It’s been over four years since we had director Lewis Arnold on S/W. Joining us in 2015, to discuss his NFTS grad film Charlie Says, we burdened the young director with the “one-to-watch” label back then and with his ever-expanding credits including Humans, Broadchurch and upcoming BBC drama Dark Money, this claim certainly isn’t looking all hype. Returning to the site to share his path from Short Film to Television, we quizzed the filmmaking on the importance of film school, finding an agent and getting a first break.
Last time we spoke, back in 2015 with your NFTS grad film, Charlie Says, you were in the edit on the series, Humans. We’ve obviously been following your career quite closely since then, but can you give us a recap on what you’ve done since graduating and since working on, Humans
It was great to be a part of Humans, it did so well in terms of viewing figures, in terms of audience connection, and the marketing campaign was so successful in terms of drawing people in. I mean I still get people talking to me about those adverts.
I finished Humans and went and did an episode of Broadchurch. I was a huge fan of the show and met producer Jane Featherstone on Humans (Series One), and then spoke to her about coming onto Series Three of Broadchurch.
At the same time, I got offered to come back and kick off Series Two of Humans. I managed to pan out that year so I was able to do both. I did Humans, and then literally they carved out a one episode block for me on Broadchurch so I could just drop in and drop out of that, which was such an incredible experience.
In the interim, I’d started developing my own shows with writers. Either taking a writer’s idea and developing it with them, and working alongside them, or generating my own ideas and bringing writers on. While working on Broadchurch and Humans, my friend, Mark Marlow, who is a writer, had come up with this idea and written a script for this show called Clean Break, which is now called Cleaning Up.
He came to me to see if I could help him get it made. We developed it together a little bit and then we sent it to Jane Featherstone, who loved it, came onboard and developed it a lot further. ITV ended up commissioning it and we made it in 2017/2018, and it came out in 2019.
More recently, I’ve made Dark Money for the BBC, which was made with a company called The Forge and written by Levi David Addai. Levi had written a drama that I loved called Damilola, Our Loved Boy, which was all about Damilola Taylor and his family. It was a really powerful piece of television, so I was really excited about getting involved with Dark Money.
I’ve also been developing other projects including my first feature film called Him, with writer Francis Poletti (who also wrote Charlie Says and co-wrote previous S/W feature Miss Todd) . It’s essentially a psychological horror film in the vein of Hereditary or The Babadook, set in the UK.
I’m also trying to keep a slate of projects going that I’m invested in from the beginning, where I can help breathe life into the scripts and the characters at a really early stage. That’s something that’s always meant a lot to me, since my time at film school, I’ve been really passionate about being in the room and developing and working on a story. It’s great to be involved with those people earlier and help nurture and develop the work.
You mentioned your time at film school, one of the discussions that always comes up, whether it’s on Short of the Week or when you’re talking to filmmakers face-to-face, is the importance of film school. You studied at the NFTS, looking back now, how important would you say that experience was for your career?
It’s a question I get asked a lot when I do any kind of Q&A or when I teach (Lewis teaches at the University of Gloucestershire and has worked with the NFTS on their diversity course). It’s a question that everybody interested in filmmaking has; should I apply for film school?
For me, it was the most important decision I made and is the reason I have the career I have. The NFTS, and film school in general, gives you a platform to reach out to the industry and for people to find your work. For me it was instrumental in terms of getting an agent.
“This is the key thing that you can do at film school, make mistakes, big mistakes”
It’s more than that though. Outside of film school there is no place, unless you have a lot of disposable income, where you can make a selection of films, maybe two or three, back to back, and learn from your mistakes. This is the key thing that you can do at film school, make mistakes, big mistakes, learn from them and immediately put these lessons into practice in another film.
For me, at film school, I made a really bad first year film that I was incredibly unhappy with. It didn’t work narratively, but I was able to rectify those mistakes immediately in Echo. Then, the mistakes I made in Echo, I was able to put those right on Charlie Says. So you learn at a faster rate via doing, the practice of doing and interrogating everything you do.
There’s also the group dynamic at film school. I was surrounded by filmmakers, and you’re constantly learning from them, they’re interrogating your work with you and they’re making mistakes that you’re seeing and that you learn from.
I learned so much about performance from directors like Cathy Brady, and storytelling from Gabriel Gauchet. Ian Sellar, at the NFTS, is one of the best film tutors in the world, in my opinion, and when I do my teaching now, I always say exactly what Ian said because everything he taught me was gold.
