Interview: Jane McGee

Posted: 5th January 2016
A Cake For Mabel The Optician A Sort of Love Story A Cake For Mabel Poster

Jane is an award-winning writer and director of short films and advertising. Her short film, A CAKE FOR MABEL won Best Director and Best Performance for Sally Mortemore at the Thurrock International Film Festival in 2014.  Her award-winning short film, The Optician (2008), starred Chris Barrie and screened at 24 international film festivals, including Austin, LA Shortsfest, Bermuda and Newport Beach. It won Best International Short at Okanagan Film Festival, Canada and Best Comedy Short at Eugene Film Festival, Oregon. Jane has written for theatre, completed the inaugural Bird's Eye View Scheme (2014) and has an impressive list of commercial clients including British Gas, BMW, Barclays, Nintendo, Costa, Freederm, WaterAid, Fairtrade and the History Channel. Jane is currently on Northern Film & Media's RISE scheme - a year long intensive development programme for female writer-directors. We chatted to her about the scheme, about being a female in a male dominated industry and her path to becoming a filmmaker.

Why did you originally apply for the RISE scheme?

I was looking for an opportunity for some structured development for Baggage (formally titled Safe Now). I'd reached a point where I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the script and so the chance to work with a group of mentors really appealed to me.

What have been the highlights? Who have you enjoyed working with and why?

That's a really tough one to answer because everyone has contributed so much to the development of the project. But I think Kate Leys has been my highlight because nailing the story was my big concern and her input has been really valuable in that area. More recently, Mia Bays has been guiding us in how to talk about ourselves and our work. I struggled with this before so that was hugely helpful.

So you’re nearing the end of your RISE experience, where has that journey taken you?

Well, I've got a first draft and a concrete plan for the second. I know who the audience is and can talk confidently about that. Also, through the conversations I've had with the mentors and my fellow Risers, I've been inspired to write a micro-budget feature. So I've got a few projects lined up now.

What has been the best/most valuable piece of advice you have received?

Don't wait to be invited to make a feature. Do it on your own terms. That was Julia Short's advice to me in our 1-2-1.

You recently embarked on a whole host of TV shadowing opportunities, what were these like and do you think they will help inform your style of working moving forward?

I was lucky enough to shadow two fantastic directors, William Oldroyd on his debut feature, Lady Macbeth, which is one of the iFeatures that shot this year, and Claire Winyard on Holby City. They were both really generous and took the time to talk to me about their processes. I've been shooting TV commercials and online content for around 10 years now so I have a lot of onset experience, but I was fascinated to discover the differences and similarities with features and TV. It's so rare to watch another director at work and it's great to get that level of insight into the way others do the job. Much of my time shadowing was spent standing by the director's monitor, eaves-dropping, or talking to the crew about their particular involvement in the projects. Both directors spent time talking to me about their experiences, how the day had gone and answering my questions, so it was really insightful.

What do you think are the advantages of an all- female schemes like RISE?

There's a huge gender imbalance within the industry, and schemes like RISE help to address that by nurturing female talent.

Do you think it helps strengthen female networks in a male-dominated industry?

It definitely has for me. As a result of working with the other directors on RISE I've joined another collective of female filmmakers, Film Fatales.

I've gone from knowing barely any female directors to knowing about 30 of them!

From your experience of working in the industry, do you think there is significant gender inequality in terms of opportunities?

Over the years, I've worked with very few female crew members, and known even fewer female directors. In terms of my personal experiences it's difficult to say. Discrimination isn't usually very explicit so it's hard to put your finger on it when it happens to you. 

What was the original trigger for you to follow a filmmaking path?

At school, in an effort to get us mulling career options, they told us to go home and have a really good think about what we were interested in. I sat in my room, looking at the mountain of VHS tapes piled on the floor and realised I liked films more than anything else. At first I thought I might be a film critic. Then I decided to be an actor. My parents convinced me to get my A-Levels instead of pursuing a B-tech in Performing Arts. I'm very grateful they did, and that Harlow College had a filmmaking club, because the minute I got behind the camera I knew that being an actor was the last thing I wanted to do!

I directed some theatre and then went on to study a BA in Film & TV Production at the University of Westminster. Upon graduation I found it much easier to find paid work in production and within a few years found myself working as a Production Manager, and then Producer, in promos and commercials. During that time I was also directing short films on the side. Eventually I realised I had to take the leap and stopped producing altogether. That was pretty terrifying.

But I've managed not to starve to death, and now I'm a freelancer Director working mostly in advertising, while developing my own projects on the side. 

How would you describe your personal approach to and style of directing? 

My favourite thing about directing is working with actors. I like a lot of input from them, and try to workshop scripts with actors whenever I can. I'm a very collaborative director with both cast and crew. Good communication is key, and I've been told I can shoot very fast as a result. My style is wry comedy, sometimes black, but always gentle in tone. The scenarios can be bleak but rarely feel so at the time of watching because of the comic tone and absurdist streak that runs through my films.

Tell us a bit more about Baggage, the feature you’re writing, what’s the premise?

Baggage is about a put upon butcher’s wife who accidentally kills her husband. She escapes to the seaside with his body in her luggage, but her quest to start a new life is threatened when she encounters a street-smart teenage girl with blackmail on her mind.  I've got a solid first draft and have just embarked on my 2nd. What I'm looking for now is a partner-in-crime producer with a solid network.

Which pieces of work are you most proud of and why?

My short films, The Optician and A Cake For Mabel. They were both quite large productions and have a lot of me in them.

Who or what are you cinematic influences?

This changes, depending on what I'm watching and working on. Right now I really love Thomas McCarthy as a director (The Station Agent, Win Win) for the gentle comedy in the face of tragedy, running through his work. His films are human and ultimately optimistic, and he gets great performances from his actors. I'm also a HUGE fan of Jim Henson!

Which piece of work do you wish you had made or written?

This week I wish I had made Harold & Maude

How do you manage to balance creative work with corporate work?

They actually go really well together. Commercial work by its nature is short, so I can weave my own projects around other bookings. I often find that my own projects feed creatively into my commercial work too.

To find out more about all of Jane's work please see janemcgee.com or follow her on Twitter. You can read all about the RISE scheme via our project site.

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1st October 2015

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