Working in film: Q&A with director Debbie Isitt


Debbie IsittDebbie Isitt is a writer and director. She won a BAFTA for her Channel 4 teleplay of The Illustrated Mum. Her comedy feature film Confetti was nominated for a British Comedy Award.

Her hit Christmas comedy Nativity! won two Richard Attenborough Film Awards and was nominated for Best Breakthrough Movie at the National Movie Awards 2009.

Her latest film, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! is out now.

Debbie answers your questions about getting into the film industry, working in film and TV, making Nativity 2 - and what it's like working with David Tennant.


Getting started in the film industry

Q. Webwiz: I'd like to know about how to get into the film industry in the first place. My son is 15 and wants to be a director/screenwriter. He has made lots of short films and had one of them in a local film festival, but I'm unsure how to advise him any further. He is thinking of doing English at university and carrying on with his film-making and writing alongside this. How does he make the move from amateur to professional, and do you have any words of advice for him?

A. Debbie Isitt: Wow - it is great that your son is so sure about being a director/screenwriter at such a tender age. Just having that desire and clarity is half the battle! It is so impressive that he has already made a short film and had it in a local film festival. English at university sounds like a very sensible idea to me. Although to be honest there is nothing like 'getting on with it' if you really want to be a filmmaker. The more hands-on experience your son can garner, the more he will learn the art of telling stories, working with crews, working with actors and the more he will hone his skills.

"There is nothing like 'getting on with it' if you really want to be a filmmaker. The more hands-on experience you can garner, the more you will hone your skills."

There are no easy answers to becoming a professional filmmaker or writer - one has to just jump in and build contacts and keep enthusiasm. I trained as an actor first, then I worked as an actor in a touring company then started my own theatre company, and went on from there. Your son could go to film school, or just keep making short films on the side as he continues his education.

As long as he has tenacity and talent he will be sure to get his work noticed. Film festivals, broadcasters, distribution companies - they all need 'product' so there is no reason for your son not to make it in the industry if he really wants to. Good luck to him. Just do it!


Q. VivaleBeaver: My daughter is interested in working in films or TV. She thinks she'd like to be a researcher. How do you get experience in this field? Is it a case of having to do unpaid experience, intern, etc? Would production companies welcome speculative letters asking about unpaid work experience?

A. Debbie Isitt: Researching is a lovely job in the film and TV industry, and often leads on to other work in film and TV, too. I think your daughter's best bet is to send out letters to production companies that need researchers - these are likely to be reality-style documentary companies, such as Shine who make Masterchef, or Endemol who make Big Brother etc, news companies like Sky, or if she is more interested in drama/comedy then find production companies who specialise in that and have good development resources, like Tiger Aspect or Baby Cow etc.

She could also try approaching broadcasters direct - just go on the websites for BBC, Channel 4, Sky TV etc and there will be information on entry and internships.

There are no easy answers to getting into this very competitive business, but you certainly have to be prepared to work for nothing to gain experience and contacts at first.

As long as your daughter has a passion for her work and is prepared to fight for the chance of getting her foot in the door I'm sure she will get on! Most people begin their career in the industry as a production runner or floor runner - this does mean that you literally 'run around' after everyone - fetching and carrying and posting and making tea etc. But it's always busy and you meet people and that's how it rolls... work experience in her chosen field is unpaid but could be good if she can make herself indispensable.


Q. TeWiDoesTheHulainHawaii: When I was a teenager one of my aims was to be a producer. Unfortunately, I was somewhat hampered by not knowing what they did and how to become one. Could you tell me a bit more about producers, and how the ones you work with got into the job?

A. Debbie Isitt: I know what you mean! It took me a while to figure out what producers did, too! Generally, producers are responsible for raising the money for TV and film or theatre projects, and for pulling together the main creative people like the director, cast, crew.

They usually develop a project from the start, so they see it right from the beginning through to the end and have all of the responsibility for making sure everything goes to plan and comes in on or under budget. It's a big responsibility considering how much money is usually at stake with film and TV.

