Four actors turned directors share the challenges of switching codes as their films play London Film Festival

Hanna Flint
Contributor
Meet the actors turned directors at this year's London Film Festival (Credit: Tom Wood/ WireImage/Getty/Dave Benett)

The BFI London Film Festival is back for another year bringing with it an assortment of new features from around the world for film fans to enjoy.

There are a number of British filmmakers showcasing their new pictures including Michael Winterbottom (Greed) and Armando Iannucci (The Personal History of David Copperfield), as well as actors who have turned their hands to directing.

This year, Yahoo Movies UK spoke with four such filmmakers - Lena Headey, Craig Roberts, Simon Bird, and Aki Omoshaybi -about their new films, the challenges and how being an actor helped them make this transition from in front of to behind the camera.

Lena Headey - The Trap

Lena Headey attends a special screening of "The Flood" at The Curzon Mayfair on June 14, 2019. (David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage)

The Game of Thrones star writes and directs this short film about a reclusive woman who falls in love which leads to a shocking discovery.

Over my career, I’ve had children, I’ve been working, and there wasn’t a huge amount of time to pursue directing, but the time of vibrant feminism is now. When I started out and said I wanted to direct I was greeted with a pat on the hand and a “that’s nice.” It took for me to be introduced to a great woman called Nicola Kenney, who produced my film, and for her to say, “Why the f*** are you not directing as well?”

I've been working for 25 years so I've been in film university, on the front line, veering between being completely inspired by directors and thinking, “you've got no f***ing clue.” I understand what it takes to be an actor, it isn’t rocket science but it is incredibly vulnerable, so I know to give an actor space and safety so that whatever happens, they know it's all going to be fine.

Michelle Fairley in Lena Headey's debut short The Trap.

The Trap is the sort of film I like to watch, that I’m intrigued by, that I would walk out of a cinema and have a chat about. I was also really inspired by Michelle Fairley after we became friends. I was thinking she needs to be this woman that we see more of and follow the whole time.

Recently, there was a big, open conversation about working-class actors as well and I think there’s something, a rawness, especially about James Nelson-Joyce in the film. It’s funny because some people are really thrown by [the accents], but maybe it's that they're not used to it. Listening to all that wonderful music, north of the border, it adds richness for me.

Read more: Timothee Chalamet and Keira Knightley among stars at LFF

I genuinely didn't have any doubt as a director, I felt completely at home and loved every second of it because it was this collaboration moving like a little, intimate unit. I was really sad when it was over but I knew this what I should be doing.

Craig Roberts - Eternal Beauty

British actor Craig Roberts on the red carpet at the UK premiere of the film Tolkein, 2019. (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Roberts returns with his sophomore feature about a woman called Jane (Sally Hawkins) who suffers a nervous breakdown after being jilted at the altar and sees her life spiral while familial relationships get caught up in the chaos.

After doing my first feature [2015’s Just Jim], this time I was prepared for mistakes. I think that's the thing I like the most. Pre-production and rehearsals are not really rehearsing what’s good but getting rid of the bad and then hoping that it goes well on the day. Time is great when you're making a film, if you can step away from the edit for a while, you can always fall out of love with something and then go back to it with a clearer vision.

I was never really going to act in the film, nobody wants to be Woody Allen anymore, and I can’t do all three. It was a relief. I could focus on the script, the visuals and the performances. It's really hard to focus on performances when you're in it because you worry about your own.

Eternal Beauty is Craig Roberts' debut

What should you and shouldn’t you write about? It can really only come down to experience and I've grown up around very strong women in my life, so I think I know how to write that well. But the characters in the film came fully formed, they were in my life, so it was not so much about creating these people but putting them onto paper. And the women in my movie are badasses.

Read more: Watch The Personal History of David Copperfield trailer

Some people believe that the truth is not the most entertaining, and I disagree with that. I think that real people are the most interesting. I think any movie that has ever been made is trying to get to the truth and to get to the real form of a person. I had fantastic actors who all had their own own style, knew the character very well, and they had fantastic ideas that I could take credit for!

