An interview with the director James Kent

And interview with James Kent by Alice Maxwell

Voice Readers from Whiting Bay may be familiar with Eddie Hutchinson, who lives quietly in Sandbraes with her bouncy dog Liffen, and her not-so-bouncy tortoise, Marilyn. Eddie’s son, James Kent, came to stay with her during lockdown. He is a film and TV director, and agreed to be interviewed for The Voice.

Can you name some of the TV series and Films that you have directed?

I’ve been lucky enough to direct both documentaries and dramas. I made a film with opera singers in different war zones called WAR ORATORIO. It was so exciting to fly to Afghanistan and meet these wonderful musicians. More recently I’ve directed BBC drama series such as INSIDE MEN (about a heist in a money sorting office), THE WHITE QUEEN (women behind the throne during the Wars of the Roses) and MOTHER FATHER SON (actually yes, with the Richard Gere!). And during the last five years I got two feature films off the tarmac: TESTAMENT OF YOUTH telling the story of feminist icon Vera Britten during the first world war, and THE AFTERMATH – a love story about a British woman falling for a German during the British administration in Hamburg just after the Second World War. As you can see, comedy isn’t really what I specialize in and war seems to feature too regularly!

On set with Richard Gere

What sparked your interest in directing?

Directing has a career structure so is perfect for fairly creative people, though it’s not necessary to be as creative as a sculptor or artist. The world seems to want a lot of TV, adverts and movies so there is a real demand for directors without them necessarily having to exist hand to mouth. So it suited my rather cautious nature. The team element in directing also appealed to me – it’s very collaborative. And what’s so great about the BBC is their internal system whereby you can spend three months shadowing (like a mini apprenticeship). I went from a news journalist for the Six O’Clock News to the soap opera Eastenders! Actually, Eastenders was a bit of a disaster as I’d never directed drama. I was told I would be sacked if I didn’t up my game, so in desperation I just decided to adopt more confidence in my voice and suddenly that got people moving. I expect that’s what officers used to do to persuade their men over the top in World War One. A sort of commanding tone even though they were probably pig ignorant posh boys from Eton (remind you of anyone?).

Tell us more about your first jobs with the BBC news

I began as a news journalist in BBC Bristol local news. I was only 23 and very baby faced. One day I was allowed to do a report on school truancy. I wore a striped school tie and interviewed teachers. I got a bollocking because it looked as if the report was presented by an actual truant! A few weeks later I produced a report for the national news about a missing collie dog that dug people out of the earthquake rubble in El Salvador. It was all such a rush that I didn’t check the footage, and it went out to six million people with a dog that changed pedigree in every shot because the editor had used different bits of archive.

You are directing the next series of the BBC drama “THE CAPTURE”. Can you tell us about it?

The Capture was a very successful BBC series last year about a British soldier who is framed by manipulated CCTV footage. It’s a reminder of the power of the security forces and the tools at their disposal. This year the story will have a very different plot. I like doing modern drama with something to say. The biggest challenge will be filming in January during Coronavirus in London and keeping everyone safe and also how that will impact on the schedule. But the story is really gripping with a great cast. I’m excited.

What are the challenges of being a Director?

It’s definitely a real head spinner. People coming up to you and saying “Do you want a red tea towel or a blue one” or “What time do you want the baby on set tomorrow?” Questions coming at you like Spitfires! It’s also very strange to be loading the washing machine one day, and the next asking eighty people to march up a cliff to get a shot, and before you know it the whole circus is marching up a cliff. So you’d better be serious about what you want because one of the first things you need to realise is that directing isn’t about what you achieve, it’s choosing what to compromise: Not enough time, not enough money, actors not wanting to do things, producers saying “No, too dangerous”, it’s raining when the scene clearly says “The Sun is beating down”, tomorrow’s location has fallen through. You need to stay calm to keep that vision intact.

Do you think an increase of sex and violence on TV de-sensitises the audience? How does this reflect in your directing?

A very good question. I’m sure it can de-sensitise the audience or (a more positive spin) challenges them to see that the world is a complicated place. I think there’s too much sex. I’ve shot a lot of sex scenes but most of them end up being quite boring to watch. And I can’t watch most Quentin Tarantino because of his gratuitous violence. Both violence and sex work best when they are an essential part of the character’s journey and the protagonist changes in some meaningful way because of it. I direct those moments in order to illuminate the character’s story and not just for kicks.

I wonder whether TV is a reflection of society, or a trend-setter for society – or perhaps both. (A lawyer friend of mine often saw crimes committed that had been seen previously on TV). Do you feel a responsibility for what goes out on the screen?

Gosh. How awful, that your friend actually saw a physical correlation of the two. Whilst I don’t think there is hard evidence for this, TV and film has a responsibility to educate and help society. On the whole I think people watch far too much television but when it’s good television like Talking Heads, Normal People, Killing Eve, Flea Bag and Wolf Hall it really can provide a lovely escapism and a talking point where you connect with other people who have seen the same show. And the same goes for films. When you meet someone and they say “Oh, I saw this amazing film called Brief Encounter or Star Wars”. And you say “I know! It’s incredible”. It’s very bonding.

You made a film called HOLOCAUST: A MUSIC MEMORIAL FILM FROM AUSCHWITZ . Could you talk a bit about it?

The Music of Auschwitz is my proudest moment. To take the world’s greatest musicians and film them in the camp itself. Beautiful music by Mozart, Bach or Chopin. And then to edit in interviews with survivors from the orchestras of Auschwitz – these elderly Jews who were forced to play as the victims marched out to slave labour. Can you imagine? So the film had the contrast of the horror of these eye witness memories with the beauty of incredible music. It was very redemptive because what I believe the film was trying to say was that art will always survive and replenish places where evil has been done. You can’t defeat art because art is in our imagination. You never quite know whether the whole thing has worked until it’s finished. I was researching and filming in Auschwitz for six weeks and after the last day I went behind one of the blocks and wept my heart out. All the tension had been so bottled in. It was an honour to remind the world about that terrible period.

Do you have an idea of the soundtrack in your head before/during filming?

I’m a very musical person but I don’t have specific soundtracks in my head. But for certain scenes I probably should, as actors respond well to music. I do hum a lot and the sound crew tell me off!

Can you think of some funny/bizzare moments in your directing?

I made a film called TESTAMENT OF YOUTH and there’s a scene of our heroine crossing a very muddy courtyard in the British barracks in 1917. She bumps into a nurse carrying a tray. If you watch carefully something small and white falls out of the nurse’s tray – and if you slow it down – you see that it’s an iphone 6S. Presumably the nurse had a whatsapp call scheduled with her boy friend. Someone in the cinema saw it and it’s now all over twitter!

You seem a very gentle person – how do you manage if have actors/crew want to ignore your direction?

Ah, but am I really??! Seriously, you can only be the director that you are. You can’t fake it. And my way of working with actors is to gently cajole. Perhaps say “OK, we’ll do it your way and then why don’t we can try mine. Ok?” Usually that works. And then I use my way in the finished film! With the crew, they just have to follow my orders. I’m in charge and nothing would get done if it was by committee.

What’s your favourite dessert?

Tiramisu or Apple Crumble but the Crumble needs to be crunchy (am I allowed two?)

What is your favourite film?

BRIEF ENCOUNTER directed by David Lean.

How did you like the Arran film Uncowed?

Loved it. The funny bits were properly funny. And the performances were great. My mum wonders why all the baddies are English but perhaps that’s just self-evident!

Many thanks to Alice and James for sharing their conversation with The Voice!

James Kent