Polly Stokes currently works as a Development Editor at Film4, but just before she joined Film4, she independently produced Paul Wright’s Film4-backed debut feature For Those In Peril. Here, Polly shares how her own career has unfolded so far and what it’s like to work in development at Film4.
I started my career in theatre, working for a wonderful theatre company called Complicite. I was there for six years, tour managing and producing, and then I wanted a change. I’d always loved cinema but I didn’t really have any sense of how films got made so I decided to try and find out. I went to meet Ken Loach’s producer Rebecca O’Brien and she said, “go to NFTS and do the Producing MA – just badger your way in” and they kind of took a punt on me. NFTS is where I met Paul Wright [director, For Those In Peril] and there was a dialogue between us about the kind of films that we liked and the kind of films that we wanted to make.
As I was finishing at NFTS, I met with Warp Films and they said “we don’t have any jobs, but we can give you an email address and a desk so why don’t you come here and see if you can set some projects up?” Essentially, it was the offer of a professional community which was very welcome. I had this feeling that Paul’s sensibility would be a good fit for Warp, so I brought him in to meet Robin Gutch and Mary Burke and they said “look, why don’t you guys go and see if you can find a feature idea?”
Developing For Those In Peril
The development process was fairly conventional. Paul had a few ideas that we discussed, we wrote an outline and then we wrote a scriptment, which describes the film scene by scene and beat by beat in quite a lot of detail, and then we wrote a script. I worked really hard on the writing with Paul, and I suppose my role was to try to help shape the material into acts. I was quite provocative and tried to push him hard; I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to make sure that we would be able to sustain Paul’s filmmaking style over ninety minutes. I think that we worked well together because he’s very clear about his vision and about why he wants to tell his stories, so he can take a lot of interrogation.
I think pre-production is always my favourite time on films because it feels so practically creative – or creatively practical, I don’t know which is more accurate.
Paul had always imagined that we’d shoot in Fife, which is where he’s from, and he had written with Fife in mind. And then when we went to Fife it became clear that he was writing about Fife in the eighties – his childhood – and actually that Fife didn’t really exist anymore. So we asked Creative Scotland for some money from a recce fund and we drove the whole east coast of Scotland with a very good scout called Michael Campbell looking for an alternative location. When we arrived in Gourdon – which is in Aberdeenshire – it was just like, “this is it.” It was an amazing moment, really thrilling – suddenly we could see the film.
Alongside this location work we were casting. We worked with wonderful Scottish casting directors Kahleen Crawford and Danny Jackson, who were based in Glasgow. Paul wanted to sit through all of the auditions. You learn so much about your script doing that – you learn the scenes that work and the scenes that don’t work and you learn about the range of qualities that an actor is going to need.
Producer Mary Burke came and joined us in Scotland for the prep, and we were both on the shoot together. She was completely amazing. Low-budget depends on charismatic leadership, and she really has that in spades. She’s a brilliant galvaniser and really makes people believe in what they’re doing. She’s also a lot of fun. I learnt so much from her about what a producer does on-set and during production. She is very focussed about what matters.
We edited in Scotland and London for about 12 weeks. I don’t really have much experience in the edit so I felt very happy taking a back seat during that part of the process. There were a lot of really strong voices in the mix: Mary and Robin, Katherine Butler (Film4), Lizzie Francke (BFI), Robbie Allen (Creative Scotland). And we had a supervising editor called Anders Refn, who is one of Lars Von Trier’s key collaborators. He came and worked with us over a long weekend and was incredibly clear and insightful about what the film needed. It was a masterclass, actually.
By the time we submitted to Cannes, the film was picture locked and it had a bit of unmixed sound but didn’t have any proper music on it and it wasn’t graded. So it was a leap of faith. I think that the Critics’ Week programmers are really brave about what they back and select.
The move to Film4
We finished shooting For Those In Peril in October 2012 and Sam Lavender (former Head of Development at Film4, now Commissioning Executive) approached me in December – so when the film was coming up to picture lock – to ask whether I’d have an interest in applying for a position in the development team. I told him that I was very interested. I love how Film4 works with talent and producers, and I think that they (we!) make some of the best films in the world right now.
I started working here in March. I’m so glad that I’ve had the experience of producing a film and I think it makes me a better Development Editor, but I’m also happy to have hung up my producing hat for the time being, at least. Being a producer is very emotional and my job now is simply to help the writers, directors and producers to make their script the best version of what it can be; it’s not as invested as producing. I have to say I’m finding it a very rewarding, satisfying process and I think that I’m often able to be more helpful because I have a bit of distance.
I currently edit across about a third of the slate – alongside my colleagues Eva Yates and Tom Leggett – and my involvement in different projects is bespoke to what’s needed. Sometimes I will send notes, sometimes I will sit with a writer for half a day and try to work through problems in person.
We all do a lot of scouting and tracking of what’s going on outside of Film4. We read novels in manuscript and go to film festivals and see theatre and stand-up and performance poetry and contemporary art/dance, so there’s a very energetic sense of trying to keep an overview of what’s going on culturally and what is special.