Among the front-runners in the race for the British Independent Film Awards are three films by first-time directors: William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth,” Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am Not a Witch,” and Francis Lee’s “God’s Own Country.” This reflects the depth of new directing talent in Britain, and its diversity, with each helmer arriving at this point by different routes.
Oldroyd had served as a stage director for more than a decade, tackling contemporary adaptations of European classics, and had also directed two short films. “Lady Macbeth” was also the debut feature for screenwriter Alice Birch, a rising British playwright, and producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly.
Producing a period film on a budget of £500,000 ($667,000) was a challenge, Oldroyd says, and the decision to limit themselves to one location, Lambton Castle in Northern England, helped them stay within that.
Oldroyd sought two conditions in particular. “Coming from theater I was very aware that there were certain things I wanted to carry across to give stability and certainty: one was rehearsal time [he had 10 days of rehearsals with the key cast at the location] and the other was to shoot in chronological order.”
He sought out the assistance of a storyboard artist in order to focus on shot selection. “What I had to learn was where to put the camera, because I’m so used to watching a scene play out from one point of view on stage,” he says.
Oldroyd surrounded himself with experienced behind-the-camera talent, such as first assistant director George Every, who has 20 years’ film experience, including time on Merchant Ivory movies. “That was fantastic [to have] somebody who absolutely could tell me how a film would work, how it can be structured, and how we could shoot it in the time we had,” Oldroyd says.
Nyoni had shot a series of shorts, including the BAFTA-nominated “Mwansa the Great,” before developing her Zambia-set script for “I Am Not a Witch” through Cannes’ Cinefondation residency. As part of her preparation for her feature, which was produced by Juliette Grandmont and feature debutante Emily Morgan, she read a lot of accounts of other directors’ first-time experiences, including Paul Thomas Anderson on “Hard Eight.”
“It sounded really harrowing,” she says. She also spoke to other directors about their debuts and found that “everyone had a hard time.”
She sought to avoid common errors, such as running out of shooting time. When pre-production proved difficult, she sat down with cinematographer David Gallego and cut about 20 pages from the script to “make our lives a little bit easier.” Their relationship was key. “Thank god he was on the same page as me because if you get a cinematographer who’s more experienced than you and better known, if they decide to be the boss of your production you are screwed as a director,” she says.
Like Nyoni, Lee is self-taught as a writer-director, although he has many years’ experience as an actor. He wrote the script for “God’s Own Country” on spec, without having a producer attached. “The whole experience was a huge learning curve. Making your first film is a big battle,” he says. “The biggest influence on me was the idea of trusting your instinct, and being very clear about the kind of film you wanted to make.”
When choosing his film’s heads of department he was guided by the kinds of films they’d worked on before, such as with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, whose credits included “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” “I absolutely fell in love with the way he depicted landscape and characters, and that felt very akin to how I saw [my film],” Lee says.
His primary concern was the actors, and those who would be closest to them on set. “I wanted to shoot this film very intimately with the actors, and there were going to be some difficult things for them to do,” he says. “It was super-important that [the DP and boom operator] could be supportive, sympathetic and build a bond with the actors.”
His own experience as an actor informed his approach on the film, which is about the love between an English sheep farmer and a Romanian farm worker. “Having stood in front of the camera and knowing how vulnerable you feel, and how difficult it can be to deliver an emotional truth, it was my mission to make the actors feel secure, and that my focus would always be on them,” he says.