Philip John | Special Guest Judge at Cardiff Mini Film Festival
We were lucky to welcome Newport born award-winning director, Philip John, as a judge at Cardiff Mini Film Festival. Philip John has directed many great shows such as ‘Being Human’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Downton Abbey’, and ‘New Tricks’. He has however not always followed down the path of the film industry. After playing bass in a band that toured Europe and starting a record label, he decided to drop it all to attend Newport Film School. The trade off of music for film paid off and he won many student awards for his films, which led to the position he holds today. Philip talks to us about how it all began and offers invaluable tips and advice for budding filmmakers.
What are your views on doing a film course or not, are they essential?
I attended the two-year BTEC in Film & TV at Newport Film School. There were eight students a year. We shot on film, edited on Steenbecks and projected our work. There were students from all over Europe, with a lot of different ideas about film. We were encouraged to enter Kodak and Fuji sponsored competitions vying for prizes with other film schools.
One important thing about my schooling was the quality of our tutors and visiting lecturers. Heads of school Les Mills and Steve Gough were inspirational. It was Steve who gave me the confidence to focus on direction. Since I was about five I’d played with my Dad’s Super 8. I’d always wanted to be a director, but I’d applied to Newport as a DOP. Steve saw where my true obsession lay, and guided me towards it. With his encouragement I made two award-winning shorts on the course.
Another important thing about school was the fact that film is an expensive resource. We were provided with very limited amounts of stock. This trained us to be disciplined in the way we told stories, the way we choreographed and constructed sequences. I learned to be precise about what I wanted from each shot. This precision and discipline is second nature now and it helps me every moment of my working life.
I’d say it is important to attend a great school. In the absence of this opportunity then mimic the school process and find a collection of truly motivated and brilliant individuals, that is to say people who are more talented than yourself, and then work hard together, watch many films, challenge each others ideas, and tell stories which mean something to you. You can find ways to challenge yourself anywhere. Before film school I lived in West Wales. To eke out a living I worked as a photographer. I made promotional videos. I also made wedding videos, which, to preserve picture quality, I shot in-camera, stopping and starting the recording, finding the shots to tell the story without ever resorting to editing. That was a challenge.
How did it all start for you?
As a five year old I animated toy cars, and made teddy bears do Kung Fu. At school I drew storyboards and made Super 8 experiments. I shot (silent) films of my band. In my teenage years I knew practically every European, British and American film released, and watched as many as I could.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Directing wise, I’m really proud of my two shorts, SISTER LULU and SUCKERFISH.
Also WEDDING BELLES – a movie written by Dean Cavanagh and Irvine Welsh for Channel 4.
The nine episodes of a web series called SVENGALI I co-produced, also written by Dean Cavanagh (there’s a theme developing here).
I’m really proud of the eleven episodes of BEING HUMAN I will have directed by the end of this year.
Were there any pivotal turning points in your career?
THE pivotal point in my career was the UK NEW DIRECTIONS scheme in 2000. It took a group of the ‘best new UK directors’ to New York and Los Angeles, where I showed my short film Suckerfish and met studio heads. The exposure I got won me my UK agent who got me interviews for network television and who remains my agent today.
Was it difficult to take over shows that other people had directed?
No. There weren’t many shows with a particular house style. SUGAR RUSH had a really foreign style to my own. I started the shoot trying to complete the tough schedule whilst setting a certain elegance to the sequences with the A camera. Then I noticed some bod with the B camera running about whip panning and zooming with no apparent motivation. I tried to ignore what he was up to. However, the producers were old hands at this technique and knew the result they were after. By the time I got through the edit process, I loved the B camerawork – the jagged shots and the energized cuts. Every shoot you learn something new. Just try to keep an open mind.
What tips do you have for budding filmmakers?
Stay busy and motivated. Be honest about your capabilities. Listen to criticism about your work from people you respect. Identify talented collaborators – technicians, musicians, producers, and actors. Together (it’s a team game) make films that mean something to you – if it means something to you, chances are it’ll mean something to an audience. Analyse why you like something. Practice your craft. Try to shadow experts in your chosen field. Learn everything you can. Hollywood producer Bob Evans once said, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” Eventually you’ll get a stroke of luck, and then you’ll need to make a film good enough to win prizes and secure an agent. Then your career has properly begun.