Isabelle Sieb is a BAFTA-nominated director for film and television. Her shorts include Three Women Wait For Death, which won the Chris Collins Best of Live Action Award at the Encounters Film Festival and was long-listed for the Best British Short Film BAFTA 2017.
For TV she directed the opening block of the BAFTA-nominated SKY drama series The Athena, starring Ella Balinska, and other credits include Shetland for BBC One. She is currently working on the forthcoming Vigil with World Productions for BBC One.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
When I was 17 years old I made a spoof short film as a birthday present for my best friend. I got all of our friends involved, used a crappy little camera and it was the most fun I’d ever had. When we presented the film at her birthday party it went down so well that I had several requests from other friends asking me to make a film for their birthdays too. This was when I thought “hey, this could be a business”. But I didn’t know for sure that directing was the right career for me until I was 25 and in my final year at university.
I think this was partially because of the fact that I grew up in a tiny German village by the name of Hünstetten-Görsroth (the rule in Germany is ‘the longer the name, the smaller the place’), with absolutely no ties to anyone who had ever worked in film. And partially because I didn’t really know of any female filmmakers: I think in hindsight there was definitely a subconscious feeling that directing was not an option for me for that reason too.
However, the thought that filmmaking was something I enjoyed more than anything and that there may be a way to make a career out of it now existed firmly in my head. So after finishing my A-levels in Germany, I signed up for a wildlife filmmaking course in Cape Town, South Africa. This seemingly random choice was largely influenced by wanting to leave Hünstetten-Görsroth and see a bit of the world, whilst trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do. All of my friends from school went straight on to university in the nearest German cities to study very sensible degrees, and all I knew for sure was that that wasn’t my path. As it turned out, one of my teachers on the wildlife filmmaking course worked as a freelance DoP for a documentary production company just outside Cape Town, that was run by a German producer and they were looking for freelance directors who spoke German (and were cheap to hire). I believe I must have been the only person who fit that description at the time. So he made an introduction for me and I ended up staying in Cape Town for two years directing little social documentary pieces for German language TV. It was the time running up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa so there was lots of content needed and it kept me busy. It was very much a case of serendipity – I happened to be in the right place at the right time and it was an incredible life experience above all, but it also manifested my idea of wanting to become a filmmaker.
I should add that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing as documentary director and the quality of our work was very much carried by the experience of the crew, whilst I focused primarily on interviewing the people we were making the films about. Needless to say, I realised through this experience that documentary was not the right path for me and it was really fiction (like those spoof short films I made for my friends) that I was the most passionate about.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After a year and a half in Cape Town, having directed little documentary pieces on and off for about a year, I decided to apply to universities in the UK. I knew I didn’t want to go back to Germany (I have always been happiest surrounded by people from all kinds of places and backgrounds and I knew I wanted to continue living in “foreign” countries), but I also knew I wanted to be closer to my family than South Africa, so the UK seemed like a good choice – if I could find a university I could afford.
Thankfully, Regent’s University offered me a scholarship for their Screenwriting & Producing BA, which made it possible for me to move to London and take my first “proper” steps towards a career in film. At this point I still hadn’t decided for myself that directing was the right choice for me, even though all the evidence very clearly pointed in that direction. But I think I didn’t have the confidence or clarity to admit to myself that that was what I really wanted. I thought Screenwriting & Producing made sense as a degree for me, because I knew very little about either and was eager to learn. Also, in my head producing felt like a more reasonable choice for me. After all, I was German and incredibly efficient and organised in my approach, becoming a producer made so much sense.
It wasn’t until my final year at Regent’s University when two fateful incidents finally made me realise what I knew deep down all along.
Firstly, I did a two-months long internship with two incredible producers, Kate Ogborn and Lisa Marie Russo, over the summer break between my 2nd and 3rd year. At the time they had a film production company together, called Fly Film, and I assisted them across the board for those two months. It was such an enlightening and inspiring experience watching these two brilliant producers running their business and putting their slate of projects together with such impeccable taste. But it also showed me what producing really looked like on a day-to-day basis and how much of it is really office based. So after these two months I knew for sure that producing wasn’t really what I wanted and it was time to stop coming up with excuses to not pursue what had excited me about filmmaking in the first place: directing!
