At the beginning of the month, Tessa Ross spoke at a sold-out 26 event. Laura Hunter listened in to the controller of Film Four and said we could all learn from her.
I’ve never considered writing for film or TV. But after just one hour of listening to Tessa Ross , I found myself musing the possibility. Not because I thought I’d missed my calling in life, or that I’d even be particularly great at it. Just the thought, the tiny possibility of working with someone like Tessa Ross was enough to consider a career change.
The evening started with a Film4 showreel. It revealed an array of talented writers and directors – some established, some debuting – quite clearly in their element.
Every film was different. From the thriller A Most Wanted Man to comedy Cuban Fury, it was clear to see that this production house don’t stick to a formula. There’s no one type, no consistent voice, but they are driven by a vision.
The vision of Film4 came out of the values of Channel 4, which Tessa described as ‘the combative person on the side of BBC1.’ Those values are about taking risks, representing different voices, challenging preconceptions and doing things that speak to different people.
‘I’m not about the market’ Tessa said. ‘If we all did what we’d done before, Slumdog Millionare wouldn’t have happened.’
When people told Tessa a film in Hindi would never work, she said ‘True. If you look at what’s gone before.’ Slumdog won eight Oscars.
Film4 speaks to a worldwide audience, but it doesn’t focus its energy on appeasing the many. ‘All we can do is look at what a British audience want out of a film.’ It’s this outlook that’s driven some of the most successful films to come out of Britain.
In her ten years as controller of Film4, Tessa has produced award-winning films like Billy Elliot, This is England and The Inbetweeners, to name just a few. In 2010 she was awarded a CBE for her services to broadcasting. This year she picked up a BAFTA for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema and BBC Radio 4 named her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK. Her approach to film works.
Tessa Ross is the kind of person any writer would kill to work for. She’s like a guardian angel of creativity; she’s got your back and she’ll let you do your thing.
Film4 is ‘all about protecting the vision of the work. Writers and creative sometimes need someone to back their corner,’ Tessa said. ‘If you’re building a world for creative people, it has to be safe and it has to be clear.’
But in the film industry – a world mediated by different stakeholders – how do you keep hold of that vision? Tessa does it by carefully managing a £15m budget. Buying the rights to the work means that when Film4 takes it to others, it can protect its vision. “It gives me enough room to sit with the big boys and keep hold of the idea.”
But writing for screen, even with Tessa Ross backing your corner, isn’t the easiest thing to do: ‘Writing for screen is completely different to any other form. It’s the medium you most have to understand whose jaw’s your going into.’ With so many editors, stakeholders and directors working together to fashion an idea, it’s inevitable that what you’ve written will be altered.
On the benefits of the medium: ‘It’s collaboration. If you’re a writer who appreciates that other people and ideas can grow your own, it’s for you.’
Tessa gave some practical insight into what she looks for in a script: ‘Know what you’re doing. I’ll need someone with a clear vision.’ It’s much better to have a clear idea of what form your script will take. And on stage direction: ‘Too much detail doesn’t leave much room for the director, but they do need to be clear. You need to know the point of the scene.’
‘I’m looking for something that takes me somewhere I couldn’t imagine, something I couldn’t do myself. If I say to a writer “why don’t you do this?” and they do, then I get worried. What you want is a better idea than your own.’
Whether you’re writing a screenplay, poetry, children’s book or an ad campaign, we can all learn something from Tessa Ross: ‘Remind yourself of the simple idea. Everything else is the complication that gets you there.’