Billie Collins: "Take from it what you can - there will be other things that happen after it, around it and because of it."

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Emerging screenwriter Billie Collins speaks to NETWORK & Inclusion Coordinator, Nilan Dharmadasa, to reflect on her experience as the BFI Film Fund's Office Runner and explain how to make the most out of an entry-level opportunity.

6 November 2020
What were your duties as Office Runner of the BFI's Film Fund?

It was generally office and administrative support to the various teams across the Film Fund, so that’s across production, development, audiences, OPPS (Operations, Partners & Projects) and NETWORK. I had a routine of tasks that I did on a regular basis such as responding to general inquiries from the public, sending out the weekly staff bulletin, writing up documents and doing research. 

In recent months, you also took on some new exciting tasks, right?

Yes! I've interviewed filmmakers for NETWORK, which has been a lot of fun! I programmed some events for LFF, I’ve helped out with processing applications for the Culture Recovery Fund and I volunteered to answer calls and help out on the admin side for the Film and TV Charity’s Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund. 

You’ve definitely been very busy, getting yourself involved in lots of different things. Did you have any expectations of the role, before you started?

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I suppose I came into it with an open mind. Film was still a very new world for me. Previously, theatre was my main thing. I wasn’t sure how the Film Fund was different to the BFI generally. Also, I had expectations about London – it’s always been like a slightly mythical place to me. During my first few weeks, I saw three different famous people on my commute home! So I think my approach was to be open to seeing what happened and accepting opportunities that I didn’t know I’d be interested in. I had never interviewed people before, so I just had a go, and I really enjoyed it and now it’s something that I want to carry on doing. 

How did the opportunity of interviewing filmmakers for NETWORK happen?

During lockdown, with everyone was working from home, I was tasked with doing a daily bulletin. I recommended Kayleigh Llewellyn’s BBC Three comedy drama, In My Skin and told everyone that I was really enjoying the show. NETWORK asked me whether I would like to interview Kayleigh and I said, “Yes, please!” I’ve been very lucky because I’m a massive fan of everyone I’ve interviewed and I was just excited to hear more about them. My approach was, “I really love what you do, tell me more about how it happened.” NETWORK asked if there’s more people that I’d like to interview so I kept on doing it. Now, I think it’s definitely something I want to pursue and do more of. I just really like asking people questions!

How did you find the whole experience of taking the chance to do something you’ve never done before?

It’s been really enjoyable. With runner positions, there can be the tendency to want to be a perfectionist. But you can’t get everything right the first time or know everything straight away. At first, it was a bit stressful because I was getting asked questions that I didn’t know the answers to. I kept having to ask for help. But it’s easy to forget that you’re there to learn. I have such a better idea of how to structure an interview now and how to make the questions flow. If someone seems interested in talking about a certain topic, I know how to prompt them to go further with that. So I’m less of a perfectionist in some ways. I approach things now, by thinking about what I can learn from an experience, rather than being scared of making any mistakes.

When you’re starting out, especially as a runner, a difficult thing to accept is that you have to disappoint people occasionally. How did you find managing people’s expectations?

You have to be in tune with your own limits. Film Fund is across several departments so I always wanted to just help everyone. But the people in different teams don’t know what your workload is like. It’s a learning process of understanding how much you can actually take on, speaking up for yourself and being honest in setting expectations of what you’re capable of. Plus, it is crucial that you look after your mental health because it is the kind of role where you feel the pressure of wanting to impress people but that doesn’t mean that you should run yourself into the ground.

Well said! You’ve had to deal with a lot of upheaval and change when you began the role. You started off in the office and then the world fell apart and everyone had to work from home. How was that transition for you?

I was in the office for around a month, so people knew who I was, which definitely helped. It’s a lot harder to introduce yourself like that to people online. In some ways, it meant that I got to do a bit more than I would have done. NETWORK were increasing their online content so there was a lot going on for me to get involved with. At first, it was all very bizarre and everyone was trying to get used to it. But there was fun in the novelty of doing things. With the daily bulletin, I was trying to be positive, optimistic and encouraging. I was sharing memes with professionals in the film industry! I think it helped people get to know me as a person. It’s going to be strange finishing the role and not being in the office. I’ll just turn my computer off and go downstairs to my kitchen. 

You’ve clearly done a fantastic job and evolved in the role. What advice would you give to others to make the most out of similar entry-level opportunities?

