James Strong is a BAFTA winning film & TV director whose work includes directing and creating the multi-award winning Broadchurch. He’s also directed United, Vanity Fair, Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, The Great Train Robbery and Liar. As a pilot director in the US his most recent show Council Of Dads has just premiered on NBC.
James is currently lead director on Vigil a new BBC / Amazon series.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I grew up in a quiet sleepy town near Bristol called Portishead and along with the boys in the band thought it was lovely, but couldn’t wait to get out and see the world. But being a ‘director’ never really entered my head. None of my family were remotely related to the arts and so my main focus was to be the next Alan Shearer, but sadly when that wasn’t to be I thought I might have to get a proper job. At university I loved acting in student theatre, but realised I was more drawn to creating the whole show – so directing theatre was my first step towards my future career, but at the time I’d already set my sights on being a foreign correspondent, so my first experience with a camera was as a news reporter chasing ambulances for ITV news.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After a brief stint as news reporter/presenter I began to be much more interested in the filmmaking than the news headlines and so realised directing was what I wanted to do. But how? Film school was unaffordable and so I was incredibly lucky to get a place on a directors training course with Granada TV and I was off. I began directing in factual, magazine shows and documentaries but always knew I eventually wanted to direct drama – but it took a few years. But my experience in shooting docs was invaluable as you learn to observe and document reality – and tell stories visually – both of which we do in drama. There was no film school or learning to direct – it was all about doing it on the job. I was so lucky to get a job shooting inserts on daytime show This Morning. This was my film school; week in week out directing a film for the show on a huge range of subjects – cookery, gardening, fashion – you name it I shot it. I made mistakes and learnt so much.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I was lucky to become a TV director at a young age – but I soon realised my dream was be a ‘drama’ director and making the transition was hard. It’s very competitive and budgets are higher – so you have to push to get a break. I hadn’t been to film-school, knew very few people in ‘drama’ and so for a while it seemed impossible to crack. But I never gave up. I started writing and working scripted sections into my documentary work, I even did a stint on Crimewatch shooting the reconstructions to show I could work with actors and the game-changer was a short film that won a few awards. And while I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing while shooting it, it gave me the experience and material to push for gigs as a ‘proper’ drama director.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Developing one’s ‘style’ is an elusive thing. I’m still not sure what mine is? But I do know when I was trying to get my break I found a lot of the film and TV I watched to be too artificial, too slick and unrealistic. I also found the traditional model of making drama very counter-intuitive to getting grounded, truthful performances. The sets, the protocols were all designed to feel unnatural and I thought led to unrealistic end results. Coming from a docs background I really wanted to make grounded, realistic and truthful films that could still look stylish. So when I was allowed I tried to always shoot on location, to shoot quickly with minimal rehearsal, use available light – anything to reduce the feeling we were making a ‘drama’. And that’s still the case. If I have a style – and at risk of sounding too pretentious it’s about things always feeling real, but that not precluding it looking cinematic, probably a kind of ‘beautiful reality’.
How did you get your first break?
My first break in directing scripted fiction was on BBC daytime drama Doctors. It felt like a proper drama and I loved it. It was shot at a ferocious speed and forced you to think on your feet and make decisions in an instant and still try and get decent performances and enough good shots to tell the story. It was brutal, exhausting and I absolutely loved every second of it. I learnt so much about blocking and shooting and how to tell a story concisely but also artfully. This led to bigger shows where I was lucky to be able to really hone my skills and climb the ladder. But as much as I’ve done I’ve never forgotten the techniques I learnt on Doctors, alongside all I learnt in documentaries, as it’s always important to remember what real life looks like and thankfully I’ve still to get a proper job. Good luck!
TV Credits: The Good Citizen (2004), Rocket Man (2005), Doctor Who (2006-2009), Torchwood (2006), Hustle (2008), Silent Witness (2010), White Van Man (2010), Law and Order (2011), Downton Abbey (2011), Missing (2012), Hunted (2012), The Best Possible Taste (2012), Broadchurch (2013-2014), The Great Train Robbery: A Copper’s Tale (2013), From There to Here (2014), Gracepoint (2014), Code Of A Killer (2014), Kingmakers (2015), 11.22.63 93 (2015), Doubt (2016), Liar (2016-2017), Vanity Fair (2017-2018), Council of Dads (2019), Faslane (2019-2020).
Film Credits: United (2011).
Photograph: Robert Viglasky