Debs Patersons’s work ranges from theatrical feature road movie Africa United (Pathé/BBC Films) to high-end network and cable TV, including 50 Cent’s new ABC/Sony show For Life, Hulu’s costume favourite Harlots, to the action-heavy SKY/CINEMAX HBO headliner Strike Back – where she was the first female director in six seasons.
Her films have played to festival acclaim globally, and in 2018 she was invited by JJ Abrams and Kathy Kennedy to document the making of Star Wars EP IX. The resulting feature documentary The Skywalker Legacy was released March 2020.
Debs’ first feature Africa United had its world premiere in Toronto and European premiere at a red carpet London Film Festival gala, receiving standing ovations at both before releasing theatrically worldwide. Africa United earned Debs a Best Debut Director BIFA nomination and recognition as a BAFTA ‘Brit to Watch’. She has served on juries for the BIFA Awards, Royal Television Society and Women In Film & TV.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker from the age of about 13. We weren’t allowed to watch TV during the week in our house when we were kids, so I read a lot of books, drew a lot of pictures, played a lot of adventure games and inhaled movies at the weekends. I loved the creation of worlds and the emotional experience of movies and TV. My parents were given a video camera when I was about 12 – a massive old thing with a battery in a separate bag you had to carry on your shoulder – and I basically coopted it along with my younger siblings and friends to shoot murder mysteries – usually playing the victim so I could get killed off quickly and then hold the camera. Around 12 or 13, I remember watching Ghost, and as it ended thinking, “I would have done that ending differently – and better” (cocky little shit). Then about a year later, I watched Orlando at a friend’s house, and was transfixed by this character who could slip between male and female bodies which felt so true to how I experienced stories, and at the end realised the director had a girl’s name, Sally, something I hadn’t seen before – and that was basically it. I knew I wanted to do this.
I didn’t know how though. My missionary parents moved from Yorkshire to Asia when I was 16, and the experience of suddenly living on the other side of the world made me see how the collective fantasy plays differently depending on who the hero(es) are. I got my A levels in India then went to Cambridge to study literature – and though I directed and wrote theatre in college, my last play had big screens on the stage, playing vision-like films I’d edited together frame by frame on a borrowed 2-cartridge VHS player. After graduating, I was worried about money so got a job selling text books door-to-door in San Diego, then randomly scored a chance to present sports TV in Singapore, so spent all my sales money on a return flight to do that. While I was presenting at the weekends, I convinced them to let me work for the company as a shooter and editor on corporates in the week. I was editing segments and getting a co-producer credit on the show by the end of the season, and also borrowed an old camera to direct a documentary about the country’s first legalised dance music festival. The doc was shown at the Singapore Film Festival but I still wanted to direct fiction, so I applied for a scholarship to film school.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
September 11th happened right after I left Singapore, and my scholarship disappeared when the markets crashed – so film school didn’t happen. I didn’t have any industry connections, so I worked as an editor for a charity and did small VFX work for music videos on an apple clamshell laptop I’d got as payment for an editing gig. I also worked part-time at a Picturehouse cinema and volunteered at film festivals to try and get to know the industry (and watch as many movies as I could for free). One night at Raindance, the event photographer didn’t show up, so I offered to go and take photos instead of ushering. I had to take the names of people whose photos I took, and in the course of doing that, swapped details with Jeremy Zimmermann, a features casting director who called me up the next day and offered me a casting assistant job. I worked in casting for about 18 months – the best experience of which was Guillermo del Toro casting Hellboy, so I had to read the Selma Blair part with basically every 20-something hot actor in London, as well as watching GDT do his thing. But the hours were very long and the pay not great, so while I was reading tons of scripts, learning about the casting process and seeing producers in action, I wasn’t learning directing, which is what I wanted.
Over that first casting summer, I managed to get an investor who was the brother of my old headmistress to invest £1500 in a short film script I had written, which we went and shot in Cambridge, using the university theatre. I put ads on Shooting People for cast and crew (plus roping in a couple of uni friends who were starting to make inroads in acting) and we went and shot it. The film didn’t quite work – it looked kind of OK, but the performances were mixed (all due to casting naivety on my side!) and the script had some cool ideas unevenly executed – but there were good moments in it, including a homemade VFX shot I’m still proud of! I learned a huge amount despite not having a festival-worthy film at the end of it.