Being an actor has helped to make connections and knowing the actors that I want to work with, making friends in the industry and getting to work with them. You have got to allow them to fly in order to get the best stuff so I'm very happy I came from that school. Anybody can learn the technical stuff, but understanding actors is the hardest part of the job as a director, so being an actor really helped me in that way.

Aki Omoshaybi - Real

Aki Omoshaybi attends the European film premiere of 'The Personal History of David Copperfield', 2019. (WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The A Moving Image star writes, directs and stars in this debut exploring a burgeoning romance between two people struggling with the rigmarole of life and long-running hardships.

Doing my first job as an actor, I just found it all fascinating: being on set and seeing how the camera, the director, the whole crew worked. It was amazing to me and I was kind of hooked so on the next job, I started speaking to producers about how they funded it, how they started it and how it all worked. I then wrote, directed and produced a video short and caught the bug.

I’ve always struggled with roles for my type of casting. Sometimes when they say black actor, they mean ghetto or street but my black experience has been different. I just wanted to write something where the two protagonists were black, especially a black woman, and it wasn't necessarily about race, it was just about getting on with their lives, negotiating relationships and trying to fall in love.

Pippa Bennett-Warner and Aki Omoshaybi in Real

The experience of being a dancer to an actor, to musical theatre, it’s all played a part. I know how actors work so it was good to bring the text to life with them, trust them and give them control. These are my words, this is what I've written but I wanted them to bring to life their character too.

I like Andrea Arnold, Sean Baker, and Barry Jenkins’ films, I loved the TV series Sharp Objects, because they used handheld cameras and long takes. Definitely from my theatre background I’ve learned that sometimes if you aren’t getting it, don’t shout “cut,” just let it develop and see how it plays out, that’s where I come from. I really learned how to trust my gut on this movie.

Trusting in myself because this is my vision.

Simon Bird - Days of the Bagnold Summer

Director Simon Bird attends the "Days of the Bagnold Summer" UK Premiere, 2019. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for BFI)

The Inbetweeners star makes his directorial debut with this British comedy, based on the graphic novel by Joff Winterhart, about an angsty, black-clad teen spending the school holidays with his single mother, a librarian.

I knew there was something that I wanted to do that was more than just acting. I've always written stuff and I used to do stand up, sketches and wrote a sitcom with my friends. But I've always wanted to have more control over the process and I guess directing is sort of the ultimate fulfilment of that.

I decided very early on that I didn't want to shoot in London. My producer said, “we have to shoot in London,” so I said, “great, we’ll shoot it in London!” That was a sort of a big learning curve because those are the conversations you aren’t involved in as an actor. There was a lot of compromises but the casting was one area I didn’t.

Monica Dolan, Rob Brydon, Tamsin Greig, everyone in the film was our first choice. Earl Cave came to an open audition and we had no idea he was Nick Cave’s son before hiring him. Belle & Sebastian were my dream composers and for whatever reason, they were really up for it. They just loved the book and had a gap in their schedule.

Days of the Bagnold Summer is Simon Bird's debut

My wife (Lisa Owens) and I were both very nervous and sceptical about working together at the beginning but the more I thought about it, the more it just makes sense. I didn't want to write it myself, because this is my first time directing and I wanted to focus. She’s a great writer and had the same vision for what I wanted to do. The other option would have been to hire a writer you don't know that you have to send notes to and it was obviously much easier just to talk about it over dinner.

As an actor I’ve spent a lot of time on sets and seen lots of other directors working so I think I've picked up things where people just feel like I know the dynamic of productions and how best to keep people happy and doing their best work. I try and behave in a way that I would like to be treated if I was acting in something. The best stuff I've been on is when you've had the happiest set so I've definitely learned from certain directors to be really positive and upbeat. Even when you're up against, and things go wrong, it's good to you stay calm and just get it done.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place from October 2-13 and tickets can be bought here.