Most recently, Laura directed A Wilderness of Mirrors, the second feature-length episode of McDonald & Dodds (ITV/Mammoth Screen), the critically acclaimed Bath-based detective drama starring BAFTA winner Jason Watkins and Tala Gouveia.
Other recent credits include HANNA for Amazon/Working Title/NBCU (2nd unit), The Letdown for Netflix (London unit) and award-winning short film Alice starring Sarah Snook (HBO’s Succession). Commercial spots include work for the FA, Budweiser, Scouts UK and Instagram.
Her debut feature, Ring Road, is currently in development with Silver Salt Films and has been awarded early development funding from the BFI Network. She is also in development on sci-fi series Sundowners, funded by Screen Australia.
Laura is a BFI Network awardee, an alumni of the Women in Film and TV mentorship program and Raising Films’ Making it Possible scheme; and a recipient of grants from UK Screenskills and Directors UK for high-end TV.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I grew up in a small, working-class town on the NSW south coast in Australia. It was known as the “coal coast” and the nearest city was called the “steel city” because nearly everyone’s parents worked at the BHP steel works or collieries. My dad was a coal miner and a first generation immigrant from post World War 2 Italy. My mum was an English second language teacher, and the men in her family had also worked in the mines. Growing up I had no exposure to the film industry and the expectation for my brother and I was that we would work hard at school and be the first full generation in my family to go to university and get “good jobs”. But from a very young age, I had a natural attraction to storytelling and both of my parents loved movies. I have a vivid memory of seeing my first film aged three or four – Wolfgang Peterson’s The Neverending Story – and was utterly addicted. I came home and acted out the whole thing on our front lawn, and apparently told my mother, “I want to do that”. Of course, I had no idea what that was. My brother was a huge Spielberg, Lucas and Zemekis fan and growing up we watched as many behind-the-scenes featurettes as we could find. In these docs doing that for a woman seemed to mean acting – and so I decided I wanted to be an actor. My dad had a VHS camera that my brother and I would make “shows” and “films” with. Inspired by Star Wars my brother built all these little models and we used lego figures as the actors, taking turns to do the voices.
When I was 11, my parents finally relented to my pleading and let me attend the drama classes run by my local youth theatre. I completely fell in love with theatre and the rush of live performance. Having never really fitted in at school, it was there I found my best friends, my people. And one of our female drama teachers had recently graduated from the prestigious directing course at NIDA (think RADA). Slowly I began to realise there were other jobs that might be possible outside becoming an actress – a financially insecure ambition that terrified my father in particular. But entering any form of the arts made my parents nervous, so I agreed to their request for me to study a “normal” job and enrolled in a BA Communications, majoring in Journalism. I loved writing but I hated the formulaic style we were being taught, and was having serious doubts that this was the career for me. At the same time, I joined the university drama group, and the Australian Theatre for Young People, and aged 19 directed my first play. I LOVED IT. It somehow merged the visual, analytical and storytelling part of my brain much better than acting (and I was better at it too!). I was terrified the whole time but weirdly I loved that too. My mates in the drama group were mostly fellow communications students, but most of them were majoring in Media Arts and Production – essentially it was an introduction to filmmaking, radio and performance. I realised this is where I wanted to be, so I switched majors. I didn’t tell my parents. At this point I was working three part-time jobs to support myself so I figured it was my decision anyway. They weren’t thrilled when they found out. I was still enamoured by a career in the theatre, and frankly intimidated by the technical aspects of filmmaking, so chose to do a radio play as my major work rather than a short film.
After university I just wanted to keep directing, but I also needed a day job. So I applied for a position at Sydney Theatre Company (Australia’s largest theatre company) as publications editor. The job was to write program notes for each production, and articles for the subscriber magazine. I had two interviews and felt like an imposter the whole time. I didn’t think I was in with a shot but miraculously they offered me the job. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I got that phone call.
I worked three to four days a week at the company, directing profit-share theatre productions in my spare time. Looking back it was the most incredible training ground. I got to see loads of amazing theatre, interview the artists and spend time in the rehearsal room, with actors like Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Judy Davies and directors like Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Benedict Andrews and Steven Soderbergh. Watching them informed my theatre work, and slowly, almost without me noticing, started to push me back towards visual storytelling.
In my late 20s I hit a wall with theatre. I desperately wanted to be a freelance director, but given the small size of the industry in Australia, the intimate and immersive nature of the work I was interested in, and my lack of a financial safety net, it seemed impossible. Then I got asked to do a new role within STC – to make trailers and behind the scenes content about the productions. The new artistic directors, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, had seen what The National Theatre, Royal Court, etc., were making and wanted to do something similar. Suddenly I was directing actors in front of a camera, working with DPs and lighting, and adapting theatre texts to work on screen. I loved the visual intimacy of the camera, the ability to be in close-up to a compelling performance, and the physicality of image creation. Having studied physical theatre techniques, I found filmmaking an extension of that – a magnified way to play with space and time. Doing this work made me realise filmmaking was something I wanted to pursue as a full-time career.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I guess I knew I needed to make a short film, but filmmaking is an expensive exercise, even when you are trying to do it for next to nothing. I also wanted to study directing but wasn’t sure I could stop working in order to do it full time. AFTRS (the national film school in Australia) was offering part-time graduate certificates in directing, and part of the curriculum supported you with equipment to make a short film. I applied and got in, graduating with a short, silent film about an unexpected seduction called Hairpin. I didn’t really have any expectations, but the short got into a few festivals, and my tutors really encouraged me to keep going. So I decided to apply for the full-time post graduate course in directing at AFTRS. I left STC and went freelance for a year – working across both theatre and film, and making a lot of corporate films in order to save, before applying successfully. Between that and my partner paying my rent I managed to commit to being totally focussed on directing films for the duration of the degree. One of the best things about AFTRS is on top of access to equipment, you get a really good cash budget for your shorts – which in our year they split across two projects. One was an original work, and the other an adaptation of a short story. The chance to be supported to create two films was a huge luxury that I never took for granted. It really allowed me to explore my voice and my visual style on screen. I won the European Union Film Award and scholarship for my graduating film, The Orchard, which was also selected for a market screening at Cannes. Six months after graduating I found myself on a balcony overlooking the The Great Gatsby Cannes premiere. It was all very dizzying, and I remember feeling like I’d accidentally run away and joined the circus.
