vice’ is absolutely nothing like ‘The Master’ or ‘There Will be Blood’. Yet, their voices as directors are always prominent. They’re always there. That's what I find influential about those filmmakers. The idea that while they never do the same thing twice, their presence is always felt.
Q: So, for you, story dictates style?
A: Absolutely. I don’t want to undermine other filmmakers, but if you look at Baz Luhrmann, some of his films aren't actually very strong because he applies the same style over and over again to a story that doesn’t necessarily need or want it. I didn’t enjoy ‘The Great Gatsby’ for that reason. It just didn't feel like a story that suited that style. I know that's total personal taste, but I feel you weaken the potential of a story when you decide how it's going to be seen before you have even read it or understood what it is.
Q: I'd love to ask you about your writing. You both write and direct your films. I'm really interested in learning where you draw your influence from?
A: It's difficult for me because it's only recently that I've started even considering myself a writer, because I've only ever written out of necessity. Only with my latest film ‘A90’ did I think, I quite enjoy writing! I wouldn't say there's anything in particular that influences my writing. It’s like anything else, ideas just start to percolate in your head. Without trying to sound too pretentious, I envisage the images before anything else – I see visuals, but I don’t hear dialogue. These visuals come up in my headspace, like a little flicker, and then another separate visual will come up, and then again, until something finally makes everything click, and your ideas group together into a story. It doesn't hit me like a stroke of lightning. It's all very gradual and sometimes I think I have an idea and then I try writing it down and it’s terrible! Going into specifics, with ‘A90’, I had made ‘Rosalyn’, and I had just wrapped up ‘Morning’ and I was fed up of doing sad films. I wanted to do a romance because they were all I ever watched growing up and are probably my favourite genre. Bizarrely, what made ‘A90’ bind together was a back-to-back viewing of ‘Chungking Express’ and ‘Orlando’. I was able to write ‘A90’ the next day! There are obviously other things I’ve drawn inspiration from for ‘A90’ but after that night, all the floating ideas banded together.
Q: ‘A90’ is set in a small town roadside café and ‘Rosalyn’ was also set in a remote farm. Do you think that growing up in a small town yourself has influenced your storytelling?
A: One hundred percent. We can never ignore where we came from right? It's embedded. ‘A90’ maybe feels a little bit more direct because I worked in a café in Ellon. Everything about the café that ‘A90’ is set in, is pretty much like the one I was in. There's also a lot of me written into the main character. It's not autobiographical by any means, but it draws out from my past experiences and feelings. I just wish I had a slightly more interesting life!
Q: You do, you're making films!
A: That's fun! It's like playing a big game. Every so often I'm on the phone to my parents – and they've been very supportive – but they recently mentioned someone making a ‘proper film’. They meant a feature film, but it was just funny because that's how people view short filmmaking. Me making short films doesn't look all that impressive where I come from, really.
Q: One day when you're winning the Oscar for Best Picture, you can call up and say, ‘hey, I made a proper one!’
A: I think my mum would fall apart if I won an Oscar!
Q: Speaking of the Oscars - that was the worst segue yet! For the first time in history, three women were nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes this year, but still only one woman has ever won for Best Director at the Oscars (Kathryn Bigelow for ‘The Hurt Locker’ in 2010). Where do you think that the industry must improve to create an equality of opportunity for directors?
A: I've been really fortunate. It just so happens that I'm deciding to really focus on directing at a time when people want to see more women. Directorially, I don't feel like I have experienced any woe other than the norm of getting rejections, which is no different to what anyone else would experience. But, there is a big picture to this, that isn't just to do with getting representation. It's also about actually making women feel comfortable. Any substantial change takes a lot of time and patience. If you really want things to change then you need to be working from the ground and going to the root of the problem. So often we jump to short-sighted thinking and act very quickly, thinking that will solve the problem. I think the most valuable thing that can be done from the offset is to create a safe and welcoming environment, not just for women, but for anybody from a minority group, or a low social class - anybody that hasn't been able to break through, and to offer encouragement to younger generations from these backgrounds. The only thing that the industry can start by doing, is opening the gates and inviting everybody else in. On a smaller scale, speaking more personally, I'd really love for someone to actually start paying me to make films so I can pay my rent! If you have no one to look to for financial support, you can't afford to make films full-time. If you are getting given money to make films, you would think that they would also be covering the filmmaker. That is at the heart of what I'm saying. It's not just a case of funding the films. You also need to fund the filmmakers. You can't have the attitude that your talent only need to be supported in helping get the films made. You also need to make it possible for them to live and put their full attention to those films. It's all about priority. Is the priority instant results, or longevity and having talent and an industry? An industry comes from the filmmakers, not different productions coming to your country to film. If you want an industry, you need home-grown filmmakers.
Q: What could be done better?
A: I don’t know the specifics of how money is spent. All I know is, if people can afford to make films without needing to work part or full-time, they can access the industry and jobs much quicker than those who have to work to make a living. So, support your filmmakers financially if you really want to see them take off, have a career and to help create your industry. It begs the question, do you want to be able to say that I'm a filmmaker that you helped develop and support or do you just want to be seen to be the people who did that? It’s the idea that filmmakers should be grateful for the fact they're given money to make a film in the first place. It’s a terrible attitude because, yes, you’re grateful for being given the opportunity, but you still need to eat! We need to really start thinking about the process. In Britain in particular, short films are almost solely publicly funded, and it's frustrating because as a model, I don't think it works. These bodies need to offer more than they're currently offering if they are the sole gatekeepers of funding and opportunity.
