Alex Kalymnios is an established director working both in the UK and the US. Alex recently directed the pilot Close Up for Freeform and has directed episodes of Titans, Impulse, The 100 and Timeless.
Alex directed Sony/Lifetime TV film Love You To Death starring Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden and Tony Nominated Emily Skeggs. The film was inspired by the true events of Dee and Gypsy Blanchard exploring the complicated and rare condition of Munchausen by Proxy.
In 2015, Alex also directed the Sony/Lifetime TV film Cleveland Abduction starring Taryn Manning, Raymond Cruz and Pam Grier. The film was based on the true story of Michelle Knight, who was one of three women held captive for over a decade under abuser Ariel Castro.
In the UK, Alex directed the final series – a three-part special of Scott & Bailey, starring BAFTA winner Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp and also The White Princess starring Jodie Comer.
Alex also directed BBC3 hit Becoming Human starring Craig Roberts and John Boyega, where Alex was also nominated for a BAFTA Cymru in 2012.
In 2009, Alex was named by Broadcast Magazine as a Director Hot Shot and was also selected for the prestigious BBC Directors Academy.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
As a kid, I always loved thinking of stories and performing plays with my siblings. I loved the magic of make believe so much I really wanted to pursue an acting career. My parents really did not encourage that career path, but I was determined, so I would use all my pocket money to go to a weekend drama school. They had hoped my passion would last a few months but it continued for years. Then when I was 17, I directed my first play. It was for a school competition and I remember spending days in the library trying to find the perfect play and then hours rehearsing with the actors and organising all the elements we needed. I remember watching the play that night so proud of my actors and also seeing the audience reactions and it felt amazing. We also won the competition! I was hooked. I realised that was this was what I wanted to do – but I still wasn’t entirely sure what this was.
The creative film/TV industry was not a world I knew. My parents were teachers so we had no friends or family contacts in the industry and I didn’t know much about directing, let alone how to actually get to do it for a living. All I knew was that I was obsessed with stories – books, films, TV and that I was assertive and determined (helpful qualities for the job!). It wasn’t until I was at Bournemouth University studying TV and Video Production when I started writing short scripts, which kept getting chosen to be made and resulted in me directing them, that I knew this was exactly what I was meant to be doing.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Just before graduating university, I was super lucky and got headhunted to work at the BBC. So I went straight into a job as a runner in children’s entertainment, where my first job was shooting in the Banff mountains in Canada. My job was super fun but ultimately, it didn’t satisfy my creative desires. So on my weekends I looked for opportunities to direct and get involved in other people’s shoots. I applied to Film London and received funding for my first short called More Than A Job’s Worth. I wrote, directed and produced the film. My crew was a mix of friends from university, Shooting People and basically anyone who was vaguely interested in helping me out. It was a huge learning curve. To this day I still remember the script supervisor shouting at me because her name featured below another crew member on the call sheet (!). I was literally doing everything – the call sheets, organising the food (with help of my parents who were slowly coming onboard with this crazy career choice!) to organising transport and of course trying to actually direct. It was insane.
The festival circuit was another huge learning curve. I had no idea what I was doing and the hierarchy of the festivals and premiere status’ but my little film managed to find its way into a few cool festivals winning a couple of awards for directing too (!). This helped my confidence to continue on this path.
This was all happening whilst still working full time at the BBC and I was using all my holiday leave to follow the film at various festivals or to attend meetings and it was beginning to become quite a juggle. I then also got selected for the Berlinale Talent Campus, which I can only describe as a life-changing week! It was like the most intense film school packed with extreme drinking, partying and networking. By “networking”, I mean meeting peers who share common passions and over time these connections developed into good friendships. Three of my closest and dearest friends are people I met that week in Berlin in 2005 and we have over the years, helped each other with emotional support, practical advice and getting jobs for each other!
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Oh where do I start?!
From the very beginning I had no way into the industry. After not getting the A-level grades I had expected and feeling like a complete failure, I took a year out to travel the world and also really figure out which course would be best for my path. I landed on Bournemouth but I needed to prove to them I wanted to work in this industry. With no contacts, I literally cold called every company in the yellow pages asking for work experience. I managed to get work experience at Raindance Film Festival, a film distribution company, 19 magazine, and Nickelodeon TV. It gave me a chance to experience a variety of areas but most importantly reaffirm the belief of ‘don’t ask- don’t get’, because you never really know until you try.
I think after then, one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was with myself. I needed the confidence and belief to say ‘I am a director’ and have the courage to leave my day job at the BBC to really give it a shot.
