Carolina Giammetta trained as an actress and has written and directed several acclaimed award-winning short films that have been selected for international film festivals and won several Best Short Film awards across the world.
She’s directed Doctors and Casualty for BBC Drama, lead on the first series of Shakespeare & Hathaway and directed two 90-minute episodes of Vera for ITV. Last year she completed the feature length opening of the new season of Agatha Raisin for SKY 1 & Acorn and is currently directing her first authored piece The Drowning a four part drama (Unstoppable Film & TV, Element Pictures, ALL3Media)
Her feature film Pizza Face (nominated for the IMDB ‘Script to Screen’ award) with producer Alexandra Blue is in development with the BFI. Her award-winning Holy Cannelloni (BAFTA long-listed short for Pizza Face) was funded by BFI Network & Creative England.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Ok, so this first question has a bit long-winded answer but it’s totally how I got here, so thought it would be good to put down!
I’m 2nd generation Italian brought up in Nottingham. My parents could barely speak English never mind try to get me involved in extracurricular activities. I remember putting on my own productions of Grease & Wizard of Oz at primary school, which I designed, directed and performed in as well as operating the music & lights! I asked if we could do something other than the nativity play and they said if I wanted to do it…. just do it yourself. I still can’t believe the school let me do that at the age of 10 years old. At secondary school I was really lucky to have an amazing drama teacher who told me about the drama groups in Nottingham. When Central Studios was built in Nottingham, they set up The Central Junior TV Workshop (now the TV Workshop). The idea was that they had a pool of kids to cast children’s shows that were being made there, rather than having to go to stage schools. Loads of kids auditioned for it and I was lucky enough to be one of the original 25 that started the founder group. We met twice a week and put on theatre shows and worked on a lot of TV shows, like Murphy’s Mob, Dramarama, Luna, etc. During one session a producer called Peter Murphy from Zenith North came along and asked us if we could have our own TV show what would it be? We came up with a show called Your Mother Wouldn’t Like it (named after a designer label of someone’s dad’s shirt I think). Six of us were picked out of the group to work with the writing team on it. I remember seeing one of my first sketches filmed and broadcasted and it was amazing but I also remember thinking it wasn’t quite how I saw it.
After that I wrote two screenplays/dramaramas for the Central TV writing competition and won it both years that it ran. This gave me a huge amount of confidence as my English was terrible at school, I was dyslexic, in bottom set English and my vocabulary was really poor as my parents didn’t really speak English. However, when I wrote my scripts, script editors from Central Studios would type them up and sort out all the mistakes. Both scripts were produced on stage and I remember seeing how they had been directed and again it not being how I imagined.
The good thing was that I got moved into top set English, which led to getting onto a A-level English & Drama course and from the money I earned, I paid someone to spell check my next script, bought a moped and a washing machine for my mum & dad. My writing is still shocking but I know how to tell a story and drive a motorbike!
Jump forward to three years at drama school training as an actress. We did an exchange with the directors at NFTS, them learning how to work with actors, us learning how to work on set. I already knew a lot from being in TV shows as a kid, and my love for working with the camera came back and grew stronger. As an actress I worked mainly in TV & Film with some incredible directors who still inspire me today. From those early days I knew that if I wanted to make anything happen I had to do it myself, there was no point waiting for someone to give me a break or get me a job, I had to go out there and make it happen, create my own work, make my own contacts. As an actress I knew what directors did, that got the best out of me and what the ones did that got the worst. I remember doing table script reads before a job and then when the film/TV show came out it wasn’t always how I imagined, just like when I was younger.
I started writing plays to perform in so I could work on stage again. I got together with a group of ex-drama school graduates and set up ART THRESHOLD with an ex-drama school teacher which was a non-profit theatre collaborative working out of a make shift theatre in Paddington. We were broken into and a lot of the equipment that some theatres had donated to us was stolen, so Rufus Norris (then an actor) and I both directed our first plays there to bring extra funds. We loved it and Rufus gave up acting and continued directing (now Artistic Director of The National Theatre). But for me screen was more exciting, so I carried on trying to work as an actress and doing a lot of teaching on the side, as well as working as a fitness instructor. I always thought I didn’t know enough to direct my own short, so I co-directed my first ‘zero budget’ 2- to 3-minute shorts with another director and I got the bug! I remember bringing HD CAM tapes home and putting them in my safe like they were blocks of gold. Those early shorts did really well at film festivals. They were really short, didn’t look great at all but they had a voice behind them. I guess it was just me playing around with ideas. I went on to get commissions from UK Film Council (now BFI) and then Film London.
I got the same buzz directing my first commissioned short as I did putting on Grease when I was 10 years old because they both came out as I saw them. So maybe it was always something I wanted to do I just didn’t know it till years later. Ironically, I finally stopped paying my Spotlight subscription and gave up my acting agent a few days ago.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After I made my initial shorts, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. Working with actors and knowing what an actor’s journey is, and has always been, second nature to me but I needed some help with the technical side. So, I applied on Shooting People to direct shorts for other writers too, just to get more practice and I did anything to get behind a camera. I did some short courses in cinematography, editing and sound design to help me understand that language.
Spool Films, who had produced a few of my shorts, got a commission to make 27 period drama narrative short films about the British Civil War and asked me to direct them. It was a five-week shoot and although very low budget, we had a cast of 100, two cameras, action sequences, SFX, CGI and VFX. That was my film school really, as I learnt so much. The main thing that I took away from it was how to manage and collaborate with a crew and translate a vision to a team and do that every day for more than three days of making a short. They won two Cannes TV & Media awards and were nominated from an RTS award.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Probably getting my first TV job. A lot of people were interested in my writing projects and short films but it felt like people thought it was a big jump to give me a TV gig. Also my age; I came to directing much later and I found myself competing with spanking new film school grads. I also had kids and a mortgage when I made my first short and was juggling lots of jobs to keep the money coming in for my family, as we’d just bought a pub… at the wrong time! It was a real struggle to get through the door for meetings. But I constantly kept a check on which producers were doing the shows and films that I liked. I got hold of their contact details and whenever I made a new short or put on a play I would send them a link/invite (and I still do). It’s really important you don’t bombard or hassle people but a gentle stream of contact has really worked for me and led to meetings and now work. I’m hoping a job next year will happen with someone I sent my first short to.
When I first started directing in TV I remember getting a little bit of ‘woman director doesn’t know what she’s doing’ nonsense, which I always dealt with straight away. It only really happened twice. When I worked as an actress, my director was my director, I never thought about what gender they were and it was really odd when I then became a director hearing stories about how women directors got treated. I realised quite quickly that being a female director was like being a ‘female driver’, when you fuck up it doesn’t matter if you have just made a wrong decision, having a bad day or just made a dodgy manoeuvre, you messed up because you were a woman. I got over that by confessing my mistakes and lack of knowledge and realised most people were there to help. We are all learning all the time. As a director you don’t need to know how to do everything all the time, you just need to know what you want and not give up until you get it.
I have only had two incidences of an operator and a DoP intimidating me on set on a job, and that was early on. I asked for a shot to be set up in a certain way, they disagreed and set up the shot how they wanted. I quite openly addressed it by saying that we would ALL now have to work twice the speed to get their version and mine in the can within the time we had. I also said quite openly that they would both be the centre of a ‘crap experience on set’ story in the future, if anyone asked me. It made everyone laugh and we moved on. I’ve never worked with either of them again and they both continue to be the centre of my ‘crap experience on set’ story. Always know that if you treat people badly in this industry you will be featured in one of their ‘experience stories’. And there’s always time to tell them on set.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I think I probably found my voice in my early ‘no budget’ shorts because they were purely what I found to be funny or interesting and wanted to make. However, honing my craft took longer and I’m still doing it. Those shorts were all made with my own money and a lot of favours from people. As I got commissioned this continued but it did slide towards stories that I wanted to tell but also what I thought would make a good short, that might get into festivals / win awards, which wasn’t the right thing to do really.