Q: Thinking of filmmakers starting out in their careers and getting funding, do you have any advice for those beginning their journeys?
A: Well, I'm still at the beginning of my journey, but I would say be a hundred percent sure that it's what you want and also, be sure that you have some skill and ability at the same time! And just keep going. Make films by any means necessary, even if it's spending thirty quid on a location and shooting a one-and-a-half minute film in three hours. Just don't take no for an answer and don't accept any limitations, because eventually your drive and passion will out, you know?
Q: Absolutely. There’s often an expectation that to be a success you have to go straight into making films, but you yourself started by marshalling. I suppose it's a journey and you never know who you're going to meet along the way or what you're going to be doing next?
A: Completely. I always felt regretful for doing the running. I thought I had wasted two years when I could have been making films. In hindsight, it was invaluable. It’s how I met the crew that are working with me on my shorts now. It’s where I learnt how a set works and runs, which is crucial. That’s one of the things people underestimate when going to direct their first film, especially if it's got money involved. It's a big tank. Yes, it’s nothing compared to a feature, but there are a lot of people that will look to you for answers, and your head is going to be in several different directions. The last thing that you need is to also be thinking, how does this and that work? Even a couple of experiences on a set can help you understand the etiquette and the almost militant formula of how they run. Even after four years at university, I felt like I knew nothing about how a set worked, because learning as a student isn’t the same as actually being on set. So if you can, give it a couple of goes - absorb and see what it's like. We also need to have less pressure on particular roles. A lot of people want to be a writer or director, but have an open mind because there are so many opportunities in this industry. I think a lot of people try to follow a particular career path because certain roles are put on a pedestal. As soon as you take every role down to the same level you realise that, on set, everyone has a role and a part to play, and every cog is just as important as the other. Have an open mind to what your future can be. If it's just that you love film and you want to work in the industry, your dream role may not always be the most obvious to you.
Q: Thank you, that's brilliant advice. Are there any personal lessons you’ve taken from your experiences?
A: I think another valuable lesson learnt from doing crew work, is that you develop a thicker skin, and you need that, especially if you're going to be doing directing. You need to be able to take criticism and not take it personally. You also need to be able to multitask several things at once, both logical and creative. You're constantly using both sides of your brain because there’s no separation, so you need to train yourself. You're not just the person walking around saying ‘that was a really nice take, but could you do it again like you're trying to get a secret out?’ You're not fluffing around! There are so many other aspects and it is a hard job. A glamorous hard job. Also, every film that you watch, that you love, nobody knew if their film was actually going to be a hit. They were just working and getting the job done.
Q: You hear about so many hit productions being stuck in the pipeline for years because they weren’t initially backed. ‘It's a Sin’ was turned down by multiple channels because they just didn't think it would be popular. How wrong that turned out to be!
A: The same happened with ‘The Queen's Gambit’. They said nobody would want to watch a show about chess. It's evidence that perseverance is key, and also that the people who say ‘no’ are not always right. They aren't the tastemakers, audiences are. The amount of hard work that went into bringing these projects to fruition is admirable. It takes a lot of willpower and a lot of patience.
Q: And thank goodness they persevered! Right, here’s one final, cheesy question. If you were stranded on a desert island, what films would you take and why?
A: Oh, I thought I was going to avoid this one! It's a deceptive question because the question implies, what are your favourite films? But my favourite films make me feel hollow inside. I don't want that on a desert island!
Q: In that case, let’s do favourite films and films you’d take to a desert island?
A: Okay. I don't have three favourites, I have about a million, so I’ll go for ones that I have stuck in my memory. There’s ‘Jackie’. The performance was gorgeous and it was so poetically done. It didn't draw attention to anything other than the emotional toll of that character, and it’s a wonderful character portrait of a significant person in history. Another is ‘Chungking Express’. It’s such an eclectic, wonderful, chaotic mess of a film. A third one, I'm trying to think…
Q: Not ‘The Great Gatsby’?!
A: Not ‘The Great Gatsby’! For the desert island… it's tricky, because I have an entire childhood of Disney and musicals that I so often negate talking about because you sound like a dork! But ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘Tarzan’ are two Disney animations that I watch over and over again. In fact, ‘Tarzan’ I'd take to a desert island because you'd need the Phil Collins soundtrack. ‘Thelma and Louise’ I also love. ‘The Big Short’ may be one of the films I've watched the most - it must be over 20 times now. I have no idea why! ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is an obvious one, ‘Erin Brockovich’ and finally ‘Blue Valentine’, for the romantic in me. If you're going to a desert island, let's be realistic, are you going to take Ingmar Bergman?
Q: Can you imagine ‘The Seventh Seal’ on a desert island? You'd be trying to swim away after a day!
A: Re-watchable films, that's what you need on a desert island. And ones with a Phil Collins soundtrack!