British Independent Film Awards 2016: The Debut Directors Long List

2:30 AM 10/21/2016

by Alex Ritman

A preview of the 15 films – and 16 first-time feature directors – in the running for the nomination slots of the the Douglas Hickox Award.

'Under the Shadow'
'Under the Shadow'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The British Independent Film Awards – the BIFAs to those in the know – is set to unveil its official nominations on Nov. 1 ahead of the Dec 4. ceremony in London.

To celebrate the addition of several new categories aimed at highlighting new and emerging names, The Hollywood Reporter has teamed with the organizers to profile those who have made it onto the nominee long lists.

Following Wednesday's debut screenwriter category and Thursday's breakthrough producers, today it's the turn of the Douglas Hickox Award for debut director. Fifteen films and 16 filmmakers are in the running, many of whom have cropped up in the other long lists as well and many already acclaimed for their work on TV and shorts. From grisly dark comedy to music documentary via Farsi-language horror, the eclectic range of work boasts a tremendous array of talent, with one film already tipped to make it to the Oscars in February.

  • 'Adult Life Skills'

    Rachel Tunnard, writer-director

    Credit: Producers

    Rachel Tunnard – also on the longlist for first-time screenwriter – switched from a career as film and TV editor to director for her 2015 BAFTA-nominated short Emotional Fusebox. The film became the pilot for her first feature, Adult Life Skills, a comedy about a young women refusing to move out of her mother's shed and starring Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch, Attack the Block). It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the the Nora Ephron Prize.

    Do you have a key piece of advice you’d give to someone starting off in filmmaking?

    Publicize your own failings in a way that is funny is the key to endearment and success. Also, be humble and always offer to make the tea. They never fire the person who makes the tea.

    If you could have directed any film ever made, which one would it be?

    I always feel a lot of pressure as a filmmaker to say something high-brow or academic as an answer to questions like this but in truth, it would probably be something like Wayne's World. It looked like such a hoot and such a massive warm film family.

    Can you describe one obstacle you had to overcome while making this film?

    Trying to get a tired 7 year old to act when he just wants to play hide and seek. I thought I was a failure and then I realized that if I offered him £1 to do the scene he would agree. So I would give the £1 to him, and he’d give it to his Dad to look after, then when the kid wasn’t looking, his Dad would give it back to me. This happened quite a lot around the middle of the shoot. It made me realize I am not a failure - I am just manipulative.

  • 'Gozo'

    Miranda Bowen, writer-director

    Credit: Producers

    St. Martin's grad Miranda Bowen cut her directorial teeth with the award-winning short Honeymoon, going on to direct for Channel 4 and the BBC, including Women in Love starring Rosamund Pike. Her feature length debut, the psychological ghost story Gozo – which she also wrote – follows a couple who emigrate to a tiny, picturesque Mediterranean island only to find that their sunny homespun paradise begins to darken and sour as the buried horrors of their past resurface. It won the best U.K. feature award at this year's Raindance Film Festival.

  • 'The Hard Stop'

    George Amponsah, director

    Credit: Producers

    Having started taking pictures in the 1980s as a photographer and Super 8mm film enthusiast, George Amponsah moved to documentaries, directing 2004's The Importance of Being Elegant for the BBC about Congolese singer Papa Wembe and, more recently, The Fighting Spirit, about three young boxers in Ghana. In The Hard Stop, he strives to unpeel the true story of the U.K. riots of 2011 that were sparked by the death of Mark Duggan by armed police. The acclaimed feature – which also features on BIFA's breakthrough producer long list – had its world premiere in Toronto before releasing in U.K. cinemas, and on Netflix in the U.S., over the summer.

    Why do you make movies?

    Because I'm a socially awkward day dreamer.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    Hard to say who gets the most admiration but one that springs to mind is Jim Jarmusch, for his body of work and the look of bewilderment he gave me when I thanked him for making Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    An award we won recently for The Hard Stop. We were nominated alongside a very highly acclaimed film that I was convinced would win.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to direct?

    Yes... but I'm also a bit superstitious.

