Debbie won a BAFTA award for her Channel 4 adaptation of The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson in 2004 and then went on to make the smash hit improvised comedy feature, Confetti (Fox Searchlight 2006), which was nominated for a British Comedy Award and starred a host of British comedy talent.
Isitt’s work includes her two Christmas comedy films Nativity! and Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! She is also known for the stage play The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband and the feature films Nasty Neighbours. Most recently Isitt directed the ITV series Love and Marriage.
Nativity!, Isitt’s third feature film, starring Martin Freeman, was released in November 2009 and became the most successful British independent film of the year. The sequel, and her fourth film, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!, starred David Tennant. Released in November 2012, it was an instant box office hit, making twice the amount at the UK box office as the original film.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
The first production I ever directed was when I was 9 years old. It was The Wizard of Oz. I was playing Dorothy and I had written the script – an adaptation of a version I had seen at the Birmingham Rep that same year. My family were theatre ushers at the Birmingham Rep and I got free seats to see the shows there. I watched The Wizard of Oz a few times and kind of took it in by osmosis. The script, the songs, the choreography, the vision for the limited set and the costumes were all my adaptation of that production. I cast the parts (Dorothy already selfishly taken by myself) from the children at my primary school who mainly consisted of my friends, my sister and my cousins.
It was easy to direct them all because I’d had a lot of experience directing my sister and cousins in our Sunday night shows which we rehearsed in our bedrooms and performed to the family. I also directed my friends at school in talent shows. I created some pretty avant-garde performances. But I would usually throw in something populist like an Abba number or a comedy moment, because I always knew that we had to entertain the crowd, make them understand the emotions and feel something.
I asked my teachers if I could put on The Wizard of Oz as a full-blown production. To my 9-year-old amazement they agreed. Tickets were sold and people came to watch. I have basically been doing the same thing ever since both in the theatre and on film.
So theatre was my first love – I trained as an actor – started a theatre company – wrote, performed, produced, directed and designed the posters – a lot of years flew by – a lot of countries toured to – a lot of productions. Then one day I thought, I’m going to stop making theatre and start making films. It was an epiphany – I didn’t want to watch my work disappear with the sets once the show was over, thrown on the fire or into the skip. My work was too important to me – I wanted to be able to keep it, share it – I wanted to make films.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I was quite renowned in the theatre scene as a writer/director and actor – an enfant terrible of the late ’80s and early ‘90s. I had played in my own productions at established London theatres like The Donmar Warehouse and The Royal Court and I had been a darling of the Edinburgh Festival for many years. I had won Time Out Theatre Awards – Perrier Pick of the Fringe Awards, The Independent Theatre Award, etc. But when I decided that I wanted to now make films it was difficult. There was a prejudice against theatre makers. People in the film industry kept telling me it was a different medium. I felt initially that I was being locked out. Time to get the hobnail boots on and kick down some doors. I approached master filmmakers. Mike Leigh was the one who responded; he helped me. I invited Mike Leigh (who did not have a clue who I was) to watch one of my shows in London. He loved it and told me to just get on and make a film if that is what I wanted to do. The first short film I made was a two hander – with a budget of £400 – it was adapted from one of my plays. It was shot in black and white on 16 mil – it looked like David Lynch’s Eraserhead. This film caught the attention of the BBC but still there was concern that I was from theatre. So I sent the film to Mike Leigh who thought it was exciting, so suggested to the BBC that they give me a shot. Mike Leigh believed in me and he carried a lot of weight. So I got to make a second short because of Mike Leigh at BBC. And I got to work with Ricky Tomlinson who was making a lot of work with Ken Loach and we enjoyed working together using improvisation. Then I made another short with BFI – then I felt ready to make a feature. The producer of my last short said she could raise some money – it was game on.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Coming from the theatre was my original obstacle – everyone insisting that the mediums were too different to cross over. I refused to let that one stop me because to me theatre and film are about the same thing – telling a story, communicating with an audience. I never thought about being a female at the time so I wasn’t aware if it was holding me back in anyway. I think looking back the crew didn’t always like working for a female at the helm – it made them somewhat uncomfortable. Some were great but we were a female producer, female director team – it wasn’t usual and there were some unpleasant moments to overcome. I was used to working with men in my theatre company and I had enough belief in myself to know that I would not be intimidated or bullied or dismissed. But I had to fight hard and work hard and have courage – every day, courage. I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t know a lot about film lighting but I figured it couldn’t be so different from theatre lighting, and I learned a lot making my short films. Story boarding was new, sound recording was new – everything was new to me at first. But the main reason I was doing this was to tell a story and get my vision out of the cinema in my head and up onto the big screen the way I wanted it. Struggling for power, for creative control, getting your ideas across to actors and to crew, to financiers and investors – it’s tough. You can feel alone sometimes especially when you are starting out – like it’s just me and my ideas and all these different people to explain and justify it to. I used to wish that I were a painter – just me and the paint and the pallet and the brush – but I had to depend on all these people and persuade them of everything. It was tough – it still is. I wanted to open up my head and get everyone to look inside – see it the way I see it – how do you explain it all? But you start to learn that there are different ways of communicating your ideas: image references, film references, talking things through, making promo’s, workshopping ideas – communication in a myriad of innovative ways to get your vision across.
