Elizabeth Blake-Thomas is an award-winning British film director working in LA. When we spoke to her, in the midst of the pandemic, she was in the unusual position of self-isolating on a boat along with her daughter actress Isobella Blake-Thomas.
You’re currently in quarantine on a boat in LA. How does this kind of isolation work for you in terms of creativity? This kind of situation might be relatively straightforward for your work as a writer but what does “working from home” look like when you are a director? I originally bought the boat with the idea it could be my creative space. I’ve always felt like looking out at the boats and sitting on the water is conducive to a creative work environment to me. I fell in love with the lifestyle so much that I knew I wanted to live on it full time. I had no idea how perfect it would be for self-isolation. I’m able to really be productive and creative as there isn’t anything else to do on the boat other than write and create.
When it comes to directing, directing is actually only a small proportion of being on set. A director does so much more and it is easy making all of this happen from the boat. Casting can be done via self-tapes, I can find locations online and it’s easy to breakdown scripts. We can actually be more prepared than ever for our next shoots. We are just waiting for the go to start filming again. You originally hail from UK. How did a Derbyshire lass ended up in the Hollywood Hills? How much easier is it to get films made out there? How different do the film industries differ in the UK and US? It was something I had never even considered, it’s not like I sat there as a little girl dreaming about Hollywood. The only reason I came here was because of my daughter. She was on a drama course in NYC and they mentioned the same course was held in LA. I asked my mom if she fancied a road trip and so the three of us drove from NYC to LA. The minute I arrived I fell in love with it. I hadn’t even considered being in the industry. This was all about my daughter, Isabella. It was only four years ago that I made my first feature.
I think it’s just as hard to make films but here is easier access to everything. There are actors everywhere, places to rent equipment, crew that want to create, so many stories to be told. Due to its sunny climate, it’s much easier to meet people, whether you’re in a coffee shop or just walking down the street. Everyone is incredibly open and receptive. I also think it helped standing out and being British over here. I’ve never made a film in the UK.
However, I do know that the support in LA and the openness seems to be more apparent. I’m not sure I would have been given the same opportunities in the UK.
Your award-winning short film Unseen was based on a true story about child trafficking. What drew you to this topic? How did you go about researching it and what did you find most challenging about depicting this kind of story? I attended Sundance Film Festival and I was told this true story. As a mother of a 17 year old who has to be in social media for her job, the story resonated with me. I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable and aware of my daughter’s safety. However this was something I knew nothing about. I had no idea how predators worked the social media system. I wanted to make a film which would inform others and which would start a conversation. Something that everyone could watch and talk about.
The most challenging aspect was convincing everyone that we didn’t need to be graphic. We all know what child trafficking means; I don’t want to throw that down everyone’s throats. I wanted it to have an impact but be appropriate for its audience. I also wanted to show social media in a more interesting way and thought long and hard about that. I’m glad I stuck to my guns with both of these concepts.
Your most recent feature Evie Rose focuses on an inter-generational relationship between two women. As someone who runs their own production company with their daughter, how important is that bond between you both, and what are the challenges and benefits of working so closely together? This bind is unbreakable. Anyone who knows us understands our relationship. We are best friends, mother and daughter, business partners and roomies. We have such fun together and I couldn’t imagine travelling with anyone else. Working together just seemed the obvious choice. She can do all of the things I can’t and vice verse. Also she knows exactly what I mean before I speak. I think about the bigger picture and she is excellent with the detail. It’s the most perfect mix.
Your production company’s aim is to make “content that matters”. How do you decide on projects that will fit this remit? I just love stories. Stories that myself or my daughter would want to watch. I come up with ideas all the time and give them to my screenwriters to flesh out. I believe we should be putting up content that inspires and has a moral. I don’t agree with guns and swearing or too much sex on screen. I just don’t think it’s necessary. I never watched it growing up and neither did Isabella. Actually, we haven’t had a TV now for 15 years.
As a female director you are an incredible advocate for working with a 50/50 gender split in your productions. How easy is this to maintain? I think there are plenty of women for all roles. There are some roles in the crew that men prefer to do than woman and vice versa, however they are all out there. You just need to know where to look. I try to get the best person for the job, ensuring I’ve given everyone a chance to pitch themselves for the role. As a regular contributor at film festivals, how do you feel women are represented at these events? What you like to see change in the future? It seems to be a pretty even split in the local film festivals but the larger more exclusive festivals have less woman led content. All I can say is that I what to be chosen because my film is amazing and excellent NOT because I’m a woman. I know that my films aren’t there yet, I have a lot to learn and will continue to learn. So it’s more than the festivals and awards it’s about being given an opportunity to show what we can do as directors.
If I had a million dollars I wouldn’t risk it on someone that I didn’t know. But that’s where I differ; I mentor on all of my sets, not shadow but mentor. So someone who wants to be a director can watch and learn allowing me to see whether they could take the reins next time. I think more studios should allow this. Learning on the job is the only way. When the lockdown hit, you were working on your new documentary Consume as little as possible. How has the current situation affected the production? I was lucky enough to get all my footage before the lockdown. Also a documentary needs footage like the current news situation. This has actually allowed me to be open to so much more in the short documentary. I’m also editing two others. President Austin about a 4 year old boy who is trying to prevent homelessness through showing love. The Girl with The Crooked Smile, a true inspirational story about a local LA girl called Sarah Tubert. They are all being worked on as we speak.
What kind of projects and themes would you like to work on in the future? Have you got any projects you can talk about at the moment which are in the pipeline? I like anything that inspires me and makes me want to get up in the morning. The latest project is Project Phoenix. I’ve set a campaign up to help fund 350 creative freelancers whilst the pandemic is taking place. It’s one way to help the industry survive. Also my book “Filmmaking without Fear” will be out later this year.
What advice would you give to young female directors or writers on how to make sure their voice is heard in the film industry? Just write about what you know and believe in. You have to be happy with what you’re doing. If you’re not happy then that will show through your work. Listen to your own voice and stay true to yourself and your vision. Be in the industry because you love it more than anything.
You can follow Elizabeth on Instagram: @Elizabeth_B_T