Director Dee Koppang O’Leary cut her teeth on documentaries such as “Justin Bieber: All Around the World” for NBC and Sky One’s “Minnie Driver’s Excellent Adventure” before moving into drama via a brief shadowing stint on “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. From there, she stepped up to second unit director, working across three seasons of “The Crown” as well as the first season of “Bridgerton”
Now, she makes her lead directorial debut on SundanceTV’s third and final season of “The Split,” the Abi Morgan-penned drama about a family of divorce lawyers, which stars Nicola Walker in the lead role.
Koppang O’Leary sat down with Variety to talk about working with Morgan, her move from unscripted to scripted and what the landscape looks like right now for female directors.
How did you get into directing?
I literally have never really wanted to do anything else. I started off in entertainment, so I worked in non-scripted for years, producing and directing. I ended up doing lots of observational documentary and extreme travel documentary, so I used to do lots of things in jungles and mountains, like Minnie Driver swimming with humpback whales in Tonga, and I would do all these kind of weird and wonderful shows all around the world. And then I ended up falling into a lot of music and fashion, I went on tour with Justin Bieber, I did a doc with him for NBC, the opening ceremony for the Olympics and ten years of Victoria’s Secret Fashion shows.
How did you move into non-scripted?
I’d always really wanted to get into drama and a really good friend of mine from the non-scripted entertainment world was [director] Ben Caron, who ended up doing “Sherlock” and was then lead director on “The Crown.” And I shadowed him a little bit on “Sherlock” and then off the back of that he said, “Why don’t you come on as second unit for me on ‘The Crown?’” to which I was like, ‘Oh my God, yes.’ [“The Crown” producers] Left Bank were a huge supporter of me. I basically ended up doing second unit for them for three seasons. It was my training ground really.
What was it like moving up to lead director on “The Split”?
It’s a big old step going from second unit directing [to lead directing]. So you’ve suddenly [got] a lot more responsibility. But you know, very lucky with obviously “The Split” being my debut. It’s amazing and just very lucky to have had kind of all those components, you know, [production company] Sister and Abi Morgan and Nicola Walker. It was quite a dreamy first job.
What was it like coming in for “The Split’s” third and final season?
Having second unit experience you are used to coming in and being mindful of what’s been before so I think that’s a really good skill to have. But yeah, it was daunting coming in to something that’s a third season and that’s so loved as well. People very passionately love this story, love the characters.
What has been your experience as a female director? Do you feel you get the same opportunities as your male counterparts?
I think it’s an exciting time to be a female director, there are so many more opportunities now, which is great, so many doors opening. And I think people are excited to have female directors attached to projects. I think that’s a good thing. And you know, you look at Emerald Fennell flying, and look at, you know, Olivia Wilde or whoever, it’s really an exciting time. There are some really great female directors out there just getting their moment now, which is really exciting.
Between “The Crown,” “Bridgerton” and “The Split” you seem drawn to female-led projects…
Definitely. It’s kind of an unconscious conscious decision, but I guess I’m obviously attracted to female-led shows. Not to rule out doing male-led ones as well, which I’m sure could be great. Times have changed so much, there’s such a movement of female-led projects, it’s really exciting, so there’s an awful lot of great stuff out there. It’s quite an exciting time to be a female director. When I did “Bridgerton,” [having a female director] was really important to them. There’s a lot of intimacy scenes there and actually having a female director and seeing that through a female lens is really important as well.
It’ practically mandatory to ask all directors this: would you direct a superhero movie?
Yeah, I would direct a superhero movie, definitely, as long as the script was good.
What would your dream project be, if you could direct anything?
I think at the end of the day we all do what we love in directing or making TV or films or theatre or whatever it is, because you just love telling stories. I guess I’m attracted to quite female-led pieces, but obviously, just brilliant scripts, really great talent, you know, both established – I’ve been very lucky to work with Olivia Coleman and Nicola Walker, and Helena Bonham Carter and all these outstanding people, – but also excited to see new talent coming up as well. But yeah, just so long as it’s got a good script, good story, characters you completely fall in love with it, and you have to really fall in love with the project, I’m kind of open to seeing what’s out there, which is actually quite exciting.
Koppang O’Leary is repped by Elinor Burns at Casarotto Ramsay.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.