I wanted to do more directing, and also ideally earn more money for fewer hours than I could in casting. I saw a part-time admin job at the Directors Guild of Great Britain (since merged to become Directors UK). My actual work was boring but staff were great, the hours were short and it was a pay rise despite being a shorter day than casting! I also got to go to all the DGGB events, meet loads of directors and try and learn.
At that point I was also trying to explore Film Council opportunities (which is what the BFI used to be), but kept being told I should produce rather than direct, which was frustrating. I have a huge amount of respect for producing, and value very highly the creative collaboration with a great producer, but I knew I wanted to direct, and it was frustrating to face those brick walls.
Then I had a complete curveball in that a friend and I were in a pretty nasty car accident. Thankfully, we both survived, but we were both badly injured – I was three months in hospital and told I wouldn’t walk or talk or have a functional face – so needless to say, priorities changed somewhat for a while. Thankfully, through incredible medical care and a couple of minor miracles, we recovered, but it was three years before I had the energy to think about filmmaking again. At that point, I realised I had talented friends who would come and shoot something if I found the right story -– and I had lost a fear of things not being ‘perfect’ through the crash experience. I felt like I had stories to tell, and didn’t feel like there were excuses not to get on with it.
Ten years prior, I had visited my Gran in Rwanda where she lived and heard about a school shooting on the radio. The story had always stuck with me – these kids who had refused to separate Hutu from Tutsi, and had faced down machine guns together. The horrendous Dunblane shooting had happened just before that, and I was struck by the thought that the whole world heard about the Scottish kids, but the Rwandan kids were only mourned in Rwanda. I got in touch with a friend who had been in a film in Rwanda and asked the producer (Pippa Cross) if she knew any Rwandan filmmakers I could maybe work with to develop the project. She connected me with Ayuub Kasasa Mago who I have collaborated with many times now. We met over Skype audio and started writing the script together without having ever met. My friends all paid for their own flights to come and film. We worked with the Rwanda Cinema Centre to cast, and were advised by survivors of the attack to get the story right – and were able to shoot in the school where it happened with the current students for extras. We borrowed everything from generators to AK47s from the local police. There was a real sense of people wanting this story to be told. I looked on Shooting People for an editor when we got back, and cold-emailed NFTS grad Miikka Leskinen who seemed talented. He was. Miikka took on the (foreign language!) job for free and smashed it – we have worked together many times since (including on the TV show I’m currently shooting). We were lucky to be offered a finishing grant to help us post-produce properly. That little film has played festivals all over the world and still plays every year on Rwandan TV. It’s a really powerful story.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Things moved very quickly after that first successful short – it led to three other award winning shorts, producer relationships and a first feature with Pathé and BBC Films within two years. And then my first movie itself happened crazy fast – we had the idea January 2009, my shorts and the script gave Pathé the willingness to risk letting me direct it, we were on location in Africa shooting 35mm February 2010, and premiered at the Toronto Film Fest and as a red carpet gala at the London Film Fest in September and October to standing ovations before releasing in cinemas internationally. It was both an incredible experience and an insane learning curve. I was suddenly a director, first feature under the belt, with industry reps in London and LA – but next to no experience of how to get more directing work, and no real peers. At that time I didn’t know any other female directors who were doing anything like studio movies – and I didn’t have many male director friends either. I was mad ignorant about the industry – didn’t know what a manager did, didn’t know how to go about pitching future projects. I was very ambitious and very tired after the film came out. So did a lot of meetings, that were mostly enjoyable – but I didn’t realise how important it was to connect the dots between the work I had done and the work I wanted to do next, so sort of missed capitalising on that ‘hot’ window when my movie came out. (I also had some bad personal stuff go down, which definitely didn’t help.)
So obstacles and setbacks actually came more after my first feature in many ways. I had three high profile feature projects in a row which got development investment but then disappeared before production – which represented something like seven years of work with nothing onscreen to show for it at the end of the day. Yes, I learned a lot in those years – yes, I met good people and wrote good scripts – but having nothing to show for all of that work was really discouraging, and the rejections affected how much I trusted my instincts and believed in my own talent. I found myself trying to write the thing that people would be happy to read, and started waiting for yeses, rather than making stuff happen. I did shoot one or two commercial projects and a couple of music videos during this time – but was mostly bunkered down writing in my flat or in Starbucks, not making movies and wondering where it all went wrong. Plus really stressing about money.