  • 'The Levelling'

    Hope Dickson Leach, writer-director

    Credit: Producers

    A two-timer on the BIFA longlists, also appearing in this year's debut screenwriter section, Hope Dickson Leach was recently awarded the first IWC Filmmaker Bursary, a £50,000 ($61,000) for her next feature that was presented in association with the BFI. The Columbia University grad's first feature The Levelling is a brooding drama that follows the story of a young woman who returns to her family farm to help sort out affairs after the recent suicide of her brother. The film had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in the Discovery section and screened at the London Film Festival.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    There’s a long list of living filmmakers I love - Peter Weir, Kelly Reichardt, The Dardennes Brothers, Ken Loach, but I think Jane Campion is at the top. Her films (and recently television work) are not just consummate storytelling in action, but are complex and compelling. The breadth of what she achieves on screen is extraordinary, and I love seeing real women being at the center of their own stories.

    What's the most important lesson learned from making your first film?

    Nobody cares what the budget is after the film is made. The audience aren’t going to let you off taking the story the place it should go just because you can’t afford to shoot that. It’s your job to be creative, ambitious, and let small stories be as large as they are to the people in them.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to direct?

    For years now I have dreamt of adapting The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I know I’m not alone in this, but you never know…

  • 'The Man from Mo'Wax'

    Matthew Jones, producer-director

    Credit: Donald Milne

    A multi-award winning creative director and producer, Jones has produced several acclaimed shorts, including Hawk, Gin & Dry and Killing Thyme, with his partner M J McMahon for their production company Capture (the pair also appear on the BIFAs breakthrough producer long list). For his first feature, he delved into the underground music scene to chart the life and career of one of its once biggest names, Mo'Wax records founder James Lavelle. Using hours of lost archive footage, Jones' pulsating doc – which features the likes of DJ Shadow and Grandmaster Flash – offers a poignant insight into the life of that, as he says, "many desire but few know the reality of." The film debuted at SXSW.

    Why do you make movies?

    I've been a movie fan since before I can remember. I love going to the cinema so much, It's been my dream to make films and create stories that people can escape to a different world for a couple of hours. It's about connecting emotionally and keeping people riveted at the same time.

    Which director do you admire the most?

    Christopher Nolan consistently leaves me in awe. He's manages to be able to consistently release original, written-for -the-screen, high concept studio films year after year.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to work on?

    I have a mysterious time travel film I've had in my head for 5 years. It will get made one day.

  • 'Mindhorn'

    Sean Foley, director

    Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL

    Sean Foley has almost three decades of experience on the stage; starting as a comedy performer and writer, moving to more classical roles (such as alongside Mark Rylance in 2007's I Am Shakespeare), and then onto directing, working with Joan Rivers on her autobiographical show Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress and winning widespread West End acclaim – and an Olivier Award nomination – for The Ladykillers in 2012. His directorial film debut Mindhorn, also in the BIFA long list for debut screenwriter, is a few steps from both Ealing Comedy classics and the Bard; a farcical satire about a MI5 special operative who was captured in the late 1980s and had his eye replaced by a super-advanced optical lie detector.

    Why do you make movies?

    I love the sound of people laughing

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    Actually being asked to make a film in the first place! Mindhorn is my first.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to work on?

    There was a mis-firing biopic made once about Buster Keaton, who is a hero of mine and a great physical comedian and an amazing groundbreaking creator of mass entertainment. I'd like to make a new film about him – he is one of the great geniuses of both comedy and film (and before that, theater and vaudeville). There is a fantastic, hilarious and moving rags to riches to rags to riches story to be told about him.

  • 'Moon Dogs'

    Philip John, director

    Credit: Producers

    Award-winning Welsh director Philip John – an ex-punk bassist and self-confessed ping-pong fanatic – is a well established name in the TV industry, having directed episodes of Downton Abbey, Outlander, Being Human and ITV's upcoming series The Halcyon. His feature debut, Moon Dog – among the titles in BIFA's breakthrough producer long list as well – tells the story two teenage step brothers who fall for the same girl on a chaotic Scottish road trip. It won the Best International First Feature at the Galway Fleadh 2016 and has been nominated for best film at the BAFTA Scotland awards.

    Why do you make movies?

