Meet filmmaker Kate Cheeseman! Kate Cheeseman is an award-winning and highly visual director working in both film and high-end television. She loves working with actors and has directed in the theatre, where she spent her childhood. She also loves the technical side of film directing, having begun her career in editing. She then directed and produced documentaries before directing fiction where she found her home. Kate won the BAFTA and Prix Danube for the BBC series Pig Heart Boy, has recently kicked off the latest upcoming series of Call The Midwife. She has recently made three award-winning short films; What Happened to Evie winning the prestigious Best International Short at Galway and Best Short at a number of festivals including the recent 2019 Wimbledon Film Festival and the IMDB International Shorts Awards. She is now developing several feature films and is attached to several more as well as continuing to direct high-end television. In 2019, Kate won Ermantourage’s Cinefluential film contest focused on socially conscious material with her film “What Happened to Evie.”
-Briefly describe who you are as a creative! What got you into pursuing a career in entertainment, and why your field specifically?
I remember my father once saying that creative people just have this need to make things. I feel very much that way. It’s a very visceral part of you, a kind of compulsion. He was an incredibly passionate theatre director and like him I love finding out about new things and creating something from it, even if it is writing or cooking or painting or constructing something. I think I am good too at solving problems and physically doing whatever it is that needs doing in the process. That is when I am happiest. I could spend hours fiddling with shots in an edit to get them just right or making a collage or a webpage look right and it is the same sort of thing with directing but on a larger scale.
When you are working on a film you are looking for a pattern that somehow makes sense and resonates within itself and outside. Sometimes you have to search deep into the material to find what that is, what the meaning is and how you can tell that story. But part of it is just finding a sort of pattern or line through the story almost like finding the visual and audio symphony or rhythm or the nature of that film. It’s like when people talk about being in the zone, you get that too in certain sports when you find the right technique and rhythm that works with what you are doing and it all comes together and lifts.
Working with actors, writers, designers and cinematographers also gives me a huge amount of energy and a buzz; I don’t get that from anything else. Hearing an actor read a piece of script you’ve been working on and helping make the scene come to life is tremendous. Then the whole process from the prep to the filming to the editing is such a joy and honour to be part of that I can think of nothing else I would rather do.
After Uni, I was actually working in a museum for a while and through a friend, who was this amazing documentary director, I got an opportunity for a week’s work placement at the BBC in editing. I just loved it and managed to get a trainee job there. I worked in that discipline for a while which was a great place to learn. Then I was also able to go off on attachments to different jobs in the BBC and learn about other areas of production. Editing is great and I still love being in the cutting rooms, but there is something for me about wanting to be there at the beginning as well as the end of making a film and seeing the whole process through, like a journey. You only really get that as a director or a producer. In TV documentaries you have to do both, but I didn’t really enjoy all that negotiating contracts, finding money and extra stuff producers have to do and are way better at than me. Also, I wanted to control the shots and the story more than you can do when you are shooting reality, so I gradually moved into fiction.
-Can you think back to your first piece of work and what you learned most from it? How much of your voice has changed since you began?
I started directing documentaries in an area which was more about bringing out other people’s voices rather than my own. To some extent I still think that way. There is a lot in the media these days about “the director’s voice and style” but for me if I watch a film and I’m thinking about how great the director is or I’m watching the style then I am not absorbed in the story. I want to be there in the characters’ world, right in the middle of their story. So, when I direct, I like to think about the script and the story itself and get into the writer and characters’ heads. What is the screenplay really about? What is the best way of putting this particular story on the screen? What visual images help tell that story and illuminate what is going on or what is in that person’s head? That also gives me a great deal of freedom to find a style and voice for each particular screenplay. That to me is the exciting part of filmic storytelling, finding all the elements that build together to make a great film to try and immerse your audience into the world of those characters and make them feel something. You want to have the audience on the edge of their seats when anything happens or crying at something else not thinking about how clever the director is.
I do also know that sometimes a director’s style is about doing exactly what I am talking about and there are some really brilliant film makers making fantastic films that do just what I have said or do it a very particular and original way. I just don’t like the phrase a director’s voice as it implies that the ONLY way to do it is as some sort of auteur. There is something very male and bombastic about that idea and I feel quite strongly that we have to make film making about more than that if we are to include lots of other voices in our world and as well are honest about what it takes to make a film.
My very first piece of directing was a mini piece for a magazine show and I suspect fairly awful! At the bottom of it, I think I always wanted to direct fiction, so I was too concerned with how it looked and what my two interviewees said exactly. With documentary you have to be more of an observer and a bit of a manipulator in the way you get things. It is just a different form to fiction where you can work with actors to do certain actions and you obviously have a script. I think if anything, I have learnt to trust the people I am working with more and work as a team that you are leading on a mutual journey. When you are more unsure of yourself, it’s more difficult to adapt to something different to what you had in your head. Whereas now, as long as I have a plan I can generally be much more flexible to new ideas. It also takes the pressure off you as you have all these great people helping you to do things better rather than it being just you against the world. If someone takes your initial idea and make it better, as long as it still fits the vision of the piece, you’d be an idiot to stick to your original starting point and not improve it. That is the exciting part of something, seeing it grow.
