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07 November 2016

In the Spotlight… producer and actress Fiona Gillies

Next week, Women in Film & TV will announce the 20 successful candidates for our mid-career Mentoring Scheme 2017. Here, former mentee Fiona Gillies talks to Kate Kinninmont about her experience of taking part in the scheme.

You’re a successful actress, Fiona; what made you decide that you wanted to have a mentor and take part in our mentoring scheme?
Well, I’d worked as an actress for a long time and then I started producing. I produced a feature film called City Slackerand then I did another one called The Beat Beneath My Feet, which was in competiton in Berlin. I went to the Cannes Film Festival for the very first time and I bumped into a woman called Rachel Robey, an independent producer, who at that time was working at the British Council. She said to me, “Do you know about Women in Film & TV?”  I said, “No, I don’t.. I have always seemed to be the only woman in any producing situation that I’m in.”  So she said, “Look up Women in Film & TV.”  I went on to the website and the first thing I saw on there was the mentoring scheme and I thought that is exactly what I need to be doing. So I applied and it was exactly what I needed because although I knew how to make my films, I didn’t quite know how to engage with the industry in a wider way. I was working in a bubble; I hadn’t been to film school, so I wasn’t trained in the traditional way and it just opened my eyes. It was like my version of film school, I suppose. It was great!

How did it work for you?
My mentor was Carey Fitzgerald who works on the business side, in sales, and she was really straightforward about what I needed. She explained a lot to me. we talked at great length about how the sales side of films worked, and she was really practical. I found that very useful, it was great to be able to talk in a kind of secure environment and ask questions, and get very clear answers. In my scheme there were 19 other women with all sorts of different skills; we had editors, sound-mixers, camera, finance, all sorts of different people, and I found that really, really invigorating.

Do you keep in touch with the other people on the scheme?
I do, we have a WhatsApp group. Some people are on it all the time, and it’s great to follow what they’re doing.  I personally am working now with two of the people that were on the scheme with me. One of them is the director Christiana Ebohon-Green [right], and we’ve just done this short film for Creative England called Some Sweet Oblivious Antidote. She’s directed it and I’ve produced it.  Actually, another WFTV former mentee is composing the music for it.

That’s brilliant!
I know! I have to say, at one point we were filming on a Sunday, I looked around at the immediate crew who were standing near me and there were 10 people, five men and five women – behind the camera, that is – and I thought that’s great. It’s certainly had a massive effect on me, and it’s had a massive effect on Scoop as well, my company. It’s strange the way that we all think now.

In what way?
It’s made us more actively aware of having a balanced crew when we’re making films. Creatively, behind the camera, it’s very, very important I think. The very first film I made was quite macho in flavour behind the camera, and it wasn’t the most creative experience. The second film with the WFTV influence was much more balanced and, personally, as a producer, I think it makes for a more creative environment. At Scoop, we’re just completing post production on our new feature film After Louise, which has cemented that ethos of balance. It stars Greg Wise, currently appearing in The Crown, and introduces the super-talented Alice Sykes. It’s a beautiful, romantic road movie with a hard edge. We shot it in the summer, with a diverse and international team. I’m hoping its going to take the same journey as The Beat Beneath My Feet which is steadily making its way around the world and has just opened in the US.

Tell me about the short.
It’s a fantastic story. It’s about a young girl, a South London schoolgirl who starts speaking in Shakespearean English, and her mum is totally freaked out by this. Her mum comes from Nigeria and just cannot work out what’s going on with this child. So she takes her first of all to the pastor at the church and he says, well I can’t do anything with this weird child, take her to a therapist. The therapist takes her to the stage of a West End theatre and puts her on the stage and has a Shakespearean expert listen to her. At the end the little girl kind of cracks and we realise that her dad had left home, and when he left home said to her, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” In her head she thinks if she speaks in Shakespearean then he’ll come back home. So it’s a lovely story, it’s very funny in places. It stars Lenny Henry as the therapist, we’ve got Colin Salmon playing the pastor, Wunmi Mosaku playing the mother, Silvestra La Touzel playing the psychiatrist, and the lead is a fantastic young girl, Fatima Karoma, in her very first job. So, all in all, it’s a really good cast, with a nice mixture of people behind the camera as well.