    I regard my film work as a provocation. In my youth I was a working class punk. Now I have a family and a mortgage, but I still carry the torch.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    Michael Haneke. Check out The White Ribbon about the rise of political and religious terrorism across the planet right now.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    Growing up in the South Wales Valleys, the son of a foundry worker and part time waitress, I knew I wanted to make films, but had no idea how it might be possible. One day, I saw an actor on the TV with the same accent as mine. My father told me his name was Anthony Hopkins. Seeing this man gave me the belief that something might be possible. Thirty years later, I was directing on Downton Abbey. Anthony Hopkins happened to be in the same building. I wrote him a letter, which I gave to his producer. Next day I was invited to meet Tony, and I was able to let him know how his example had helped shape my life. I was struck by his gracious humility.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to direct?

    Too many to mention, though I’d love to have a crack at A Confederacy of Dunces.

  • 'My Feral Heart'

    Jane Gull, director

    Credit: Producers

    A Berlinale Talent Campus alumni, Jane Gull has been making shorts since 2005, with her award-winning film Sunny Boy being picked up by Channel 4 and TV ARTE. For her feature debut, My Feral Heart – which is also long listed in the debut screenwriter and breakthrough producer categories – tells the story of fiercely independent young man with Down syndrome thrown into a daunting new environment after a sudden bereavement.

    Why do you make movies?

    I want to make films that are personal but interesting to me and to an audience. I barely make a living but wake up every day loving what I do and you can't put a price on that.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    Ken Loach. A career spanning over 50 years and winning the Palme d'Or twice is pretty amazing. I love the naturalistic quality of his work and always find his films thought provoking. I can't think of another director who has so much integrity.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    I couldn’t believe it in 2014 when I got a call informing me the Mayor of Cannes had requested my short film Sunny Boy screen alongside Winter Sleep, that years winner of the Palme d’Or. It was pretty unbelievable having my film screen to over two thousand people in the grand auditorium at Palais des Festivals.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to direct?

    I most certainly do. It combines two of my big passions - travel and dance. Watch this space!

  • 'Notes on Blindness'

    Pete Middleton and James Spinney, director

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Peter Middleton and James Spinney have been working together for the past six years on a range of fiction, documentary and cross-platform projects. During this period they adapted into a series of award-winning shorts the diary material of John Hull, who used recordings to explain the world of blindness after losing his sight in 1983. The first of these, Rainfall, won the best short documentary award at Hot Docs 2013. This was followed in 2014 by the Emmy-winning short, also entitled Notes on Blindness, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival and won best documentary at the Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. The feature length version – which also features on the BIFA's long list for breakthrough producers – has been met with critical acclaim since premiering at this year's Sundance.

  • 'The Pass'

    Ben A. Williams, director

    Credit: Producers

    Having cut his teeth as assistant to BAFTA-winning producer Duncan Kenworthy, and later for Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald, Ben A. Williams created the award-winning web series Tube Tube while also directing shorts including Post Jump and The Fan. His debut feature, The Pass, is based on John Donnelly's acclaimed stage play (Donnelly wrote the screenplay and features on the BIFA's debut screenwriter long list) and centers on a closeted gay soccer player, set across three hotel rooms over 12 years. The film opened London's LGBT film festival, BFI Flare, and is set for release in the U.K. in December with Lionsgate.

  • 'The Passing (Yr Ymadawiad)'

    Gareth Bryn, director

    Credit: Producers

    An experienced vfx artist and editor who runs his own post-production facility, Gareth Bryn made his first short in 2005. The film, Waking Sleep, saw success on Kevin Spacey's Trigger Street before being commissioned for a Welsh language version. He's since won Welsh BAFTA and has been nominated a further seven times. The Passing, his debut feature, sees two young lovers plunged into a lost world after crashing their car in the remote mountains of Wales and being dragged from a river by a mysterious figure.

    Why do you make movies?

    I get to make pretend for a living. Who wouldn't want to do that?

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    It seems to me that the industry wants to define directors by particular genres. I am drawn to directors who buck the trend and move from genre to genre. Kubrick is a great example of this. WWII film, comedy, sc-fi, thriller, horror. He did them all. I envy and admire him for that.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    There are lots of them. Sometimes when I'm filming something will happen and we're lucky enough to capture it. The stars aligned for that brief moment and we caught it on camera. It gets me every time. 

