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Emma Parkinson: From Quiet Problems to Dramatic Affairs



Blink’s recent signing, director Emma Parkinson on the film that won her Homespun Yarns 2022, her way of creating big drama from small moments and being rough around the edges, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Emma Parkinson: From Quiet Problems to Dramatic Affairs

Director, writer and Homespun Yarns 2022 winner Emma Parkinson recently joined Blink’s directors roster for commercial representation. With an agency background (Wieden+Kennedy and Ogilvy UK among others), Emma is keen on the uncomfortable and unconventional narrative and is a BFI Film Academy alum, as well as a BAFTA mentee. 

Looking back, Emma admits getting into the industry was pretty rough. Although she had dabbled in making plenty of films and ‘silly things’ (as she calls them) through high school, after deciding to not attend university, she had to learn about the craft through her friends, who had taken the more conventional path of running and then climbing the internal ladder. Struggling with rent and using her overdraft for her first music video were just a few of the sacrifices Emma had to make during the first days of her career. “And that’s coming from a very middle-class background,” she adds.

But, all bad things come to an end - Emma won Yarns with her debut comedy horror called ‘Dishes Dishes Dishes’. A short about a couple struggling with everyday intimate issues, including the washing up. Masterfully nesting herself in the nooks and crannies of the mundane, Emma proved that her artistic power lay in creating something from seemingly nothing. Brave camera usage, incredible sound composition and meticulous attention to the smallest details is what makes ‘Dishes Dishes Dishes’ the uncomfortable mirror image of reality that it is. A funny and scary picture of the cringe-fest that is life. 

Otherwise, Emma also has created some incredible music videos, with ‘Cake Shop’ by The Byker Grove Fan Club among her favourite ones. An exercise in texture, colour, and even more totally excruciating scenes (like somebody straight up digging in a bowl of trifle and eating it off their hand). 

Although Emma says she’s too young to know totally what her aesthetic approach is and change is inevitable, it is clear that her creative vision stretches way past the horizon of what is conventionally ‘allowed’ in filmmaking. That’s why LBB’s Zoe Antonov sat down with Emma to talk about ‘Dishes Dishes Dishes’, inspiring trashy green screen YouTube videos, sound design, and all that is Emma’s visionary world.

Stills from 'I love you, Rob', inspired by mentioned trashy YouTube green screen videos

LBB> Did you always know you'd end up being a director or was it an idea that emerged with time? If yes, how did it happen?

Emma> Well I thought I was going to be a professional bird watcher because my Nana got me an RSPB magazine subscription when I was little but then I also thought I was going to be a very famous actress and author and a whole host of other things (I thought I’d have a pet micropig by now). Directing has been the thing I’ve come back to most so it seems like that’s what I do now.

To be more serious, it’s what I’ve firmly wanted to do since coming of age (although maybe that’s an ongoing process?), and while I’ve had a bit of a roundabout route to it, it’s where I feel happy. 

LBB> What were your first steps towards filmmaking and what was the hardest part of getting your foot in the door of the industry?

Emma> I made plenty of films and silly things throughout school, but I did my first internship when I was seventeen and decided at that point that I didn’t want to go to university.

I had some friends from my hometown who were older than me and entered the world of production internships and running before I did, so I was really fortunate in being able to learn the lay of the land through them. The first couple of years were quite a struggle but I didn’t fully realise that until recently. Struggling to make rent every month, going door-to-door with production companies to get entry-level work, using my overdraft to make my first music video, using my whole overdraft to make my first short film. Financially it’s an insane industry to try and get into, especially if you don’t live in London. And that’s coming from a very middle-class background. I don’t say that to put working class people off, more to say, there’s gotta be better means of entry for future filmmakers!

LBB> Tell me about what inspires you aesthetically and why? Do you strive for a stylistic look that merges all your work somewhat, or do you prefer exploring polarising concepts?

Emma> Oh man! It really differs from project to project, but I guess there are definitely some merging elements. 

I tend to lean towards quite simplistic and stylised compositions. I like the camera to feel as awkward and rigid as its subject matter. That’s influenced by the early work of Joanna Hogg and Yorgos Lanthimos and probably lots of other awkward and rigid directors. And I like playing with genre tropes, giving them a little twist. ‘Dishes Dishes Dishes’ was in part influenced by trashy ‘70s British horror. ‘I Love You, Rob’ was influenced by trashy green-screen YouTube videos. Not that I only want to work with trash but I love stuff that feels a little rougher around the edges.

All this said, I’m still developing - currently getting to grips with grip, so I’m looking forward to bringing some more movement into future projects.

LBB> Let's talk about 'Dishes Dishes Dishes', which comes closest to a short horror. What made you make it and what were you going for with the concepts within it?

