Debs Paterson fairly burst onto the film scene in 2010 with her acclaimed feature debut Africa United. Since then she has been beavering away writing and developing multiple projects for TV and film. She took some time out of her hectic schedule to impart some words of wisdom.
Africa United happened so fast. I was slightly astonished that anyone would let me direct it but I also knew I was the right person for the job. Before that I had been a short film maker and web designer and just doing my own thing and then all of a sudden I was a ‘Filmmaker’, I went to LA and I had reps.
It took a couple of years to know whether Africa United was good or not; it took until it was on TV for the first time to know that it was liked. We had a wide release and it did ok-ish in the box office, but with the theatrical the only metrics I had for figuring out whether it was good or not were awards, reviews and opening weekend – which was lower than hoped. I learned a lot about exhibition in that process. If the movie is only being shown at 4 in the afternoon no matter how many screens it is on you’re sunk. When it first played on Saturday night TV – reading people’s excitement on twitter was lovely, felt like a real relief. The whole thing was a baptism by fire but I’m looking forward to going back and going at it again.
What you hope, I have realised now, is that your film comes out and then there’s a gap of a few months where you can get your shit together and think right “what do I want to do next?” So like when you’re hot, when your movie comes out and you’ve got a bit of heat you can go “right it’s this and this and this”. Since [Africa United] I’ve been developing a bunch of different projects; an 8 part TV series which I’ve co-written, I’m attached to direct the story of Carlos Acosta; it’s based on his autobiography, it’s taken 3 years to get the team together and it’s very exciting. I’m also working on a comedy with Sally Phillips who I love; she’s a genius, a busy genius.
I actually felt it more, being a woman, trying to put together a second film here, and in the US; I am just aware I do not look like film directors look. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. In movies a lot of the way we structure our understanding of the world comes from creating a protagonist narrative; in 99% of the protagonist narratives we see a white male and all of the other characters are logically either supporting or opposing the protagonist. If anyone who doesn’t look like a white male appears you subconsciously think they should be supporting or opposing so I’m sure that has an impact when I walk into a meeting. I do feel it but also I know that you can’t focus on it.
I was working with a producer and we were developing a female protagonist thriller and the feedback we got from a couple of outlines we sent out were either ‘she’s not interesting enough’ or ‘she is totally unlikable and aggressive’. I was thinking ‘but she isn’t’ but she was coming across in that way to them.
The act of replacing the hero with a non-white man or a woman; there’s something in that act which is intrinsically aggressive; you’ve lost before you’ve even started. When you think about the ones that really do work like Thelma and Louise or Erin Brockovich there’s a sympathetic white male character who you see them through, that you love them through; Harvey Kietel’s cop, Albert Finney and Aaron Eckhart as Erin’s boss and boyfriend, you trust the man’s judgement. It’s like you can’t take a female hero at face value; they’ve got to be authorised by a man otherwise it’s aggressive socially. It’s changing, it definitely is changing, and TV has made everything a lot more interesting.
I just appreciate the fact that every film, every script, is a high risk start up. Unless an investor is totally insane they are looking for ‘how do I mitigate the risks?’ so it’s really useful to think in those terms rather than think ‘why is no one giving me a chance?’
Suddenly being part of the Hollywood film scene I started to measure whether I was any good or not relatively and that’s a mug’s game. A story that hasn’t been told that should be told, that is how my brain works. I know the kind of films I want to make and they can reach a big audience but they’re not constructed to make money in the first instance and I want them to because I want as many people as possible to see them; I want to do the best I can do to make them entertaining, emotionally present, visually visceral etc, to be the kind of film I would want to see on a Friday night after a long week at work.
After Africa United I think I meandered around for a little bit trying to be something that I wasn’t; I wish I could go back to that time and tell myself ‘don’t be afraid to be yourself, don’t try and be who they’re looking for, who they are looking for is you, try and be authentic’ that was the point at which I really needed advice.
In 5 years’ time I would love to be in a position where some solid credits were under my belt, a track record of the kinds of films I want to be doing so I can stand on that and move forward. There’s been an awful lot of work under the surface the last few years so it would be lovely to see that all finished. You make plans and deviate from them, I think more than anything I have learned that there’s a certain confidence that comes from naiveté.