Directing for TV with Lewis Arnold

Lewis and Matimba met up to talk about Lewis' career directing iconic TV like Humans, Broadchurch and Banana.

8 January 2018


Matimba: You're listening to BFI NETWORK Podcast. I'm Matimba Kabalika. It's Episode 4. At the NETWORK, we're into discovering, developing, and funding new and emerging filmmakers. And this podcast is all about meeting some of the UK film industry's best talents. In this episode, we talk to director of Humans, Broadchurch, Misfits, and many other iconic TV moments, Lewis Arnold. We went into the depths of the BFI Screening Rooms to eat carrot muffins and to talk about making the leap into TV, getting to know the right people and how being a massive fan girl can really pay off. 
We are currently in Screening Room 2 at the…I was gonna say the BFI Southbank. This is not the BFI Southbank. The BFI Stephen Street, which a lot of people don't know has screening rooms downstairs and we are sitting here with Director Lewis Arnold. Welcome. 
Lewis: Hello. Thank you for having me. 
Matimba: No. Thanks for coming. And this is quite an exciting one because we've tried many times to make it happen and it hasn't, so now, anticipation. 
Lewis: That makes it sound more exciting than it was. The reason we couldn't meet was things like, I don't know, I had to go and do a stuff that was boring and non-film related. 
Matimba: And something that was exciting and non-film related. 
Lewis: Yeah I just got married. 
Matimba: So Lewis, tell me a little bit about yourself. Tell me, first of all, about your accent because I'd love to know where it's from. 
Lewis: It's from Birmingham originally. So born and raised, not far from Birmingham airport. I haven't been there... I moved out of there, I went to university in Cheltenham, the University of Gloucestershire, which is in Cheltenham and then moved to London when I was 25. So I've been here…this is where everyone can figure out my age but I've been here seven years now. So it's…my accent's kind of dulled. If you meet my mom and dad and my sisters, they're really thick Brummies. Mine's kind of dulled a little bit. It's still there. It's still there. 
Matimba: So what did you study at university? 
Lewis: So I studied video production at the University of Gloucestershire. It's now…I literally was there yesterday so I've been doing some module teaching there and it's a fabulous course. And it's now…I think it's now called Film Production or Digital Film Production. I think it's Film Production again now. I get asked quite a lot actually. It's one of the kind of questions I get asked a lot from generally from parents of kids that wanna go into film and TV and sometimes from kids themselves. But I often get asked by family/parents on whether they think their child would benefit from going to university. And I went…that's the route I took. So none of my family are in the business. My dad is an HR manager. My mom worked at a telephone company. 
My idea to become a filmmaker I stole off one of my best friends, a guy called Dave Tomlin, who wanted to be a filmmaker since he was, you know, 12 years old. And then when we were like 16 or 15, 16, he convinced me and my dad when we took him on holiday one summer to get like the UGC. It used to be UGC. It's now Cineworld, a monthly pass which was £10 pounds. And my dad was so against it. He was like, "You only go to the cinema once every couple of months. You're never gonna get the most out of it." And because of Dave, Dave was like, "No, we're gonna go every week," for like a two-year period, you know. I was making films with Dave. I was his kind of buddy but then we were going to the cinema every Saturday. 
So he'd stay at mine…every Friday night, this was for like a whole two years for our last two…you know, we were nerds. This was in our GCSE years. We weren't going out and getting drunk and started kissing girls. We were going home. We were watching "Buffy and Angel" on a Friday night and then "Space." So we'd have to tape "Space." So we'd watch "Buffy and Angel" and then tape "Space" and watch "Space," go to bed, wake up really early, get the first bus into Birmingham, walk all the way up to the cinema. And we'd usually watch no less than two films and sometimes three across the whole day and then go home. And I remember at the end, I've still got all of the cinema tickets in the drawer at my mom and dad's somewhere. 
You know, so that experience was kind of what cemented for me my passion and love for filmmaking. So up until that point, I was like in any other normal, you know, teenager. And when I was at college, I started editing and I became very proficient in editing and started making very advanced sort of skateboarding skit films and then from then I was like I knew that I could be an editor because editing felt technical. It felt like, you know…I remember watching football games with my dad and at the end they had montages and thinking, "Oh, well, someone must cut that," and I could do that because I know how to cut and I know how to edit and I understand sort of construct, you know, narrative, in regards to editing a little narrative. 
And then I found this course at university and I remember my dad and me having a chat with my tutor…and my dad and my family were a bit nervous about it because they just didn't…you know, when a kid says they wanna dream big, sometimes...I think they were just nervous. 