And then my 3rd year at Regent’s began and it was time to make my final year short film. Studying at Regent’s University was different to studying at a film school like the NFTS in that we didn’t team up with other students and we didn’t have a graduation film either.
Since I was on a screenwriting degree, we had a feature film screenplay to write as our thesis project and up until 3rd year had never had to actually MAKE a short film before. But as a 3rd year assignment we all had to go and direct a 5-minute short film.
So now that I had arrived at the conclusion that I was going to follow my heart and really commit to directing and give it all I’ve got, I had a chance to put that commitment into action.
I made a comedy musical using pretty much the entirety of acting students available at the university and made them choreograph and learn dance routines to perform on the compound. There wasn’t any kit available for the students to use either at the time, apart from SD cameras, so I approached professional crew that I found through a combination of Google searches and recommendations from runner jobs I had been doing on the side.
Making this short film was the greatest joy, and even though it didn’t get into any significant film festivals, it gave me something to show for myself and the confidence and perseverance to pursue directing further. I ended up making three more low-budget short films, none of which did particularly well in film festivals or caught the attention of anyone significant in the industry, before I finally got to make the short film that would launch my career as a director.
In 2015, two years after I graduated, Creative England and the BFI decided to address the gender imbalance in film with a short film scheme called iShorts+ FUNNY GIRLS, for which five female directors were selected and got to make a short film for £10k that the BFI provided. Luckily, I was one of the five directors selected and had teamed up with a phenomenally talented comedy writer, Nat Luurtsema, who wrote a stunning script called Three Women Wait For Death which we made into a short film through the scheme. The film ended up winning the Best British Short Film award at the Oscar- and BAFTA-qualifying Encounters Film Festival in 2016 (honestly, if there’s any short film festival worth sending your films to, it’s Encounters! It’s a perfectly curated festival and if you do well there it can really be career-changing.), and it was long-listed for a BAFTA in 2017. Three Women Wait For Death also got me my agents at Curtis Brown and my American managers at Grandview LA and off the back of that I got the chance to start pitching on TV directing jobs. (TBC in question 5!)
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
There are a few obstacles that come to mind, the most obvious and immediate one being that I moved here from another country and not only didn’t know anyone in the film industry, I didn’t know anyone at all in the UK. So it just took me a little while longer to find my feet and navigate my way through London and to figure out how the film and TV industry works here. Thankfully, my three years at Regent’s University and the scholarship I’d received gave me a safety net whilst doing so, and I tried to use the time to contact anyone I could and meet as many people for coffee and advice as possible, which really helped. But there was no graduation showcase at the end of my degree and no one that the university could refer me to, so there was definitely a time after graduating where I felt quite lost and didn’t know what to do next to get to where I wanted. The only thing I could think of was to keep making low- (or rather ‘no-’) budget short films and to try to research and contact any directors and producers who were a few steps ahead of me, doing what I wanted to do. And I worked both full-time and part-time in day jobs for the next couple of years whilst trying to navigate my way into the industry. (I worked in a post-production agency for commercials for a few months and I also did due diligence background research for German language companies for a while, just to name a couple.)
So there definitely was no “getting directing work straight out of university”-type of success for me. It took me a year or so to just research and understand what options I had and what funding schemes and talent initiatives there were to apply to, and then probably another year or so of applying to those before I ever got any of them.
The other key obstacle I feel I do have to mention is the fact that I was (and am) a young female director. The industry has gone through a tremendous shift over the last couple of years and one that I have undoubtedly benefitted from (though it must be said that there is still a long way to go until female filmmakers, filmmakers of colour, filmmakers of the LGBTQ+ community and filmmakers with disabilities get the opportunities they deserve). However, when I graduated in 2013, there was still a very different reality. I could see young white male directors being given opportunities and taking leaps that seemed completely inaccessible to me and it was quite disheartening. I tried breaking into commercials directing for a while and it just seemed impossible. I would have meetings with commercials companies (that shall not be named) who would literally tell me that they currently already had a female director on their roster and weren’t looking for another one.
