Lucy has worked in documentary for 14 years after training as a print journalist. Producing and directing principally for Channel 4 and the BBC, she strives to challenge the way we think about the world, creating psychologically layered stories. Whilst observational documentary is her passion, Lucy likes to play with visual form, giving new insight into a subject and creating stylistically original work.
Lucy’s feature documentary directorial debut is Kingdom Of Us, produced by Pulse. It is a compelling family drama cut from over 100 hours of home video combined with observational footage, following the journey of a family who lost their father to suicide seven years ago. With the help of their mother they piece together fragments of the past in order to understand their place in the world and embrace their future. Kingdom of Us was released by Netflix in December, 2017 and won Best Documentary at London Film Festival, was nominated for a BIFA and received a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut.
Notable directing credits include Watch Me Disappear (Channel 4, 2008), Dispatches: Secret NHS Diaries (Channel 4, 2010) and The Great British Garden Watch (2015), broadcast as part of the BBC’s iconic Modern Times strand. As a producer, she has worked with BAFTA Award-winners Ben Anthony and Ursula MacFarlane on Sectioned (BBC4, 2009) and Grierson-nominated Notes From The Inside (Channel 4, 2013) respectively.
Lucy’s 2015 beautifully crafted short doc – Life In Film – centres around an elderly lady’s love of the film Doctor Zhivago. Life In Film was supported by the BFI National Film Archive’s Luminous campaign.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Since I was a teenage, I knew that I wanted to tell stories somehow, people’s stories. For a long time I thought that would be in print journalism. I studied history at UCL, which in many ways involved telling stories about the past, then went to City University to do a post-grad in magazine journalism. While it was really good having my writing scrutinised, I realised during a photo-journalism module, that I thought ‘in pictures’ in a sense, or at least more in pictures than in words. When I interviewed people, all I felt was ‘I want to film you, I want you to be telling your story’. I loved the visual detail of people’s lives and their behaviour, everything they communicated without words and everything that I could not communicate in words either.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After I finished the post-grad I went to a documentary production company to interview for an internship. They offered it to me, but at 23, in desperate need of earning some money and having done many internships before, I couldn’t do it – it just didn’t seem right: yes, I was there to learn, but I had plenty of experience to offer too. I said as much and, luckily, they offered me a job instead as a documentary researcher. It was a good lesson in just asking for what you want and being prepared to walk away. I spent a year developing documentary ideas for TV and then moved onto being a researcher on a BBC4 series. Lots of other productions followed – as a researcher, then as an assistant producer then as a producer, until I got to direct my first film for Channel 4’s First Cut strand. You had to come, with your own idea, and after writing about solitude in my post-grad I wanted to make a film about isolation in modern Britain, people who no one knew or at least were so isolated that when they died, no-one came to their funerals. It took so much research trying to track down and understand the lives in the film. There was a set director’s fee for the strand and when it broke down, I was earning £50 a week because it was such a protracted production. I remember my exec saying/joking, “Why didn’t you make a film about a day in a fucking sweet shop, it would have been so much easier?”. But it was something that I cared about and although it is a deeply flawed first film and I have never been more broke, Watch me Disappear reflected what I was trying to understand about the world and had a creativity that felt authentic to the way I was trying to express things.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The steps in getting to the First Cut were quite straightforward and after that I thought that was it, I’d be a ‘director’ now, but it definitely didn’t happen like that. It was then that the challenges really started. Although the film did well critically, there were no opportunities to direct anything further that had any sense of authorship. It felt a bit like after being given the chance to make something I cared about, I would now be given the chance to see if I could fit into the mould of what ‘TV’ wanted and it didn’t feel like there were any possibilities to really craft something in a different way or to experiment unless you were a very established well-known filmmaker. I understood that earning that opportunity had to come with experience, but it felt that after the First Cut – which I thought was my ‘break’ – any momentum behind me as a filmmaker was gone and many of the experiences following it were sending me in the wrong direction. I made a Dispatches for Channel 4 and found that current affairs didn’t suit me at all – there was just no space for character arcs or detail and I just really struggled with having to create something that tonally didn’t feel right. I then worked as a series producer, where I got to direct two out of the five films in the series. It was a horrific experience. I’d worked on very few series let alone series produced and directed on one. The series was based in a hospital so there was loads of compliance to handle, I was sharing an AP with the series director and remember at one point trying to shoot and hold a boom pole at the same time. I was out of my depth, didn’t have the experience to recognise this (although my anxiety levels may have been a tell-tell sign), one of the films I was directing got axed and it really knocked my confidence.
After that I went back to a producing job for a director I admire. I needed to recover, it was on a subject that I really cared about and knew that there would be a meaningful film made, even if I wasn’t in the role I wanted to be. As I had produced a fair bit, and learned loads from the directors I worked with, I think that I was often being seen as a producer, even after I had begun directing. It started to become really frustrating. I remember going to a meeting with a commissioner, in which I was told – yet again – how they wanted me to produce a film that I worked on the development of, rather than direct it. I think it was the third time this had happened. As I often got close to the subject matter through the development, I always found myself saying ‘yes’ and staying on, but I need to walk away now. I remember her saying, “I don’t know if you have a voice (as a director), maybe you do have a voice.” I thought ‘fuck it’ at that point. It seemed futile to sit around and wait for someone to decide whether I had a ‘voice’ or not or give me a chance, while I lost more and more confidence in the meantime.