I had used my time at the BBC well. After almost four years, I was assistant producer and had also knocked on as many BBC drama exec doors as I could. I managed to get on a month paid Children’s BBC Director Shadowing scheme where I got to see what a director did. It was amazing and, compared to my short, it was a dream. The director could literally focus just on the story and not worry about the catering or transport or what order the names should be on the call sheet! The director I shadowed, Rick Stroud, gave me the crucial advice and encouragement I needed, “If you want to be a director, you have to leave your day job and just do it.” I will forever be grateful for his advice and support and being such a great mentor. So I left the BBC and started freelancing. With the higher freelance wage and shorter contracts it gave me the time to direct more projects – shorts and music videos and build up my reel, before finally landing my first TV gig.
It’s also worth mentioning that along the way I got many rejections – at least a couple of box files of them just in the first few years (back when they use to send letters!) I still have them all stored somewhere! Rejections from agents, film schemes, shadowing, directing jobs, etc. I don’t know why I kept the rejections – I guess deep down I wanted to prove all these people wrong. Looking back, I took every rejection quite personally and now strangely I don’t. I still get rejections but I handle them differently. Because ultimately for every past rejection, it not only made me stronger and more determined, it also created a different path for me as I explored other opportunities. Focusing on what you can control (writing or directing your own work) will keep you sane and ultimately happier in this quite brutal industry.
Another “obstacle” I should also mention is being female. I have seen over the years, my most talented female director friends not even get a look in for some jobs only for the job to be given to less experienced or less talented male peers. There was no doubt of the discrimination that female directors faced, especially 15 years ago when we were all starting out on our TV careers. Things are improving slowly as there are definitely more opportunities since the issue has become more public and embarrassingly obvious and hard to deny.
To be totally honest, I never wanted to admit that as an obstacle either, because it’s something I have no control over so it felt better to be able to blame the work. The bottom line is, I can’t change being female and I love being a woman. I think it gives me a different perspective, especially now I am also a mother. At a party recently, a TV exec apologised for not giving me a job years back. I had done a great interview and for once actually thought I might have real shot at it as it was my dream show and knew it inside out! She admitted to me that she now recognised she had unconscious bias and just never hired female directors. I was a little unsure what to say – other than thanks because for every door that closes a window opens. Honestly, the lack of great directing opportunities in the UK market (even after I had been eight years working solidly as a TV director) was the reason I got on the plane to LA and I have no regrets about that. The US has given me so many opportunities to direct on such a wide range of projects, working with Oscar-winning actors and writers, huge stunts, complicated VFX, incredible locations and big budgets. I am a firm believer in everything happens for a reason, but I also believe you have to work hard to find those opportunities as they won’t come to you easily.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I’m always learning, developing and honing my craft. I’m still finding my voice and that’s not to say I don’t know my voice, it’s just I think the film that I would’ve made when I was 20 is a completely different film from what I would make now I am 40. Although my taste hasn’t changed too much – I generally gravitate towards darker material. For example, psychological dramas/thrillers, supernatural and sci fi’s (all with some great compelling action and honest characters). These are all genres I am passionate about; however, my point of view within those genres has changed over the years. I think it’s really important to have something to say, to provoke thought in our audiences and show characters that are usually underrepresented on screen to explore the truth of our worlds and beyond. I am very conscious of that whilst choosing projects now. Having a strong point of view and confidence in following your gut instinct is something that grows with each new project.
How did you get your first break?
My first real break in a paid directing TV job was Hollyoaks. I had applied to all the usual places – Doctors, Holby etc with no joy and was feeling a little low after years of banging on doors. I was in Soho meeting a director friend, Sarah Walker (from the Berlinale Talent Campus!) and she happened to be with a producer, Lucy Allan, from Hollyoaks. Lucy was looking for a female DP, I had just worked with one so I passed on my DVD, which I just randomly had in my bag (as you do back then!) and she suggested I send in more of my work to her. I did, which lead to an interview with her boss and then a job.
After I booked my first job in TV, then I was able to finally get an agent. I think it’s worth noting that you should manage your expectations with what an agent can actually do for you, especially in the early days. It’s a great seal of approval, but the reality is you will still have to work hard for your opportunities and use your own network, through film school, festivals, work, etc., to get your next job.
I also want to stress you should always follow your instincts on opportunities that do come up. They might not be perfect but if there is something you might gain from an opportunity (something for your reel, a good working relationship, money) whatever it is, if you know why you are doing it, then you will get the most of the experience. With that attitude you will be more open to things that come your way, as opposed to purely waiting for that big film deal to happen. just get directing – whatever it is!
TV Credits: Close Up (2020), Impulse (2019/2018), Titans (2019/2018), The 100 (2017-2019) SWAT (2019), Timeless (2018), Quantico (2018), Once Upon a Time (2017), The White Princess (2017), Scott & Bailey (2016), Salem (2015), Waterloo Road (2011-2014), Becoming Human, Eastenders (2010-2013), Hollyoaks (2007-2009), The Cut (2010), Hollyoaks Later (2008-2012), Seacht (2009).
Film Credits: Love you To Death (2019), Cleveland Abduction (2015), The Green Fairy (2007), More Than a Job’s Worth (2005).