Film school for me was incredibly important. I think it’s really easy nowadays to ask “why do I need to go to film school?” But it’s the things you don’t expect to get from it, the relationships, and the learning beyond the classroom, they were vital for me.
How did you go about finding work when you left film school?
When I left the NFTS, I immediately went and saw my agent and said, “I need to work and I’m not afraid of TV”. This was as there is a bit of snobbery about TV at the time. I had based my dissertation on TV, The Dirty Word, which focused on the idea that people used the word TV, to criticize the look or feel of a piece work. Someone had criticised my first year film for looking “very TV”.
The fact they were using that term as a negative upset me. I couldn’t understand why it had become a negative term, so I started to examine the television shows I loved. The Red Riding Trilogy, Yann Demange’s Top Boy, I looked at a whole host of TV and started to think about why TV got this negative reputation, in terms of audiences, but more importantly filmmakers.
“I came out of film school really excited about the idea of doing TV”
On the back of this, I came out of film school really excited about the idea of doing TV. I met with my agent and I explained that I obviously wanted to make a film at some point, but I was in no rush to make a bad film and I needed to work, so we decided to focus on getting into TV.
She was able to put me forward for all sorts of jobs. We tried to get a block of Hollyoaks, we tried get BBC’s Doctors, because I’d previously been a runner for the show, but I didn’t get those jobs. A block of directing on E4 show Misfits had opened up, Michelle put me forward and initially I didn’t get it but another block opened up towards the back end, to do episodes six and seven. I had three meetings for it and then got the job.
Part of that quick jump to TV, at that level, was because I had been a first assistant director for a few years on music videos and commercials in London, as a way of paying my rent as well as helping to fund me through film school. I had experience running floors and being in charge of crews and making sure we completed days, so I think that helped. I think without this experience, there would have been a nervousness in terms of making sure I could handle the schedule, which is the big worry for all new filmmakers going into TV.
You’ve mentioned your agent a couple of times already in these first couple of questions, she sounds like she’s played a huge role in your career, how did you find her and how did that relationship happen?
My agent, Michelle Archer at United Agents, is phenomenal. Her assistant at the time, Charlotte Fleming, watched my films, Echo and Charlie Says, and then Michelle came to the grad show and asked me if I wanted to meet. We had this two hour meeting where I don’t think I stopped talking for two hours, I mean mainly out of nervousness. But what I loved about Michelle was she was very critical of certain things in my work and not afraid to challenge me on things. She had an idea of what was working well and what wasn’t, which kind of tuned in with the things in my own work that I liked and didn’t like.
I had that meeting and it felt really great and then she contacted me afterwards and said, “if you want to work together it would be great,” so I jumped straight in really. Then, we came up with a plan of trying to get me a block on a daytime TV drama to prove that I could direct in television and then I could work my way up. No one’s going to hand you the lead block of a great show, no one’s going to give you Killing Eve as your first job, so I knew I had to do some work to prove that I could complete schedule, to prove that I could bring my voice to TV, and so we worked towards that.
“an agent is key to opening certain doors and then it’s down you to open the remaining doors”
Michelle’s been integral in every career decision I make, long term or short-term, they are collective decisions. Certain scripts she’ll push and say, “I really think you should read this”, if she thinks the project is worthwhile we’ll have conversations. It’s very much a collaboration, we’re both invested in my career.
An agent in the UK is your access to scripts and to projects. They can’t get you the work, you have you to go in a room and win the jobs, and there’s lots of jobs I haven’t won over the years, but they’re the person that link you to the production companies, especially with those first jobs. Eventually you form your own relationships, an agent is key to opening certain doors and then it’s down you to open the remaining doors.
So how important do you think getting that block of Misfits was for your career?
Getting Misfits was a huge deal, it kicked everything off. I was looking for a break and Misfits was just that. Then on the back of Misfits, I got Banana (sister series to Channel 4’s Cucumber), although Russell T. Davies, who wrote Banana and Cucumber, always says that I didn’t get that job because of Misfits.
With Banana they were solely looking for short filmmakers to come in and make an anthology series and I got the job working on it because of my film Echo. I loved the scripts, they were, essentially a series of love stories that happened to exist in the LGBT community, they were just beautiful, poetic stories and they felt like these individual pieces of cinema that existed on TV.
There are not many projects like that, projects where directors from short films can break into TV. I imagine in the next couple of years more of that stuff will come out because commissioners and companies are aware of the lack of inroads for the new talent out there.
