Female Directors Season: Kate Cheeseman

Next in our female directors interview season is Kate Cheeseman, an award winning director who has worked in television, film and theatre. Here, she talks with us about her inspirations, experiences and the many projects she has coming in the near future.

Interview by Sophie Duncan

What was it that made you want to go into filmmaking?

I grew up in a theatrical family surrounded by actors, comedians and writers like Ken Campbell, Bob Hoskins, Nick Darke and Alan Ayckbourn and a brilliant designer called Ali Chitty. I also helped at a film theatre and remember being blown away by films like Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, Heaven's Gate and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900. However, I never imagined I could be a director as there were just no women doing it that I knew of. My parents were also keen to get me to study science so I ended up doing a degree in Zoology but at the same time reading all the books the English Degree students were studying. Then, luckily, I was rescued and offered a few week's work experience with a really great film maker, Philip Donnellan, who made the most beautiful documentaries. I spent time in the film cutting rooms in Bristol watching him and basically fell in love with editing and making films and knew that that was what I wanted to do. 

What have you gained and learned from your experiences working in film and television?

Everything and nothing!  You are always learning and having ideas and seeing amazing things people have done or working with brilliant people who teach you new things. Both mediums are changing so much at the moment too but in the end it's still always about great writing and great acting.  Nothing can beat a good script with good actors and lots of planning. For me it's also about working with people you relate to and finding the best way for everyone to tell the particular story you are working on.

Directing feature films, short films, theatre and television must be quite different; what are your favourite things about each?

Theatre is scary as in film if it goes wrong, you can stop and start again, whereas in theatre as a director you have to let go and it becomes about the actors and the audience, not you anymore. I like how theatre is often able to create a world in people's heads like a book can, without necessarily prescribing the details as much.  

Film is much more of a precise visual medium.  As a viewer you either enter the world in a sort of trance like state or you don't and anything can throw you out or not engage you. So you have to get that film world consistent and believable and draw people into that very detailed visual world and humans are such visual experts. For me that is all about finding the truth in the story and characters and continually asking why. 

In both TV and film I love being in the cutting room and finding the best bits and seeing how things work together, but it's also sometimes awful when you see your mistakes. Short films are hard work, as you never have enough money so have to beg borrow but of course not steal and you are continually asking for favours and compromising. That said people are there because they want to be, so usually really engage and you get to work with amazing actors on interesting stories. Shooting Love Somehow was the nicest shoot ever, with such great people giving their all. 

Do you find getting funding for your films challenging and is there any advice you have for anyone looking to fund their own films?

I have no idea why some people get funded and others don't and it seems there is a bit of a set track from getting your short made by one of the main funding bodies as a young film maker and then getting "developed" and finding your "voice". Lots of women have to have different career trajectories as do some men, so don't necessarily fit into the same paths.  Then breaking your way in is really difficult. Additionally, of course there is distribution and the current need for stars, which is so few people who seem bankable. Even actors you really like get boring when they are in everything.  

Your work is all so varied in terms of topic and style; what are some inspirations for your work?

I just like good stories/scripts and characters that interest me and then finding the best way to tell those stories. It worries me though, as Creative England told me recently how they put huge stake into a director finding their "voice". It's funny as actors get praised for being chameleons, but not directors... I love Ang Lee - something about a beautiful rhythm and some of Life of Pi was truly beautiful. John Huston's The Dead is a lovely film - slight but also profound and just very assured and beautifully choreographed, one of my favourites. In the Cut too by Jane Campion. Recently, I really liked My Cousin Rachel. Then Moonlight and Elle was extraordinary and so funny, but Chasing Coral made me really think and cry, particularly this real guy who was a lovely coral nerd who made me really care about coral. I really like the opening sequence in Once Upon a Time in the West and another one of the most memorable films from my time at the film theatre was Days of Heaven, that lilting voice, tragic story and all that corn stretching for miles and the lovely score with Saints Saens.

Some of the most exciting work recently has been in TV.  Series like Narcos, with that great central performance or I also really like Jane the Virgin because it's funny and imaginative with brilliant actors. However there have been too many series recently with 90% white men and women only portraying prostitutes and lovers.  Just about every woman I know is sick of it and of the lack of diversity. I know for a fact that there were huge numbers of interesting women in the past and there have always been lots of different races in this country. So we have to start bringing those characters into our drama and letting a variety of writers and directors into the mix.

If you could make any type of film you wanted with anyone you wanted, what would it be and who with?

I am developing a film about an artist that would be perfect for Mark Rylance and of course win him multiple Oscars. It's also about life and death, wanting to live on after your death through your work and yet art sometimes being the very thing that keeps you alive. It’s also about light and seeing and colour.  It's a cinematographer's dream and there are some great people I'd like to work with. However, I feel bad that it's about a man, but at least an old one, and I am sure I can find some influential women to be in the story too.  So anyone reading this with a few million dollars please email! 

You have quite a lot in the works in the near future, particularly feature films such as itily; could you tell us about those?

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I am working with two amazing female producers who are very different and both really great. One is a small Danish power house who is brilliant and the other is also brilliant and a writer too. She has cupboards full of amazing ideas and scripts including ITILY which she developed with Bill Mernitt, the Hollywood go to rom com specialist.  It's a love story set on a double decker bus and is a great script. All the regular passengers come alive when a new driver starts driving their bus and talking to them and then they start investing in his relationship with one of the other passengers. Then I have a comedy set in India and a female psychodrama.

Do you have any advice for women who aspire to become filmmakers?

You have to be prepared to give it all your all and just not give up.  Sally Potter once told me it was like hitting your head against a wall and hoping that the wall breaks before you head.  So you have to love the process and believe in yourself or you would give up really soon. Luckily I really like the process but sometimes my head feels a bit bruised! 

For more information about Kate and her past and upcoming work, you can find her website here: www.katecheeseman.com

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