Joss Agnew on having a successful film and TV career

Want to know what it’s like to have a successful career in film and TV? Hosts Giles Alderson and Huw Siddle chatted with TV director, Joss Agnew, about how he jumps into an existing show as a director, his background as an editor, working with actors and crew, and how he preps for a scene and more.

Joss says that working as an episodic director is “very much like being an actor. It’s either through someone that I’ve worked with, in the past, that’s got a project coming up, or in the case of The Man Who Fell to Earth it was through my agent.”

How He Chooses His Projects

“It’s really about the story, the characters, and then being honest with yourself: how do you respond to it? And in this case, when I was reading the script my wife said, I haven’t heard you laugh out loud that much in ages. You are the audience.”

The Man Who Fell to Earth

When he was a child, Joss stayed up late one night and watched the original “really strange film, with a terrifying transformation in it. It was an incredible idea with magnetic Bowie. And that really has stayed with me ever since.”

He read the novel after watching the film, and understood more about the story after reading the book, but wondered “where they could go to next.

The book and the film have such strange, tragic and horrific endings. So you’re wondering where he’s been all this time and what’s happened to him?”

Working in Episodic TV

Sometimes Joss is contacted months ahead of the start date, meaning he “can be involved early doors, or sometimes it’s a lot later. The analogy I keep thinking about is this massive locomotive. It’s going and you’re running alongside it, and you hop on and you’ve got to discover very quickly where everything is, where we’re going to, who’s on board, who’s driving this thing, who to pay attention to. You’re playing a very quick game of catch up and at the same time preparing for your turn to be driving.”

It’s important, as with all filmmaking, to be prepared with casting, locations and storyboarding. It’s also vital to be able to collaborate.

You’ve “got to know the story backwards. You’ve got to know where the characters have come from. Everything that’s come before, even back into the previous series, if you want to reference any callbacks. Try not to be scared and rely on all the team that you’ve got around you.”

His advice for Working in TV

Joss says that, for him, script editors are really important to help with understanding the story (past and present) but it is also important to get time with the writer. Try and learn as much of the context of why characters are doing what they’re doing and why they’re not.”

But ultimately, it all “comes down to scheduling. You’ve got to know the themes and how they fit into the story. Then once you start cutting that up and mixing it all around and throwing it up in the air and it all landing in a different order, you’ve gotta you to know how much you can shoot.”

Relying on the Script

Before starting on any big complicated sequences, he storyboards the shoots and makes “as many notes in my script as possible.

It all comes back to the script. Any tonal or film references, I put right next to the scene that you’re working on that day. And any other thoughts. And then, as soon as that’s done, move straight on to the next one. It sounds really nuts, but at the end of the day, if you’ve been concentrating on a shoot you think, what did I do first thing.

Sometimes it’s just gone because you’re constantly moving through the material one scene at a time and one shot at a time.”

Relying on your Cast

Your cast “are the guardians of their character. They’ve been working on that character for all of their scenes, not just those I’ve directed.

Some actors will prepare in a completely different way from others. Some want to keep it fresh to possibilities on the day. Others have made some choices early on and pretty much stick with that. And either one you can work with. All you’re doing is trying to nudge them to take a particular direction.”

Editing

“I was always aware that editing was the closest thing to directing. The only way to learn is to make your own stuff.” When you make your own films, you have to do everything and you quickly learn different aspects of filmmaking.

“The reason I went into the cutting rooms was that I always wanted to direct. I did this amazing training scheme. And you would train in camera, sound, art department. And then in the second year, you specialise. So I went into the cutting rooms.

I had no family connections or anything. And it was a really useful route in.”

His Process

He has realised that “everyone’s got their own process. Mine is, I visualise. I have to know the space backwards. The first thing I do is look at the script and visualise how I think the blocking is going to work. If you pin down the blocking on paper – I put it on paper because, from the blocking, I work out the camera positions.”

Once the scene is blocked, he can also work out how much time he needs. 

“I need to do that process first, so I’ve got my plan and I know that it works. If I do this, when the actors come in and bring their magic to it, I can roll with it.

It sounds like quite a dry technical process, but I’m trying to echo what is going on inside – how are we going to portray that and depict it visually. And then all the other things feed off that. Lighting, the tone, the tempo of the performance, the palette, and so on and so on.”

His Last Words of Advice

“Always ask questions. Even when it’s going to be unpopular. And if something goes adrift, own up to it straight away. Everyone makes mistakes, so don’t try and hide them. I generally pass that along to anyone on their first day on set.”

For more from Joss Agnew, listen here.

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