EXCLUSIVE: Patrick, Absolutely Fabulous and Blackadder director Mandie Fletcher on comedy filmmaking
Mandie Fletcher is a BAFTA-winning comedy director known for Miranda, Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous and Only Fools and Horses... Here she talks to Mandy News about how she started out, what is was like helming some of the biggest British TV comedies in history and her new film Patrick, starring Beattie Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders.
Mandie, please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you got involved in directing for TV and film.
I have been a film and TV director for over 30 years now – which is rather terrifying. I started off directing in the theatre, just by begging and pleading to have a go. When I was at the BBC, in a very lowly capacity as an assistant stage manager, someone arrived at the BBC and noted that the strange thing about comedy was there weren’t any women in it. As I had directed something before, they let me have a go at two episodes of a sitcom. Having been thrown that bone, I wasn’t inclined to give it back so I hung on grimly and carried on directing comedy at the BBC for 10 years.
When I started, I was 27 and doing situation comedies that were getting 12 million people watching. It was an extraordinary beginning and one I will be forever grateful to the BBC for. What is so strange, is that all these years later, there are still so few women doing it. I thought that by now, I’d be one of many but unfortunately not. That’s just life and people always think that directing is marvellous and how they’d love to do it but there is nothing more stressful than directing!
Anyway, I left the BBC after 10 years and formed my own commercials production company for eight years. I travelled the world filming those commercials and was privileged enough to win some awards too. Commercials are pretty soulless in the end as I do love to tell stories and they’re the thing I enjoy the most. I was then encouraged by Jennifer Saunders to come back and work with her and now I’m back, and it’s a huge honour to be able to have a second bite at telling all these lovely stories again.
When you came back to direct comedy, what did you work with Jennifer Saunders on?
I worked with her on Jam & Jerusalem and the Absolutely Fabulous 20th Anniversary Special. I then went on to work with her on the film but, in between all that, we kept writing and always kept doing things. That’s what I’d say to anyone who wants to direct, just do it. People always ask me why I didn’t go into films sooner and it’s because I needed to make a living and I don’t come from a privileged background. Films always say that they’re going to have a start date on whatever date and they never hit it. The difference with TV is that whenever they say they’re going to start, that’s when they’ll start.
How did you get involved with the film Patrick and tell us a little bit about that process?
The producers approached me and probably thought I was the right person to do it. They had a script but it did ramble on a bit and the one thing comedy teaches you is to tell your story, tell it quickly and make it funny. So I rewrote the script over one summer and then we shot it in the Spring of the following year - so a pretty quick turnaround as comedy often does. People always want a comedy though as everything is so dark and dismal so there’s always an audience for it.
When I looked at the initial idea that Vanessa Davies had brought to me, I thought there was definitely an audience for this film – everyone likes a dog, everyone likes romance and everyone likes comedy. The lovely thing was Disney UK backed me up and allowed me to cast Beattie Edmondson who is Jennifer Saunders’ daughter, so I kind of kept it in the family. She was terrific and I knew she would be and it’s a case of somebody taking a chance on a relatively unknown face.
How long did the shoot last for? It was mostly filmed in Chiswick, is that right?
No, it was Richmond, Windsor, Hampton and around that sort of way. I had 30 days to shoot the whole thing – talk about stressful! Honestly, you’ve got a dog, an actor who hasn’t taken a lead role before and you’ve somehow, in that time, got to turn it around. I worked very closely with the dog trainer because I thought if we never give this dog anything to do that a dog doesn’t normally do, then we’ll be alright. No dancing in tutus or whatever. She was brilliant and to be honest, if the dog wasn’t as good as it was then we’d still be filming it now.
What was it like working with animals?
I love working with animals and children as it breaks the set up and stops all the nonsense. I’m a dog lover myself and I have my own dogs, which are in the film, of course. It’s a good working relationship but the dog trainer on Patrick, Julie Tottman, is so incredibly talented.
When you’re working on projects like that, how closely do you stick to the script?
What’s quite interesting is the script is bonded. You then have to, for the bond, shoot that script because then they know what they’re getting. They’re terrified of a director going off in all directions. Basically, you have to do it but within that, if the dog really can’t or won’t do something, then you change it – I haven’t got time to have a go at it for an entire morning!
