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Building a TV drama directing career

Jessica Hobbs has directed more than 60 hours of TV drama, from The Slap to Broadchurch. Here she talks career progression.

Director Jessica Hobbs on the set of The Slap

How did you get your start in directing?

I had worked as an assistant director for a long time before I started making short films in NZ, and directed a half-hour TV drama based on one of my shorts.

Then I moved to Australia and didn’t get into film school, which was very disappointing. They thought I had too much experience. It was frustrating, because I wanted to be in an environment where I could practice. And AD-ing isn’t a natural path to directing – I think it’s a more natural path to producing.

I was AD-ing on Heartbreak High at the time. As I hung up from that rejection call, the producer walked in and I just blurted out how I directed.

He said, “Great, why don’t you show me your work, maybe you can do some of this?” And walked out. And I thought, “Why didn’t I do that years ago?”

What did you learn on Heartbreak High?

That producer liked my previous work, and gave me a couple of episodes of Heartbreak High to direct, as well as a really great piece of advice.

He said, “I don’t really care how brilliant it looks. If you tell the story well, I’ll give you another block to do. If you don’t tell the story well, that’ll be it.”

I thought, OK, that’s a very simple instruction. It’s stood me in good stead ever since.

What was a major turning point in your career?

I’d done a couple of years working on Heartbreak High and other shows, and I was doing police and hospital dramas and really struggling to progress in that work.

Then on the spur of the moment I went to New York and worked for a documentary company. But what New York gave me was a real drive to go after the type of work that I really wanted to do. I hadn’t really had the courage to do that before then. So when I came back I made a beeline for the producers and projects I wanted to do, and I just went for those. It was a profound shift in my thinking.

It’s a very good thing for people to think about – what are the shows where you can shine and contribute? What are the kinds of stories you are interested in telling? It’s also about working with the creative teams that do that. It’s what I started to do and it made a huge difference.

So from there, I quite aggressively pursued anything that I felt I could make a real contribution to – projects that were perhaps a little outside the mainstream, but more interesting in the stories they wanted to explore. And there was a great confluence working with people like Jacquelin Perske and Mike Jenkins, who were incredibly generous and very good at giving me opportunities to do things when I was still relatively inexperienced.

How do you maintain your unique voice when directing TV?

It’s always quite a challenge and again it’s about trying to choose the work where you can have a voice – and where both the producers and the writers are interested in the director’s voice.

I made a real point of developing relationships with writers and producers whose work I was interested in doing and those relationships then paid off later. It also meant I was often involved quite early in the development of things, which enables your voice to come through because you are part of the creative process of the origination of an idea, part of the writer’s room. That way of working really helped me, and I’m much better at that than at dropping into episodic shows where you can do great work, but you tend to have to fit into the mould of what’s already been set.

How involved are you in postproduction?

I’m very involved in postproduction, right through to the grade and final mix.

I’ve been really lucky working on shows that are director-lead, and on those shows it’s a collaboration – it’s the director, the producer, and the writer in the edit. And then once you’ve all come to an agreed trust then the broadcaster comes in.

I did do one program for mainstream television where we’d finished the edit and the producer said we going to take it off to show the network. I went to get my bag, and he said, “Oh, no, you don’t come.” And I said, “Really? I’m finished then?” And they said, “No, no, you wait here, and when we come back with the notes, you cut the notes.” “And I said, “I don’t think so. We can just leave it here, that’s fine. You guys can cut the notes. You don’t need me to do that. If the conversation finishes here, it’s fine.”

It was eye-opening for me, because I’d never really had to work like that before. For my first two years of Heartbreak High they didn’t have a local broadcaster, so we were literally cutting for the producers and it was a great learning environment. I haven’t had too experience much of the other end of high-end commercial television, which is perhaps more restrictive of the director in the edit.

What happens when there’s a conflict between your vision and the broadcasters’?

You encounter that kind of conflict a lot – that happens on most jobs to varying degrees. It’s a constant learning process. From my end, I try to be as clear as possible about what my point of view is and why I’m putting it forward, but I always try and not remain closed off from what other people are asking for as well. A lot is to do with your initial interview and discussions about the job – how is this going to work, how do you see it working, what level of collaboration do you want from the director? You can flush out a lot of that initially.

I think early on in your career, it’s just good to get the practice where you can, but at the same time it’s kind of great to be on shows where the director is involved in the whole process. Because first there is a script that has to be written. Then there’s the process of shooting that script. And then there’s the process of actually making the piece in the edit room. And those are very distinct stages of creativity, and you have to understand it’s a collaboration.

A lot of it is about being clear about the story you want to tell, and pitching to people initially, this is how I want it to look, so they’re not going to be too surprised in the edit. But sometimes it’s really hard and you have to say, “Look, I don’t agree, but in the end if that’s the way you’re going to go forward, that’s the way you’re going to go forward, but this is what I’m trying to get you to understand.” And it’s the same from their perspective too. There’s a great rub in creative collaboration.

What did you discover during your time as a commissioning editor?

I’ve produced and executive produced on a couple of things. But I’ve also worked for a year as a commissioning editor, and that was a real eye opener. I was on the other side of people pitching, showing cuts, going to mixes. I found that extraordinarily rewarding and I learned an enormous amount from it. It enabled me to see just how many people are involved in making a project. You can get quite myopic as a director – “I am trying to do this…” – but actually there is an enormous amount of people whose jobs are all on the line in terms of what’s produced, and it gave me a much greater understanding of that.

It was also very useful to understand how budgets are constructed, and what kinds of restrictions there are on them. It gave me an advantage in terms of being able to negotiate things I might require in the way I want to shoot things or length of time. It enabled me to have realistic discussions with people, saying we have a limited amount of money but how we choose to spend it is up to us as a team, so let’s look at what we can do. And that’s what I try to do, get into situations where I can be involved as a key team player. And I think television has been shifting in that direction for quite a long time now.

What would you say has been a key thing you’ve learned?

I speak up earlier about my approach to the work and about things that I think could be misinterpreted, or sticking points in the script – I try and flush out those conversations as early as possible.

I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to be very frank about what I think my strengths are in the work, what I can contribute to it, and then leave them to make the decision as to whether I’m the right person. Rather than trying to mould myself to what I think they’re looking for, I’m actually much clearer now, saying, “This is what the story is about for me. This is the message I’ll be pushing – does that work for you?”

You can watch The Slap on Presto now. Find out where you can stream Australian titles using the Gyde links that are available on Screen Australia’s The Screen Guide.