Jane Hearst takes a deep dive into how your roots can help your career

20 January 2021

To gain first-hand insight into what it means to be a working-class filmmaker today, writer-director and Arts-for-Health researcher Jane Hearst spoke with a handful of young creators from across the country: Soph Webberley is a director and recently became a regional development assistant for Sheffield-based production company Warp Films. Midlands-based writer, director and choreographer Laura Margo Roe has had work commissioned by the BBC and Channel 4. Queer punk poet, director and writer Chris Hyde made the short film Factory Talk for Art With Impact. Writer-director and videographer Thomas Longstaff is a BBC New Creative whose short film The Siren’s Song is on iPlayer now.

What barriers have you faced as a working-class creative?

Tom: If you’re poor you don’t have time to figure yourself out when you leave school. You just have to jump straight in and by the time you figure yourself out you’re in your mid-20s.

Chris: Working full-time, the energy I have to expend is limited, which means that what I direct has to be perfect.

Jane: I had only been around other working-class creatives, which meant that it was working-class people offering me work. I felt like I couldn’t ask for more money from them because they didn’t have any more to offer. Then, I went through a business incubator programme who helped me work out what I should be charging. I went from struggling to get £8 per hour to charging a minimum of £50 per hour. There’s an internal conflict though: wanting to stay embedded in your roots but having to pay rent at the same time.

Laura: Knowing the value of money. This summer I worked in a factory and the people around me were pleased to get £11 per hour for a night shift, and then I’d do a commercial and the wage is Advertising Producers Association rates. For example, a first AD’s basic minimum day rate is £444.

Soph: For me was there was no creative outlet at all. As a person of colour I didn’t see myself being represented as much as I wanted to, and I really struggled with being in a room filled with people that spoke really well.

How do you feel your working-class identity has helped contribute to your creativity?

Tom: The stories and art that really resonate with me are grounded in some kind of reality. If you're trying to create art and there's no conflict what's the point?

Jane: Being working-class is never explicitly the point of anything I do. But being from a disadvantaged demographic means that I’ll have experiences of not knowing something about the world and then discovering them on my own. Exploring that journey can be really interesting. There’s a beauty in it.

Soph: Working-class stories are being represented more realistically on screen, which is good. Although Shane Meadows made really amazing cinema, that's only part of being working class. I relate more to something like I May Destroy You, where it feels like modern working-class people are being shown not for the fact that they are poor but because of their day-to-day experiences.

How do you think the industry could be more accommodating to working-class filmmakers?

Tom: It takes a lot longer for working-class people to feel confident and to get on their feet. The industry needs to chill out when it comes to under-18’s funds and the 18 to 24 age restrictions on funding and development opportunities.

Laura: By not trying to summon me to London or Manchester or wherever. I’ve done a lot more during lockdown over Zoom than ever before. We’ve proven that it doesn’t matter where you are, you can still have these conversations with people.

What advice would you offer to emerging working-class filmmakers?

Chris: Somebody said to me once: “Peers are a lot more important than the people you see much further along in your career. They will get opportunities and they will think of you to spread that opportunity. Likewise, you’ll get opportunities, and you’ll know who to go to, to share that opportunity. That is a much more organic and fulfilling way to make progress.” They were right.

Jane: I think you should have ideas ready for when those conversations come. A mentor of mine once told me to always have 3 to 5 projects in mind for the future, so that when somebody asks what I’m doing next, I can give them a reason to keep me on their radar.

I’ve found that advice really useful for when funding applications come up too. It encourages me to find or design the project that fits the brief, rather than imagining links that aren’t strong enough for the judging panel to prioritise.

Chris: Find working-class people in the thing that you want to be doing. Look at their social media, and you can get a good handle of whether they’re for you. Then level with them. Say: “It’s awful sometimes isn’t it? Can you help me?” Most of the time they will, which is really nice.

Jane: I hear a lot of working-class creatives get concerned about money, but that’s only one resource that you can draw upon. Having cultural capital (awareness of what others are doing) and social capital (a good network / following) is equally important.

Soph: I think that Screens Skills are doing a really great job in sharing roles.

Laura: Hunt for people’s emails. It’s old fashioned, but the amount of people that have put their CVs online with their emails on it…

Jane: Another thing: don’t force yourself into a box at the beginning of your career, particularly when looking for who you can connect with.

Laura: Aim to get paid work on sets. Pushing to be on sets is the best way for you to figure things out. There are websites that show you what’s in pre-production and in production. Then go to the production companies and look up who’s worked for them and who their teams use. Try to find a bit of summary about them.

Chris: Another bit of advice that someone told me: “Don’t worry too much if you can do things. Tell someone you can and then, when they give you the opportunity, do it well.” It can be a bit anxiety-inducing, but it’s definitely worked for me.

Jane: People enjoy sharing and being useful. When you hear something referenced in a conversation that you don’t understand, rather than nodding along to feel like you belong, have the courage to say that you don’t understand. The person speaking will enjoy telling you more about it.

Even better, feel free to tell that person a reference that feels more authentic to you.

There’s a study by Mike Savage that shows that people born into working-class families can adapt their social standing based on their knowledge of emerging culture – things like internet culture and popular media – rather than traditional culture alone (ballet, opera, etc). So if those traditional things don’t connect to you, make use of what does!

What keeps you in the industry? What makes it all worthwhile?

Chris: Stories that aren’t hypothetical ones about emotions that don’t exist. Those real stories. Every time I get a project and it comes to an end I’m like, ‘Damn, I wanna do that again!’ Plus, I desperately want my life to mean something, so that’s what keeps me doing what I’m doing.

Tom: It’s really fun once you hit your stride and you’re surrounding yourself with the right people. It’s so fulfilling.

Soph: I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else. I get so invested in stories. Real stories. Good characters. That fulfils me the most.

Laura: There was a point when I was doing theatre that I thought it was too much work for too little gain. Film is also a lot of hard work, but at least you have the longevity of your project. I love the idea of showing stuff to my friends and family and being like, ‘Come into this world, you need to see this!’

Chris: It does make you feel a bit cool as well, doesn’t it? Let’s be real. You feel proud of yourself for doing it.