DocLab alumn, Laura Northover on her journey into the world of factual television, from The Grierson Trust to The Guardian and beyond...
Laura participated in Grierson DocLab in 2015! Read about her journey into factual with The Guardian Documentaries, the Lush Film Fund and Blink Productions.
Back in 2015 I attended the DocLab scheme. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was in that tricky spot that a lot of filmmakers find themselves in. Should I continue working in a part-time job to supplement self-shooting documentaries? Or, should I get a job at a production company and learn my trade there? I’d graduated from my Art History degree back in September, it was now February and my multi-pronged attempts to break into the industry without any contacts was an increasingly uphill struggle.
I was dabbling in freelancing as a development researcher work, along with attempting to learn through a YouTube tutorials how to get to grips with a camera. On the one hand starting out as a doc maker was really exciting, but it was sometimes a lonely process - I can really remember just how indomitable the industry is when you’re desperate to learn and know you’re capable but have very little previous experience to put on a CV. It’s a frustrating catch-22.
During this time I applied to the Grierson Trust and got the message inviting me to an interview. I felt incredibly appreciative of the fact that they covered our travel expenses for the day trip to Birmingham. This financial gesture showed support was immediate and that was incredibly refreshing, not to mention gratefully received by a broke filmmaker! The day of interviewing was surprisingly fun and I made friends straight away. It was fantastic to find out I’d been accepted a few days later, so before I knew it I was back to Birmingham on a four day residential scheme - learning to pitch and listening to inspiring talks from the Grierson Trustees. This was followed by a trip to Sheffield Documentary festival (all expenses covered). I felt very lucky.
Having had such a frustrating start to the year, everything seemed to come in at once and I got a job as a Production Assistant. In this role I learnt to produce branded content at a rate of knots. It was a sink or swim situation - within a week I was on a plane going to my first shoot and over the course of my time there became a producer. My time there was spent learning on the go, with the opportunity to do shoots abroad, work with clients, make music videos and learn from the talented people I was working alongside.
Alongside working in commercial production, I was also very keen to continue making documentaries and focusing on what got me into film. A year into my first job at production company, I contacted Yen at Grierson and asked whether I could finally be appointed with a mentor - specifically - Charlie Philips, Head of Documentaries at the Guardian. Yen reached out to him, he asked for me to write a letter about why I wanted the mentorship and what I would gain and to my great joy he accepted.
I have to admit there was an ulterior motive on my part. I’d set a goal for myself to get a documentary commissioned with the Guardian when I’d first set out as a filmmaker and this finally afforded me the chance to get in front of Charlie and pitch ideas, whilst also learning from someone who was at the forefront of defining the future of short form online documentary content.
Fortune was on my side. During our second meeting I mentioned some ideas I had been working on. Charlie was interested in an idea for a documentary I put forward, called ‘Silent Sam’ about a punk singer who couldn’t talk. Within a few months, contracts were signed and the Guardian and the Lush Film Fund had co-funded it. Last year the documentary was released onto the Guardian and Lush online channels. A whole team of incredible people came on board to make the film happen and I’ll always be grateful of that initial introduction.
More often than not it’s all about having the opportunity to get in front of the right people at the right time. Being a Grierson DocLab alumna was a definite door-opening advantage to have for a young filmmaker with barely any industry contacts. When I eventually transitioned into freelance producing, I quickly realised more than ever that when you’re out there going it alone, the networks you build up with people are the most important thing - something that that had been drilled into us at the DocLab.
Just last week I went to an event put on by the Grierson Trust and enjoyed chatting to four new generations of DocLab students and alumni. It’s really lovely to know that this is a network that is just going to keep expanding and the by-product of that is an injection of more interesting, diverse and fresh perspectives projected onto our screens.
It’s also very strange to think I’m now a few years down the line and can talk about my career in film to other people getting into the industry. It serves as a reminder that often the hardest career move you'll ever have is initiating that first break. Once that door is pushed open, I promise things should get a little easier, but the onus is on everyone who makes it through to turn around and help the next person. Which is precisely why it’s really important schemes like the DocLab exist.
Laura Northover is currently Head of Music Video and Content at Blink Productions
Published: 15 June 2019