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to direct?

    Because film is so hard to get made, we're working on three or four films but my absolute passion project is a black and white biopic about a Welsh boxer. Its a boxing film with a difference. It's beautiful and gentle and heartbreaking.

  • 'Prevenge'

    Alice Lowe, writer-director

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Already a well-established comedy actress and writer with stints on The Mighty Boosh and roles on films such as Hot Fuzz and The World's End with Simon Pegg and Ben Wheatley's Sightseers (which she co-wrote as well as playing one of the leads), Alice Lowe turned the camera on herself for her feature-length directorial debut, which she also wrote. Prevenge, which bowed in Venice, is a grisly, dark satire in which she plays a pregnant woman who believes her unborn child is telling her to kill people. Adding extra complications to the production, Lowe was herself pregnant at the time (although this reduced the need for pillows up jumpers). She also stars in two other films on the BIFA long lists in The Ghoul and Adult Life Skills.

    Why do you make movies?

    I'm a creative but I don't have any specific skill like a high grade at violin or master pottery, so directing is a way of making stuff without having to be an expert, ha ha! Actually I find it's because I'm interested in lots of different disciplines, music, theatre, comedy, visual art, costume, set design, soundscape, lighting, etc. Anything that has an effect on a audience. Bringing all of those things together is so exciting to me. I enjoy making things for people. It's a bit like enjoying giving someone a Christmas present or something: will they be pleased/surprised/shocked?

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    Difficult question. I admire lots of different talents within different ones. Kubrick for his precision, Andrea Arnold for her freeness, Lars Von Trier for his irreverence. I love a bit of Werner Herzog too. He's such a nutter. But a genius obviously. And someone like Terry Gilliam, who just lives and breathes imagination. I hope I never stop enjoying what I do like him.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    Probably getting into Cannes with Sightseers. Wasn't sure whether they'd made a mistake or not. If they were sure they wanted these pasty British people turning up on the Croisette in caghoules.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to work on?

    Oh about twenty. All my project are passion projects! I really am determined to get a Delia Derbyshire biopic made. Even though I've tried and people tend to say, "she's not famous enough." Or, "there's not enough of a story." (Which I'm convinced is only because she's a woman.) But she fought her whole life to express herself creatively, so I feel that, in her honor, I should pursue it.

  • 'Swallows and Amazons'

    Philippa Lowthorpe, director

    Credit: Producers

    A BAFTA-winner for her work on TV, Philippa Lowthorpe's credits include the BBC's hit series Call the Midwife, which she helped set up and was the lead director for the first season, and episodes of Jamaica Inn, alongside TV movies such as The Other Boleyn Girl, Cider With Rosie and Beau Brummell: This Charming Man. Her feature debut Swallows and Amazons, based on the much-loved children's adventure novel by Arthur Ransome, came with backing from BBC Films and starred Rafe Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald. StudioCanal released the film in the U.K. earlier this summer.

    Why do you make movies?

    I’ve always loved telling stories, from writing epic adventures as a child to reading bedtime stories to my kids. Somewhere along the way I discovered the power of film and that it could capture my heart in a totally immersive way, beyond anything, so that’s why I wanted to try and tell stories through film.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    Jane Campion for inspiring me with her beautiful films, and demonstrating  that a woman could actually be a director.  Ken Loach for continuing to tell the powerful stories of ordinary people, Michael Haneke for his intellectual challenge, Kieslowski for his humanity and imagination, Alan Clarke for his searing voice, Ang Lee for The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, Cohen Brothers for No Country for Old Men and Fargo, Thomas Vintenberg for Festen  - so many more I could mention….

    In your career to date, what's been your biggest "I can't believe it" moment?

    I have two equal moments. First is seeing the wonderful posters for Swallows and Amazons on the London underground this summer (the fulfillment of a long held ambition) and having my first film go out in almost 500 cinemas. Second is when I won the BAFTA for directing TV drama in 2013. I was absolutely convinced I didn’t stand a chance of winning so had no speech prepared. Sadly, I am still the only woman director ever to have won it.

    Do you have a passion project that you're determined to work on?

