BAFTA and Emmy-winning director Susanna White has worked with the best dramatic talent offered by British drama, from Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch to Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith. From BBC serials such as Bleak House and Jane Eyre, the HBO series Generation Kill, and feature film Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, her filmography and career is impressively extensive. Often, she has even been directed the fateful first project which jumpstarted a career, and she has fond memories of an upcoming Carey Mulligan in Bleak House, and Alexander Skarsgård in Generation Kill.
For her Q&A, she is very much at home among members of Oxford University’s Filmmaking Foundation, an alumni of the committee during her time as an English undergraduate at St Anne’s. While the talk is bugged by a few typical technical difficulties, she reassures us that this is in fact an ancient curse for events with visiting directors: “Paul Rice brought the only printed treatment of his film Morgan, and I was in charge of projection. As the lights came up, I realised the take up spool in the projector hadn’t been winding it up, and his precious film was lying in a tangle on the floor. It was really excruciating – people on the committee whisked him off to the restaurant. It was so terrible, so you’re in a good tradition here.”
With a magnetically commanding yet thoughtful demeanour, it isn’t hard to imagine Susanna White soothing many an anxious actor or frantic executive down from the ledge. Despite access to blockbuster budgets and star-studded casts, it becomes clear Susanna’s vision is rooted always in story and trying to truth. “I love it when I forget I’m watching a film and I just engage. Film is best when you forget the construction and discover some kind of reality through the work”. What lets her know when an actor is right for a particular part? “They’ve got a kind of magic when you put the camera on then. Ruth Wilson [in Jane Eyre], I was not sure about when I read with her in the room. Then the casting director gave me the tape, and Ruth leapt out the screen at me”. She even knows who’s next for the spotlight: the star of her next film Woman Walks Alone, Michel Greyeyes. “You will very soon have heard of him. He can be seeming to do nothing at all, but you put a camera on him and you can’t take your eyes of the screen”.
“There’s something quite iconoclastic in me as a filmmaker – I like throwing things up in the air and trying to reinvent.”
Beginning with BBC documentary-making was no easy launchpad for filmmaking. “Everyone really underestimates how hard documentaries are to make if you’re making a documentary following people. Events normally don’t take the course you’re going to expect them to, so you set out with one idea of what the film will be and that changes”. Sometimes Susanna, like all filmmakers, has had to fight to share that truth. Pressure has come from people in editorial to make a more sensationalist documentary, but she is only too well aware of the effect a film could have on people’s lives. “People were so excited to be in television that they would do anything for you. They didn’t understand how damaging that could be and what a massive impact that could have on their lives”. Eventually however, she moved into drama “because I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable”.
How hard was the transition from documentary to drama? “It is very, very different. I think I was really terrified of actors. I thought they were very needy, weird people and I didn’t know what to say to them, I didn’t know which buttons to press”. Actors won her over eventually, however: “They’re complicated creatures, but I adore them and all their complications. It’s such an exciting process.”
“It has always been the quality of the writing that has driven me, which explains why my work is so wide-ranging. Bleak House I just thought was a very exciting concept, because before, period drama was stodgy, respectable and old fashioned in a bad sense – not mining the literature of the past for what was relevant and what would chime with a contemporary audience, but seeing it as rather fossilised and stiff”. Reinvention is exactly what drives Susanna: “There’s something quite iconoclastic in me as a filmmaker – I like throwing things up in the air and trying to reinvent”. This is obvious in her approach to Generation Kill – “a war movie about Iraq, but we treated it as a road movie. Through the casting and through the look, get to the heart of something Dickensian.” She was chosen to direct following a meeting with writer David Simon – “it appealed to him that I talked about characters and Dickens, whereas other directors were just talking about explosions”.
Busy with a heavy week of post-production, Susanna still very kindly agrees to an early morning phone call a week later. I pick up more on the student filmmaking, and ask if there are there any other stories or memories she has from her budding amateur days. Susanna remembers “A very vibrant film scene in Oxford when I was there. My contemporaries an unknown actor, called Hugh Grant, an unknown hopeful composer, Rachel Portman. The year above me a group of students set up the Oxford Film Foundation to make a film called Privileged. It was an exciting moment in this university, when two Rhodes Scholars, Rick Stevenson and Michael Hoffman, brought American film-making skills into our midst”.
