Chicks Chat with…
Sarah Townsend multi-talented composer, screenwriter, producer and director. She has worked across many media platforms starting off in theatre and stage shows moving into music production then onto feature and documentary film-making. Sarah received an Emmy nomination for the incredible film Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. A woman of MANY creative talents! We at Those London Chicks couldn’t be more pleased that Sarah has taken the time out of her busy schedule to have a chat with us. She discusses her varied career, her journey, inspirations and we find out more about her latest projects including Noma: Forgiving Apartheid her Bafta shortlisted documentary film. It’s the actress Noma Dumezweni’s incredible story.
How did you make the leap from theatre into film?
It seemed a natural progression…I had spent so many years in edit suites creating music for my theatre shows that I was already very familiar with that aspect of the process. I was very comfortable working with actors. I loved using ‘live cutting’ techniques onstage for years for the simple reason that they solved lack of budget or time problems and that felt very exciting in the theatre.
How did you get into documentary film making?
I took several excellent courses where the message was always the same – get out there and shoot what you can, learn as you go, develop your skill on the job. Though my heart was in fictional narratives, I found I learned as much about developing story by being forced to ‘use what you’ve shot’ which is the discipline of documentary. I began by offering to do dvd extras without payment in order to gain access to technical professionals. I was very lucky to meet some wonderful people – they taught me a great deal and I still work with some of them today.
Were there any challenges, if so, how did you overcome them?
Endless challenges. Learning when to intervene and when to let someone get on with their job. Not panicking when interviewees don’t answer your questions and learning how to get them there. How to get around being refused permission to use essential photos/footage/articles and coming up with a creative way around it. Being prepared to wait as long as it takes to find the answers creatively.
“I believe women are not encouraged to take command, and that is what you must do on a set, or people lose confidence.”
You seem to have a knack of getting the people you make films about to truly open up, as with Eddie Izzard in the film Believe. What is your secret?
It’s patience, most of all – I have really learned that from the last decade. And really listening to what’s being said.
A subject talks around a story they have not put together for themselves, and it’s a privilege to attempt to do that with the objectivity a camera gives: it can catch those important moments of clarity that might otherwise be lost in the whirl of everyday life. With the camera, we can look again at those moments, put them together into the story that is underneath, and then let the viewer and subject draw their own conclusions.
How did you feel when you were nominated for an Emmy?
Shocked, and absolutely delighted. It’s a tremendous honour.
You split your time between London and LA. Does that play havoc with your personal life?
No, my life is what I do. I am happy to travel wherever is necessary to be able to create.
Noma’s story is incredibly moving, as is the film Noma: Forgiving Apartheid. I saw your heart as well as Noma’s when I saw it. How did it all come about?
Noma mentioned casually on the last night of Henry V that she was flying straight out to do a tour of South Africa in a play that really touched the core of apartheid politics. I was puzzled why she felt so awkward about going there, because she had always told me she came from Uganda. Little did I know she had literally ‘flown from Uganda’ as a child refugee, but she was actually of South African heritage! She had been on a relentless journey through many African countries before that. What really blew me away, however, was that she said she might be able to meet her father after thirty years! Immediately I asked if I could follow her with a camera, as I knew that even if nobody else ever saw it, it would be a very special shoot.
How long did the film take from pre-production to finished film and what was the process?
It took eighteen months. After the initial shoot in South Africa we had to collect all the pieces necessary to tell the story, including her mother’s interview. Not surprisingly, these experiences are hard for people to talk about and I admire greatly the courage it takes to go on record. So you have wait till you have enough interviewees and have found enough supporting material to tell your story and that takes a lot of effort.
Roughly 24% of working directors in Europe are women, what are your thoughts on such a low statistic. Do you find there is a bit of a glass ceiling?
I believe women are not encouraged to take command, and that is what you must do on a set, or people lose confidence. It really is like running a small army and we don’t get handed those skills as girls. It is hard learning to stand your ground and insist on your own way. It’s taken me years to gain the confidence not to allow myself to be endlessly pushed around. It’s a cultural thing, not deliberate, in general guys are really shocked when you point out that what they are doing doesn’t work for you, and most are very quick to adjust – the difficulty is getting to the point where one is confident enough to point this out in the first place.
One of the researched findings about the barriers for women in film (producers/writers/directors) is a significant struggle with funding possibly because of unconscious/conscious gender bias. How have you dealt with the funding process?
It’s a constant battle. There’s never enough money for anything, and I do believe creative men suffer from this too. It’s up to the individual to adjust their work imaginatively, without compromising too much in order to find a way to attract funding. No-one gets to do what they like all the time, and it is a tough business. There is comfort in knowing – as Ridley Scott has said – that in the end it’s just about stamina…and women are certainly good at that!
What advice would you give to an up and coming female filmmaker?
Take every bit of experience you can get your hands on, in all areas, and contrary to what I often read online; don’t always expect to get paid. It take years to build up the experience, confidence and wisdom you need. I’m only now beginning work on the project I wanted to make 15 years ago, because only now am I ready for it.
Sarah you are also a composer. Where does your heart lie…Music or Film?
For me they are inextricable. I see colours and images when I listen to music, I hear a soundtrack in my head when I watch rushes. I’m finally now enjoying developing both simultaneously for a series of short videos I’m working on and for my next film project.
When I meet women like you, I often wonder how you manage to fit it all in. How do you?
I’m not doing any more than most women I know who have the blessings of a family as well as a job. I am fortunate to be able to focus on creativity alone, and I wouldn’t be happy any other way. It’s taken a long time and I cherish having such talented and supportive friends and colleagues.
What do you do for downtime?
Would you believe, interior and garden design. I love creating designs for the lives people imagine themselves leading by altering their living space to suit. It’s very relaxing, like making personal, interactive films for individuals. Creating planting schemes and seeing the natural world doing its thing with minimal intervention from man is humbling and thrilling at the same time.
Finally, Sarah what’s next for you?
My album is out at the beginning of next year, then I will start work on the feature film I’ve been developing all these years.
Thank you so much Sarah!! xx
Interviewed by Karen Bryson
Noma: Forgiving Apartheid can be seen at The Raindance Film Festival at the Vue Piccadilly in London 29th September.
Get your tickets here!