“Failure lets you progress”: Creative England Live’s Northern Lights Conference — Reviewed


Pitching, bribery and creative failure: BAFTA-nominated directors and national funding bodies share some candid advice on all areas of filmmaking, finds Kirsty Fitzpatrick, at Creative England’s latest (free) conference…

I was instantly fond of Adult Life Skills (2016) director Rachel Tunnard. “I wanted to wear a beret and smoke Gauloises”, she said, on dreaming of becoming a filmmaker; only to find that the reality was, well, less cool. Tunnard’s “more Bananarama than Sex Pistols” personality, she says, is what actually attracts production companies and audiences to her projects.

I’m at The Lowry, Salford Quays, for Northern Lights: Creative England’s free industry showcase, workshop and networking event. It’s been pitched to me as a spotlight on the North’s top film, TV, gaming and digital businesses, and Tunnard is speaking at the first session: Making it to The Top. While intimidating in its proposal, the session was soon unpacked to be a thoughtful and informative class in film directing.

With Creative England’s CEO Caroline Norbury (above) as the Q&A host, Tunnard — a BAFTA-nominated director, whose feature film Adult Life Skills (below, starring Jodie Whittaker) is currently in cinemas and has won the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca Film Festival – Tunnard frequently spoke about people. She enthused that the creative process is a formula and that people are a huge component in making or breaking a project. The cast were her friends, and there was an atmosphere of trust.

“Creativity is littered with failures, communication issues and uncertainty”

Creativity is littered with failures, communication issues and uncertainty, but her work with Creative England and film executive Paul Ashton ensured that she was supported by a safe environment and not embarrassed to make mistakes. I admire her process, her willingness to make decisions and how loose and open to ideas she is on a project.

The audience was keen to know more about place and people within Tunnard’s films. Was the wild landscape of the North a character within the Adult Life Skills? Tunnard didn’t think of it; instead, saying that her lead is having a “bad time in a beautiful environment.” The cinematography of her recent feature film was inspired by the big wide skies and hills of classic Western films and I was excited to hear the conversation drift into the realms of psychogeography. Her hometown of Sheffield has, however, impacted on her work and Tunnard stated that her “Northern-ness defines her more than gender.”


Tunnard finished with a story of how to work with young actors who may be developing an ego. Freddos and pound coins work, apparently. Worried that this seemed unethical, she was happy to hear that Shane Meadows adopted the same tactic on This is England (2006). He had a bit of a bigger budget though, as Thomas Turgoose was offered a quad bike!

Next on the schedule was iFeatures (below), Creative England’s low-budget filmmaking initiative. Supported by the BBC, the BFI and Creative Skillset, iFeatures develop and produce projects in England outside of the M25. Executive Producer Zorana Piggott and Development and Production Executive Kate O’Hara gave the audience a lot of information in 10 minutes. We learned of the collaborative yet competitive element of reducing the number of applicants from 300 submissions to three projects each, with a budget of £350,000. iFeature alumni have shown their work at prestigious events such as SXSW and the Venice Film Festival; and include a romance thriller set in Whitby.

“Scripts for Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott and Bailey had been through several stages of drafting and consideration”

The When Nicola Met Sally session, hosted by Creative England Chairman John Newbigin, saw writers, producers and directors Nicola Shindler and Sally Wainwright (of Red Production Company, Manchester) discuss their collaboratively made, award-winning TV shows Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax (both BBC One) and Scott and Bailey (ITV). I was struck by how open they were with their process, and that Wainwright — who mainly writes alone — wasn’t afraid to hear notes on her script. Her love of words and dialogue was obvious as Shindler stated that Wainwright was a rare writer: scripts were almost perfect on submission, and had been through several stages of drafting and consideration.

On the prominence of women in Shindler and Wainwright’s dramas, both responded that women are more emotionally articulate than men. The old kitchen-sink style of Coronation Street and the archetypal strong Northern woman was something they respected and wanted to emulate. Wainwright said that Happy Valley was a combination of Juliet Bravo and Fargo, with an authentic Northern voice and location. Wainwright is unapologetic about the region in her writing, and has sold the show to a number of international countries that may struggle with the accent but are completely enthralled by her gripping plots and realistic casting of place. All of which culminate in a fast-paced drama driven by distinct English dialogue.


To an audience clearly eager to replicate her success and work within the industry, Shindler offered hope. Red Production, which she set up in 1998, receives 40 scripts a week and reads them all; if the author has an agent or not. She feels she owes it to people who spend their time writing. Her parting advice to writers was to make a short film, get an agent and approach Hollyoaks or Emmerdale with your ideas. Can you tell a story and find the beauty in a shot?

Upon leaving the event I thought about Rachel Tunnard’s advice that “failure lets you progress”. This really resonated with me and perhaps a few members of the audience. It’s a scary prospect, failing; the outcome often being shame. However, having listened to the speakers discuss how they approach each new project, I realised that uncertainty and quite often doubt was almost expected. Nevertheless, if you have humour, trust, and can assemble a team who has confidence in your vision, it is possible to produce something that not only is well received by your audience but has been a pleasure to make.  Being authentic to your process and unembarrassed to make mistakes is where ideas are trialled and where  creative development can flourish.

Kirsty Fitzpatrick

Kirsty saw Creative England Live: Northern Lights at The Lowry, Salford Quays on 7 July 2016 — FREE

Creative England is a national, not-for-profit organisation which has, since 2012, invested £10.5 million in the digital, games and content sectors across the North and leveraged a further £6.8 million in private funding, creating jobs and new creative and digital products and services

Posted on 26/07/2016 by thedoublenegative