Originally from the West Midlands, Samantha is a director working across film and television. She started out as a fine artist until the storytelling bug led her into making films. Her work centres around strong female characters, black comedy and drama.
Sam made her TV drama debut on Channel 4 with single drama Call It A Night, and has also directed on Holby City, Doctors and was selected for the Directors UK High-End TV Drama Directors Programme, working on Call The Midwife. She was also featured on the BBC Hot New Talent list.
Sam is currently developing two original TV series: Lovelocked and Bite. She is also working on two feature projects: A sci-fi, black comedy The Pod, written by Melissa Iqbal and psychological thriller Orchestra as a writer-director.
She has made numerous award winning short films and is an alumni of Guiding Lights, Network EIFF, Microwave. She is a graduate of the National Film and Television School, where she was awarded a scholarship from the David Lean Foundation. Her graduation film Love Letters was nominated for a Royal Television Society Award. Sam is a founding member of Cinesisters the female director’s collective.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I’m from a very working class rural mining town in Warwickshire, West Midlands. From an early age I had an obsession with films. We lived three doors up from a delipidated 50’s fleapit cinema called The Regal. Mum took us once a week to the Saturday double bill. To this day I can still remember how excited I felt as the lights went down, the red velvet curtain peeled. The second influence that got me addicted to cinema early on was watching the Saturday matinee on the telly with my nan. As she smoked a lot of cigarettes I developed an addiction for : Powell & Pressburger, David Lean, Sydney Lumet and Billy Wilder.
Where I grew up is a very beautiful place, but career expectations were low. The idea that you might be a film maker was unheard of and access to any kind of video camera or film education was non-existent. Luckily I was quite good at art, drama and English, so did well at school and my way out became education, and I went to Liverpool Art College and studied Fine Art. I worked successfully as a fine artist, for about ten years, living in Liverpool, exhibiting all over the world. Slowly the work I was making became more and more about story, part performance, using video and Super 8.
I knew something didn’t feel quite right for me about the art world, by now I was making work with scripts and actors, a friend said to me, “When are you going to do something about this film obsession that you have?” This was a revelation to me. Films, I could make a film. I took two months off to have a think about that and in the second month I wrote my first script, and at the age of 30 sunk my savings into making my first short film Peephole. It was a huge risk, but for the first time I felt, like I found where I belonged.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
So as you can see from my answer to the last question, I came late to filmmaking, but what I did gain from that was life experience and that I had something to say in the stories I wanted to tell. I’ve found that every single filmmaker I have ever known has always had a unique path into the industry. This is how mine went:
My first short was Peephole. Myself and group of friends who were also trying to make creative work – some were artists, some were photographers, some musicians, sound designers – formed a film collective called SOFA. The remit was that we would crew for each other and each person would make a short film, and we’d all gain experience / a showreel together. I applied for some community funding and we got £3,000 for the collective and the first film was Peephole, it went on to win Best low-budget Short Film at Manchester IFF that year.
I still knew diddly-squat abut filmmaking at this point, it was just a few friends, making stuff, doing everything ourselves, but this was fantastic experience because it meant that we had to look after every department and it was a fantastic learning curve. I learnt that I loved visual storytelling and I loved working with actors.
My second short was a five min short film called Breathe. I applied to the then regional film agency North West Vision and was produced with Mersey Film and Video. (I was still living in Liverpool at this point.) This time around I had more money, a proper location and cinematographer, production support, but was still self-producing, doing too much! I would not recommend this as a way to go, try and find great people to work with. But we got through it and Breathe became my first break out film. Breathe premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival and had an amazing international festival run.
Because I knew so little about the industry I didn’t really understand how to capitalise on this success and get to the next step, at this point I didn’t even have feature ideas (around this time I had a meeting with a really big exec at Film4 and pitched him my next short film, he thought I was coming to pitch my first feature. Doh.) Anyway, I know I needed more experience so made two more short films, one an art film, one another short for North West Vision and I got to collaborate with a professional crew and crucially got to work with proper heads of department, production design, costume, editors, producer, which was in the main part a joy.
At this point I’d started to think about what next – and one of my scripts had been accepted in the BAFTA Rocliffe new writing forum, which was a big deal, and the chair was producer / Head of the NFTS Nik Powell. He loved my work and invited me to apply for the National Film and Television School – (more about this in Breaks later.)
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I think all filmmakers experience setbacks at different points, the nature of the film and TV industry is a bit of a rollercoaster and I think it’s crucial to remember that for every low there will be a high. But, obstacles…
This is an important one. The tide is slowly starting to turn, but it’s much harder for female directors to break through. The statistics for female directors in the industry are still terribly low. You have to work harder, be better and be more confident than your male counterpart, to get the same seat at the same table. This is obviously unfair and wrong, but the upside is that your work is better for it and you become a better director because of the standard you set to actually get a meeting or a job. I’m one of the co-founders of Cinesisters the female directors collective, and peer-to-peer mentoring that organisations like us can offer is a real way through this. Also organisations like Directors UK and Women in Hollywood are leading the way for real change for female directors. A lot of organisations have run schemes to try and right the balance for women and directors of colour, this has helped and I have benefitted from some of them.
I came to filmmaking a bit later in life than some and I’m conscious that I’m not the bright young thing that was making their first film at 11 years old. But this also means that I’ve had more life experience and has allowed me to tell richer stories, so this is something I push to my advantage, especially in authored projects.