Matimba: What were their concerns? 
Lewis: That I could spend a lot of money and a lot of time - because university wasn't cheap. It wasn't as expensive as it is now, which is a problem in itself, but it was still expensive and I was still gonna have to take out a lot of loans and it was gonna be difficult. I think their worry was, was there a career at the end of it? Was there a job at the end of it? Or was this just four years of just kind of hobby-ing? It's funny like my parents and my family are my biggest fans, you know. My dad came to the RTS Awards with me a few years back. You know, he's my date and, you know…my mom and dad are huge supporters of what I do and they watch everything. And my dad does a thing, any TV show I do now, my dad does a thing called Dad's Reviews but he does it of the whole series, not just my episode. 
And they're amazing and I need to get hold of all of them because he's done it ever since "Misfits" and they're like a paragraph long but he's quite cutting at places. He's quite like, you know, firm. He's always a bit biased with my episodes but, you know, he can be a bit, you know…but that's great. 
Matimba: And let's talk about NFTS. So you graduated and you'd done video production about three years, right? 
Lewis: Yeah. 
Matimba: How then did you make the jump to the NFTS? 
Lewis: God, this is gonna be a bit like a counseling session now. It was really difficult actually. I'd say I'd been directing for a while you know. From the age of 17, 18, I knew that's what I wanted to be and do. And at the time, it was I wanted to be a writer/director and then at university I wrote all my films. And realised that I was a better director than I was a writer and then I started working with writers, which was something I absolutely loved when I started doing it. So we made a big decision when we graduated that we'd go and move back to Birmingham for two reasons: one, we couldn't afford to move to London but everybody else was kind of moving to London, and two, we felt that at the time the screen agencies was still in-situ and we felt we've got a better chance to getting financed in the Midlands as Midland filmmakers. 
So this was myself and my producer, Tom Knight, who I went to university with, who became my producer in my last year who made all my films and we became best friends. So we basically went back to Birmingham and we sort of scrabbled around for jobs. We both did a stint on Doctors, running, and then we both realised, both of us actually, that we didn't wanna run on Doctors. We'd prefer to work on and direct and produce smaller commercial projects for not that much money and live with our parents but be director and producing than sort of spend years at the BBC running then be told that you're good enough to be promoted to 3rd then do another few years to be told you're good enough to be promoted to 2nd and do, you know… It'd be like 15 years before you direct. So we decided to...and we both worked for a small company in Birmingham, producing and directing all their online and their videos. 
Whilst we applied for grants, and we made, over the course of a couple of years, so from the age of…I think I graduated when I was 22 to 25, we made two digi-shorts. We made one called Spirited with the late Margaret John and Joe Dempsie and then we made a film called Stained. And Stained was a film that I'd been trying to make a film about a prison officer for years because…this is where it all gets deep now. But basically I knew a prison officer and sort of known how he had kind of ripped his life apart. He was divorced and he was a plasterer and I used's one of the things I did, the many things I did to earn money. I used to strip walls and then he'd come in and plaster. 
And I remember one day at lunch, he was talking and he'd say, ''Oh, I got the kids this week." And, "Oh, great. You know, you're gonna do anything." And he said, "No, no. I don't go out with the kids in case I'd bumped into anybody from my time in the prison services." And I just kind of like, "Wow." That job not only has ruined and forced your life apart but it's kind of…it's molded your decisions and your life now, you know. And a friend of mine at the time sent me…showed me a book called Screwed written by a guy called Ronnie Thompson who was an ex-prison officer who wrote a book about his time in the service. And funny enough, just pure coincidence, the first page of the book was a foreword by a mentor of mine at the time called Geoff Thompson who is a writer who wrote a BAFTA-winning film called Brown Paper Bag and he wrote a feature called Clubbed.
So I contacted Geoff immediately and he was like, "How do I get hold of this Ronnie Thompson? I really wanna make a short..." It just so happened that Ronnie had got this idea called Stained and it was slightly different than what I wanted to make but it felt like a right fit. So we basically went about trying to find finance for that as a short. We thought we need…I think we tried to get 50 grand with Cinema Extreme, didn't get it. So then we tried to get 20 grand to make it and then we didn't get it and then I sort of sat down with Tom, my producer, and said, you know, "How do we do this?" You know, Screen WM were like, "We'll give you…we can give you a digi-short," but that's only 10 and we didn't think we could do it for 10 because we had to film in a disused prison up north. We have a, you know, quite a big cast, Frank Harper, Craig Conway, Ricci Hartnett and lots of extras. And we just didn't think... 
