In Conversation: Georgi Banks-Davies & Matthew Jacobs Morgan (Part One)

The I Hate Suzie director speaks with her fellow BFI Flare alumni for NETWORK

23 October 2020

As the director behind one of the most acclaimed and beloved shows of 2020, Georgi Banks-Davies is one of the most talked-about rising filmmakers in her field. Speaking with friend and fellow filmmaker Matthew Jacobs Morgan (Hollyoaks, Pompeii), Georgi details her journey with Suzie.

Matt: First of all, how did you initially get started?

Georgi: The abbreviated version: I went to the cinema when I was four and decided that I needed to make movies. I went to film school, then when I left I was asked what kind of films I wanted to make. I had no fucking clue. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to say, I was just figuring out how to be an adult. Really fortuitously there was a trainee scheme at the BBC for short-form directors, so I went in and blagged myself a job.

I quickly fell in love with short form and advertising. A couple of years later, CNN headhunted me and I worked with them for a few years as a commercials director.  I was thinking about it the other day. I reckon that time was the making of me as a director. I had the most extreme experiences, from walking the World Trade Centre site with Daniel Libeskind to being shot at on the Lebanese/Israel border. 

Matt: It does sound like really good training for being a TV director, especially when things are moving so fast on set. 

Georgi: So fast! You’re sent on these shoots with just a DP and you would just hit the ground and work out how to tell these amazing stories, which were essentially sponsored advertorial films. 

The CNN advertising audience is essentially 40 to 65-year-old white high-management men, and creatively in the end I got frustrated with that singular voice and talking to that audience, so after I rinsed the fun of the experience, and learned so much, I left.

I love making commercials still, it gives me such a thrill to try things out. Then alongside that career trajectory I was still making films. And I made some really fucking awful short films.

Matt: Haven’t we all haven’t we all?

Georgi: Yes! At Sundance they were like, “Is this your first film? It’s amazing!’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s not, it’s my 20th!” The 19 before are a bit shit, but I realised that you shouldn’t be fucking scared, you’ve just got to be ballsy and keep making mistakes. Trying to be a successful commercial director feels as hard as trying to be a successful Hollywood director. It’s a very elite gang; they don’t let you up the ladder easily, and you have to work yourself to the bone. I just had to work nonstop, especially as a woman, to get to the point where I am now. 

Matt: What made you move into film directing?

Georgi: It stared on a commercial when in haste I turned to the actor and said: “Can you smile more?” This cold shock went through me and it really hit me: that’s not directing. That’s not how you talk to actors.

I went to see the master Judith Weston and took her Directing Actors masterclass to shake me back to what I knew. She really pushed me and it was uncomfortable, but it forced me to challenge myself. 

When I left LA I had a realisation: “You love actors, you love performance, now you’ve got to make a film.” Then a dear friend Myra Appannah asked me to read a script called Garfield. I read it and it was brilliant. It was what I had been looking for as a piece that really explored performance, so we set out to make it almost like a workshop for actors. There was zero expectation on it. 

We were all really proud of it, but it was quite an unusual film, so we found it didn’t really get any traction. It premiered at Palm Springs and some small British festivals, but it didn’t get accepted into any major festivals in the UK or Europe. Then on this fateful day I get a phone call: “Hey, it’s Sundance. We love your movie.” I was fucking stunned.

Matt: Did you get your agent for TV and film off the back of Garfield?

Georgi: There was an influx in America via Sundance, but not so much from the UK. I got introduced by a US agent to Roxana Adle who introduced me to her colleague, Alex Rusher. These women are incredible, I felt like they listened to me and understood what I wanted to make and instantly got to work putting me in front of really interesting execs and really brilliant companies. 

Slowly things started to come in, mostly TV projects. TV wasn’t massively on my radar, but from these conversations I quickly realised that TV is the new cinema of sorts. 

Matt: How did you end up directing I Hate Suzie?

Georgi: I met with Bad Wolf, the production company, and we had a really brilliant conversation. Smash cut to like a month or two later and Roxana called and said they’d sent me a Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble project to look at. I read it and instantly it was clear that it was unlike anything else I was reading or had read. 

I was invited to go and meet Lucy and Billie, and we had a really open and informal conversation about the show and the character of Suzie. Billie and I talked a lot about what she wanted to achieve with the performances and the emotional through-lines, and Lucy and I talked about structure and form and fucking with them in the realms of television convention and how to traverse that. The Bad Wolf exec Julie Gardener calls me a few days later to offer me the gig. I asked her who the lead director was going to be, and she was like, “well, you!”

Matt: I really respond to that because this is me as well. Like… ME?!

Georgi: I didn't believe it. To get the final sign-off there was still a lot of work to be done, because Sky then had to be convinced to take on a director who’s never done TV or their first feature, but has had a massively successful career in advertising. So I set to work on building the world visually for Sky to see my approach and intentions, and also had some conversations with Lucy about the series structure and early character and script development. 
Matt: What was it like working with Lucy and Billie, who already have such an incredible collaborative relationship? 

Georgi: It’s a really special bond between two people who know how to elevate each other. I didn’t try to be in that relationship, but thought about it more as now they need a director to support the vision. That meant listening to them first and foremost about what they wanted to achieve with the show within its constraints. I needed to work with Billie as a lead actor and as somebody who's created the show and knows that character a million times better than I could ever know her. But also make sure that I give her the support and the guidance and safety to really explore that character. I needed to work with Lucy as the showrunner to disrupt television like she wanted to, to break form, but keep it in a cohesion that makes it feel like it's part of a singular narrative and a singular story and a singular series, only with all of this genre-bending and playfulness embedded into it.