Banana was the thing that people remember me for. With Misfits, I came into a long running series, so it’s not my show. I delivered two episodes and people then knew I could deliver TV, but Banana was very much my style, it felt much more me, and that’s what helped me get Humans.
When I met for Humans there was a nervousness even then about the fact that it was a big jump up again. When you’re progressing in TV, every job you go for you often hear, “are they experienced enough?” Which is great because I think if you’re hearing that it means you’re going up for the right stuff. Many people across my career have given me chances, that might not have even looked look like chances, but they are, because the stature of the work is bigger than my credits would state.
So four months after you leave the NFTS, you’re on the set of Misfits directing your first episodes of television. If you could go back and relive that experience again, is there anything you’d do differently? I guess that’s a fancy way of saying what advice would you give to a filmmaker making that jump from short film or film school to directing for TV?
I think the key thing is surrounding yourself with a good core team. Misfits had a great team in place already, but the team that you bring in is your first assistant director and your cinematographer, and obviously I hadn’t worked with anyone at that level so they were new relationships and I was very much guided through that by the producer, Nick Pitt.
We had an incredible first AD called Steve Robinson who, I would argue, held my hand in some ways because I had gone from making a short film over six months to making two hours of TV in four months, it’s a massive jump in terms of time. The process is still exactly the same, the filmmaking is still exactly the same, but it’s the time restraints, the time pressures that are different in the jump from short to TV.
“Learn how to manage time, learn how to be creative with time and just surround yourself with a good team”
You need a really good cinematographer, that understands what you want and can go, “we’ll light it like this, we’ve only got an hour left in the day and you’ve got a whole scene so this is how we can shoot it “. You also need a first AD who can help you manage things and can make sure, if you are leaking time, that they’re able to communicate that with you and find ways and solutions to help you get around that.
Everything else is like you’re doing a short film. The creative element of it, how you work with actors, how you tell your story with a camera, filmmakers are doing that across the board, the key difference is time and managing that time. The main advice I can give then is learn how to manage time, learn how to be creative with time and just surround yourself with a good team.
How does the involvement of a director differ from working on a short film, to working on a television series? When you were you working on your own short at NFTS, you were involved in the process of creating that short from start to finish, is that still the case in TV?
I think there’s a myth that directors aren’t involved in the crafting of the story. With Humans, Series Two, I was invited to sit in the writer’s room for the series development, which was an incredible experience. Then with Broadchurch, the scripts were already done so I came in with just a director’s point of view. You can change certain things, that are kind of subtle and aren’t really about the structure of the story or the characters.
It just depends on where the project’s at and at what level you want to be involved, some directors aren’t comfortable doing it, some directors are, and I think producers are pretty savvy at knowing who to bring in and who not to bring in. I love doing it and I’m still learning about it from executive producers like Jane Featherstone, who I did Cleaning Up with and who is a brilliant storyteller.
People think film is different to TV, but if you’re making a film for two million dollars it’s the same as TV, in the sense that you’ve got people that you have to answer to. You’re going to get notes, and it’s about stepping outside of that and making sure you’re doing what’s right for the show and the story.
So I did a bit of homework before this interview and went back through your credits, to remind myself of all the shows you’ve worked on. It’s hard not to be impressed with some of the talent you’ve worked with on screen, there’s some names that really kind of jump out. So what has it meant for you, working with talent like Olivia Coleman, William Hurt, Carrie-Anne Moss, Letitia Wright? Have you learnt from them? Has working with performers of their status helped you in any way?
I’m a big fan of performance and with all those people you mentioned, they all deliver time and time again. In terms of my career, I don’t think it made a difference for me personally, because I try and treat every actor the same, whether they’re a name or they’re not a name.
Every actor needs something different for you and you just have to find out what that is and then try and give them that so they can give you a performance. Some actors, like William Hurt, for example, who won’t mind me saying this, he likes to rehearse. Part of his process is rehearsing and finding the scene, but some actors don’t want to rehearse and you have to find a balance.
When you’re working on shorts, it’s exactly the same. The difference, I think, is more perception from the industry. If you work with some really big actors it means, “Oh, you can work with those names,” and that can make a difference in the bigger jobs.