Financially it’s been a struggle, if you are not from a wealthy background, then you often have no fallback position. After my first TV break with Coming Up, I could not get hired and really struggled to make ends meet. For me the solution was to have side jobs that could give me the freedom to pursue projects and freelance work. I started mentoring young people through first short film with the BFI and found this incredibly rewarding and a way to earn money.
Last one I’ll mention. I was attached to a feature project with a producer and writer that I loved and got to the last round of a prestigious completive first feature scheme. Just before the greenlight interview, to mine and the producer’s horror, the writer had a meltdown, withdrew the project from the scheme – he sent an email to them without telling us first. It was awful, a real opportunity lost as it was looking very likely the film might be greenlit. I didn’t talk about it for ages, but when I did almost every filmmaker I spoke to had a similar story; you’re not alone, there’s always a project that goes tits up, you learn form the mistakes and move on.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
In my first few self-shot / low-budget shorts that I already talked about, I worked out that I had something to say as filmmaker, I was interested in stories with strong female characters and a dark comedic edge. I’d discovered that I had an instinct for visual storytelling and that I loved working with actors.
But I really lacked experience in working with like-minded collaborators and with the craft of directing. I got a place on the MA in Fiction Direction at the NFTS, with a full scholarship, and the two years I spent there were amazing and really allowed me to widen the pool of creative people I had access too as I also moved to London from up North.
I made four shorts at the NFTS and each one built on skills of working with the holy trinity of camera, actors and space. It’s an amazing place to make work, like a mini studio system. But I also really found my voice a writer-director, with a real tint towards black comedy and magical realism, that allowed me to grow in confidence as a filmmaker. After film school, I made another short Copier funded by Screen West Midlands, it consolidated a lot of creative things for me and formed some long-lasting collaborations.
One of the important elements to honing my craft as a director has been that I have managed to shoot consistently throughout my career – films, TV, or sometimes mentoring projects – and every single time I step on set I still learn something new about the art and craft of directing. I think directing is like a muscle; the more you use it the better it gets. I also feel like forming collaborations with other creatives is crucial, I always try to work with people that I admire and think are more talented than I am. I love working as director in TV, the constraints, audience, the pace and curve balls and creative opportunities it throws up are real ways to develop your craft as director.
I’ve also always written myself and collaborated with writers. The writing side of things has offered a lot of insight into directing from the inside out, how things translate from the page to the screen. I see the writing as a key part of my craft.
How did you get your first break?
Getting the ‘breaks’ – I see a pattern of breaks and champions so far that have been a sort of chain reaction, leading to each other – I think this is different for everyone. I have always been sure that I wanted to work equally across film and TV, so my pattern of breaks went like this:
I made an award winning short Breathe that had an international film festival life and that got me noticed by the industry (but at this point I didn’t really know what to do with the interest.)
Nik Powell championed me as a candidate for the MA in Fiction Direction at the NFTS and continued to champion me throughout my career. (Sadly now gone, I miss Nik!)
My NFTS graduation film Love Letters was nominated for a Student Royal Television Society Award. This got me a meeting with producer Deborah Hayward, who was then at Working Title, she said, “What you need is an agent.” Deborah introduced me to Jack Thomas at Independent Talent, then a budding new agent. This was key break for me, as getting a great agent at a great agency has stood me in good stead. It’s not always this easy, I was introduced by Deborah, but always try and hold out for a recommendation or for them to approach you.
I was mentored by Kevin MacDonald on the Guiding Lights scheme. Kevin has been an invaluable mentor – he really helped me push my feature projects into a good place and we still meet a couple of times a year. The exposure from this high profile mentorship really helped me. Don’t be scared of the schemes, they do really help and are especially necessary if you’re in an underrepresented area.
I really wanted to work in TV, but despite the RTS nomination, could not get a meeting for love nor money. Then, I got to the final selection workshop of the Channel 4 Coming Up scheme for new TV writers and directors. This was a real break, I had always wanted to work across both TV and film. This was my TV debut and I finally had a broadcast credit. The episode was well received 5-star reviews, but I still couldn’t get TV meets. Back to the drawing board…
Then I applied to the BBC New Directors scheme (yes, another scheme), I shadowed on a block of Doctors, directed a single episode and was really championed by Simon Nelson at the BBC and by exec producer Mike Hobson. Mike asked me back to do a full block before I had finished shooting the first single episode.
This really shifted my TV career and I then went on to do the same on Holby City which got me my first prime time hour long credit, this really made a difference. It’s important to note here that references from the producers you work with are crucial and the next production you work on will always ask for them.
After this I plotted carefully. I really wanted to move out on continuing drama and into High-End TV. I gained a place on the prestigious High-End TV placement with Directors UK and was placement director on Call the Midwife. This was a real game changer for me. I’m now having meetings for various High-End TV projects and am in development on an authored TV anthology series with a great producer who I love. I also have two feature films that are in a good place, one of which I hope will shoot next year.
I think the journey of ‘breaks’ is still in motion and long may it continue!
TV Credits: Coming Up (2013), Doctors (2016-17), Call The Midwife (Placement Director 2017), Holby City (2018).
Film Credits: Peephole (2002), Breathe (2003), The List (2004), Adrift (2005), Love Letters (2008), Copier (2010).
Photograph: Sam Ashley