And in the end, we were like, "Well, we're gonna have to do it in three days. We're gonna have to do with no lights." We sort of create what…how can we make this? So we went and made it and, you know, the film did well for us I suppose. It was the film that got…ended up getting me into the NFTS but the only reason I decided to go to NFTS was because when we were making the film, my plan was always to make a feature film version of that world. And we started developing it. We tried to get the option to the book of Ronnie, who was part of the creative team who wrote Stained. And Ronnie ended up raising some money for it via his brother, you know, private investment. And at first, well, Tom got kicked off which was a bit of a surprise because it was sort of our thing that we'd built from nothing and then, you know, a month later I got a call from the other co-writer saying, you know, “the financer’s took advice and been told not to invest in first-time filmmakers. So we're gonna move forward without you”. 
So we kind of was our first lesson of sort of not being protected and, you know, that's what happens when you don't have an agent and stuff. So we kind of got burned quite badly, myself and Tom, and one of the other actors as well. And so, you know, I was at a loss really. I was first assistant directing commercials and music videos at the time to pay my bills. We just moved to London that year. I was in a real, real bad place, some personal stuff that happened in my life. I didn't know what to do. And, you know, I used to hang around the NFTS so that friends that lived out that way. And I just decided to apply. I was absolutely heartbroken at my feature film that I'd been working on for a year had just kind of…not even fell through. 
I think it would have been less painful if it fell through but it was still going but just not with me attached anymore. And I went to the NFTS and looked around and just fell in love with the place and just figured that…it just felt...I can't explain it really but it felt that that was destiny. That was where I was meant to be. I didn't get in initially and then I got…I came back. I was doing some charity work in Africa filming and came back. I got a call from my dad saying, "You've got a letter that says you haven't got into the NFTS." So I wasn’t that bothered, I was in Africa filming, you know, people dying on the cusp of…you know. I was like “fine. Don't worry about it”. And then I came home and kind of reality hit and then I got a call saying, "Look, someone doesn't want their place. We'd like to offer it to you." And I was like, "Yes." So… 
Matimba: That's amazing. I wonder who that person was. 
Lewis: I know. 
Matimba: I'm so into the sliding doors of life, you know. You're like this thing happened and that thing…because it's like if you had gotten that film away, you might…who knows what might have happened? 
Lewis: You know what? The truth of the matter is I don't think I was a strong enough filmmaker back then, in a sense of I think I would have been told the film I was making. And things like that were already happening. People were saying, you know, you should have this person in it, and I was like this feels like…it felt like it was being marketed towards its own market and DVD place and that wasn't…I was trying to make something with real...a character piece really that didn't have lots of drugs and stuff in it but was a character piece. And I think that it was a clash there and I think, in hindsight, it was the best thing that happened for all parties. I can read stuff and go, I love it and I'd go to the cinema to see it, but it's not necessarily a film I'd make. 
Matimba: You studied production then you've ended up at the NFTS. You've got three really strong shorts behind you. How do you then end up in TV? Because I think also that's what all filmmakers now are like, "I wanna make films but I also wanna work in TV." And it feels like this kind of Holy Grail of the best of both worlds. How did you navigate that? 
Lewis: So I signed to Michelle and my first meeting they kind of do the whole, "What do you want to do?" And I was broke, like I was really, really broke. I'm not…I'm from Birmingham. You know, I was still 1st’ing. You know, my whole idea was I just wanna work. So I was like, "Look, I'd really love to do Doctors or anything, Hollyoaks, whatever I need to do to prove," because I can develop my features and I can develop things and get things ticking over but like I need to work. I wanna work. I wanna prove myself, you know. So I kind of went in and came out with like very little ego I think in regards of...ego's the wrong word, very little snobbery towards TV. And I think Michelle, recognised, "Okay, fine then I’ll put you forward for stuff.” Then that's what I'd do and I think I was just very open to that because of Michelle and she has a really great pool of directors who are very established. 
I think someone came to her about directors for Misfits, the last series of Misfits and she put me forward and they watched my films and they agreed to meet me. And so I just kind of like…I'd kinda caught Misfits but I did like a whole three days of watching every single episode and just fell in love with the show like immediately. So I went down to set and met Nick Pitt, the producer and had a meeting and just sort of like fanned off. You know, we kept getting told I wouldn't get it because I haven't got any experience and then I didn't hear anything for ages and literally months passed. And then when I got a call from Michelle, you know, months later, thinking it had gone, saying, you know, “I think what happened was they were looking for a director to do the last block and I don’t think the scripts were ready.” 