I would say to think about what your strengths are and don’t be afraid of showing them off and telling people about them. At first, I didn’t tell people about my writing projects outside of work because I thought it wasn’t the right thing to do. My manager said, “You need to be telling everyone!” So you have to back yourself. If you’re genuinely interested in something, find the people in the team who can help you learn more about that and make yourself known to them. See everything that you do in these runner roles as relevant. It gave me much more of a comprehensive view of all the different aspects of the Film Fund, which was so helpful! So absorb everything and approach everything with the same enthusiasm. Whether you’re completing a boring spreadsheet task or interviewing someone, you are still helping the team, and that matters. Take from it what you can, but it will only be one part of your life and there will be other things that happen after it, around it and because of it.

I would also stress that you need to be kind to yourself. It feels like huge responsibility. You’re coming into something new and you’re the most junior person in that office and you want to do a good job. It can feel like you’re being pulled in lots of different directions. Sometimes, you have to take a step back and ask yourself, “What do I need to do right now and how can I best manage my time and adjust to doing something that I’ve never done before?” 

Looking after our mental health is so important, especially in this industry. How did you manage your mental health in this role?

I was very lucky to have very good line managers. They were both very approachable and they checked in with me a lot. There was a point where I was doing too many things, outside of my runner role. I asked whether it was possible for me to work part time and go to four days a week, instead of five, which would give me one day to focus on other work and personal projects too. So that was a step in terms of reviewing how things were going and how I was feeling and acknowledging that I need to do a bit less. So check in with yourself a lot and recognise when you’re taking on too much and speak up for yourself. 

Let’s get on to your writing. I’ve read your work and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it! How did you start writing and what are you up to at the moment?

I started writing plays for theatre when I was in my mid-teens. I started by going to a young writers group at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and every week we would read plays and write plays. They said if you write a play, we will show it to somebody and get you some proper feedback, so I did that because I was 16, and a geek and had very little else to do. I didn’t have radical teenage years. The most radical I got was being gay and that was kind of it. They were really nice about the play I wrote. When you’re 16 and someone takes you seriously as a writer, it means something and makes you feel like you have a voice. So I carried on doing it. 

Last year, I was a playwright on attachment with a company called Box of Tricks in Manchester, so I developed a play with them over the course of the year and they’ve just commissioned me to do some further development on that play, with a view to producing it at some point. I used to just write plays because you didn’t need any equipment so it was easy to get started, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become really interested in having a whack at Film and TV.

Earlier this year, you were selected as a participant for Film Hub North’s Script Lab. How’s that going?

There are two groups of writers, with each group assigned to a Film Hub talent executive and a development executive. Each writer is developing a short film script. We have monthly meetings, where we all get together to read each other’s work, discuss it and give notes. I’m writing a gay rom-com about some theatre ushers and it’s been really nice to meet other writers and share feedback. At the best of times, writing can feel like a very isolated activity, where you’re shut away like a gremlin in the corner, tapping away at your laptop. It’s great to speak to other people who are going through the same process as well as dealing with the same feelings of isolation.

How did you find the balance of doing your role while also doing your writing?

That was part of the decision to go down to four days of a week. I thought if I can have one day a week to devote to freelance work, then I’ll actually have a weekend as well – which is really important. You need to have days where you’re not doing your job or your writing and take the time to do other stuff. Doing this role has made me think more about what I want my working life to look like. I really appreciate having different things to do.

What did you enjoy most about your role?

It has to be the variation of it. I’ve done so much random stuff! As part of the role, you have to help coordinate staff screenings, so I was running across London with the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) in a little briefcase, feeling like a spy! The range of duties and the variety of the things you get an insight into has been the highlight really. Each day, you’re doing something different.

After making a massive impression on the Film Fund, you are leaving for your next adventure. What’s on the cards?
From now until early next year, I’ll be writing a new draft of my play with Box of Tricks, heading into some research and development. Also, I think I’ll continue writing articles for NETWORK, which is really exciting as I get to talk to more filmmakers. After that, it’s the great unknown – but I’ll be on the lookout for script reading and programming opportunities, along with whatever else I can try my hand at!
 

 

Billie Collins is an emerging playwright and screenwriter from Merseyside, most recently with work at the Lowry Theatre Studio and HOME Manchester. You can follow her work here. During her time with the Film Fund, Billie has been involved in many articles for BFI NETWORK, such as: