Caroline Bartleet is a BAFTA winning writer and director based in London. She trained and worked as an actor before completing an MA at the National Film and Television School in Producing.
Her short film ‘Operator’ won the BAFTA for British Short Film in 2016. Her short films have screened at festivals worldwide.
As a writer, Caroline has various television projects in development including ‘Ticking’, a TV series for Two Brothers/ITV, and an adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel ‘The Fear Index’ for Left Bank Pictures/Sky Atlantic.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I had zero links to the industry when I started out and I didn’t know I wanted to be a director at all. I wanted to act and went to drama school. I spent a lot of my 20’s waitressing, temping and finally working in production while auditioning and working as an actor in between. I felt very frustrated when I wasn’t acting because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing but I also felt frustrated by a lot of the parts I got because they weren’t very interesting (the thought of most actresses the world over). While I would have loved a super successful acting career, I am glad now that I had that experience, partly because my acting experience obviously informs my directing, but also because working multiple low-paid jobs at the bottom of the ladder and lowest pay grade has made me very aware of how hard runners on sets work and how important it is to be kind and nice to people whatever their job title. This doesn’t always happen and is baffling to me – it’s not hard to be nice!
So I think that even if you feel frustrated by where you are now or what you’re doing to pay the rent, know that you’ll probably look back on it as a really important part of your career. I learnt what sort of director and person I wanted to be in that time.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I started making short films with actor friends as a way to get showreel material and things went from there (not as director – as producer/admin person and actress). From there, I worked as a producer’s assistant and in production on a feature film and thought I wanted to be a producer.
I think part of my issue was thinking I wasn’t qualified to be a writer or director and that’s why it took me so long to actually bite the bullet and direct something. I had applied to National Film and Television School (NFTS) for their Producing course as that was the course I had enough experience for but at the same time while I was working on reception, waiting to find out if I’d got in, I wrote a short film called Operator. It had a really simple set up and I knew I could shoot it for almost nothing, but my husband (a writer/director) encouraged me to think bigger. He asked who I’d have in it if I could have anyone and I said the face I’d pictured (of the main character) was the actress Kate Dickie. This is where I got lucky. He had met her at a festival and had an email address for her and he asked her if I could send her the script. She said yes, read it and agreed to do it, and really in a way I feel like that was the big turning point with directing for me. Because the film went from a little experiment I was doing to a film that had a great actress in it. We were able to raise money and get another great actress to play opposite her as a result. I remember the exact street I was on when I got the email from Vicky McClure saying she was in too – we were so excited to get that cast.
This is a mega lesson actually – if there’s any way to get your short script in front of someone not through an agent, then do it. It obviously says a lot about Kate and the kind of legend she is that she said yes, but it helped that the script landed directly in her inbox. So many good things came from Kate and Vicky saying yes and I always have such respect for actors who don’t need to do short films doing them, because they want to support filmmakers and new voices starting out. Who knows where I’d be if that film hadn’t happened. Probably I’d be a frustrated producer. I did in fact go to NFTS and did the producing course and I also learnt a lot of valuable things there despite the fact I’m not producing now.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I felt a lot of pressure after Operator to make a short film that was amazing. I remember a lot of people saying it was probably going to be that difficult second album and it was. But I learnt a lot more making that than I did with my much more successful short, so in a way, I feel glad to have had that experience.
The most valuable thing it taught me is that no one knows better than you what you should be doing. It was my first experience of development as a writer rather than producer (with Operator it was just me and Rebecca, the producer, who worked on the script. We talked to the actors about it but that was it). It taught me that you have to push back hard sometimes but it’s always worth doing. That doesn’t mean you have permission to be a dictator or an arsehole, but it does mean you have to have courage in your convictions. I am much more vocal now. I hate the term ‘auteur’ when it comes to filmmaking because I think making films is such a collective thing; we can’t do it without other people and we need everyone to be in the best environment to do their best work BUT we need the director or writer/director to push really hard to get what they see in their head on screen. It’s a fine balance!
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I’ve worked on a lot of sets as a runner and production assistant. I’ve produced multiple shorts. I’ve assisted a producer and a director. I’ve acted in a lot of shorts (some thankfully buried). At the NFTS I helped out in the Art department, as a driver, rushes runner etc., etc. Every time you do those jobs, you help the short film world go round. I think it’s so important. I remember on my second short as director, the producers laughing at me getting emotional thanking the crew for being there for a pittance (basically lunch). But it does make me emotional because we can’t do it without people’s help and you should never take that for granted. You should give that help back where you can. You always learn something new or at least get a funny story out of it….
Short film funding: In the beginning my own hard-earned cash went into the films I made but by the time I came to direct Operator we raised money on Kickstarter. For the next short I was lucky enough to get funding through a BBC Films scheme and for my last short we persuaded RSA to support the film alongside Stefan Allesch-Taylor who has a short film fund. It’s ALWAYS a battle getting money. In a way I feel the Kickstarter model (for Operator) was the best because even though Rebecca and I had a full time job getting people to put a tenner in the pot, we didn’t have to answer to anyone other than our friends and family and that was incredibly freeing. I think Operator would have been a very different film if we’d been subjected to a proper development process!
How did you get your first break?
I started meeting agents when Operator was at its first festival (LFF). I think the right agent can do wonderful things but in my experience you have a lot of work to do yourself. What’s brilliant about an agent is the intros and them sending your work to producers who might actually look at it – because they don’t accept unsolicited scripts usually. But you have to be willing to push HARD. That’s something I’m very bad at so take it from me, get practising if you want to progress. I didn’t get my first paid job through my agent so remember how important it is to push to meet people and talk about projects, even if it’s your worst nightmare. Networking can be exhausting but you never know who you’ll make a great career defining relationship with through that process. Ask to meet people for coffee (or Zoom…). Talk about what they’re doing, what you’re doing. It can feel so cringe (I often find it really hard) but it’s got to be done. No one is going to discover you. It’s easy to think your agent’s job is to do all that for you but it’s a partnership – they can only do so much.
I met so many people after we won the BAFTA for Operator but really and truly it only gets you through the door. It didn’t get me my first job. For me, I got a leg up via my husband. I started writing with him on a TV project two years ago and that has led to more writing work. I know I’ve been lucky. I know that without my husband persuading an exec to read my stuff, and without her taking a punt on me, it’s likely I would still be struggling to earn a living. So wherever you can, nurture relationships with writers and producers who all have their own networks they can introduce you to. That doesn’t mean you have to marry them 😉 but it does mean be aware of how you can broaden your network and opportunities.
Through that job I have been very lucky to work with a couple of people who have really encouraged me as a writer and given me opportunities that aren’t easy to come by. Hopefully I’ll get to that point as a director too. That’s the goal.
I think it’s important to recognise (and accept) that not everyone gets to be a superstar on day one out of film school. But that doesn’t mean you won’t do something amazing in five or ten years. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.
Photograph: Leo Andrew