I had a Hollywood agent and manager as well as a London agent. I had a Pathé/BBC Films first feature which had released internationally to decent reviews. I had done a lot of meetings in Hollywood and London, and got to hang out with some stars along the way – and I was not getting any closer to getting a second feature made.
Some of this was down to it being unusual at that time (thankfully, less so now!) to be directing features as a female in her early 30s. But there were also some key mistakes I made which are worth sharing:
- I was interested in more dramatic material after my ‘feel good’ debut. But I didn’t account for financiers and producers needing to see a track record of this kind of material in my work. If I had to do it again, I would make sure that the new features I was pitching could connect more obviously to the work I had already done. This ‘movie maths’ is really important I think. Your track record, plus your collaborators, plus your new material really needs to ‘add up’ to the next project – otherwise you’ll have a tough time get it funded.
- I thought I had to make a movie that was ‘bigger and better’ than the last. My first film was about £2.5M. So I thought the next needed to be bigger. It didn’t, that was daft.
- I was writing prestige projects that I didn’t have the clout to pull off, but I didn’t know this. In retrospect, I could have written prestige projects for others to direct, and learned (and earned!) that way. Or I could have written smaller projects that were less risky to package and finance. I took some very big swings – and I’m proud of coming pretty damn close a couple times – but when those didn’t pay off, it looked from the outside like I had done nothing for seven years, and that was very demoralising, very scary financially, and very hard to change the outlook on.
There were a few things that I think generated a new energy to turn that around:
- I had been nominated for a BIFA debut director award and named a BAFTA Brit to Watch for my movie – both of which made me feel like I might have a place in the industry and came with hilariously glitzy events. The huge value of those events was in getting to know the other nominees/awardees and the networks. I didn’t have a network from film school so I only really started to build a peer group through these events, and future BAFTA & BIFA talent initiatives – and that is and has been invaluable. Knowing other filmmakers who are at a similar-ish age/stage to you is so important as you share experiences and advice and sometimes shoulders to cry on. Moving forward, celebrate the massive wins people have, and commiserate the heartbreaks and near misses. Invest in those friendships! They are make and break, both ways.
- While I was struggling to get the next film made, I started mentoring for Film London, BFI Network and Raindance’s MA program, among other programs. As soon as I started mentoring, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and realised how much I already had in my arsenal. I firmly believe that the best way to get yourself out of a slump is to help someone else get ahead, as much as anything as it helps you realise how much you’re able to do. (If you haven’t already, watch Ava DuVernay’s brilliant keynote on the difference between passion and desperation at the 2013 Film Independent Forum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pFoBks5ly0)
- While I was struggling to get the next film made, I made a short for the Holocaust Memorial Trust, which was unpaid and a totally open brief. Made with friends, made just to honour a survivor’s story and to try and communicate how it felt to hear her tell it. That short was made on a small budget plus favours, in two weeks from start to finish – but it’s a good piece of cinema. It made me remember how important it is to do things for the love of it – and actually a lot of future employers saw it as a sample.
- While I was struggling to get the next film made, I got an 80% Skillset-funded spot on a diploma in Meisner technique at the Cuba Film & TV School, and took a month out to study method acting (for directors and actors). A lot of hirers had questioned my ability to work with ‘real actors’ because my shorts and feature had often featured untrained cast. Doing this Meisner course was a real shot in the arm – both incredibly illuminating about human behaviour (my own included!), but also really gave me confidence to support actors in creating performances. It was scary – financially and professionally – to take that time out, but it has paid off in spades.
- While I was struggling to get the next film made, I was lucky enough to receive the inaugural Pia Pressure grant – both a much needed cash injection and a bit of industry heat because it was written up in the trades. The grant was to write an action spec script. NB: Headlines in the trades do unfortunately really help – so make the most of the them as and when they come. Also make sure you have a good-looking website (plenty of good-looking self-build sites out there which are a few quid a month) so you can post them up, and people can easily see your news as well as your work and find out a bit about you.