I remember meeting for Humans and being asked would I be okay working with actors of a certain calibre, and I kind of found the question slightly odd because I’d work with actors exactly the same. You find out what they need and try and give it them to get the performance out of them, and work with them
Olivia Coleman is one of the best I’ve worked with, she’s phenomenal, as we all know, but on a show like Broadchurch what’s different is they’d been doing that show for two years, I’m not going to come in and tell them anything new about their characters. So, in that sense, all you’re there to do is support them and let them know where they’re at in terms of the story and the narrative, because with something like Broadchurch, with all the suspects and all the police procedure elements, it can be quite confusing when shooting out of sequence.
It sounds like you really like working with actors. Obviously it’s an aspect of your directing?
Some directors aren’t into it, it’s not their thing, their thing is the camera. For me, a good story and a good performance is at the heart of what we do. It doesn’t matter what you shoot it on, it doesn’t matter how good the production behind it is. People want good stories told well through performance, and that’s the key to everything we do.
So that is my job, getting the story to be the best it can be and making sure the performers are accessing the characters in the right way and getting the story across, that’s what I love, that’s what I think should be at the epicenter of what all directors do.
As a TV director how do you measure success? With short film, success seems to be very much grounded in the festivals it plays, the awards it wins and then when it comes online, how many views it gets. Working in TV are viewing figures important to you? Or do you gauge success in a different way?
Viewing figures are 100% important for the industry because commercial channels, like Channel 4 and ITV, sell their advertising space, so viewing figures matter when they’re selling those spaces. In that instance, knowing what’s doing well and what’s not doing well is important still and will be important for some time.
It’s hard to have a show that has both the commercial success and the critical success. Banana, I would say, was more critically successful and the viewing figures were not phenomenal for an E4 show, they weren’t the Misfits level of viewing figures, but critically it was quite acclaimed.
For me, personally, I don’t measure my success through these viewing figures. I think before something has aired, I know whether I’m happy or proud of it, I think sometimes you just know whether or not it’s a personal success.
I remember getting a haircut in Manchester and all the barbers were talking about Humans. That was really cool. I didn’t mention that I’d done a couple of episodes on the show, but just listening to people talk, that felt like a good indicator of something being successful, because it was all positive, the conversation.
Although, I made a short, personal project, only a couple of years ago and having been in TV for a long time, it was strange dropping back into online. I really craved the Vimeo likes, I really craved the viewing figures, the retweets, you know, and it wasn’t made for that reason, it was a personal project made for my reel, more than anything.
It was a short film I’d wanted to do for a long time, about Sunday League football. But it’s funny how jumping back into short film, my perspective changed. Even if you’ve got a film you’re really proud of, it’s only seen as good if it wins awards and does festivals.
You touched on it at the beginning of this interview and I’m assuming the next thing we’re going to see from you is Dark Money, is that right, on the BBC?
That’s right. Dark Money was finished in March, it’s a four part drama for BBC One that follows a family who find out their son has been sexually assaulted in America whilst filming a big studio film. It follows the Mensah family through that journey, and it’s no secret to say that they take a financial pay out from the abuser for their silence. It’s about the idea of financial settlements and the weight of that decision to accept on a working class family. Can the money give you a better future or help you move past what’s happened?
I’m really looking forward to seeing how it does because it feels very relevant, it feels topical, and I think it’s a conversation piece, especially as a parent myself. There was lots of debates with myself, the actors, the exec producers, about the show and about the decisions the characters make.
I think it’s an incredibly important piece of work and the thing I’m incredibly proud of the most is the performances and the crew were just tireless in their efforts to try and achieve something on a relatively small budget. I got to film back in Birmingham, in my hometown, which was a real plus, to go home and film and bring work to the region and work with people that I’d known for years ago
Outside of Dark Money, is there anything else we can talk about career wise, anything else you’ve got coming up?
There is a series called Des I’m working on at the moment. It’s a drama, which hasn’t been announced yet so I won’t say too much, but it has a home and a channel attached. So I should be doing that at the end of this year.
I also have the feature film, I also mentioned at the beginning of the interview. It’s a psychological horror called Him and has been written by Francis Poletti, I’ve got another film called Bully and I’m working on that with a superb writer called Amelia Spencer, who was at the NFTS a few years ago. She’s going to have a great career, she’s a real talent and we’ve been working on that for about six months now and that’s coming along.
There’s nothing concrete in terms of dates yet, which is great because I’m getting to spend some time with the family and I just went out to America and did some meetings out there. There’s lots to be excited about, it’s a great time to be in TV and film. There’s lots more people making stuff and there’s an appetite for work and high quality work, there’s money there, which is an important thing.