What helped me to stay motivated and keep pushing on was connecting with other directors who were going through the same thing and trying to help each other as much as possible. The female-identifying directors collective ‘Cinesisters’ was formed in 2014 and I was lucky enough to be one of its first members. That feeling of a community really helped. As did the advice and support from many brilliant male directors who were aware of the injustice that was happening and wanted to help.
In May 2016, the fantastic organisation ‘Directors UK’ published a report called “Cut Out of the Picture: A study of gender inequality among directors within the UK”, which made for a big turning point and prompted the BFI to change their funding guidelines (not just for gender equality but also taking into account BAME, LGBTQ+ and filmmakers with disabilities) and the leading TV broadcasters and production companies to change their hiring practices when it comes to directors. There really has been a noticeable shift in the industry over the past couple of years and while there is still much work to be done, I am quite aware that I owe many of my opportunities to the hard work of the likes of Directors UK and Cinesisters and anyone who pushed for this change to happen.
I sincerely hope that this is an obstacle that won’t exist for any of you in the same way any more.
In terms of setbacks, there have been so many! I think I thankfully learned to be quite resilient early on so there was never a moment where I seriously thought about giving up. But it might be worth mentioning a couple of examples just to show how common and completely normal setbacks are.
A few years ago I was selected for a competitive feature film development scheme. They only selected a handful of teams and projects each year and I was so thrilled to have made the cut. It was announced in Screen International and all the ‘film news online platforms’ and I had told everyone about it and couldn’t be happier. Then a few weeks into the scheme there were problems within my team and we decided we wanted to change our project and consequently were asked to leave the scheme altogether. I was absolutely heartbroken. But in hindsight I know it wasn’t the right project, the right team or the right time for me to make a feature film. So in the end it was definitely a good thing we didn’t stay on that scheme, even if at the time I felt like my little world was crumbling.
And last year I suddenly found myself in a position, after having directed two TV shows back to back, where I couldn’t get work. My agents were amazing and really supportive and they got me so many exciting interviews and yet somehow none of them landed. I ended up doing 23 interviews for 14 different TV shows last year (if you do well in your first interview you most likely will be asked to interview a second time to meet the executive producers). Almost every time I made the final round and got brilliant feedback and yet the job ended up going elsewhere at the final hurdle. After that many meetings across so many months it does get hard to not let that get to you or take it personally because we are all only human after all. But thankfully job interview number 23 was the one and I am now thrilled to be directing a brilliant show I am extremely excited about. It really taught me that setbacks can and will happen at any point on your journey.
And lastly, let’s not forget about this global pandemic we suddenly find ourselves in. Now THAT is a setback for absolutely everyone. I was a week away from filming my new show in Scotland when everything got put on hold and we were sent home. That was nearly three months ago now and the future is still uncertain. I can only imagine what it must feel like for you to not be able to make your graduation films this year. But all I can say is that this won’t stop you from succeeding in your careers, I can guarantee you! Try, if you can, to use the time to really think about what exactly it is you want. And if at the end of all of this you still feel as passionately about your projects, then you will absolutely find a way to get them made and they will turn out all the better for the extra time you have had to prep them.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I don’t know if anyone ever gets to a point when they have fully developed their voice but I think the most important thing is to keep growing as a person and to continue allowing yourself to have life experiences that can feed into your work. A healthy work/life balance is crucial to developing your voice too, in my opinion, and it is definitely something I am still working on.
As for my taste and the types of stories I want to tell, this is very much something that has progressed and continues to progress as I get older and gain more experience. Most of my short films were comedies and comedy-dramas, now the majority of my TV work has been (pretty bleak) dramas and political thrillers. And the projects I am developing for film and TV are all in the drama genre too, although the types of characters I have been interested in hasn’t changed much. But the point is, I think it’s perfectly normal that your voice as a filmmaker, and as a human, changes and progresses.
In terms of honing my craft – I made plenty of bad short films! I think making lots and lots of short films is the best thing you can do to try out different ideas and genres and to make as many mistakes as possible – because no one is watching unless you want them to.
My initial idea/“plan” was that I would make my 3rd year short film and it would win all of the film festivals (including Cannes of course) and it would get me an agent and I would then go straight into making a feature film or high-end TV drama. In hindsight I am so glad that that incredibly naive approach didn’t work out for me. Instead I got to make another four or five short films (the majority of which are strictly hidden from the world) and I got to make many, many mistakes. What this meant was that when I got the chance to make my short film with the BFI, I was not a complete beginner any more. And equally when I got to direct my first TV show, I knew that at least I wasn’t going to be as rubbish as I was five short films ago.