Producers have to be good at people skills - have insight into talent, understand what a good story is and how they are going to bring on the best people for the project. They need to work with writers, guide them and encourage them and help them achieve their goals. They have to work with directors to ensure the vision is viable - ie that an audience will like it, that it can be shot for the money and in the time allowed, and also figure out how to pay for everything.

Usually, producers have a grasp of basic business and law skills, as they have to be able to understand contracts and finance agreements etc. But, importantly, they have to have a passion for getting things made. My producer began as a runner and worked his way up to a 'line producer' - someone who manages budgets and then producing full feature films. Good luck and hope that helps a bit.

Sound editors

Q. Drummersma: My son has several years of experience in local radio, plus live broadcasting and recording. He hopes to go to uni next year to study sound tech. How would you suggest he make the transition from there to working in film post-production (sound editing)?

A. Debbie Isitt: I think the best idea is for him to make links with his local post-production company. If he is in or near London then there are many to chose from. If he is in the regions then they might be trickier to find but they are out there. Much TV and film is shot in Manchester, Scotland, Midlands, Bristol etc, so there are some very good post-production houses around.

Work experience (unpaid) or being a runner in a post-production studio would be the usual way to start. You do generally have to work your way up - although as he has such a wealth of experience he might well be able to take some short cuts up the ladder! I wish him every success.

Casting directors

Q. Orangepudding: Growing up I wanted to become a casting director. How would I do that?

A. Debbie Isitt: Funnily enough growing up I wanted to be a casting director, too. I think the best way into that part of the industry is to become an assistant to an established casting director and that way you make all your contacts with the agents and actors before starting up on your own.

Being a casting director is like any self-employed business - you have to set up your business, have great contacts and energy, and have a brilliant insight into who would be good at any given part/s.

You would need to have a lot of time to 'scout' for new talent - theatre, festivals, youth theatres as well as having good relationships with producers, production companies, broadcasters and agents.

I think casting assistants today also need to be good at video as you have to upload all of the auditions onto websites to share the auditions with producers and directors. You also need good administration skills, as well as great IT skills. Hope this helps a little bit. Have fun googling casting agents and good luck!

Wardrobe mistress

Q. BewitchedBotheredandBewildered: My daughter is embarking on her first post as wardrobe mistress for a pantomime. What would be the best route for her to translate this into similar work in film.

A. Debbie Isitt: I think your daughter would need to become part of the costume design team on a film or TV show. She would need to make contact with a costume designer working in this field. Costume designers usually take a team of three or four people onto every job - a wardrobe supervisor and an assistant and a stand-by assistant who deals with the actors on set.

Your daughter could write to every costume designer she can Google and hope for the best, or she could find out what shows are being shot in her area and try and get in that way. Enthusiasm and passion along with her theatre experience will get her a long way but she does need to make good contacts.

TV and film make-up designer

Q. Slartybartfast: My daughter is 15 and would like to work in theatrical/TV make-up. I think she is going down the Art route. Is this the best way? Or should she go via another route. Drama/acting is not of interest to her.

A. Debbie Isitt: TV and film make-up is quite specialised and there are courses directly geared towards a career in this field. Art is usually associated more with production design (set design).

It might be good for her to look at courses in make-up and special effects, or even to try to get some trainee experience with a make-up designer on a film or TV show. They usually are happy to have trainees on board. Google some make-up designers who work on shows she likes, or talk to your local theatre about work experience in that field, too. A summer internship with a make-up designer would be a great idea.

Look at the credits of TV shows and find out names and then track them or their agents down and write to them expressing a desire to work in the field and say what a fan of their work you are etc. Hope this helps and great luck!

Child actors and talent agencies

Q. purpleroses: What advice would you give to my nine-year-old daughter who is very keen to be on stage or in films. She attends drama/dance classes and they occasionally put her forward for auditions locally, but on a rather ad hoc basis. What's the best way of finding out about other opportunities?

