Siri Rodnes is a writer/director currently developing two feature films – Nine Lives co-written with Tom Basden, based on the Science Fiction short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, and satirical creature-feature Cherry Island currently in development with Screen Scotland.
Her short films, including the BAFTA Scotland and Crystal Bear nominated Take Your Partners, have screened internationally at festivals such as the Berlinale, TIFF, Seattle, Cork, Edinburgh and BFI London.
Her TV work includes Pancake, a comedy pilot for BBC Digital and several episodes of River City, a continuing drama for BBC Scotland. She is also attached to direct a yet-to-be announced block of high-end TV once production resumes post-COVID.
She was mentored by producer Andrew MacDonald (DNA Films) through the BFI Flare Mentorship programme, has an MA in Directing Fiction from The National Film & Television School and is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I’ve always had a deep love of cinema ever since I was wee, whether it was watching Alien on a 12” TV with no remote at home or being blown away by Jurassic Park at the local Odeon in Edinburgh. Fantastical genre films, in particular Science Fiction, have always fascinated me for the escapism they offer and the blue-sky thinking they inspire in me. As a teen I had an after-school job in a video store so had my pick of films to take home and watch instead of doing my homework. Around that time, I also started writing screenplays. I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew I enjoyed telling stories. Looking back, I definitely also used it as a way to process my closeted homosexuality and non-binary gender identity. Other teenagers wrote journals containing their innermost thoughts and feelings, I wrote scripts placing my aspirations and fantasies on fictional characters I could both desire to be and desire to be with. Granted they were terrible stories, but through them I learnt about structure, character arcs, dialogue, exposition etc, but perhaps most importantly I acquired the confidence to put my authentic self into each and every story I wrote. But despite cinema probably being my most passionate interest at the time, when I left high school at 17, I never really considered it an option to become a filmmaker by profession. It just wasn’t something people did. By this point anyway, I was more interested in partying and enjoying my youthful lack of responsibility. Hanging out with a couple of friends, both older, both musicians, who also experimented with moving images, I was introduced to the technology and process of committing ideas to screen. Messing about with a camera and in the edit then made me realise I had a good eye, some pretty strong ideas and a confidence in myself that I rarely felt elsewhere in life.
After some years working in bars, restaurants and night clubs, I managed to save up enough money to go travelling. By then I was a keen stills photographer and filmed a lot when I was away, so I became very comfortable with a camera in my hand but never really enjoyed being on camera myself. And none of the more documentary-oriented filming I was doing ever truly satisfied my desire to tell my own stories. It became clear to me that fiction storytelling was what excited me the most. Having broadened my horizons somewhat, when I returned, I finally realised I could and should turn the thing I loved most into to career. It was then at 22 I applied for art college to study film.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
As a “mature student” I entered the second year of Film & TV at Edinburgh College of Art. Being dyslexic I was pretty apprehensive about returning to formal education, but thankfully the course was predominantly practice-based, so making films in one way or another was pretty much what we did every day for the following three years. I was lucky to have been thrown together with some pretty wonderful classmates, who were just as driven, opinionated and passionate as I was. Making films was instantly the most fun thing I had ever done, and I made some enduring friends from my time there. We also managed to set a very high bar for ourselves as fledgling filmmakers by making a very collaborative short film that was only supposed to be an exercise (directed by Jamie Stone which I art directed and co-produced) that got nominated for Best Short Film at the BAFTA Scotland Awards. Early work, especially 2nd year art college work, is usual laboured over and scarcely seen, which can be very disheartening, but having the experience of our film being selected and screened at EIFF and celebrated by the national industry, not only gave me an inspiring ego-boost early on, but also reinforced why I wanted to make films the first place. Beyond the personal therapeutic benefits, I believe we share our stories for other people to enjoy and identify with. To me my ‘art’ is a conversation of which my efforts are the initiating part. It is then up to the audience to participate and respond, not necessarily with me directly, but with the work and those around them. Growing up queer, I am acutely aware of how life-changing and life-saving stories can be.
Gaining in confidence, I began directing my own films with middling success, but I knew directing was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to tell my own stories, which also meant writing them as well. And I love the inventiveness of the practical problem solving involved. My graduation film played at a bunch of festivals, but more significantly it got me into the Directing Fiction MA at the National Film & Television School. The following two years really taught me what directing meant as a creative leader. It also provided me with all the tools and resources I had spent the last three years begging, borrowing and stealing from anywhere I could. NFTS required a lot of hard work, but it was also a playground and again I was fortunate to be thrown together with some wonderful people, many of whom are still close friends and colleagues. My films there were still only middlingly successful, but it was there that I was allowed to really discover about what and how I wanted to tell stories. It was the first time I had the resources available to make genre films and stylise them in a way that felt natural to me.