After seven years of writing and developing projects that were not being made, I was desperate to direct long-form again, and had been very slow to realise how much exciting work was happening in TV. I started going in for meetings – but despite a decent film track record, producers were nervous about my lack of familiarity with the TV machine. So when I heard about a Channel 4 paid shadowing scheme in high-end drama, I jumped at it and was lucky to bag the spot, shadowing a block of Humans from prep through post, and getting to pick up 2nd Unit directing credits across four episodes. I didn’t love going back to shadowing, but it was crystal clear how valuable it would be to go through a TV block, and particularly to get the 2nd Unit credits.
During the course of working on Humans, I realised I was getting to know other female directors who were potentially about to make the mistakes I had already wasted time making – AND I was meeting producers who were struggling to hire female directors for their high-end projects. So producer and friend Ivana MacKinnon and I spoke to BAFTA about creating an initiative which would look to address the lack of female director hiring in high-end drama. We spent six months having informal meetings with key figures all along the hiring process, asking where it was going wrong and what we might be able to do – the result was Bafta ELEVATE, which was and continues to be a genuine success. I’m really proud of being part of that, and learned again that investing in others is a good way of getting back in the flow.
Around that time, partly because of my interest in action, and partly because he had got to know me during ELEVATE, Sky Head of Drama Cameron Roach recommended me to Left Bank who were looking for a female director for their action show Strike Back – and I got to start directing long-form again.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Until very recently, I’ve always had a bit of an imposter complex about craft because of not going to film school. I’ve thought about movies my whole life, and have always been a competent storyteller – but was very instinctive about the style I liked, and haven’t always had the language to communicate it effectively. I realised this after my first feature – that I needed more craft and more filmmaking language – and so have learned as much as possible since then: Talking to other filmmakers, DVD commentaries, video essays, some books, lots of seminars; breaking down scenes I think are well shot and coming up with shot plans; watching old movies people reference. I wrote essays sometimes for myself to try out theories and get my ideas clear (nerd). I watch popcorn movies and foreign movies and indie movies and docs and of course a ton of TV. The best thing really though – of course – is making stuff and showing it to people, even if it’s only short. Taking my short films and features round festivals was so informative about what worked and what didn’t – great if they picked up awards, but more than anything, getting to see the material play in front of audiences full of strangers was the invaluable aspect of festivals. Now there’s the Twitter factor too. Social media gets a bad rap, etc. – but I love that you can search your film or show’s hashtag and get strangers’ unfiltered reactions to it. That’s great.
I’ve always loved action and big movies I am fascinated by the relationship between drama and violence – and so the chance to do Strike Back was a brilliant opportunity to get my hands on some big set pieces. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t have also been my first full TV credit, because that meant that some of my energy also had to go into appreciating the structural differences in directing film and TV – but I had a literal blast helming sequences that included a 15-person pool hall brawl, an airport attack and blowing up Chernobyl, and learned a huge amount doing it.
After shooting Strike Back, I saw Mission Impossible 6 was filming in London and remembered I had met the extremely cool Chris McQuarrie at a BBQ a couple years earlier, and we’d bonded over a dutch art forger we had both written unmake-able scripts about. I happily had his email, and he said generously I could shadow him on that for a few days in pursuit of more action filmmaking knowledge. That was my first time on a massive set. When it comes to big moviemaking, it’s tough to get the essential experience of understanding how a set works – and if I had my time again, rather than only focussing on doing my own stuff, I think I would look for dogsbody jobs that would put me on big sets, just to learn.
After that, completely out of the blue, I was invited to go and meet JJ Abrams who was in prep on Star Wars IX. He wanted a filmmaker to come and shoot the making of doc – partly to get a fresh take on what the making of could be, and partly because he and Kathy Kennedy were wanting to bring female filmmakers up. I’d met the producers Callum Greene and Michelle Rejwan first, and then met JJ to get the gig.
That opportunity was a complete curve ball – I had been working hard to get my next TV directing spot, and had a feature script in development with Film4, so I wasn’t sure a BTS gig would be smart. But, apart from it being Star Wars XI – I’d heard really good things about JJ both as a filmmaker and a human – which was 100% true – and ultimately went with Chris McQuarrie’s mantra of ‘Go through the door that opens’.
