The Creative Industries in South Wales are increasingly acknowledged as an emerging global powerhouse, based on industry-leading training, world-class infrastructure and a beautiful, diverse geography.
Writer/Director Phil John exemplifies our home-grown talent – nurturing his skills in the region before building an impressive 20-year global career, scripting and directing a wide variety of award-winning films.
Phil’s currently in Glasgow working on a new Marine Crime Drama, ‘Annika’, with Nicola Walker – taking a Radio 4 series and expanding it into a 6-part TV series – and he kindly took some time out to talk with us about the lessons he’s learned on his journey …
“I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker from the age of eight.”
“I’m very lucky in that from the age of eight I knew I wanted to work in film. My dad had an old Super 8 camera and we used to create our own mini-productions in glorious colour, using my toys to animate car crashes and suchlike. By the time I went to secondary school I was already running a film club, so it’s a bit surprising that the school never took my ambitions seriously when I told them what I wanted to do with my life. They didn’t even tell me that Newport Film School, one of the most pre-eminent in Europe at that time, was right on my doorstep. Growing up during those years, feeling that lack of resource, really affected my confidence. I come from a working-class family in the Valleys, where my father worked in a foundry and my mother was a part-time waitress – and even today, after all these years, I’m always convinced the job I’m working on will be my last; an anxiety that I think goes back to those school days, but which has probably also pushed me to where I am.
“Newport Film School was on my doorstep but no one told me about it”
“The road has certainly not been a straight one. My parents wanted me to go to University and I got the grades for Goldsmith’s to read Animal Psychology, but didn’t go through with it – derailing it by joining a band and managing a label for a few years. As the band broke up I decided to enrol on the one-year Media course at the London School of Printing and with that under my belt promptly fell in love and moved to West Wales, where I had the vision of establishing a filmmaking and media company. It didn’t quite work out that way and I ended up making corporate videos, including one which I wrote, directed, filmed and edited, promoting Pembrokeshire as a tourist destination.
“I met people who literally changed my life”
It was a very challenging time financially; and with the break-up of my relationship I finally decided to do things properly – and applied for the two-year BTEC at, you guessed it, Newport Film School. They almost laughed at my work but one person at the interview saw the potential in me – through the Pembrokeshire corporate video – and that single moment changed my life. It got me into a brilliant Film School that gave me permission to be what I’d always wanted to be – and it was there, at 30 years of age, that my career really started. I applied to Newport as a Cinematographer but a year in, a remarkable writer called Steve Gough said to me ‘you’re a Writer/Director’ and he made me believe in myself. He made me believe I was who I always wanted to be.
“You make your own luck – and luck is when opportunity meets preparation.”
“Bob Evans, the Hollywood Producer, says “You make your own luck – and luck is when an opportunity meets preparation. One day an opportunity will come your way; and you need to be prepared to grab it.” My moment of luck, where the opportunity met my preparation, came at the Wales Playhouse, when Ruth Caleb was with the BBC. They chose to commission a 30-minute script that I’d written, but being a Writer/Director, I had to find the courage to stand in front of Ruth like a naughty schoolboy, and say that I wanted to direct the film as well as write it. After a few awkward moments meeting my gaze, Ruth let me do it. It appeared on BB2 and was well-received. From there I created ‘Suckerfish’ which gave me the chance to direct in the states for two weeks; and a film called ‘Sister Lulu’, which was a dark, edgy story about a psychopathic nun praying on other nuns. A brilliant agent, Cathy King, fell in love with what became award-winning Sister Lulu and took me on her books – and for the past 20 years she’s been instrumental in my success. Her faith in me meant I could really break through.
“There’s room for everybody. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
For me, there’s a clear way into the industry: learn the craft, work with people who push you and encourage you – but be really honest with yourself, Do you really have the passion and commitment? Do you genuinely live for what you do? Can you put up with the constant rejection? If I can do it, anyone can do it. That’s not me being humble – the training opportunities now are greater than they’ve ever been. Organisations such as Screen Alliance Wales and Bad Wolf offer many opportunities to young people interested in careers in Film and TV so get in touch. It’s my belief that once you focus, once you get ‘plugged in’, the experience you keep gaining will take you through to wherever you’re meant to be.”