Network@LFF Filmmaker Interviews: Tessa Hoffe

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Ahead of her short film Majority playing at BFI London Film Festival, Tessa Hoffe spoke with Leila Latif about her filmmaking career to date

2 October 2020

New Zealand born Tessa Hoffe has a had a prolific and hard-earned career across television and short film since the age of 16. Starting as a runner she trained at The New York Film Academy and made her first short film, Barbara Ann and Travis. On her return to New Zealand, she started up her own production company, wrote and directed 2 more prize-winning shorts, and was the youngest director ever to helm the iconic New Zealand serial drama Shortland Street.

Upon moving to the UK and after ten years of dedicated work in the industry, Tessa began working on serial dramas and soaps, from Grange Hill to Coronation Street, and her work has earned both BAFTA and British Soap Award nominations. Tessa’s 2017 short film Spinosaurus – which stars her son Enzo – follows a young girl caring for her even younger brother while their mother is away from home and scooped major awards in the UK, Brooklyn and Canada to name just a few, and her new film Majority is primed for a similar reception.

Ahead of the film’s debut at the BFI London Film Festival 2020, I spoke with Tessa about working her way up, child actors and being an immigrant in Brexit Britain.

So, you began your career as a runner in New Zealand?

Yes, I was 16 and didn't enjoy school. My mother said that I couldn’t leave school until I had a job, and at the job centre there was an opening for a runner at a production company that made television commercials. I’m just a bit of a grafter and worked my way up. I started being pushed towards production and production managing, but I realised that I was more interested in directing.

What made you decide to go to The New York Film Academy? Was learning to direct on the other side of the world worth it?

When I decided I wanted to be a director, I started making short films. I couldn't really get anywhere, being a young female in New Zealand. So, I saved up some money, I took out a bank loan and 3 credit cards and went to the New York Film Academy. I made a couple of short films and that was a real revelation to me.

I came back to New Zealand and got an offer to work on Shortland Street, which was a multi-camera television show, which was also cut live. You had 3 cameras and had to camera script every shot before you got on set. If you weren't on the right shot at the right time it was a big deal. It was a real baptism of fire.

You were directing episodes of Hollyoaks within just a few weeks of immigrating to the UK. How did that happen?

After Shortland Street, there was very little opportunity for me in New Zealand. I arrived in the UK and was looking at the credits on Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks, because I had done multi-camera work. I’d get people's names and just figure out their email addresses. Some of them wrote back and set up meetings, and I was directing Hollyoaks 6 weeks after I arrived and have never been out of work since.

Child actors can be difficult to work with. Is that why your son Enzo is in Spinosaurus and Majority?

With Spinosaurus I was very frustrated with my career and a filmmaker friend of mine advised me to just write a film and we'd then go and make it. So I thought, “What have I got that's not going to cost me any money?” At the time, I had a four-year-old who did not stop talking. 

The young girl in the film was my childminder's daughter Georgia who had grown up with Enzo, so I didn’t need to try to get them to bond. There was just me, a cameraman and a sound recordist. There wasn't a sense of being on a film set, and so you just got really lovely, intimate moments.

When you’re writing and directing you have so much creative control and then you go and do Coronation Street where so much is out of your hands. Is that difficult? 

It’s better now that I've been able to make a couple of films. I got very frustrated before, and I wasn't really enjoying it. I still do a lot of television, and what I'm getting offered is very interesting stuff.

I just did a job where you've got all the toys that you want: a high-end television drama with all sorts of stuff going on and great VFX. Then I can go and make a short film that maybe is a stronger expression of myself, but I enjoy both and have the balance right.

In Majority, there’s so much misplaced anger and scapegoating that speaks to modern-day politics. Is it supposed to be allegorical?

Yeah, it’s a modern-day Britain. Sonia is a sort of heightened version of me; she’s also an immigrant single mother. Though I don't get treated the same as Eastern European immigrants, I relate to her. There is such a deep division over Brexit in parts of the country, and I come from a country that's pretty politically progressive so I struggle here.

One of the interesting things about Majority was that we don’t normally see stories from someone like Sonia's perspective.

I'm in complete agreement. We just don't see things from the other's point of view, but I wanted to make a film from the outside and not with the majority.

What's up next for you?

I've just finished a TV series for Netflix and I've been awarded Early Development Funding to write a treatment which Sixteen Films has a view to develop. I'm very excited!


Majority is available to view on BFI London Film Festival's digital viewing platform from 7-18 October.