-Do you feel you are still finding your voice? What can you say your voice is right now?
I am always learning new things about filmmaking or wanting to try out new ideas or ways of working. Not so long ago I was listening to an actress talking about how a well-known director is very good at making locations feel just right and inspiring the actor that way. It made me think about just how much you can change something with your locations and how they are laid out. OK, I already knew some of that, but it just made me think about it more. You have to find your own ways of working but sometimes it is good to try new things too, like fresh water in a stream. Also, every team you work with is different and my job as a director is to enable other and very talented people to help build a shared vision which suits the story we are telling. That is always different with any team and therefore always exciting. I love that initial stage when you start reading a script and talking to people. Everyone starts having ideas which are different and exciting, and then you all build on those and dismiss a few but in the end your idea grows. It’s a real two plus two makes 6 and a real buzz when it works well.
-What do you hope to be known for during your career?
Once I made this little promotional film in Egypt about two people who had volunteered for an overseas voluntary placement. Both were doing dead-end jobs they didn’t really enjoy and absolutely found a new lease of life and, in fact, whole new careers from volunteering. Then several years later a friend was doing another film about the same organisation and the person they filmed had watched my film and had been inspired to also volunteer. That was really rewarding, knowing you had changed someone’s life for the better. Also, lots of people were really moved and inspired by one of the shorts we made, that was also rewarding to have spoken to people and made them think, in a way you sometimes can’t just by talking. Of course, in the end what I’d really like is to be able to make lots of films, including one or two of those features that people watch more than once and talk about. A Zeitgeist. Who wouldn’t? And it would have to be beautiful, exciting, moving, truthful, long lasting, inspiring and award winning! Not much to ask for.
-In what ways do you plan on utilizing your platform to better the world?
There are lots of different ways you can make the world a better place, even by just making someone laugh or helping them to realise they are not alone. It is both about the scripts you choose to direct and the stories you tell, and about who you cast in them. Whilst there is a place for making films about injustice or issues, we also really need to make sure we represent a variety of people in front of the camera and behind it. I loved Hidden Figures for instance as it opened my mind to how brilliant those women were and made me think how many women are still discounted today and are likely to be genius’s which the world loses if they are not encouraged. Those women helped us get to the moon. What else could mankind do if we included everyone?
I’ve always tried to cast a diverse range of characters in my films and I will continue to do that and improve as we can’t be complacent about not reflecting the world truthfully or challenging the people around us. I think film is really good at doing that. People often switch off if they are lectured at, or just entrench themselves, but if you take them on a journey that they can relate to and make them feel that some character is just like them, you have a unique opportunity to reposition what their feelings are about the world or to open them up to new things and adjust their beliefs accordingly.
Last year I heard someone talk about one of the subscription TV history channels they look after. Their demographic was something like white men between 25 and 55, so they wanted historical stories about white men aged 25-55. For a start, how boring! But also, if you represent history through a series of stories about successful historical white male figures between 25-55 you are just making history seem to be only that. You cut everyone else and their lives out. It happens every year with every single First and Second World War block buster made. I have no idea why everyone is so obsessed with war and particularly this era. OK those men were brave but they were not the only people involved. Sometimes they even manage to put some black or Asian guys in the mix. But where are all the women? Did they all sit at home and knit for the whole of the 20C? And as for anyone other than white women, they apparently didn’t even exist before 1950. If you read obituaries, you come across these amazing people who did astonishing things. I keep thinking, why didn’t I know that? Why’s nobody made a film about her?
There are loads of real stories about women risking their lives as ambulance drivers on the front lines, or as nurses and doctors, or ferrying planes around in the ATA, working in factories, even being spies. I challenge you big film directors and actors out there to find at least one incident in 19 and 20C history that was started or involved a whole load of women. The bread riots for instance. Or just give me loads of money.
-What do you have in the works at the moment?
I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my first screenplay! It’s an incredible feeling when you make it to the end, even if you know it will need lots of rewriting. It’s a sort of rom com Faustian pact splice with a bit of supernatural. I’ve also been given a beautiful story I want to adapt into a short film.
Then I need to earn some money after this Covid drought! I was about to start directing on an exciting International TV series when we went into lockdown, so I hope that will get back up and running at some point soon as I was really looking forward to working on it. Then I have a few feature films I have been approached about and a script I have been working on with a writer I know. So, lots of opportunities and exciting things in the pipeline when things return to normal.
-Where can folks find you on social media!