Emma> That’s the intention! Hell is other people and all that jazz. I feel like a lot of my writing over the past few years, particularly over lockdown, has focused on more mundane dramas, and washing up has come up a lot. Yarn’s brief last year was ‘Myths’ - inviting entrants to make films in response to popular myths. Sisyphus feels like a very relatable character in lots of ways, and I thought the endless cycle of doing your partner’s washing up felt like a very relatable issue. And a funny one. 

I like exploring these silly little nuggets of intimacy in detail. When you look at the breaking points of long-term relationships, a lot of people - women particularly - cite domestic issues. Finances, chores, childcare, division of domestic labour. We don’t see it much in fiction, mainly because it’s really boring! But I like the challenge of pulling drama from these quieter problems, treating them as dramatically as a huge affair.

LBB> The usage of sound and music in 'Dishes Dishes Dishes' is spectacular. How important was it and how did you come up with its composition?

Emma> I worked with the very talented ears of sound designer Tom Keats at GCRS and Composer Theo Elwell. The sound design and music really were the make-or-break for the film, so I was really lucky to have the lads on. Editor Luke Anderson also came down to the studio to help us record some very special sound effects for the night scene (it involved a handful of hand sanitiser and a carefully placed bin… I can say no more). The score of ‘Shiva Baby’ was a big inspiration for us with the music, and Theo was able to bring together some very unsettling violin scoring in a pretty short space of time.

LBB> Tell me about your work with music videos - do you have a favourite one and why? What is the difference between directing music videos and shorts for you?

Emma> Ahh! Okay. I can’t pick an objective favourite but I think in terms of what feels most ‘me’, ‘Cake Shop’ is up there. There’s lots I would change about the execution but I love how gross it is. And real. The boys might say ‘unnecessarily’ real. I would disagree.

Music videos and shorts both have their own challenges and charms, and I like both! I explore stuff in music videos that I potentially wouldn’t in shorts. Weirder storytelling, different devices. Puppets! Eggs! Etcetera! And sometimes I like said ‘stuff’ so much that I decide it actually would be interesting to look at more in a short. I come from a writing background, and narrative is where I’d like to go in the future so I’m definitely planning on doing more shorts, they just take a bit longer to pull together. Music videos are a great place to look at narrative in a more condensed setting - and collaborate with artists!

Stills from 'Cake Shop'

LBB> Your intro says that you have had experience in street casting - how come? Tell me more about it.

Emma> So literally the day before I moved to London I got a call from a friend who worked in casting asking if I could cover them with a casting in Cheddar (I lived in the South-West so was better placed for it). I’d never done street casting before so it was a bit of a trial by fire - my presence somehow enraged locals so much that by the end of the day they were throwing drinks at each other (that’s a bit of an exaggeration - one guy got a pint of water poured over his head). But the casting director invited me to do some more work for her once I moved to London. I didn’t do as much actual street casting after that point but I have done it a few more times - most recently in Walton-on-the-Naze. It’s quite hard trying to convince people that you’re not trying to scam them, so I applaud casting directors who do it on a more regular basis.

LBB> Tell me about your filmmaking style in three words - why did you choose them?

Emma> Optimistic - I don’t think you would necessarily get this from my work but it’s at least how I aim to show up to the set. Even when shit is flinging itself at the fan.

Silly - I think too many people see ‘silly’ as superfluous! If anything it’s the only thing that makes life bearable! Or my life at least! (That’s not a cry for help, I’m very fine and very silly.)

Relatable - There should be at least one relatable aspect in everything I make, or I’m getting something wrong. And not just relatable to a select few.

LBB> You seem to be quite masterful when it comes to uncomfortable scenes, yet you don’t describe your work as such. How do you achieve that sense of uncomfortability in your work? 

Emma> I think everybody should strive to be as uncomfortable as possible at all times. I think I’m just naturally drawn to cringe! Most people aren’t living out huge dramas on a daily basis, it’s mostly just friction; teeny little internal and interpersonal conflicts.

When directing, I look for that moment that makes me squirm and then hold it a little longer, or push a little further. I think I’ve got a relatively high tolerance for uncomfortable things so if it makes me twitchy I can only hope it’ll strike a similar nerve with other people!

LBB> What's the best lesson you have learned in the beginning of your career and why is it so useful?

Emma> Learn to actually listen to feedback and filter it. I am relearning this all the time. A lot of people know better than me. Sometimes their advice and feedback is perfect for the project. Sometimes it doesn’t quite align with me creatively but the problem they’re pointing out is one I can address in a different way. Having a good filter helps me to maintain the core values of the work while allowing room for those helpful notes. I almost find it embarrassing to admit it’s something I’m still learning but I also think it’s a relatively common issue for young creatives.

LBB> And if you had to give one piece of advice to other young aspiring directors, what would you say?

Emma> I am too young to give advice and I would advise other young directors that they are probably too young to give advice too.

But also, purely from my own experience, work doesn’t have to be perfect to have value. I’d always rather see an interesting idea done a little messy than an average one crafted to perfection.

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Blink / Blinkink, Fri, 17 Mar 2023 17:06:06 GMT