Ian Aryeh is an award-winning director working across comedy, drama and genre. A graduate of the prestigious National Film and Television School, Ian has been selected as a Broadcast Hotshot Director and named as one of Channel 4’s ‘Directors to Watch’. 

Ian has always been a vivid story-teller and is a resident director for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Showcase working with a variety of new talent both behind and in front of the camera. 

Ian has just finished directing on Series 3 of the Sky 1 comedy – In The Long Run, created by Idris Elba and produced by Green Door & Sprout Pictures. The show stars Idris Elba, Bill Bailey, Jimmy Akingbola, Madeleine Appiah and Kellie Shirley. He has also directed a brand new children’s comedy series for BBC, called Andy and the Band, which launched in February 2020. Prior to that Ian had also directed on Series 8 of the recently BAFTA nominated children’s TV series The 4 O’Clock Club for CBBC. He has several projects in development across film and television both in the UK and for American SVOD’s. 

Ian has also directed a range of commercials for brands including Google, Imperial Leather and Jose Cuervo and has also directed three series of the online phenomenon The Wembley Cup for YouTube. The series has gained over 120 million views on YouTube.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

The first film I ever saw in the cinema was Jurassic Park and it completely blew my mind. Mostly because I spent most of the film hiding behind my seat afraid the dinosaurs would come out of the screen to eat me. I was so compelled by the world created and from that experience began my love for storytelling. I waxed lyrical about the film to anyone who would listen and my parents encouraged me to make my own stories and ‘present them’ to them. 

I roped my sister into my storytelling feats and we used to write our own shows together and perform them for our parents. Through that I was the actor, co-producer and co-creator on all our productions, and most importantly I was in charge of how we would bring the stories to life.

As I got a little bit older we would get our older cousin Nigel to film our performances, especially the Christmas specials, and I would take a leading role in front and behind the camera. I clearly liked the limelight and being in control. It took me a while to fully understand what the director was – but my love for entertaining was cemented and my parents continued to feed my love of storytelling.

They were big movie fans and we would all go to the cinema every Sunday to watch a new film together as a family. This gave me such a great insight into the mix of stories made for cinema. To further supplement my love of film we would watch a lot of Blaxploitation and B-movies at home. I would watch each film right until the last credit was listed to see who was involved and who did what.

I then took a roundabout way to fully realise I only wanted to be a director. I still loved performing and acted in all my secondary school plays and musicals, alongside attending drama club. I even managed to perform at the Old Vic in London on an original production when I was 16, which was an incredible experience. But I was never fully satisfied being a performer and much more enjoyed the process of creating the show and effectively directing everyone involved. I basically wanted to do what Steven Spielberg did with Jurassic Park, but it took me a while to find my path to get there. The next step was how to make it a reality. 

Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?

My parent’s were very supportive of my creative endeavours, but I think they must have always thought this would be a hobby. Everyone in my immediate family has a good job, with my mum’s side full of diplomats, civil servants and the odd architect, whereas on my dad’s side we had engineers, accountants and later my Grandad became a Bishop in Ghana. So little old me saying I wanted to do what Steven Spielberg did, was a big change in the world I had come from. No one immediately knew how to become a director, so there was a lot of research and attempts to convince my family I could do it and make it work. 

I didn’t succeed, but managed to convince my family to allow me to study an interdisciplinary humanities degree. I studied American and Canadian studies mixing modules in politics, history, English and most importantly film and TV (I now understand every Family Guy, Simpsons and South Park gag). For me that wasn’t enough so I was also part of the filmmaking, theatre and TV societies. I wanted to make sure I could exercise my love of filmmaking and storytelling in every way possible. I made some student short films, student TV shows (which are all locked in a vault) and performed in the odd play at university. I loved every moment, but they wouldn’t be enough to make a career as a director once finishing my degree. 

I had a great tutor – Richard King – who was very supportive of my dream to be a filmmaker. He introduced me to the idea of furthering my education at film school in order to develop my craft and really have a go at becoming a director. We singled out applying to the NFTS and through Richard’s recommendation and encouragement, I was fortunate enough to get an interview to attend the school. And the rest as they say is history.

