Having built an impressive documentary career, Skunk’s new signing discovered commercials a few years ago and hasn’t looked back
Amanda Blue began her life in filmmaking as assistant and later producer to Oscar and BAFTA-nominated director Mike Figgis - someone she describes as a ‘renaissance man’ on account of his many talents and diverse interests. That must have had a serious impact because years on, it turns out she’s turned out to be cut from similar cloth.
Her documentary career started with award-winning TV programmes such as the series Young Black Farmers (2006). In 2008, she received a BAFTA nomination for Prescott: The Class System and Me. She’s since directed documentaries including Twincredibles, The Town That Caught Tourette's and The Big School Lottery. She’s directed comedy series The Greatest Shows on Earth and feature-length drama documentaries After The Wave and Deep Water: The Real Story. In this filmography you’ll find her skills in directing and writing in dozens of varied tones and styles.
She’s also been making commercials over the past five years that have earned her accolades at Cannes Lions, Kinsale, the LIAs awards and the New York Festival. Last month she signed to Skunk for UK and transatlantic representation. LBB’s Alex Reeves asked her about her past and approach to directing.
LBB> Coming to commercials from a documentary career means you bring a lot of skills advertising directors don’t have to do with dealing with ‘real people’. What sort of director do you think it makes you?
AB> You’re a psychologist as well. A lot of the documentaries I’ve made, some of them are really funny and light, but some are really dark, where people have gone through serious trauma. The thing you’ve gotta be is highly empathetic and also win their trust. So if they feel uncomfortable with you they can’t because - you’ve got to win their trust to get access to their story or emotional world.
And secondly, even with real people, it’s a performance still. It’s not a performance like an actor, but they’re trying because there’s something in the relationship you build with them. They know that once you’re rolling, as natural as that is, this is their moment to tell their story.
I shoot quite loosely but I plan very clearly. I don’t just turn up. I create the situation. We decide what lenses we’re using and then we let it happen. My thing is I don’t completely 100% stick to the script. I allow for there to be space. For real people, especially, because things will always happen unpredictably. And even with actors - let them have room to breathe and feel something.
LBB> Your filmmaking career began when you worked with Mike Figgis - that’s a good start! How did that happen?
AB> I worked at the BFI and met Mike Figgis through a project. He was just about to go and shoot this film called ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. It was literally THAT film. His assistant had become his producer, so I became his assistant. They were shooting in the desert in Nevada and he said ‘you’ll just need bring me lots of water and liaise with my agent and my lawyers’. So I paid for myself to get out to LA. And they paid me. He said ‘we’ll see after four week how you get on’ and then I worked with him for four years.
Between features he made a documentary every year - these very high-end arts films. I would produce them, do sound, he taught me to shoot - everything. He composes all his own scores too, so I even learned about composition. He’s a real renaissance man. And he was so generous to me. Even seeing, at that level, the politics of dealing with A-list Hollywood actors, was amazing to have access to.
After that I decided I wanted to direct documentaries, not drama. I was a bit like ‘Hollywood? Ergh! Actors? They’re all arseholes.’ I remember being on set once and there were lots of famous actors and thinking I was really interested in the cleaner. What’s her story?
LBB> After that you went on to have a flourishing career in TV documentaries. How did that develop into directing ads?
AB> I started self shooting and because of the budgets they’d be happy for me to do that and for it to look a bit shit. As long as you get the material. I outgrew that.
Documentaries are really hard. You make no money. You have half the amount of resources. You have real people. Most people I film, I’ve got to be careful. It’s not just an actor that you’ve paid. You think, ‘God, I hope they’re OK after that four-hour interview, where I took them back through their trauma.’
I got really fascinated with how the image in documentary could say so much. For some people documentary is too much filmed journalism. You can feel and understand things without words. I worked very hard with a couple of cinematographers and started to develop a style.
I got really frustrated in documentaries and one of the reasons I left was because there was so little visual ambition. Now with Netflix and everything it’s changed. But five years ago Channel 4 and the BBC would just film journalists. And of course people like me would go in and change that and say it’s a visual medium, it’s cinema. I had to fight quite hard to shoot things well.
LBB> What was the moment when it changed for you?
I was constantly shooting back-to-back documentaries with two babies. I was very lucky. I’d cracked it. But I was getting disenchanted with TV and documentaries. I was finding it really limiting creatively. They were very nervous about ratings, conservative, dumbed down. I felt like that chapter was over.
I thought I needed to make money so I can do my own feature documentaries that I have freedom over and start moving into drama.
LBB> So advertising was the answer?
AB> Yeah. I thought it looks fun because you get to shoot stuff really nicely. And it would allow me to spend time writing and fund my own projects.
Then I did my first commercial and I loved it. I’d never banked on it being so creatively satisfying. The pure creative essence of commercials with incredible cinematographers, incredible production designers, incredible make-up artists - you’ve got this amazing team of people who you’re collaborating with. I can’t tell you how much I’ve loved it.