I’m also a great believer in that if it’s not funny after three takes then it’s never going to be funny so you have to try something else. I never really shoot too many takes either and most of my crew know they have to be on the ball all the time. If it’s there and they haven’t got it, I will go ballistic. Most of the time, we do get it though and I’m very much helped by the fact I did eight years in commercials and I have a good grasp on filmmaking. My filmmaking can be quite quick if I know where I want the track, if I want the jib or the dolly, what lens would work – it all means you can work so fast and for comedy, that’s imperative.
At the beginning of the day, you need your cast to be ready, on the balls of their feet and really looking forward to work – not thinking how long they’re going to be there for. You just keep them alive and bright and it makes for a nice atmosphere on set too.
How long did you get with post-production?
Oh god, we had forever on post! Of course, everyone thinks they’re funny so everybody comes in pitching their ideas and telling me this and that. It is fun but it was months and months and quite a grind. People always ask me “what do you need to be a director?” and I always say fortitude. Just keep turning up, keep going and it will happen. That why I think there aren’t too many women doing this job as they probably have better things to do with their lives.
What was it like to work with Miranda Hart on Miranda?
I loved it and I loved her! She is an extraordinary, an absolute one-off and she’s very generous. Whenever someone says we have a comedy written and performed by a difficult woman and they’re looking for someone to do it, it’s usually “get Mandie” because everyone else is too frightened to have a go. She was incredibly generous and collaborative though and I have a great admiration for her. I’m actually trying to get her out to do another film at the moment.
You also worked on a lot of the Blackadder series. What was it like working with Richard Curtis and Ben Elton?
It was like walking into a pillow fight in a dormitory at a top public school halfway through term two because they’d all known each other for so long. The first one, which had been done on film, was the show that looked a million dollars but actually cost a million pounds so they brought it back into the studio to try and have some control over them -– which was left to me, honestly!
Those scripts were supposed to be about 35-40 pages long and Richard and Ben would sometimes arrive on a Monday with one only 10 pages done. So we had to write it all the way through the week and that’s of course eating into my time of blocking them and making them look interesting visually. It put the steel in my soul and there is nothing that can faze me after that! They’re all classics so it was totally worth all the agony.
Absolutely! As you mentioned before, you also worked on Absolutely Fabulous with Jennifer Saunders, what was she like to work with?
She is extraordinary person and also a dear friend of mine. She is extremely talented but she’s so grounded, so down to earth and she always wants the very best for the moment. There is no one else like her either, except perhaps for her daughter, who is another one who’ll drop her pants for a laugh – she’s passed those genes on! You always need someone who’s willing to give it their best shot and their all when you’re doing comedy and Beattie and her mother are like that.
What’s coming up for you in the future, Mandie?
I’m attached to two projects at the moment: one of which I’ve done a big rewrite on and we need to get the cast and finance sorted for that and the other is a really interesting love story which I’m working on purely as a director. I’m also writing another film so I’m definitely kept busy.
Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring director and actors wanting to get into the industry?
My advice is get in on any level. Do not think you have to come in as a director. In fact, the best time in my career was when I was doing something else, such as a floor runner, and I could watch. It’s the only time you won’t be bowed down with responsibility and get to watch how it all goes together. Funnily enough, you learn quite a lot of how not to do it too. It all leads to something. I started by making cups of tea for people and it never seemed to hold me back.
It’s the best job in the world with huge amounts of laughter so bring your smile and enthusiasm too because I personally think that’s how you work your way up by just willing to do things.
With regard to actors, I think it’s the worst job in the world as it’s all down to luck. Sometimes, you give someone a part, you realise they haven’t worked for two years so they have to come on set and be brilliant with a short rehearsal, have lunch and then go home. It’s a really tricky one that. I do admire those who give themselves over to it. Once again, if you’re doing comedy then get a group together, do a few sketches, go online and do a blog. Just do something that gets you noticed. Gone have the days when an agent could put you up for stuff, certainly in comedy, so things have definitely changed in that respect. There are so many terrific women who do these little blogs or three-minute comedies online and they may not be great but that is your CV.
Personally, I would always look very favourably on someone who did it all by themselves. Other than that, just be on time.
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