Jennifer Sheridan on blooming from shorts to features and TV
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Jennifer Sheridan talks to us about directing new BBC series The Snow Spider as well as her new feature Rose, written by Matt Stokoe who stars opposite Sophie Rundle, and advice to filmmakers also looking to transition from shorts to features and TV.
Hello Jennifer, thank you for talking to us today. Firstly, congratulations on the new BBC series The Snow Spider that first aired at the weekend. As the director of the show, how did it feel seeing it go out Sunday evening?
Thanks so much! It’s an understatement to say it was extremely exciting and also slightly nerve wracking. I really wanted to do justice to the much loved books and create a show full of wonder and intrigue.
The most important factor was to capture the imagination of kids in the same way mine was caught as a youth. Shows like Eerie Indiana, Round The Twist and fantasy adventure films like The Goonies are part of the reason I even pursued a career in storytelling.
Can you tell us what the show is about and about your approach to telling this story?
The show is about a young boy called Gwyn (played by Fflyn Edwards), whose ancestor is a magician from Welsh myth and legend called Gwydion. On his ninth birthday, four years after his sister’s unsolved disappearance, his Nain (Welsh for Grandma) gives him five gifts to help him unlock his powers and try to heal his broken family.
I approached the series as though I was making some kind of epic adventure film, cramming in as much magic and peril as I was allowed.
My cinematographer Martyna Knitter and I wanted to shoot on anamorphic lenses to create a more cinematic look to the series. Thankfully the brilliant production team at Leopard were on board with our vision. In the end we decided on the Kowa Evolution set, which are new lenses using old Kowa glass. We shot on the Alexa Mini; the Kowas giving a lovely texture to our shots.
We had a brilliant Production Designer, Charles Whiteway, who brought his own inspirations and visual flare. We pushed it as far as we could, finding ways around the budget restrictions. I knew we couldn’t put kids on a mountain at night too often, so we built our own mountain top and 360 blue screen studio in a school hall.
It was coming up with those kind of innovative solutions, that allowed us to achieve what we did. I’m so happy with it.
How did you get involved with the project?
The long and short of it is that I met the executive producer Kristian Smith and producer Lindsay Hughes of Leopard Pictures at a drinks reception at the Content London conference back in 2018.
I was invited there as my short film The Super Recogniser was chosen to be shown on the delegates app (thanks to the TriForce Film Festival for making that happen). My agent, Robert Taylor at The Artists Partnership, introduced me to them and we got on really well. Cut to almost a year later and I was pitching myself to direct The Snow Spider. They offered me the job in the meeting, which never usually happens, I was over the moon!
I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive team as a first time series director. Lindsay and Kristian have such an amazing reputation with shows like The Mighty Boosh, Gavin and Stacy and Detectorists between them.
After working on many successful short films where funding is always tight, what was it like to work on such a high-end production?
When you come from the world of short films, you hear the budget for the series and think, wow that’s flippin’ loads! The reality is you can’t cut any corners the way you can with shorts and there are a lot more costs involved. It’s such a different beast they are almost incomparable.
Inevitably at some point you’ll be told; we can’t afford that, think of another way to get it done. What a background in shorts gives you, is the ability to adapt to budget restrictions and think on your feet.
I’ve been in so many meetings for TV shows where they’ve said to me, ‘we’re going to have to average shooting 8-10 pages a day’, or ‘we don’t have a huge budget, will you be able to cope with that?’ Making shorts is the best background for TV, because unless you're in the US where the big bucks are, you are going to have to work fast and cleverly to achieve high production value in this country.
You’ve also recently completed your first feature film Rose, can you tell us about it?
Yeah, It’s finally finished! I’m so excited to get it out there, although this pandemic might make that more challenging than we initially expected.
Rose is a tense, horror film written by and starring Matt Stokoe and co-starring Sophie Rundle and Olive Gray. It was produced by April Kelley and Sara Huxley of Mini Productions. We took our amazing cast and crew and holed ourselves up in a forest for three weeks to spend a tough but glorious fifteen days filming it. I’ve got to say I loved every second of it.
What was your experience making the jump to a feature?
Before I shot Rose, I read a brilliant book by Don Coscarelli called True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking. Towards the end of the book he gives some top tips for making successful indie films. One of them was to never shoot more than 4/5 days in a row or you’ll burn out or slip up.
We were shooting six-day weeks, so my biggest fear became that I would begin to make mistakes with no time or money left to fix them. Thankfully that didn’t happen, in fact towards the end of the shoot I’d stopped chugging Red Bull everyday and just wanted to shoot more and more. It was an energising experience and I feel it was due to the fact we had such a strong team. There was no hierarchy or naysayers, everyone cared and got involved and most of all we had fun.
Don’t get me wrong there were some tough days and we dealt with very difficult weather conditions (at one point we were snowed in entirely) but it was the best experience of my life and I’ll never forget it.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned during filming, and also once the film moved into post-production?
Woah, that’s a tough one as there were so many.
First of all, thoroughly hone your script. Try to do as much editing as possible in the development stage. On the budget we were operating at, you need to make every second you shoot count, you don’t have the luxury of shooting extra stuff or losing whole scenes in the edit.
Secondly, choose your crew extremely carefully, get references or try to meet as many before hand as possible. A good crew will make or break your experience of making a low-budget feature. Surround yourself with can-do attitudes and strong work ethics. One bad egg can really cost you and drag people down.
Finally, trust your instincts and try hold your nerve. Like a lot of directors I know, we are often our own worst critics and there will be times you’ll doubt yourself and your work. Try not to let those feelings derail you, there is always a way to make things better, you just need to explore every avenue and never give up.
Some members of the team, including cinematographer Martyna Knitter, also worked with you on The Snow Spider. How valuable was having those prior relationships?
For me, that relationship between director and DOP is the most important on-set relationship there is. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some absolutely brilliant DP’s in the past, but I’ve found a strong balance with Martyna.
I can come across as very laid back when it comes to lighting on set, but it’s all down to trusting a DOP to do their job well. That allows me to focus on the part I’m most passionate about, the story.
What advice would you give to other filmmakers looking to make the transition from shorts to features/TV?
Anyone I’ve ever spoken to about how they got their first feature has told a different tale. It’s a unique set of circumstance each time and so it’s really hard to present a clear path or direction for others to follow.
What I will say is that constantly making things and honing your craft will give you the best chance. Keep your eyes and ears open for every opportunity and don’t tie yourself down to just one idea. If there is a feature film that you feel it is your life purpose to make, don’t make it your first one! You are going to learn so much and make so many mistakes along the way, give yourself the best chance of doing it justice.
I don’t feel like I’ve made my best work yet and I’m incredibly happy about that, it gives me something to strive for and push myself in every thing I do. No one in this industry wants to peak too early!
The Snow Spider currently airs Sundays at 18:05 on CBBC and BBC Wales. It's also available on the BBC iPlayer.
You can follow Jennifer on Instagram: @jen_filmineer