Could you tell me more about your director and her background and why you chose her?
Christiana was on the mentoring scheme with me and you get to know people in your group in a relaxed environment – and an honest environment as well. We had this fantastic short script by a woman called Moya O’Shea which we took to Creative England and they decided they really liked it. So, Christiana – I suppose in a way I identify with her. She’s a very calm director, who knows exactly what she wants. I look at Christiana from the perspective of the producer and also from the perspective of an actor – I’m always interested in how directors work with actors and what they do with them, and how they get the best performance out of them. She’s clear and straightforward and she knows how a set runs inside out. So there’s no way you can get anything past her, which is great, I think. I feel like we’re making something together, everybody brings something to the table, and together we all make the film. There’s none of that kind of ‘own turf’ film making, you know “Me, Myself, I”.

Did Christiana have much directing experience?
Yes, she has a lot of experience, she’s done a lot of TV drama. She’s done a lot of daytime TV.  She can do it standing on her head, that’s the thing. She’s talented and she can do it. She just needs an opportunity to break out of that and now, you know, hopefully, this is the beginning of exciting things. We’ve got a feature that we would like to do together and I know that, as well as being great fun to do, it will be a really good piece of work, very cinematic.

You mentioned that the composer was a WFTV mentee as well. Tell me a little bit about her.
Justine Barker, yes. She was in a different group from me but I’ve met her a few times. She came to the set last week when we were filming at the National Theatre and she just delivered a beautiful piece of music. Again, I’m really excited to be working with her. We have a shared experience from the scheme. I’m also working with another mentee who was on my scheme, Sofia Olins, who’s been filming a documentary. She’s in the process of putting that together so we’re kind of in the early stages. Thanks to my mentor, I’ve got a lot of current information which is useful for her so we’re working together as well.  So I have to say the scheme has really invigorated my working life.

Are you able to say anything about the documentary or is it still under wraps?
The documentary is about Glastonbury and Sofia’s actually been working it for 12 years! I’ve got my company, Scoop, involved and we’re really pleased to be working with her on it.

Is this your first documentary?
Yeah, it’s the very first time. But Sofia has done all the hard work, really. To be honest, at this stage, it’s about getting through the last third of the filmmaking process. She’s working in a room in our office at the moment, with the editor. I’ve been able to facilitate, you know, get deals for the equipment and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s good just to stand in the hallway and have a chat to let off steam about the whole process!

You’re really operating in a lot of different ways.
Well, people influence each other, once they get together. It’s made me think about things in a different way. So we have a thing at Scoop called Scoop Rising Talent where,on a small scale, we’ve got several people that we’ve worked with whose careers we’re trying to encourage and nourish. So writers, script supervisors, all sorts of different people as well as actors, but they’re all younger people who need a hand breaking in.

That’s fantastic, I didn’t know you were doing that.
When we did the short, we were filming it for four days in London so we had eight trainees working with us. For all of them, it just gives them a taste, It’s not going to exhaust them because it’s not 40 days, it’s four days. It gives them an idea of how a set runs but it is a short film, it’s not a major feature, so it’s all manageable and you can ask questions. It gives everybody their first proper credit. It’s really good.

You’ve got your own little studio there.
That’s the plan! [Laughs] I think in this business, what goes around comes around. It is hard but there are a lot of talented young people out there, they just need a bit of a break. I suppose in a way that’s the good thing about being an actor. When you reach my age, if you’ve been acting you know that doors slam all the time and you’ve just got to get used to it and go on to the next one. It’s not the end of the world. You just have to build up your resilience levels.

That’s really good advice.  So what’s coming up next for you?
I’m still working flat out on After Louise; we’re starting to talk to international sales agents, which is very exciting. Alongside that I’m going to carry on working on Some Sweet Oblivious Antidote and the Glastonbury documentary. I’ve got another project potentially, with Christiana, called SOLA, which I’m keen to get my teeth into. And I’ve got another film that I’m very keen to do, called Sweatbox, which has a lead character who’s a woman in her 50s. It’s an action thriller and it’s a great, cracking script. Then there’s my Scottish film that obviously I’m really looking forward to – we’re both Scottish! It’s called The Lover’s Heart. At Scoop as well we’ve got a big movement that we’re trying to create about diversity in films, called Culture Positive. We want to get the industry talking properly, to get the decision-makers addressing the real needs and wants of the audience.

What does that involve?
Encouraging people to get involved in the industry from all sorts of diverse backgrounds. And helping them to understand the business – because, ultimately, it is a business and you have to learn how to work it. People have stories to tell; if I’ve got a story that connects with a Scottish audience then that’s great and if you’ve got a story that connects with your Nigerian audience that needs to be told, too. It’s all about inclusion. The cultural and economic power in diversity is often undervalued in this country.

You’re a one-woman industry, Fiona, more power to you!

Look out for a WFTV screening of Some Sweet Oblivious Antidote in the New Year.