Around that time, I had been asked to make a taster for the BBC about a family with a number of children on the autistic spectrum. That was when I met the family who featured in my first feature length documentary, Kingdom of Us. Ultimately, the BBC didn’t want to commission off the back of the taster, neither did Channel 4, but this rejection in many ways was my real chance to make something the way that I wanted. I had met a family who were warm, articulate, fascinating and had a unique story to tell. We decided to keep filming and I would borrow a camera and go up and film in between paid work. After a year or so, Pulse Films came on board and then Creative England and the BFI. It was such a liberating experience to make a film outside of the broadcast television world. It felt everyone along the way was there to help me communicate my vision and the story – however long that took – rather than feeling like everything was held up to a measure of what it was supposed to be, constrained within a pre-determined arc rather than allowed to unfold, and be achieved within a set schedule. I understand that TV can’t work in that way and take risks on every production and they need to have time-frames, but this was a story that just wasn’t going to work like that. The film took four years to make and it was so tough, but I learned so much making it. When we were near completion Netflix came on board and were really respectful of the process.
Since Kingdom of Us, I have two fiction scripts in development – one with BBC Films and one with Film 4/BFI. While I had always wanted to be a writer, now that I am writing for film and with a view to directing them too – rather than just for print – it makes far more sense that when I did print journalism.
I am sure I will go back to directing documentaries as well, but since Kingdom of Us came out I have had two children. Disappearing with a camera for months on end is impossible with two very dependent tiny people. However, in the scraps of time between breastfeeds and parenting, writing is something that I can do – it is a way of continuing to tell stories and is a wonderful way to escape into another world. Indeed, having a family has in many ways been a major obstacle to career goals, but as someone once said, ‘the tighter the vice, the more creative the means of escape’, and I am certain it is going to make me better at what I do, even if it does take a bit longer.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I think the process of making Kingdom of Us – and having a lot of freedom during that – helped me to find my sensibility and try out ideas. I think documentary making is slightly different from fiction. In observational films especially, I am very much responding to and interpreting what I see – being far more of a mediator in a sense and then crafting.
I was quite daunted when I began working on my first fiction script, I guess knowing that it all needed to come from inside of me. But in fact the process has been far more like observational film-making than I realised. Maybe it is just my process and I have gone about it in some ways like I would a documentary as that is what I know, but I still feel like a mediator of the story. I write lots of scenes that are like gathering rushes in a sense, I don’t really know what will happen along the way until I get to know the characters and they are often surprising me in the way that they behave and I find myself again having to respond and react rather than lead the way.
I am hoping to bring what I have learned in documentary to set when it comes to filming and working with actors. I am used to filming alone most of the time. Having lots of crew and a schedule is going to be very different, but I want to find the freedom within that and the ability to react to what is happening there and then.
There is so much that I don’t know. I didn’t go to film school, I have very little technical knowledge and I don’t have a very developed film education either. In the two-and-a-half-years years since my son has been born, I have watched The Lion King about 50 times (I will say that the opening scene still brings me to tears every time), but at some point in my life I would love to have time to just watch loads and loads of great films. In the meantime, I’ll have to learn and hone my craft on the job and surround myself with people who I trust and who can help along the way. I don’t want to feel insecure or dwell on everything I don’t know. I’ve had plenty of confidence crises before but I just want to go for it, to enjoy it and believe in what I do know and I feel. I think more than ever now I trust my instincts. That has taken time and there have been plenty of lessons learned when I have gone against them because I thought I should or when I have been totally lost because my instincts were not compatible for a project that someone else wanted. I feel I am allowed to listen to them now and that alone makes me feel quite safe.
How did you get your first break?
Introduced to agent via a producer. Had already had meetings at BBC and Film 4. Guiding Lights helped – other directors, felt part of that and had to pitch, did it before ready but good to hear out loud and get good response… Go for it, don’t spend years pouring over… speak it, hear, keep moving….
I think in all cases there wasn’t a specific directing job to get – I don’t think I would have got it. In documentary and in fiction if I wanted to do it I had to make the job myself – have the concept, have the idea, have to vision to be able to do it, feel more natural, rely so much on instinct. And I know that when I am caught up trying to execute someone else’s vision and when someone else says my instinct is wrong I feel totally screwed. If I can’t be led by my instincts it is so hard to know what to do – not that it doesn’t change, I listen to feedback all the time and really need it, but it is always filtered through what I ‘feel’ to be right.
TV Credits: Modern Time (2015), Kingdom of Us (2017).
Film Credits: Life In Film (2015).
Photograph: Christian Cargill