And so they'd broke in to another two blocks. So there was meant to be three directors and now they needed four directors. And episode 8 would be shot before episodes 6 and 7 so they were looking at other directors again to do that. And Nick was impressed or enjoyed the meeting and wanting to take me to meet the exec producers. So, you know, I literally...I think it was filming…a Scouting For Girl's music video at the time which was kind of ironic in Scotland. And so I flew back for this meeting and, again, just kind of tried to get across how passionate I was about the series. As a fan, which I was, that went really well and then two days later I got a call saying, "Can you come and meet Murray who's the other exec and Howard the writer" And I went and met them. Me and Howard obviously had a shared love of Buffy and Angel and, you know, and things. 
And then I got offered, you know, a couple of days later I got offered the last block, which was incredible, so episode six and seven. So that was kind of my way in then and, you know… 
Matimba: How was that? Were you nervous? 
Lewis: Yeah. God, it was funny. On every job you do, up until…like even now recently, but I remember on, definitely on Misfits, Banana less so, but Humans and Misfits I remember sitting in the office for the first week thinking someone at some point is gonna come in or call Michelle and say, "We made a mistake, like we've really made a mistake. We don't want him anymore." And that insecurity never really goes away. Like you just learn to deal with it and manage it more and that's what I've learned to do, is just be like to deal with it. But it's still there but it those…in that first week of Misfits I was terrified. 
I'd been around big sets as a 1st where you're running the floor so I was never worried. When going on to Misfits, the scale of the crew and the scale didn't worry me. My nerves came from more, "Can I deliver?'' I mean I've had it lots of times. I had it on Broadchurch. I've had it lots of times where people...I walk on the set and people think I'm the runner because I'm quite baby-faced. I mean, you know, I'm starting to lose my hair now but like I'm quite babyfaced. And when I was 28, I look quite young. 
Matimba: So Misfits was your first TV gig but you've done so much since then. Talk us through life since Misfits I guess. 
Lewis: I've been incredibly blessed I suppose. I've had very good exec producers who've taken chances on me. So obviously, Petra, Matt, Murray and Howard on Misfits led by Nick, the producer, but then on Banana, which was my next job…I read the Cucumber, and the Banana scripts and I knew that Banana they were looking for short filmmakers really, to sort of make these films. And I read the first two scripts and after I read the Scotty episode, which is Leticia Wright's episode, I just was like I have to do this series based on, it’s one of the best things I've ever read. I got offered to direct one and three initially and I was gutted. I was really, really thrilled to be kicking it all off and, you know…because when you…so when your lead-director on a series, you make all the bigger decisions; casting, how you're gonna shoot it, the key crew members, so, you know, your HODs, casting. 
You make a lot of the aesthetic choices, design choices. And then when you become…when you're middle block director like I was on Misfits, you inherit all of the cast and all the decisions and you have to respect the lead director and respect the narrative, because we want everything to have coherence. And so Banana I was really chuffed about that but I was so gutted that I wasn't gonna get to do Scotty. And then something happened unfortunately with another director and they offered me to do the first four, which was just, you know... So that was such an incredible job. But I went from Banana and read Humans and was told that…and that was one where it was like…it was a big step up for me. The first series…I read the first episode and loved it. It was really creepy, really eerie. And I went to the meeting and felt that the chips were against me really, you know. 
It was a massive cast, you know, very big actors and I'd only really done at this point Misfits. They couldn't see Banana because it hasn't been released yet, and so I met for that and I didn't hear for like months because there was a lot of...I heard, you know, one of the execs, Derek, who's brilliant had to go to Channel 4 to watch my Banana episodes, you know, because they weren't allowed to send them out and there's a whole kind of thing of getting that job. So when I eventually got that job, that was the one I was like, "Are they gonna fire me after a week?" So I felt that…it took so long for them to decide to give it me that you would get so nervous that you'll end up leaving. 
And so I did Humans series one and then I went back up to Manchester and did a series, a three-parter called Prey for Red, which was an opportunity to work with Nicola Shindler, again, who I adore, and Tom Sherry, producer, who I'm a big fan of. So that was great. 
Matimba: So it sounds like in TV, your relationships' also kind sounds like you had continuity in terms of people that you worked with and that's a really interesting thing. So I think sometimes in film, it can feel a very intense moment of working with these people and then everyone disperses. 
Lewis: I mean you hope so. I can only talk from my point of view and I feel really blessed to have worked with the execs I've worked with. Jane, for example, I did Humans with her and I've just done Broadchurch with her. I went to her after with did Humans with a project that writer had brought to me and we developed it together. And now we've sold that to ITV and we start filming that this year with Sheridan Smith. So that kind of thing is really great about it. Like you really can...if the minute your relationships…the minute I suppose the relationships are sort of are bound, I feel like you can go with those people with projects and things and have conversations beyond just them employing you to do a job because it is like film in a way. You do become like a family and then you do disappear but the great thing about TV I think is because it's such a turnover of work and the circle is actually quite small. Like you do sort of have lots of conversations with the same people, which is great. 