I did also get the opportunity to shadow a brilliant director, Lynsey Miller, on one of her early TV gigs, a CBBC show called Eve. And that was immensely helpful too, just in terms of de-mystifying for me what TV directing actually looks like (essentially, it’s the same as directing a short film, you just have more people, more money and less time). Two years later, Lynsey invited me to direct 2nd Unit for her on a TV film she directed called The Boy With The Topknot for the BBC. That again was an invaluable experience, to have some responsibility directing material for TV but without all the pressure on my shoulders straight away. And again it was immensely useful to have had a bit of experience working on a TV set and with a TV schedule before I got the first TV directing gig of my own.
How did you get your first break?
What I found out pretty quickly about agents is that they want to find you, they usually don’t want to be approached by you. (This was the advice I was given by all the directors I had spoken to and I believe it to be true.) Hence, I never personally approached any agents; however, they started approaching me when I got selected for more and more talent schemes. Those schemes usually get announced in Screen International and Variety and Deadline and all the other ‘film news online platforms’, so after my name had appeared on those platforms a few times, agents started noticing and got in touch and asked to see my work. At that point I was prepping my short film Three Women Wait For Death through the Creative England and BFI scheme “FUNNY GIRLS” and decided I was going to wait until the film was finished before sending my work to those agents. It made sense because it was going to be by far my most “high-profile” short film and also my most recent one, so hopefully I could do the best I had done so far in terms of directing.
On the Funny Girls Scheme, I also got to pick a mentor that the BFI would contact on my behalf and I picked a brilliant young director whose work I had admired for a while, Luke Snellin. Luke was (and has been ever since) one of my biggest champions and not only did a wonderful job mentoring me and giving me advice on the short film, but he also sent the finished film to his agents at Curtis Brown and recommended they meet with me. And even though I met with other agents after I’d sent them the finished short film, it was Luke’s agents who were by far the most passionate about me and whom I clicked with immediately and so they became my agents too!
It took a year and a half from signing with my agents (and seven unsuccessful interviews) to land my first TV directing gig. It was hard for my agents to get me in the room with no prior TV experience and it was even harder for me to convince producers to take a chance on me with no TV experience. But as things often go, the job I got in the end really was worth the long wait and all the effort. I was hired to direct a pilot episode for a new teen drama for Sky, called The Athena, which later got picked up to series and I was asked back to direct the first six episodes (out of 26 total). This was my first proper break.
I remember I was on my way to the airport to go and visit my family for a few days and I was determined not to be looking at my emails, having just done yet another unsuccessful TV interview, when my agents called and said, “Check your emails! We’ve just sent you a script and they want to meet the day you come back!” My initial reaction was “I’m not going to get it anyway, I may as well not bother.” (A very, very bad attitude! Don’t ever be like that!) But then I read the script on the train and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud because it honestly read like this story was about me. The lead character was even half-German and had come to London to take a chance on applying to a Creative Arts College. AND it was beautifully written with a lovely comedy-drama tone, very similar to my short films, set in a world I knew inside out. This script was my perfect match.
So when I walked into that interview I knew that everything I had to say would truly come from the heart and would be relevant, and that I had a vision for this project that was just right for it. Thankfully the producers agreed and believed in me enough to give me the job. It is quite rare to get a first block of a new show as your first TV directing job because you get to set up the look and tone for the whole show and you also get to cast it. Usually producers tend to look for experienced directors to do this as a way to avoid risk. I know that initially that’s what the producers of The Athena had planned to do too, so I was definitely lucky that this script just happened to be so perfect for me and that I could offer it a take that no one else could. It was a brilliant learning opportunity whilst also allowing me to put that first TV directing credit on my CV.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to continue to find work in high-end TV and make directing my full-time career.
TV Credits: The Athena (2019), Shetland (2019).
Film Credits: College Romance (2012), The Secret Life Of A Quiz Master (2014), Mannequins (2014), Three Women Wait For Death (2016), Cycle (2017).
Photograph: Mark Mainz