A. Debbie Isitt: Your daughter could try and find a child talent agency. I don't know where you are in the country but there are some very good ones around. If you are in or near London then Sylvia Youngs or Bodens are great. There are many regional agencies, but you will have to do some internet research to find them.

A good children's agent will not charge you for photographs or even a joining fee. They may well ask your child to audition. They will then let you know of any casting opportunities that come up and will put your daughter forward if appropriate. If your child gets the part, they would then take some of the fee as commission.

If you don't want to go down the agent route, then you could call your local theatre and ask directly if there are any opportunities for child casting now or in the future. You could also look into youth theatre groups attached to professional theatres.

I hope this helps and at the very least your daughter continues to get a lot out of drama and dance.

Getting back into film industry after a career break

Q. troisenfants: I worked in telly for 18 years, ultimately as a producer/director. I have had a career break for the last seven years while I brought up my three young girls. I'd like to get back into the industry but would like to expand my horizons to film. How do you get an idea off the ground as a producer - where/who do you pitch it too, get the funding from, find the right people (execs, scriptwriters etc) and how easy is it to combine a career in film with a family?

I know from my time in television the commitment that is required and also that it's not what you know but who you know. I know how hard it was to get into telly, I just wonder how much harder it is to get into film and will people look at older production crew?

A. Debbie Isitt: There are no easy answers to all your questions other than to say if you want it badly enough then you will get it! You have to jump back in and not worry too much about it all. I'm sure you have a wealth of experience from your years in TV and that is hard to come by, so flaunt it. Having children is part of life's rich tapestry and the skills you have learned as a parent will also kick in to your work as a film producer.

I personally think it's easier to juggle family and work in film rather than TV because film is a one-off project, whereas TV rolls on and on, doesn't it?

Funding for film is not easy to come by, but one would start with a great idea/treatment/script and then go for development funding via all the usual suspects - the BFI, BBC Films, Film Four etc to build your ideas and team.

You can only learn how to bridge the gaps in your funding once you have something to go on - there are people in the funding industry who will help you build contacts and point you in the right direction. Also, if you are outside London, try your local screen agency. Good luck. Go for it!

Working in the film industry

Q. Peasabovesticks: I have two daughters and the highlight of their entire year will be going to watch Nativity. They adored the last one and if their reaction to the trailer for this one is anything to go by they'll like this one even more.

I am really interested in your views on women in film. I'm a member of Bird's Eye View and have written several screenplays, the latest of which won awards at the two US film festivals, one of which was the Women's Independent Film Festival (the other was one of the New York festivals). I've also won a BBC Writersroom competition in the recent past. I am still finding it hard to break into the industry though.

How hard do you think it is for women these days in the industry? The statistics are still pretty depressing, which makes your success even more impressive.

A. Debbie Isitt: Wow! First of all, congratulations. You are amazing! Not only do you have two daughters (with impeccable taste!) you also managed to write several screenplays and win awards for them. Fantastic!

I'm not sure how I can advise you other than to say "don't give up". You sound like you are truly talented.

"Yes, it's tough being a 'she' in the 'he' business of filmmaking, but you just have to keep your confidence and your heart in the right place, and your eye on the work. Don't take no for an answer."

Yes, it's tough being a 'she' in the 'he' business of filmmaking, but you just have to keep your confidence and your heart in the right place, and your eye on the work. Head down, get on with it, don't take no for an answer and love it. Good luck - keep going.

Q. Heroine: In film-making and acting, once someone becomes a 'name' they can push other, sometimes more impressive talent to one side because of the production desire for (relatively) easy money-making. Does the pressure to work with familiar actors ever get in the way of making a good film, or conversely, is there something more fundamental about using a familiar face that genuinely adds to a film's quality?

A. Debbie Isitt: That's a good question - I think it's all in the balance. I like to work with people that I know or have worked with before, so that I can push them to their limits. It's great to work with new people, but only if you have time to discover their range and limits.

Sometimes the characters are supposed to have history - it makes more sense in that situation to cast people who know each other - sometimes they are meant to have only just met - then you can mix it up. Anything that helps the truth of the situation. Casting in the end is all about chemistry - on-screen, rather than off-screen - but life is short and you want nice people around you the older you get. Who needs temperamental prima donna when you can work with dedicated passionate characterful actors who are prepared to take a risk?

Q. Mignonette: If you were ruler of the UK, what two measures would you implement to encourage growth within the British film industry?

A. Debbie Isitt: I guess that ensuring there were enough funds for the widest range of talent would be a good start. Make sure that every kind of filmmaker and every audience type was catered for - not just the North London film critics - but everyone.

Britain is not just one experience and our films should reflect as wide an experience for the audience as possible. There is room for all kinds of films - big-budget musicals, low-budget independents - and everything in between. Variety is the spice of life!

I would try to ensure that every film knew who its audience was and was budgeted accordingly, but also ensure that the marketing and distribution were imaginative and grassroots enough for each film to find that audience. There is no point in making films if no one sees them! We need a viable industry as well as a culturally unique one.

Nativity 2

Scene from Nativity 2Q. Peasandgravy: I saw the film at the weekend and I really loved it. Who is your favourite character in Nativity and Nativity 2, and why?

A. Debbie Isitt: First, thank you for going to see the film and thanks for liking it! My favourite character in both Nativity films has to be Mr Poppy. Mr Poppy is the catalyst who makes all of the action happen and he is so incredibly childlike that he makes me laugh and inspires me at the same time. I love the fact that Mr Poppy makes others see the world differently, too.

Mr Maddens could not have found his true love without Mr Poppy's spirit pushing him into it, and Mr Peterson could never have stood up to his father and twin without Mr Poppy's liberating adventure. I love Mr Poppy and want to adopt him as my very own overgrown son!

Q. lia66: Where did you cast the children from? Do you always get them from agencies, as some of the children in the first film were fab?

A. Debbie Isitt: Most of the children in both Nativity films are local to Coventry where the films are set. I found them by holding workshops in schools and open auditions in the city. A handful were from agencies.

The children really make the films, I think, but that's because they are allowed to be themselves and they don't have to find a character or deliver lines - they just join in and are spontaneous.

Q. lia66: What was your favourite scene to film?

A. Debbie Isitt: I really enjoyed filming the cliff-top abseiling scene because it was very challenging and very funny with all the kids swinging from a wire. The children loved filming this scene the most and I guess their enthusiasm rubbed off on me and all of us.

Q. Edwardtheeagle: How were the songs chosen for the soundtrack?

A. Debbie Isitt: All the original songs sung by the children in the Nativity films were written before filming by myself and the editor Nicky Ager.

Any pre-recorded music was chosen either because we knew and liked it, or by an iTunes search, or by asking the help of a music publisher or music supervisor. It's always a process to try to find the exact song or piece of music to fit the scene and give the right tone - most filmmakers have an extensive music library to hand, as well as always looking for new artists.

Q. Alwayscrackers: I loved the first Nativity and can't wait to see the next one. Do you prefer working on comedies like this, or dramas that deal with serious issues, such as the Illustrated Mum?

A. Debbie Isitt: I'm a sucker for comedy, but I like drama too. I think for me the reality of life is often a mixture of the two. So my favourite is actually comedy/drama - comedy with pathos or pathos with comedy. I think it is OK to tackle serious issues with comedy, as long as one doesn't lose the emotional truth of the subject or characters lives.

Q. QuietNinjaTarget: What's David Tennant really like to work with?

A. Debbie Isitt: David Tennant is a genuinely nice bloke! He's a seriously great actor with much more spirit than I anticipated, given that he's got such a grand and classical pedigree. David jumped into our crazy filming process and really threw himself into everyday's shoot.

The film is improvised so it takes a lot of courage for the actors to dive into scenes and draw on their own experiences without hiding behind a script. David and all of the cast were fantastic sports and gave everything they had to the project. He's honestly brilliant and I would love to work with him again some day.

Last updated: 7 months ago