Paul Whittington is an English director working within the television and film industry. He is best known for TV shows Little Boy Blue, Cilla, The Moorside and White House Farm. He is currently directing The Crown for Netflix.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I was a late developer in career terms. While I was always an obsessive viewer of films and TV drama, I was the opposite of the kid with a Super 8; I didn’t even know what a director did and it never occurred to me working in that field could be an option for me, it all just felt a world away from where I was. I left school with no clear direction as to what I wanted to do with my life, had a number of different jobs, including several years working in the civil service in my home town of Nottingham. This experience at least gave me a very clear idea of how I DIDN’T want to spend the rest of my working life and by my mid-20s I was starting to explore the creative side of my personality, which up to that point hadn’t really had an outlet. I wrote stuff, stories, just for myself with little thought for where it might go. Eventually this led to some freelance journalism work with the local paper in Nottingham where I wrote about football. I didn’t feel journalism would be a career for me but somehow it was all moving me in a certain direction.
I saw a job advertised in the administrative offices of the local BBC office in Nottingham and applied thinking it was somehow a foot in the media door. Getting that job was a significant turning point, while I was still a long way from where I wanted to be I was at least in the industry and felt I was slowly finding my way. The sole BBC TV operation in Nottingham at that time was the nightly regional news programme and after a few months of office work I got a job on the TV side as a Station Assistant. It was a priceless opportunity to learn a range of production disciplines; vision mixing, studio floor managing, Outside Broadcasts, multi-camera studio directing. It wasn’t drama or anything like it but looking back, two years working in regional news was a brilliant training ground, providing vital experience that continues to serve me well. The discipline I learned having to deliver for a live half-hour show five nights a week has been invaluable to everything that has followed in my career.
While I was at the BBC my writing started to develop into screenplays and the notion of writing and directing drama began to properly form.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I had access to cameras and crews and shot my first dramatic short film with a news crew. I transferred within the BBC to London to work in promos which was another good step on the creative journey, I worked on film for the first time with talented DoPs and started to think more about the craft of lighting, framing, lenses. The next logical step out of promos was to become a commercials director but it became very clear to me that my heart was – and always had been – in drama.
Through this period I continued to make self-funded short films in my spare time and there’s no question these were the single most important learning experiences of my whole career – making short films was my film school. The only way you learn how to direct is simply by directing, by doing it – the more you do it, the more you learn, the better you get. After many years of searching I found my natural home was on a film set; this realisation came on a low-budget short film, doing every job from driving props to set to the catering, surrounded by like-minded cast and crew.
I was making short films in the pre-digital age. We were shooting on 16mm film cameras, relying on favours from camera houses and having to make 35mm prints just to show the end product at festivals. Life savings were put into these early productions and it was worth it, because I knew this is where I wanted to be. It was an instinctive feeling, it just felt right. I made loads of mistakes, made some bad shorts but kept coming back for more. I know people who’ve tried directing once and realised very quickly it’s not for them, I think it’s one of those jobs where the experience of doing it reveals all you need to know about your desire. It will test you in that way.
Making shorts was not only my filmmaking education, they also provided my break into the industry. I made a couple of films that won some small festival prizes and crucially were seen by an agent who offered to sign me. From there I was meeting for TV drama work and was on my way.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The potted history above, reads like there was some kind of plan – there never was, I had a desire to make drama but no idea how to get there, I made lots of wrong turns, bad decisions, wrote a lot of really awful scripts and made some rubbish films. And none of it happened quickly – from the time I had an inkling in my late 20s that directing may be something I want to do with my life, to getting my first proper TV drama job, was about 10 years. But none of that time was wasted, I’m a better director for the bad stuff and the disappointments as much as for the successes. And throughout that time I never questioned what I was doing, I kept going, kept shooting, I doubted my ability at times but never my desire to be a director. If it’s in you, you’ll know, you’ll keep going and you’ll find your own way.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
The one crucial area of directing I wasn’t really exposed to in the early short-film making years was working with writers. I tended to write my own stuff as the most pragmatic way to get something made – I could just get on and do it. Making short films is brilliant for the experience of being on set with actors and crew but rarely offer the time to be in a room with a writer page-turning the script. I didn’t really start collaborating with proper writers until I was making TV drama and of course discovered it’s the most crucial of relationships and one area in which I think new directors have the least experience. I love working closely with writers, it’s one of the best parts of the job and when that relationship is right the work will always be at it’s best. There are as many variations in how that relationship works best as there are personalities of those involved but its a vital one to work on and get right.
I think the journey, the act of making films develops your filmmaking ‘voice’ – whatever that is. In all honesty I don’t know what my ‘voice’ is, maybe that’s for others to judge – if I do have one it’s not a conscious thing. I’ve never spent much time thinking about this, I know what I like or don’t as soon as I read a script. I guess I’m drawn to certain themes if I analyse it and of course I have work and other directors who influence me greatly. Somehow I’ll carry that into my own filmmaking but I’ve honestly never thought about having a particular ‘voice’, I think you just need to try and be true to yourself and somehow it’ll take care of itself.
How did you get your first break?
Clearly my background is not a roadmap for anyone to follow as a way into the industry and if directors collective personal histories reveal anything it’s that there isn’t one tried and tested route into this job. Every single director has a unique journey and everyone needs to find their own way. But while the narratives all differ there does seem to be universal themes; a passion for storytelling that fuels the stamina and persistence needed to keep going, to overcome the obstacles, to love it even when you hate it, to know that you simply don’t want to do anything else.
TV Credits: Totally Frank (2005-2006), Hotel Babylon (2007), Wire in The blood (2007), Fairy Tales (2008), Harley Street (2008), The Fixer (2009), Spooks (2010), DCI Banks (2011), Vera (2011-2012), The Widower (2014), Cilla (2014), Jericho (2016), The Moorside (2017), Little Boy Blue (2017), Hatton Garden (2019), White House Farm (2020), Isolation Stories (2020), The Crown (2021).
Film Credits: Hero (2002), What About Me? (2003), Innocent Pink (2003), Washing Day (2003).
Photograph: Greg Noakes