Matimba: What's been the most challenging in terms know, what's been most challenging for you as a director? Doesn't necessarily mean the other elements, but, you know… 
Lewis: I think you're always challenged on every job and every job has its own unique challenges. And each job is made by those challenges and how you come out of it. I remember Humans series one. I worked very closely with an editor called Johnny Reynor. I remember on both series of Humans actually, one of the biggest challenges with Humans is you have a multi-strand narrative so you have lots of characters. There's lots of narrative threads and you film it as scripted but the minute you get into the edit, it never usually works as scripted. And so you kind of sit and we always basically put cards on the wall, like a picture from each scene. And I remember every day me and Johnny, we're having to sort of try and play around with the structure of that. 
But I find that an incredibly rewarding process. I love the edit. I love the idea of getting the material and then putting it together and then watching it and then going, "Okay, I know what we wanted to do. I know what we wanted it to be. But what is the best of what we've got here and how do we make it work?" 
Matimba: A rewarding challenge, which you made what could have been a negative into a positive there. But also it's interesting because since this has turned into ‘This is Your Life’, since I've gone so far off script, it's brilliant because it connects back to what you said earlier about how you first, you know…when you were younger and watching montage and editing and kind of thinking of someone does that. And it's, as you say, some people see something and go, "No, but this is how I thought it was gonna be." But, actually, in your mind, it seems like it's the reward to come out and look at something and go, "Oh, okay, we thought it was gonna be this but…" 
Lewis: I always try to say to my students the best part of what we do is being surprised as directors. And you can't be surprised if you're dictating the whole process. That's the best thing about our job in all aspects. You know, you wanna be surprised with performance. You wanna think you know what it is and then an actor comes in and does something and you go, "I didn't think it was that," but that's actually really interesting. Like that's the best thing about what we do. And I think the big thing that young filmmakers have to do is start to learn to let go. I definitely had to. I was a control freak. I still am, and it's about learning to let go so you can be surprised and also so you can get the most out of people and out of the process really, but it's difficult. 
Matimba: I think I should get that on a mug for some directors. And, normally, we wrap up our interviews by asking people what one piece of advice would you give to emerging filmmakers. 
Lewis: Buy my mug. That's gonna have on it. If you want to be surprised for the process, don't dictate it. There you go. No, I mean, really the most important piece of advice you can give anybody is, and it's a real cliché but it is the best piece of advice to young filmmakers, is the only way you can learn is to make, because a big part of learning is finding out your voice, finding out who you are and you have to make and you have to make... And that's why the NFTS is so brilliant because you make a film and you get interrogated by a room full of people. And then as you finish that and you feel low and you've just evaluated what went wrong with it or what went right with it, you have to make another film. 
Matimba: And I'm just gonna put a suggestion here that you might want to name your autobiography "Hard Work and Good Luck," because all the stories that you've told me today have been like the perfect thing of somebody works really hard and takes every opportunity, like the person who didn't turn up to the NFTS and then you got their spot. 
Lewis: It’s true. My old tutor said to me when I left, he wrote in my final feedback form at university, Dave [inaudible 00:24:52]. He was an absolute legend. He wrote to me, "You will succeed with determination, hard work and a little bit of luck." And he says, "And I wish you the best of luck." And that was…that's true. You know, you need to work hard and even, you know…and all those things need to work and happen together. It's tough but, you know, it can be done. 
Matimba: Well, it sounds really exciting. Good luck and thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. 
Lewis: Thank you so much for having me and for making me muffins and for entertaining me. It's been brilliant. And I'm sorry for boring everybody as well for ages but thank you. 
Matimba: There's more episodes and lots of content like this on the BFI NETWORK website including funding, first features, and loads of other interviews. We'd also like to know what you think about this podcast so why not tweet us @bfinetwork? The music you’ve heard is from Rory Dempsey. Thanks to Lewis, producer Marie, and the BFI NETWORK team. 
Where would I be without you? Those aren't even the words. It's something similar. It's something similar. How do I live...I mean, it's the same. You know what I mean? 
Marie: I like your version though. 
Matimba: Yes, step aside…it's not Shania Twain. What's her name? 
Marie: LeAnn Rimes? 
Matimba: LeAnn Rimes
Marie: I don't want this to be on there, that I have this knowledge in my brain.