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The Directors: Ruth Sewell

The Directors 41 Add to collection

Dark Energy director on creating a positive impact, working closely with producers and the joys of hybrid genres

The Directors: Ruth Sewell

Ruth Sewell is an award-winning director with a specialism in films that make a real difference in the world, whether that's bringing underrepresented voices to the big (or small) screen, supporting the work of charities and NGOs through cinematic storytelling, or educational content that aims to make the world a better and more well-informed place. She’s made documentaries, promos and explainer videos for the NSPCC, Coppafeel, Lenovo, The Guardian and The Wellcome Collection amongst others. Most recently Ruth worked as the writer's room researcher and script editor on Danny Boyle's TV show, ‘Pistol’, and then went straight into directing a series of documentaries for the Arts Council. Right now she is writing and directing a short dark comedy for a children’s charity, a documentary about the future of food for Quorn, and a series on black owned businesses for Uber Eats. 

In 2013, Ruth established Dauntless Pictures with Joanna Thapa and she’s cultivating a slate of TV shows, features, documentaries and shorts. Our documentary for the Guardian, 'From The Bronx To Yale: The Power of High School Speech' was awarded a Staff Pick on Vimeo and premiered at Sheffield DocFest and our comedy short 'Countryphile' won Best Writing at NBFF and a WFTV Award.

Dauntless Pictures are currently developing a TV show about Victorian drag queens, a feature about two octogenarian women on a mission to find buried treasure and a short about a grumpy agoraphobic who risks her life to play Robin Hood. She’s also been commissioned by Knock Out Productions to write a feature about an MMA fighter and NHS nurse battling her way through a serious mental health crisis.


Name: Ruth Sewell

Location: London, UK

Repped by/in: Matt Brown and Anna Allgrove / Dark Energy

Awards: Lifetime WFTV Award; NBFF Award for Best Writing; Vimeo Staff Pick

 

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Ruth> Films that have the potential to make a positive impact, however small, will always be very attractive to me. The first thing I look at when I receive a brief is what the film is trying to achieve. I’ve made a lot of films for charities and NGOs but this ethos has also lead to some amazing projects with museums, media outlets and tech companies. 

I love films that have an original voice and/or a wry sense of humour. It’s really exciting when you get a script that clearly recognises that telling a story is better and more effective than openly pushing a product. It’s also very fulfilling to be offered a true creative partnership, whether that’s in the form of an opportunity to co-author the concept, or a sense that the client or agency trusts your instincts and is open to ideas. 

 

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Ruth> Research is a huge part of it - reading up about the client and looking at past campaigns, as well as researching the subject matter, comparable films, stills and genres. 

I love a word association brainstorming session too, and often end up with pages and pages of spider diagrams that probably only make sense to me. 

Talking with the client or agency about their ideas and needs is essential so that we’re on the same page and often very inspiring. 

I use a home made InDesign template for my decks, and it always ends up changing with every pitch to suit the aesthetic of the film I want to make. It’s fiddly and time consuming but I definitely get a kick out of it.

 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Ruth> It depends on the project. Often, I spend a great deal of time plotting and scheming with the producer, as they are the keeper of the keys and often highly creative themselves. 

I have developed close working relationships with some outstanding DoPs and Production Designers over the years. When you have a deep understanding and have done the right kind of thinking and talking in advance, I’ve often found that they can appear to be literal mind readers and will be moving to grab a shot or change a look before I have opened my mouth. 

I have been the de-facto Creative on many projects I’ve directed, but when working with an Agency Creative there have been some very close and fruitful working relationships where that partnership has been at the centre of the filmmaking process. 

And last but not least… the on-screen talent. Getting into the mind of an actor and getting the balance between trust and direction has been one of the most interesting journeys of my career and one that can totally change the nature of a film, so perhaps this is the most important relationship of all.


LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Ruth> I am just coming to the end of 10 months on a Danny Boyle project, and working with one of the most legendary filmmakers of all time has been an incredible learning experience. I love how he and Craig Pearce, the writer, take an audience through laughter and fear and tears and exhilaration in the course of an episode - sometimes in the course of a scene. 

I have always been drawn to comedy as a sprinkle of spice that adds flavour to any genre. To me it’s like the colour green - a painting never looks quite as pretty without it, maybe because it’s the colour of nature. And comedy is the colour of human nature - the texture in the subtextual landscape of life. It’s always helped me to laugh into the abyss and take comedy even into the darkest of places. I know some people who disagree and have got into a few longwinded debates about this over the years…

I am a huge fan of hybrid genres - comedy meets crime thriller, horror meets arthouse. When you can see a director pushing the boundaries of filmmaking it is the most exciting and inspiring thing in the world. 


LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Ruth> It’s tricky as a director when you don’t have a very specific niche. I make “worthy” films and “documentary” films, but I get very enthusiastic about all kinds of genres and projects and that can make my reel a little disparate. But look, Kubrick practically made a film in every genre, and every single one was inherently a Kubrick film. I’m not saying I’m Kubrick, I’m just saying that maybe people should try and think of me as the Kubrick of charity films, is that so much to ask?

With documentary I think there is a misconception that thinking conceptually threatens to distract from the core emotional resonance of a film, which I disagree with, because if you’re doing it right, the concept should be coming out if the core emotion and message, and should only serve to enhance the story. 


LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Ruth> Never! What do they do?

 

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Ruth> The craziest problem I’ve encountered in the course of a production has to be the global pandemic that has ravaged almost every country on the planet for the last 18 months. It caused millions of deaths, silenced many industries for several months and has cost film productions literally billions of dollars in testing, shut downs and PPE. 

I solved it on a personal level by 1) Getting covid. 2) Surviving covid. 3) Getting vaccinated. 4) Writing when I couldn’t shoot. 5) Getting a job on a huge yet covid-compliant production which has seen me through the darkness until the unlocking began. I’ve been extremely lucky in every respect. I still wear a mask on shoots and try to socially distance but it’s a battle we’ll be fighting for a while, I guess. 

 

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Ruth> I’ve been quite fortunate in that I haven’t had to battle too hard for my ideas - it’s usually a very collaborative process. I try to get clients and agencies on board early and communicate the vision as clearly as possible - if the idea is right, they have a deep sense of buy-in and want to make it work. 

I really do like creative input, and will often spend a long time thinking through a suggested change if it doesn’t immediately work for me - if I strongly disagree I will carefully construct my argument in an email so that I can really lay out my reasoning and express why I feel a different course is preferable. Then we can talk.

At the end of the day, I want to make a film that serves the purpose of the client - especially as I usually want the same outcome as the client (e.g. raising money for a charity; making a learning outcome clear) so often I find we’re on the same page and it’s just about presenting my viewpoint clearly whilst listening carefully to others. 


LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Ruth> I’m very keen to see the industry become more diverse in all areas. In 2013, I set up a production company with Joanna Thapa called Dauntless Pictures with the express intention of telling stories by and about lesser served sections of society, so this idea of diversity is at the core of a lot of what I do. 

I would certainly be open to mentoring and apprentices but I think if there is money to pay everyone else (which, granted, is sometimes not the case, e.g. on a short) the apprentice must be paid too. The industry is much more accessible to people who can afford to work for free. This issue needs to be tackled in order to diversify the range of voices within film.


LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Ruth> In general, my hope is that the move towards working from home will allow employers to trust employees to make their own schedules and this will open up new ways of working for people with disabilities, families and might even make the world a greener place. 

Saying that, I do hope I get to shoot abroad again some day - travel is a very desirable perk of being a director…

 

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Ruth> I shoot 16:9 (or occasionally cinemascope) as standard. It’s usually best to shoot with a 1:1 format safety in mind, but I think for shooting 9:16 you really need a dedicated shot list and to shoot it separately. It is so much better to engage with the format rather than try to crowbar a one dimension fits all approach into the rushes you have - I think the 9:16 format has great creative advantages - it’s worth taking the time to use them, for example, I recently saw an amazing short in 9x16 which used the format as a metaphor for the sense of restriction the character was feeling…


LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

Ruth> FROM THE BRONX TO YALE: THE POWER OF HIGH SCHOOL SPEECH for The Guardian X Dauntless Pictures

This short documentary about the strange extra curricular activity of Speech (essentially competitive acting - ubiquitous in high schools across America) was a labour of love for our little production company, Dauntless Pictures. I self-shot with Joanna Thapa, my producing partner, on sound. This will always be one of my favourites - mainly because of the big personalities and their even bigger dreams. 


WHO WE ARE for Coppafeel X JWT Agency

A series of 5 studio-shot films for a breast cancer awareness charity which gave us the opportunity to have a lot of fun with the props and art direction. The brand already had a very well established tone of voice, much more fun and upbeat than you would normally expect from a cancer charity, and this inspired the tone of the films. We pulled in favours from some amazing VO talent and managed to get though 120 shots in 2 days with the help of my shot list: a 4 foot colour coded monstrosity I pinned up all over the set and crossed off as the shoot progressed. 


TIME MACHINE for Build Africa X 3angrymen

Another tiny charity budget but one that we squeezed every penny out of, flying our little crew out to Kenya, shooting in the day and editing at night, which was essential as shooting film sequences that need to play out in reverse is, it turns out, a bit of a head-f*ck. I was still writing the script on the flight over and we arrived with no cast or locations, but thanks to our local fixer from the charity, Miriam, we were introduced to the indomitable Mama Kadija, who was goaded by her husband and kids to star in the film. Mama K was an absolute dream to work with, even when we talked her into recording the VO in her second language in the crew van with all the windows closed (to create a “soundproof” “studio”) on a boiling hot day during ramadan. The creative freedom and trust the charity gave me was a rare gift that I will always be grateful for. It was an amazing experience and I probably learned more in three days than I would have on an entire gap yah - I wrote, directed, edited, graded, even did a bit of animation at the end. Challenging but wonderful. 


FOCUS & FLOW for Costa Coffee x Analogue Folk

This series of choreographed coffee-making for Costa were fun from start to finish. How many auditions do you get to do with wave after wave of circus acts? The cast were super-talented and we had a brilliant time working up their routines and adding in flourishes to sell the elegant way a trained barista goes about their own artistic practice. I love dance and would love to make more films in that world - currently working on an idea about a pole dancer who disembowels herself as part of her routine - commissioners, call me!

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Dark Energy Films, Thu, 09 Sep 2021 12:35:59 GMT