    Lots! And working with Andrea Gibb on Swallows was a joy, so we are already plotting a new adventure...

  • 'Trespass Against Us'

    Adam Smith, director

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Already an award-winning director of TV drama, documentaries and music videos, with three episodes of Doctor Who under his belt and a long collaborative history of working with the Chemical Brothers, Adam Smith amassed an A-list cast for his feature length directorial debut (and brought on board his electronic music pals to do the soundtrack). Trespass Against Us – also in the breakthrough producer long list – is a crime drama set within the Traveler community and stars Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson. A24 is distributing the film in the U.S., with Lionsgate looking after the U.K.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    There are so many to admire but I saw American Honey last week and Andrea Arnold is truly amazing.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    On Trespass Against Us one of the scenes involved Micheal Fassbender’s character hiding under a real cow. Fortunately for everyone the cow was very well behaved.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to work on?

    There are a few. We're developing a project about Wiley, the godfather of Grime, with Pulse Films, which I am very excited about.

  • 'Under the Shadow'

    Babak Anvari, writer-director

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Babak Anvari followed up his BAFTA-nominated short Two & Two with Under the Shadow, a Farsi-language horror set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. The film was a sensation in Sundance, picked up by Netflix, released theatrically in both the U.K. and U.S. earlier this month and has now been submitted as the U.K.'s admission to the Oscar's foreign language category. Development on an English-language remake is already underway.

    Why do you make movies?

    As a child I was not only obsessed with films and cartoons, I was also obsessed with European comics – chiefly Tintin. And I was always trying to draw comics (really badly). And then at about 10 and 11, when I was religiously watching Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton films, I realized that I want to make films. It is my favourite medium for telling stories.

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    Spielberg was the first director who inspired me to become a filmmaker as a child. Tim Burton as well. It was only later that I found my other idols. I love Kubrick. I love early Polanski films. I love David Lynch. I am obsessed with many of Chris Nolan's films. Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher are huge inspirations – I love most of their films. Asghar Farhadi's films A Separation and About Elly are in my top 10 favorite films of all time. I am a huge fan of Michael Haneke – definitely another of my favorite filmmakers. I can keep going... But I guess you get an idea. I watch anything and everything, from blockbusters to art house cinema, so the list of my favorite directors is varied.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one “I can’t believe it” moment?

    Two moments. First when I got nominated for a BAFTA for my short film Two & Two. And the second one when I found out that Under the Shadow was having its world premiere at Sundance. When I was a teenager, aspiring to become a filmmaker, it was my dream to one day make a film that gets into Sundance.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to work on?

    A few. I do want to make a film set in space one day... hopefully.

  • 'Undocument'

    Kyla Simone Bruce, writer-director-producer

    Kyla Simon Bruce graduated with an MA with distinction from the London Film School in 2013, with her film The Interpreter nominated for several awards, long-listed for the BAFTA short film award 2015 and awarded best student short as well as receiving a special mention for best woman director at last year’s London Short Film Festival. In her debut feature doc Undocument she tackles illegal immigration, weaving together the stories of four different journeys spread across Iran, Greece and England.

    Why do you make movies?

    By making films I continuously learn so much about life and am able to show people parts of society that they wouldn't otherwise be able to experience. I want my films to spark positive debates and conversation. Also, I don't really know how to do anything else!

    Which director do you admire the most and why?

    That's a hard question because there are so many - but I would have to say Ken Loach because he is such a bad ass socialist, who's integrity has never wavered. What he has done for British film is incredible.

    In your career to date, what’s been your number one "I can’t believe it" moment?

    After one of our screenings of Undocument, an interpreter who works in an immigration court room told me that the depiction of the system in our film was so realistic that it should be used as a training video to prepare new interpreters for what's to come! It really meant so much to me, because I spent so long sitting in courtrooms researching and studying this world. This validation was very rewarding.

    Do you have a passion project that you’re determined to direct?

    I'm working on a project called The Cockatoo Inn – it's a feature that explores contemporary female friendship and motherhood in a really honest and raw light. Unlike anything I've made before, this is a rollercoaster of dark comedy driven by naked emotion. We are currently in pre-production for the short film version called Mercury.

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