When I graduated I was lucky one of my contacts from the theatre industry had pivoted into film producing, and I was commissioned to make a short film based in an award winning theatrical monologue by Kim Ho. That film, The Language of Love, was a huge viral hit and showcased at Sundance and at festivals and media outlets around the world. That short opened up a lot of previously closed doors – I got signed for representation as a commercials director, and it paved the way for me to move to the US and try my luck as a filmmaker in LA and NYC.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Obstacles, setbacks and rejection are unavoidable in the film industry, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of missing out on grants, schemes or funding. And coming from a working-class background I’ve not had the luxury of being able to work for free – even on my own projects. Instead, I built up my reel and on-set experience by winning music videos and commercials (and losing a lot too!). In some ways I’m quite grateful for this, as it kept me on set and in production, honing my craft rather than getting stuck in development. I think it was a great training ground for my move into TV.
One of my biggest obstacles came in 2015/2016 when I moved to London – the reason for the move stemmed from my partner’s job and I had never considered a career based in the UK. I knew no one in the industry here and, on top of that, we had a baby in March 2016. I’d already experienced my fair share of setbacks due to being a female director, and I felt that having a baby in tow probably meant my career was over. I was trying to push forward but I remember feeling pretty depressed about the future. I really wanted to move into longform features and high-end TV but my UK network was so small I just couldn’t see it happening. And when I met people for coffee, more often than not they would tell me to make another short – something I had neither the time nor funds to do. I wallowed around for a while and I somehow ended up discovering Raising Films (I was too sleep deprived to remember how I found them!). As well as advocating for parents and carers in the industry, they also run a professional development workshop and mentoring scheme called Making it Possible. I applied and got in, and it is still the single best professional development training and networking I’ve ever done. It completely changed my perception of how to combine my career and parenting; and, most importantly for me at the time, really expanded my network. I met my feature film producers through the scheme, as well as a high-end TV director who later invited me to shadow her on an Amazon series.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
For me it was a combination of short films, commercials, music videos and adapting my artistic practice as a theatre director to the medium of film. As I mentioned, I didn’t have the resources to self-fund shorts so the six I’ve made have been a combination of those done via film school, and small commissions. Whilst I was living in NYC, I was commissioned by Artology and The Guardian in Australia to create two experimental shorts with Australian actors, A Lovesong based on a T.S Eliot poem, and Alice based on a Noel Coward song. The freedom I was given on this project – in terms of adapting the texts, collaborating with the actors and the visual language, was instrumental in honing my voice. Alice in particular captured a style, tone and visual metaphor I was also exploring in my longer form projects and has been really key in helping me move into that space.
Commercials and music videos have been instrumental in honing my craft and technical skills as it allowed me to be on set a lot in between drama gigs – and often with the budget to try out new ideas. I think the discipline of managing multiple agendas on set – from client to agency to production, was also brilliant training for the world of TV where you are often juggling notes from various execs and the network.
How did you get your first break?
My early breakthroughs were mostly self-driven, or driven by being selected on various schemes – like Making it Possible, BFI Network and the Women in Film and TV mentoring scheme. They helped give me the confidence to ask a high-end TV director if I could shadow her on Hanna which she was directing for Amazon Prime. That shadowing then led to the opportunity to direct some second unit for the show, thanks to the director and producer championing me. Having that credit was so helpful in terms of opening doors in high-end TV, and it helped me start a conversation with agents – which eventually led me to signing with 42 Management.
After I got my agent, my breaks in TV definitely came through them – especially in terms of getting me in the room with producers and execs for upcoming shows. I had meetings for two shows before landing the job directing one of two feature-length episodes for McDonald & Dodds, ITV’s new detective drama, produced by Mammoth Screen. To get the job I had a meeting with the series producer, and one of the exec producers, before a follow-up meeting with the other exec producer and MD of Mammoth. Because it was a new show there was a lot of discussion over the scripts, the style and the tone of the show, as well as my take on the particular story of my episode.
I think my theatre training is a real asset in these meetings – I have a very high-level understanding of script structure, dramaturgy and character which feels like a huge bonus when it comes to discussing new work. And my experience working with actors and writers, which also comes from theatre, is really helpful.
In terms of my feature, and TV work I’m developing, most of these breaks come through planting many seeds and seeing which one takes! Developing any original work is a long-term process so it helps to not have all your eggs in one basket. And find your key collaborators, especially quality producers. They are always the ones that keep you going through what can be quite a tricky and arduous process.
TV Credits: McDonald & Dodds (2020).
Film Credits: Hairpin (2011), Ricochet (2012), The Language of Love (2013), The Orchard (2014), Shadow / Self (2015), A Lovesong (2016), Alice (2017).
Photograph: Emma Furno