'Don't wait to make films' Poldark director Joss Agnew on starting out, filming high-end TV and more
Joss Agnew is the lead director of hit BBC period TV drama Poldark starring Aidan Turner, after helming a string of other renowned shows including Mr. Selfridge, Jekyll & Hyde, Casualty, Law & Order, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Waterloo Road. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out, what his process of directing TV looks like and what aspiring directors can do to start their careers.
Joss, tell us how you got involved in directing and television.
I suppose my fascination with film was ignited by the home movies my Grandmother shot on regular 8mm. The tiny jewel-like film frames, the machinery of projection; it was a colourful, incredible, mesmeric time-machine. From then on, I wanted to make films myself.
In the '80s, the BBC ran a young filmmaker's competition on a show called Screen Test. I made a stop-motion film about a chess board that came to life and then fought to the death. It was broadcast on the show and that affirmation confirmed the ambition for me. The 20+ years that followed continued with another lucky break when I managed to get a place on the movie technician apprenticeship scheme, The Joint Board For Film Industry Training. What a great scheme!
After that, I spent several years assisting in movie cutting rooms, continuing to make shorts (now live-action), then directing a ton of corporate films. I then finally got an agent and broke into TV drama.
How did you get involved with Poldark?
My agent had an enquiry from the show during series two. At that time I was already occupied but when Mammoth Screen began to look for the series three directors, I was delighted to get a meeting, initially with Michael Ray, the highly-collaborative producer.
What is the process of working on an episode of Poldark; time frame, etc?
I was asked to direct the opening and closing episodes of Poldark series three, and I did the same on series four. Pre-production began in early July. We started by shooting in Cornwall, 11 day fortnights, and shooting everything needed for the entire series out – that's mostly exterior coastal work. Thankfully due to super-talented, super-smart Debbie Horsefield being an extraordinarily gifted writer we have all the scripts ready to shoot. Without Debbie delivering that mountain of work on time we couldn't hope to shoot this way.
After Cornwall, the production moved back to Bristol for the remainder of the shoot. Interior sets and on location. We went all around Bristol filming Interiors and Exteriors. Series three, nine episodes, finished shooting at the end of February 2017. Series four, which was one episode shorter, wrapped mid-January 2018. Then all post took place in Soho.
A lot of directors have different styles and methods of working. How do you like to work on set?
I like for the actors and crew to feel relaxed, safe and have freedom - with conditions! It's play. I try and keep it that way. Calm, super-concentrated, humour, no fear and love. It’s taken a while to find my take on the process. It suits me.
You have worked on many award-winning series in your career so far – what changes/advances have you seen in the industry?
The advent of digital has meant liberation. The reach and quality of cinematography has been raised significantly. Now mostly everyone has access to 35mm comparable digital cameras and lenses, it feels like we're able to raise the game to become as cinematic as possible. Whether it’s shot on an iPhone or an Alexa, the choices are so widely available – that’s a joy!
The chance to choose a wider aspect ratio is cool. There's quite a bit of 1:2 going on; more choice for us to help the aesthetic match the drama can only be a good thing. One other encouraging move, although I say this with caution, is that working a crew into the floor seems to be becoming more frowned upon. Perhaps it's naive to say this but it feels like sense is prevailing, slowly.
Then, of course, there’s distribution with the internet and streaming services providing a reach for your material like never before.
What are you working on at the moment? What is coming next for you?
I'm about to start work with Endor Productions on Matthew Parkhill's Deep State, season two. An adventure is in store for us and the audience!
What advice do you have for new directors wanting to get involved in the industry?
I'd say that you cannot do this job until you've done this job. And ultimately no-one will trust you with any sort of budget until you've made a film. So don't wait to make films. Any idea you like. Just make something you find interesting. Don't let scale prevent you. It could be one shot.
Say bye bye to any negativity, lose the ego but remember your point of view is unique. There’s only one you. If the idea requires you to involve actors, then try to be resourceful in bagging the very best actors you can find to work with you. Feed everyone you're working with well. Be gracious. Work on the sound design as hard as you work shooting. And never, ever, hurry the edit. Have fun….then do it again!
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