Only it wasn’t – in between university and film school I worked an array of jobs to get more experience in the industry. I joined the BBC as a broadcast assistant on Radio 5 Live and then segued into running on various entertainment shows. This helped me gain professional experience in the industry and soak up as much information as I could.

I was then in awe once I started at the NFTS. To be surrounded by other storytellers who loved film and TV as much as I did. It was truly the best environment for me to learn all I could about filmmaking, from the teachers and guest tutors. On top of what I could learn from my fellow students. I was also able to soak up so much film and TV history and I could fully dedicate myself to becoming a director. I loved the network I built at the school, which is very important as you navigate this industry. I got to meet and work with so many genuinely lovely and talented people, I was inspired the whole time I was there and looked forward to working with them in the industry once we graduated. 

Like all students at the school, you create a portfolio of projects and my graduation show was a TV comedy pilot Doubt on Loan. It got a great reception at the NFTS graduation showcase and I was contacted by industry producers, development people, commissioners, etc., who wanted to meet me and talk more about the idea and what other ideas I had. Finally I thought – here begins my journey to becoming a ‘fully fledged’ director. 

What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?

Like every director and filmmaker – there isn’t one clear road to ‘success’ depending on how you define it. Each knockback, rejection or obstacle you face is humbling, but also another learning curve to help you on your continued development and journey. You also then have to contend with your own anxiety of imposter syndrome and whether you will work again: envy of seeing great work you wish you had made and maintaining your own self-confidence, as you’ll need a lot of it to keep going. 

Two distinctive experiences I remember taught me a great deal about the business of the industry. As it is a business, after all. My first was getting a TV channel to buy and broadcast my grad show, which felt like a huge achievement. I was developing it into a series with them and they wanted to see how audiences would respond to the pilot. I was partnered with a production company who was recommended by the broadcaster and started, what I hoped, would be a fruitful relationship. Unfortunately, I was shut out from various discussions about moving forward, from recutting some bits of the show, development meetings and crucially how I would be credited and remunerated for creating the show ahead of the broadcast. To cut a long story short I got ripped off financially, but managed to keep the integrity of the pilot to be broadcast, which was always the main goal. I then cut my ties with the production company after the horrible experience of getting the show on air. With that, I lost all progress that had been made both in the development of the series and getting to make more episodes. It taught me a valuable lesson of being surrounded by good people who you trust and have your best intentions at heart. We all want to make good film and TV but the road to making anything is always bumpy, and always maintain your integrity. 

Another obstacle I faced early on was pitching another show idea I had created. I was very excited about it, and we had some great early responses from the broadcasters. We went on to pitch a revamped version of the show and was met with the fateful words, “we already have something like that in development.” You’ll hear this a lot and I’m afraid to say this isn’t always the case, as I later found out. The essence of my idea was then revamped at the broadcaster without my knowledge, but their version never got to screen. This was a huge blow to me, as I was very excited about this original idea and knew we were onto something. I always felt if the broadcaster had worked with us, we could have made something great, but its not to say it can’t happen again later down the line. You’ll learn in this industry sometimes you have a great idea and the timing then isn’t right. Don’t write off bringing that idea out again later down the line. Or a broadcaster will say they have something similar, when really it’s your particular take on the idea that makes it unique and different. 

This industry is all about ideas and storytelling – bringing our imaginations to the screen. Don’t let any knockbacks you face throw you off course from that. Keep developing your ideas, keep learning from all your experiences. They all help you make better choices as your career grows. On top of that, keep a great stable of people around you – everything requires collaboration and you need to enjoy working with the people around you.

How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?

Through a lot of trial and error and pushing my approach on each production, I’ve managed to hone my craft. It largely began at film school and I’ve been developing it since. On the bigger productions I’ve got a better sense of myself as a director – through my temperament, my style and methods. Each job has its stresses, and especially with the children’s TV I’ve directed, I’ve learnt how best to cut my cloth with the time and budget constraints you’re constantly against. It teaches you to be very creative in your execution and you can never over prep. The trick is to prep hard to shoot easy. All the background work you do before you step on set allows you to make the best creative decisions with the time you have on set, and ultimately make directing more enjoyable. There are so many filmmakers’ work I love from Martin Scorsese to Buster Keaton, Wes Anderson to Tarantino, and Woody Allen to Spike Lee. I try and bring a little piece of them onto each job in my own flavour. 

