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Industry Insights: Tessa Sheridan

Tessa has written and directed several short films which have won awards across Europe and the US, including the Palme D’Or at Cannes and the BBC award for Best Short Drama. Three of her feature film screenplays have won development funding. Most recently STEP 13, a UK/Danish co-production, was awarded a major MEDIA EU development- to-production grant. Tessa also works across other media. Her experimental radio play Flotsam was broadcast by BBC Radio 3. Her short stories have won competitions including the Chester Prize, and been published in two collections to date. Tessa has extensive experience in feature film screenplay development, devising and leading programmes for MEDIA EU, the Film Council, the British Council, the First Film Foundation etc. She is currently writing her latest feature film project, Unmourned.

Why do you think you are a writer/director?

A glib but true answer: there’s not much option. It’s the language I think and feel in – it’s what I do.

If forced to give one tip to new people coming through what would it be?

Find your tribe, if you can. Peer groups and colleagues boost confidence and make you more resilient. I did things alone because that was all I knew, but I think it made things tougher. That said, people who have stories to tell are often loners and oddballs and thrive where others don’t. So it’s a fine judgement call: isolation for the core creative work, but then you’ve got to get out there.

Tell us about where you come from and how it filters into your work?

I come from a single parent family – East London comprehensive school educated, poor but arty. When I was eighteen l spent a year working in Germany. I was working six days a week and was very alone and broke. One Sunday I discovered a tiny independent cinema where, for the price of one ticket, you could stay all day. So I did. I watched countless old French farces dubbed into German and Bergman films dubbed into French and subtitled in Belgian, interrupted randomly every now and then by a slideshow advertising local businesses that was wildly out of sync with its own soundtrack. It was surreal and wonderful.

At the time I had no idea that making films was something you could learn to do. I went to work – first in animation, then live action. I crewed on BFI and National Film School shoots and pop promos and Arts Council films and learned from them. On my first shoot I had no idea why they kept taking the back off the camera: I was amazed to find out the film was in there. I moved from sound assistant to clapper loader to focus puller to camera operator, and it was only when I started lighting that I thought, no – I don’t want this: I want to direct. It took two years to get the funding together for my first short.

Tell us about the latest film / exhibition / book / public figure / article to have inspired you?

When it comes to books, I don’t care much about ‘the latest’. Usually I’m reading something I’ve dug up from under the bed for a fourth or fifth read. I go for short fiction generally, with a side order of female gothic: Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy B. Hughes. Surrealists like Merce Rodoreda and Cesar Aira connect with me in some way. I can hear their echoes in the work of filmmakers like Lucretia Martel. And Tarjei Vesaas is a favourite from way back.

I tend to wander from one book to another, following a thread I only gradually become aware of. I’ve come late to spoken word stuff, but listening to Joelle Taylor perform ‘Everything You Have Lost Is Inside You’ at the Tate the other day was like being zonked with a defibrillator.

What frustrates you about what you do?

The big frustration for me is lack of completion, of perceived output. If you write a novel, the novel’s complete, whether or not it gets published. A screenplay takes just as much work – more, even – but it’s just a blueprint. There’s nothing much you can do with it unless or until the film is made. So, inevitably, a huge amount of work is never realised. I worked for four years on a feature project for which I have no evidence at all. Yet I’ve learned a huge amount and am a very different writer and director because of it.

How do you overcome this?

For writer-directors, it’s an end-to-end job. No-one else fired the starter pistol and no-one is taking the baton off you. The work of both initiating and realising the project is your own alone. So you can’t afford to lose heart. Your only long-term defence is the need to make things. If you have it, you’ll carry on despite everything and you can call it what you like – persistence or resilience or pig-headedness. If you don’t need to make things – well, great. There are lots of easier ways to organise your time and pay the rent. And you’ll be much more popular.

Do you believe in the ‘female gaze’ and what does that mean to you?

Mulvey’s work on the male gaze was the game changer, I think. As for the female gaze, the label is reductionist if it’s used to imply that all women see things the same way. But we can use it to speculate that there’s a gendered difference in viewpoint that has a huge impact on the experience of and the ownership of film. Film will always have problems with visual pleasure and objectification – but these are great problems to have. I think work is the key and, in the language of film, women are working it out for themselves.

Are you hopeful about equality in film, and wider society? Please tell us why.

For me it’s a huge deal that female creative technicians – cinematographers, sound designers, recordists, grips, whoever – are finally getting recognition for their work. I think female directors are far less likely to buy into the auteur theory and are unafraid to acknowledge the input of creatives and crew. Most women I know thrive in a co-operative shoot environment. To make that environment possible it’s essential that women, and especially women of colour, get to work their way up through crews, gaining experience, confidence and expertise. There are still men out there who think all that is a sign of weakness, who play up to the ‘lone genius’ tag. And sadly there are still women who fall for that, including executives who should know better.

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