“I want to tell stories that are important in some way, whether that is the experience of invading Iraq or about Native American land rights. If I can tell a big story, that’s very appealing.”
What about her own student filmmaking? “The first documentary I made when I was a student was about the year after St Anne’s fist took men, so I made a documentary looking at how well women were doing in mixed colleges – hard to believe now that that was an issue. It was picked up by the Guardian and shown on Channel 4 news, and it helped to get me into UCLA with a Fulbright scholarship.”
Susanna was transfixed by film even earlier than her university days. “Television at that time was exciting – Neil Armstrong on TV, seeing that moon landing. As a Brownie, I remember watching the children’s show Crackajack, and watching other Brownies trying to get prizes, but being transfixed in my seat seeing a red light come on a camera, exposed to the mechanics of filmmaking, That really fired me up, and I went to the local library, took out loads of books on how to make films. I got the bug – really the question was not if I was going to do it, but how I was going to do it.”
She talks more on her love for scripts. When given a tossup between a big teen blockbuster and Tom Stoppard Parade’s End,“I read three pages of Tom’s script and I had no choice really. He was a wonderfying intelligence but also humanity as well – capturing the richness of the human experience.” In particular she loves humour in writing: “there’s often a humour offsetting the tragedy if you look at my work, something which Shakespeare did brilliantly. I love writing that doesn’t take itself seriously. I want to tell stories that are important in some way, whether that is the experience of invading Iraq or about Native American land rights. If I can tell a big story, that’s very appealing.”
I ask her whether she thinks it is helpful to ask female directors questions about women in filmmaking, or whether this helps to raise awareness about the lack of women in film. She’s very happy to discuss gender, and recently came from a Fulbright talk on this subject. There, she mentioned the idea of Virginia Woolf’s imagined Shakespeare’s sister, a metaphor for the missing work of women from the canon due to lesser opportunities, and argued we are similarly missing art from female filmmakers – what about Stanley Kubrick’s sister? She notes how in, 2017 only 7% of feature films around the world are directed by women, and that in the ten year period up to 2014 50% of all film students in the UK and 49.4% of new entrants in the film industry were women. However, nearly 90% of those who made it through to directing a feature film were men. Unlike science or engineering, the shortage of female directors we currently see is not the product of a lack of aspiration.
Unlike science or engineering, the shortage of female directors we currently see is not the product of a lack of aspiration.
She also observes that people often struggle to name more than five women directors across film and television, and when I reflect on this, I shamefully find myself struggling to come up with many names and coming up short. Why is this the case? Susanna pinpoints an internal bias rather than an overt sexism. “How remarkable, producers and journalists said, that a woman had directed Generation Kill. How unremarkable, I realised were all those times that men had directed Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility – no one chose to comment when thirteen productions of Jane Eyre were directed by men”. She mentions her peer Philippa Lowthorpe, one of our most distinguished, multi-award winning television directors. “When she got her first feature film last year it was Swallows and Amazons, and no one could have done a better job of it. What if someone had said to George Eliot “We have enormous faith in your talent and we’d like to commission a novel from you. The only thing is it needs to be a children’s book”. I have no doubt she would have written a children’s classic but we wouldn’t have had Middlemarch.”
I ask her about her upcoming film, Women Walks Ahead. “It tells the story of two people without a voice coming to be heard. Jessica Chastain plays Catherine Weldon, a portrait painter who escapes an oppressive marriage in New York in the 1880s to go out to North Dakota to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. She thinks she is going out West to discover freedom but in fact the opposite is true and she becomes embroiled in a struggle for Native American land rights.”
Susanna’s generosity with her time in her return to Oxford will be remembered as a chance for the young filmmakers of Oxford to touch the world of film. It will be exciting to see who Susanna White has inspired from this crop of Oxford’s intrepid filmmakers to return in a few decades time, hopefully free from the curse of future technological difficulties.