I’ve met the most incredible craftspeople who’ve taught me so much. It’s made me a better filmmaker. And because you have to work in such a limited way, you have to consider everything so much more carefully.
The level of protection and everyone looking after you is really amazing. It’s the opposite end of driving up the M1 with a cameraman having to eat McDonald’s and not leave straight away when you finish filming because the person might not be OK. In many ways there couldn’t be two more different worlds than documentaries and commercials, in terms of budgets, scripts, no scripts.
Commercials have such high-end production values, in terms of the visuals. And you don’t get the chance to do that [in documentaries].
LBB> So doing commercials became about much more than just funding your other work?
AB> Now, to me, they sit very beautifully side by side and they can inform one another. I can learn something about a new camera or way of shooting that I can take to documentaries or to drama. They don’t all have access to the same kit and the same ideas.
[Advertising] has got such a bad reputation for being wanky. But having come from documentaries, in some ways that’s got more pretension around it. When documentary is at its worst is when people think they’re doing something so worthy and important and devalue what other people do. I think there’s lots of good work happening in all sorts of places. In commercials I don’t come across that. People’s assumptions are really quite unfair!
LBB> Having worked for so long in documentaries, are you more attracted to commercial scripts that are further from that documentary style?
AB> Yes, at the moment I’m probably more attracted to things that aren’t totally rooted in real people. But it’s all about the script. And if there’s an amazing idea at the heart of it and it happens to be real people I would never, ever turn my nose up at that. If it’s a great story I’ll relish bringing it to life.
Right now I’d rather scripts that are scripts - that have actors. My first job I just shot with Skunk, I asked the sound mixer if he thought it was a real person or an actor and he said a real person. It’s not. It’s a scripted piece and I chose to use an actor because I knew it would be too hard to get a real person to deliver what needed to be delivered.
The worst creative position to be in is when someone comes to you and they want ‘real people’ but they want them to deliver your lines. They don't really want them to be real. They just want to say they’re real. You’re missing the beauty of what real people can bring you.
LBB> Maybe it’s a bit wanky, but I guess you want ‘emotional truth’.
AB> It’s OK to say it because I’m always looking for that. If I’m watching the monitor and I don’t believe it then we need to go again. I think my radar for emotional truth is fine tuned. I’ve been doing it a long time. It might be wanky, but it’s true.
LBB> What have you found most interesting about working with creatives in your time in advertising, especially as a writer?
AB> The two creatives I’ve just worked with from M&C Saatchi, Darren and Phil, are great. I’ve had such a good relationship with them. It’s been so collaborative and they have trusted me from day one. So that’s the key. Then they allow you the space to do your best work.
I’ve worked with quite a few creatives like that. Then you have people who are quite nervous and want you, but need to micromanage it. And you’re never going to get the best out of anyone if you completely micromanage them.
Directing and being on set, everyone’s filled with fear. Of course they are. There’s money at stake, there’s the pressure of time and the performance. I worked out quite early on that I’ve got to make them have faith in me so they’re not so fearful. I’m always saying, ‘it’ll be fine!’
Two jobs I loved were A Mother’s Body [for Dove] and Never Stop Hugging [for Fairy]. They had no scripts. A Mother’s Body had a poem by Hollie McNish, which we had to shorten. Ogilvy just said “what do you want to do with this poem?” So it was a completely open brief. My producer and I just worked on it being one story through one family. In a way we wrote that.
And Never Stop Hugging, the creative said it was about the idea that men stop being physical with their children. And I really wrote that with him. I found characters and a again thought it should be a single story told retrospectively by somebody who had had something change in their relationship. To find a grown man in his 30s and his father who could talk to that - casting that was hard.
When I did my film Deep Water, about these homophobic killings in Australia, that’s different, that’s specific - there are newspaper articles and you can track those stories. But when it’s just ‘find a guy we can all like who stopped having an intimate relationship with his father’ that’s harder.
LBB> But you’re still carrying on with docs, drama and writing, right?
AB> Now I’m moving into drama, writing a feature and a TV series, and starting to direct drama.
There are two projects that I’m developing and writing that come from a completely documentary place. They’re very hardcore, real stories that I could never make a documentary about. I tried to. They were too legally precarious: children, duty of care. If they were the real people we really saw, it’s too fragile. And the responsibility of social services and courts. So that’s something I’ve taken away from what was potentially a documentary film.
It’s about domestic violence, but from a perpetrator’s perspective. I’ve had unbelievable access to this network of people who work with perpetrators. It’s an incredibly complicated but rich, brilliant insight into whether you can ever change, not even just a violent man, whether anyone can ever change.
It’s about the complexity of relationships. Domestic violence is never going to move forwards if you just present the perpetrators as the monsters. If you don’t go it’s normal people. It’s people being bad at relationships - that’s what it stems from - which we’re all really shit at. Domestic violence is not ‘oh those poor women’. It’s about the complexity of the issue and bringing these amazing characters to life.
Then my feature comes from a true story that’s completely dramatised. It’s set in Australia and it’s a coming of age story about this young lesbian girl, based on someone I know.