My latest short Holy Cannelloni was funded by BFI Network & Creative England as a pilot to my feature Pizza Face, and even that to a certain extent changed in development to be more what my execs thought would sell the feature. However, it has succeeded in what it set out to do and that was to get development money for the feature film.
When I started working in TV, the challenge was trying to put my own stamp on an already established show and/or trying to deliver a vision that had already been decided by the execs of a new show. When I worked on Doctors it would have been easy to just shoot it really simply because you have such little time and you HAVE to complete the day and deliver. However, I would always put so much into planning and prep to try and be as creative as I could with the visual storytelling, to try and get a little bit of my voice in there. It would often stretch the crew more and I would ask more of them but they were always up for trying something different and the Execs always encouraged it… as long as you completed the day or didn’t fly away from what the show was too much!
I’m currently in the middle of shooting a 4-part drama in Dublin, we were stood down within three weeks due to Covid-19. It’s the first time I have been able to create a total vision for something that I haven’t written and it’s been an amazing experience, almost reminds me of working in theatre where I had the freedom to totally build a world around a script.
How did you get your first break?
I made a comedy pilot based on a show I took to Edinburgh. BBC Comedy really liked it and asked me to direct some sketches on their comedy pilot. They were really filmic and got a big thumbs up and I thought ‘Yay I’m in’! But then the people I knew left the BBC, pursued other careers and had children, etc., and so I struggled to get my foot in the door again. Then Deborah Sathe from Film London (used to work for BBC Continuing drama) really liked my short I Don’t Care that Film London commissioned. Before she took the job she texted the head of daytime drama Will Trotter and said he had to give me a job on Doctors. He handed me over to Mike Hobson the executive there. It took about five months of gentle nudging for him to watch my shorts and call me in for a meeting. He showed me the stack of directors, showreels he gets sent and was concerned that short filmmakers that would struggle with the speed of the show (17-27 pages a day on two cameras). I’d worked on the show as an actress and knew how fast it was, so he was happy for me to come and shadow another director. Three months of gentle nudging got me shadowing and then another five months to get my first block.
I really tried to make them my own. Everyone liked them and I was offered a stand-alone episode after that and then a Doctors 2-parter. Then one of the producers got a call from Casualty asking about new directors and I got a block of Casualty. Again, trying to put my mark on those two episodes, which lead to being recommended for a new show Shakespeare & Hathaway created and written by Paul Matthew Thompson. He then recommended me for Vera and it’s continued from there.
I got my agent after making my comedy pilot but it took a while to get going in TV. The more an agent has to offer people the easier it is for them to get you through the door. However, I didn’t just wait around for my agent to make it happen for me and I still don’t. I made shorts for five to six years but that first block of Doctors was four years ago and I haven’t stop working since then and hope it continues. Everyone talks to each other in this industry and it’s so important that you care about every job you do, even if it’s not your end game, as that job could and probably will lead onto your next.
If I could give myself some advice to when I first started directing it would be to think more carefully about all the choices I make, try harder to make/create what I see in my head, knowing that whatever I see on the monitor is what I will have in the edit, no magician can come along and change it once you’ve moved on. I still give myself the same advice everyday on a shoot.
There is never enough time and money, no matter how small or big your budget is, so stop blaming those things because the audience doesn’t care, they just want to watch a great story. Know that everything you have on your first day of shooting is everything you need to tell it.
TV Credits: Doctors (2016-2019), Casualty (2017), Shakespeare & Hathaway (2018), Agatha Raisin (2019), Vera (2019-2020), The Drowning (2020).
Film Credits: Papa (2011), Man Up (2012), I Don’t Care (2014), Civil War Films (2015), Holy Cannelloni (2019).
Photograph: Dafydd Llewelyn