Film and TV director Susanna White looks back to pre-digital TV and forward to a new career as a writer
I’m writing and I love it. It started in lockdown. I was missing production, and someone suggested I write something to create a world I could control. I only wish I’d discovered it sooner. But maybe it’s only now that I feel there’s a lot of things that I want to say.
I’m working on a screenplay that is essentially my own coming-of-age story. One of the best moments in my career was when the BFI said it would fund development of the script. Now I must deliver it.
Last week, I was invited to talk about my career at the Kerry Film School alongside my long-term collaborator, the cinematographer Mike Eley. Mike and I started out together in documentaries.
We find ourselves describing to the students what it was like shooting the first documentary we made together for television, Rocket Men, on 16mm film. The film followed amateur rocket enthusiasts around the world who collectively dreamt of launching a rocket into space.
The students found it hard to imagine what it was like not to see rushes till they came back from the lab – and a time where your only limitations were the number of rolls of film you were allocated. We remember having time to wait for the best light and carefully figuring out the composition of each shot before you turned over and started shooting a scene.
It was a moment when making television allowed for reflection, not unlike the writing I’m doing now, a process where self-reliance and an individual voice was what counted.
Lack of connectivity had its challenges, though. I remember having to call Channel 4 from a phone box at Woomera in Australia to ask for extra filming days because a rocket could not be launched because of bad weather, and the coins dropping through at alarming speed on the long-distance call.
My life seems to flash before me. They pull up clips from Bleak House, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, Generation Kill and Parade’s End. Then, the last film I made with Mike, Woman Walks Ahead. Written by Steven Knight and starring Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds and Bill Camp, the students try to understand why it didn’t get a theatrical release. I ask myself the same question.
This week, connectivity is everything. I do interviews via Zoom with journalists from South Korea, Brazil, India and Spain about the new show I have made for Apple TV+, The Buccaneers.
The actors’ strike has meant that our cast can’t do promotion, so they have been relying on myself, the showrunner, Katherine Jakeways, and our executive producer Beth Willis to do the interviews.
The first three episodes drop at once on 8 November, followed by weekly instalments. It’s a long way from the pre-streamer world of Bleak House, which I made for the BBC when Andrew Davies came up with the idea of half-hour episodes and a weekly omnibus.
The principles of storytelling remain the same. People always want cliff-hangers. Charles Dickens figured that out long before us and the Greeks long before him. No matter how much television fashions change, it is always the characters and story that pull people in.
Susanna White is the lead director and executive producer of Apple TV+’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s unfinished, posthumously published novel The Buccaneers. She is represented by Casarotto Ramsay.