As amazing as NFTS is, there is also a lot of pressure on your graduation film to fly and win top awards. Many of the films do, but if yours doesn’t, it can be tough to keep up the enthusiasm for what is ultimately a very challenging career to peruse, especially in such a competitive industry. You’re only a hot new graduate for a year and after that you are just another struggling filmmaker. It seems either you move into TV or keep struggling. I chose to keep struggling, thankfully with a little more success after that.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Being a “female director” is always an obstacle and being gender non-conforming doesn’t help much either. Like many women I’m sure, I feel I have to keep proving myself time and time again. Evidence of multiple successes doesn’t seem to be enough that you can do it, whereas one mistake is proof you can’t. Even now I constantly feel underestimated. I don’t think it is uncommon as an emerging filmmaker to be spoken to as though you have never made a film in your life, often by people who haven’t. Women are seen as a risky choice, men are seen as a safe pair of hands almost regardless of experience. This is industry wide, but hopefully changing for the better as more women continue to push through proving not only that we are good and capable, but we also have something to say that audiences want to hear. I have also found a lot of lip-service paid to how much potential I have and how excited execs are to see what I will do, but then see very little actual tangible support, which is incredibly frustrating and at times demoralising. I think there are also systemic obstacles when making queer content as it is considered niche with a limited audience (something I don’t believe to be true). It is also harder to excited cis straight male execs with a story that they won’t instantly identify with because it simply isn’t meant for them. Queer inclusion in mainstream content is also often tokenistic, and particularly when dealing with lesbian content it is mostly limited to coming of age/rights of passage type stories. In life queers tend to flock together, so the idea of the one gay friend amidst a cast of straight characters isn’t true to my own experiences. Visible representation is vitally important, but so is authenticity in its presentation. Again, hopefully we are moving beyond this, but it remains tough within an already tough industry.
I also think short film funding and development is a bit of a joke, especially if you don’t tick the boxes. The amount of time and energy I have wasted jumping through hoops, sometimes only to be rejected at the end of it all anyway (this experience is not limited to short film making either btw). The most accomplished and authentic short I wrote and directed was crowd-funded through Indigogo and the lack of execs was perhaps in this instance key to its success. All short films, funded or not, are made for pittance, so I think it is important to focus on making the film rather than chasing the money, especially at this stage of any career. That said, making contacts and getting yourself known is also very important, so these types of funding schemes can act as a good way to get your name known and talked about in circles that will likely play a significant role in the future of your career as you progress towards features and TV jobs.
I would also go so far as to say moving back to Scotland after NFTS slowed my career progression. When you are out of sight you are also unfortunately out of mind and, rightly or wrongly, the UK film industry is concentrated in London.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Only by making films, come rain or shine, do you learn the skills (technical and managerial) and gain the confidence to understand that you are the best person to tell your story. I did this through five years of formal education and later with grit and determination through multiple self-funded, crowd-funded and soft-money funded projects. As a writer/director I developed my voice by telling the stories important and personal to me. As a director I honed my craft by attaching to shorts and TV projects that were already written by someone else. In either scenario, having the confidence to push back, especially as a woman, is really important. I have never regretted the mistakes I’ve made; I have only ever regretted not listening to my instincts.
How did you get your first break?
Take Your Partners and its subsequent festival success was really how I got noticed. It also got me an agent, which went some way in ‘legitimising’ me as a talent worth paying attention to. However, my break into television came at the recommendation of a fellow filmmaker I had met though making shorts. Working on River City, a continuing drama for BBC Scotland, allowed me to cut my teeth in the very different world of broadcast media. It was here where I feel I truly became a professional, as delivering to unbelievably tight schedules required a level of organisation unlike anything I had experienced when making shorts. With my first TV gig under my belt, my agent was able to get me interviews for high-end shows, one of which I will be directing next year once production resumes post-covid. Within the film world, I am still working on my ‘big break’. The hustle required at short film level only intensifies at feature level and with two feature films in development I am currently dangling over the precipice ready to drop.
Film Credits: Samantha (2008), The Field of Vision (2011), A Chemical Imbalance (2013), Take Your Partners (2016), Grimm Street (2016), None of the Above (2018), Nine Lives (2021).
Photograph: Kieran Howe