The best thing I’ve found is to keep shooting and experimenting when not working on a formal production. Taking the time to create my own films and content has given me the space to work on my craft. 

When it came to developing my voice – it was through development of my own ideas that I got a better sense of the type of themes, areas of life and projects that excite me. When I allowed true introspection of myself, I was able to see the value of my own life experiences that have shaped my view of the work, and in turn my approach to filmmaking. I don’t want to be ‘the next [insert director here]’ rather I have learnt to celebrate my own self and continue to pour that into my work. 

Saying that, I do love what Spielberg does in taking big ideas and making them accessible in the palm of your hand, and that is something that has always struck me. Coupled with my love of exploring themes of distorted realities and the shifting idiosyncrasies of the human condition in respect of morality and vengeance. Wrapped in dark humour and pop culture references. I don’t think you ever stop developing your craft or honing your voice, it becomes stronger on every job. 

How did you get your first break?

When you start in this game, you soon realise there are different levels too unlock before you can get to the next stage of your career. But it is crucial to always think ahead towards what you want to be doing in two moves time. Learn to mix your jobs with productions that will give you the step to your next major TV show, or towards directing your feature. As well as jobs where you can look after yourself financially, but also experiment more due to budgetary or time constraints. 

After leaving film school I didn’t have a talent agent and largely had to generate my own leads and work. I had so many meetings and drank so much coffee, but it took a while before I could book anything as a director. I was constantly developing my own ideas, whilst shooting what I could. A commercial agent saw my graduation film and after a very progressive meeting he signed me to his company. Through them I directed branded content and online material like a man possessed, to build my portfolio. 

I managed to catch the eye of a producer at the BBC who had also enjoyed my comedy pilot and some of the other work I had directed. Unfortunately, nothing came from our initial conversations, but through them I was connected to the head of BBC Children’s. She liked me very much and wanted to help my career, she then connected me to Dominic MacDonald – Producer of the 4 O’Clock Club, one of CBBC’s most recent long-running comedy series. I was already a fan of the show and that went a long way in our meeting. I didn’t hear back from him for a few weeks and thought I had messed it at all up, but then I got a call from Dominic who was very complimentary of my work and enjoyed my energy, which he thought would bring the best out in the young cast. He decided to take a risk and booked me to direct five episodes of the upcoming Series 8. This was to be my first TV directing gig and I couldn’t believe it. He also recommended me to several agents he knew and through his support I decided to sign with Matthew at Dench Arnold. At lot had come at once and I was overwhelmed with it all to be honest, but it was what I had been wanting for so long and it was so uplifting to see it come to fruition. I then managed to book more jobs and build my TV portfolio, across children’s continuing drama and more recently high-end TV. 

Then I was booked on the third series of Idris Elba’s semi-autobiographical comedy In The Long Run for Sky 1. This was a big break for me. It was the biggest production I have been a part of and allowed me to really stretch my muscles as a director. I’ve directed big action pieces, stunts and worked with A-listers and a great crew. It has further opened the door for me, here and in America.

I have to add that I’ve always had good people looking out for me and one person in particular is Humphrey Barclay (Producer of Desmonds and commissioner of Spaced). As my portfolio continued to develop Humphrey has supported me, offered me advice and put me forward for many jobs. He, alongside my agent Matt, was instrumental in me getting in front of the team for In The Long Run, which is now allowing me to move to a new stage of my career.

My agent has been great for my continued career progress, especially now as we are on the cusp of very exciting developments. Through Matt I’ve gained more IP, optioning books, and we have a few ideas currently in the market, as we try and gain original commissions. We are continuing to build and I’m excited for what the future holds as I work towards more high-end TV and my debut feature.

TV Credits: 4 o’clock club (2018), Andy and the Band (2019), In the Long Run (2020), Duppy (2021), This can never not be real (2021).

Photograph: Justin Downing