Also, having no other income – being the breadwinner of my own life was a huge obstacle. I had no privilege; I was a working class woman from the West Midlands and not living in London. I had not been to film school or been part of any film scene or made any contacts – and I was thirty by now. I was a 30-year old female living in the West Midlands. And the biggest obstacle of all was overcoming the feeling that this wasn’t who film directors are meant to be. The whole thing felt like a challenge, but I focused on the things I did know – my passion, my experience in theatre, audiences, story telling, selling my work, making the posters.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I did everything. I lived and breathed it. I did watch other people’s work but I had been doing that my whole life. I fell in love with the films of Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach – that is always a great film school. But mostly I was too busy making my own work. Making my own films. I developed my own particular process for filmmaking – a mix of cinema verite and comedy using improvisation within a strong narrative. Putting actors into the most real situations I could create was my mission. My first film Nasty Neighbours was about warring neighbours who lived next door to each other in a Midlands cul-de-sac. So we bought two houses that were for sale next door to each other and just moved the actors in. It was an interesting way to begin work on character. The cast lived next door to each other for weeks and weeks and then at the end of the shoot we sold the houses. I have since put actors into real schools, real wedding shows, real situations and always matched them with non actors – be they children or adult – to keep everything as real and alive and spontaneous as possible. Creating your own distinctive working process and asking others to trust it is an important way of honing your craft and discovering your own particular voice and vision. When people see my films they tend to know that I am behind them. That is a lot to do with process.
Also, years of being in front of an audience on the front line as an actor in my own shows honed my craft – any solider that has been on the front line will probably make a decent general. I know how to communicate with actors – I know how audiences will respond to what I give them. I used to make black comedies with a feminist twist by I think my voice changed – I think it does as you evolve. I became more of a smuggler – I didn’t want to make the kind of agit prop political statements that I made in theatre. I wanted to make my comments on the world in a much subtler way – and I wanted to speak to young people and children. Creating a film franchise has been a really interesting way to hone and develop my own process and voice.
The irony is that now, in spite of the budgets and the big cinema releases, all I am every really trying to find is that creative freedom – trying to get back to that feeling of being 9 years old directing my friends and family, being in control but having fun and knowing the audience is going to love it.
Creating a filmmaking family is also a big part of honing my craft now. You discover that not all actors are your friends and not all crew are your family. But you keep hold of the ones who feel like they are and you work with them again and again and create a kind of new family. There are so many challenges in filmmaking – things go wrong all of the time and you can’t rely on anything, not a location, not the weather, not transportation, not sickness – nothing. The only thing you have got is your instinct and your support network to make you feel as free and comfortable and courageous as you did when you were a kid. To be creative – to be free – that is what I crave and strive for every time.
Directing as a craft is about so many things – getting great performances, amazing locations, the look, the colour, the vision, the photography right. But it’s also (and this is absolutely just as important) about how you behave and conduct yourself on set. You are the leader of an army – you are going to battle with the elements, creative choices, ego’s et al. I have learned to value my contributors and collaborators and make sure they know they are valued. I learn the names of the people I see day to day, smile and thank my runner when they bring me a coffee and chat to me in a break. And I try to find out what their ambitions are – I try and include and inspire people. Have fun and make fun – it is stressful and tense on set but it’s also home to all these people – your home. You brought these people to your party so be a great host – and make sure the catering is good – bad catering leads to bad on-set vibes and that will not help your vision, trust me.
Being a director is also about psychology – you need to know how people tick, what gets the best out of them – help them to help you. You have one shot at a film – several actual shots obviously – but one opportunity to make it. It’s probably taken years of your life to get there so don’t blow it – don’t give it up or away. It’s your movie – it’s your baby, you don’t give babies up too easily. But learn how to listen – you need to find out whether the advice and ideas you are being given are good fats or bad fats. Eat the good fats with thanks, but don’t hesitate to throw away the junk food – don’t let it kill your confidence or your movie.
How did you get your first break?
I guess I first rose to prominence with my mock documentary feature film Confetti that was picked up by Fox Searchlight in Cannes and distributed around the world. It was a pretty big moment for me and opened a lot of international opportunities. It got me a heavyweight American agent and a lot of studio offers – but I have thus far resisted the US studio route. I need my work to be authentic and about the people I live amongst. I decided to stay home and create my own film franchise in the UK – and more specifically, Coventry. I still get studio scripts sent to me and I work with big international distributors but I am not a jobbing director. I am an auteur in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I write and direct my projects whether I am asked to or not. I just make films the way a painter paints. It is my life. Opportunity rarely comes knocking – I go knocking – with my hobnail boots to try and find the finance for my films. I always say to film students that no one is going to ask you to be a filmmaker – but if you want it – then no one can stop you either. Go make your movies.
TV Credits: New Voices (1997), 10×10 (1997), Love and Marriage (2013).
Film Credits: Wasps (1997), Nasty Neighbours (1999), Confetti (2006), Nativity! (2009), Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (2012), Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! (2014), Nativity Rocks! (2018), The Gay Days (2020).
Photograph: Wasted Talent