So then I spent over a year directing a feature documentary, which I had never done before – and getting to be around some of the most decent, creative, fun people in the film business. Seven months filming day in day out in a galaxy far far away. We had incredibly generous access to pretty much everyone and everything, which was ace. It was insane hours and a breakneck schedule – I had two camera operators plus operating myself, which was great to do again – and a crack edit team in post to get a feature doc turned around in approximately four months. So I basically ended up getting a filmmaking PhD on the shoot – then getting to watch all the original LucasFilm archives during post – so I pretty much don’t feel bad about not going to film school any more.
I share that story mostly because of the ‘go through the door that opens’ advice. But also to say ‘find a way to work for people you respect’. It’s really hard to learn while you’re directing – and when you ‘learn the hard way’ (i.e, fuck up) it can be costly and take a while to get on the horse again. You can gather so much by watching other people work, as well as figure out the kind of leader you do and don’t want to be. It’s so valuable to spend time on other people’s sets – especially if you can find a way to get paid for it.
Also, it’s almost impossible to predict a path through this industry. All you can do is to get as good as you can at honing and listening to your own instincts – about projects and about people – and then try and get in the flow. Bring the best you have to everything you do, even if it’s not what you thought you’d do next, and let your talent, your confidence and your experience with people and filmmaking grow. It will be noticed. And you never know what will lead to what. My name got put into the hat for the STAR WARS doc because my first short film was programmed next to a documentary I really liked at a tiny festival in Bend, Oregon a decade earlier. The producer of the doc and I stayed friends, and she ended up Features Executive at LucasFilm a decade later. You can’t control that stuff, so just follow your instincts, find your people and roll with it.
Since taking the Star Wars BTS gig, other work started flowing freely – at least it was until Covid-19 happened. I shot the series finale of Harlots for Hulu between the doc shoot and edit last year, then my first US network gig in New York with a really good actor friend Nicholas Pinnock in the lead (ABC’s FOR LIFE). Completed post on that and the documentary in January, and then flew straight to Italy to start a new show. So when Covid-19 hit, I was in the middle of shooting a new series for Sky in Rome, which we had to stop in a hurry. We’re due to head back there and finish that in a few weeks, God willing – and it will be a fascinating challenge to work within the Covid restrictions…
I absolutely still have my own feature and TV projects in development, but I can’t overstate how valuable shooting for other shows has been to honing my instincts, my style, and getting experience with different characters and processes on and off screen.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first agent when I needed to do my contract for my feature. Even up until now I still generate a good deal of my work through relationships and recommendations – although my agent and manager work hard to get me in the mix for projects also. I think it’s pretty healthy to have an expectation that you’ll generate a lot of your own opportunities for the first few years. Harlots and the new Sky show came 100% through my agent, but everything else has been through relationships and opportunities I have generated – and that’s pretty normal I think.
Regards getting the first break for my first feature – that was a spec script we had developed as a team: the screenwriter, producers and I with an early investor. We took it to Pathé because the producer and writer had a relationship with them, and Pathé took the project on. Regards me as a first-time feature director, my two best shorts happened to be the perfect calling card for this film, so Pathé backed me to direct on the strength of that and our feature pitch. I had a terrific experience working with them.
This is all extremely longwinded but I hope useful…
Really – there aren’t any rules, apart from trying to be a person you would like to work with. My biggest mistakes and lessons have all been around learning to recognise and follow my instincts, getting smart about what people to partner with, learning it’s ok to go a circuitous route because you get SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE en route, making stuff and putting it in front of an audience whenever you humanly can, even if it’s only a few minutes long, and investing in the friendships that will go the distance, because they’ll need you and you’ll need them and you’ll get a pretty crazy brilliant ride along the way.
The final thing to say is that directing is this crazy tightrope between having a clear vision while being receptive to your cast and crew’s better ideas. It’s the best feeling in life when the collaboration goes well, and can be really miserable when trust isn’t there. But having the confidence to let your team bring their best ideas to the table will pretty much always be better all round. There are very few people who don’t love working on the basis that it’s ok to have a bad idea and the best idea wins.
TV Credits: Strike Back (2018), Harlots (2019), For Life (2020), Domina (2021).
Film Credits: We Are All Rwandans (2008), Aime (2008), Home (2008), Superman and the school of Necessity (2008), Africa United (2010), Nazi Boots (2015), The Skywalker Legacy (2020).
Photograph: Jonathan Olley