By Larushka Ivan-Zadeh
Ever dreamt of becoming a film director? How about switching careers to open your very own film school? Well, ten years ago, that’s what best friends Anna Macdonald and Daisy Gili did.
‘We worked on a branding project together,’ says Macdonald. ‘I wasn’t in film myself, my education back in Poland was very much business-focused. I came to England 20 years ago and had my own creative consultancy. But Daisy was looking for the ideal film course and what inspires me is building something unique.’
‘My father was a documentary film maker called John Gili,’ says Daisy, a bright, ‘born and bred’ west Londoner with the cosy manner of your best old school chum. ‘I spent a lot of my childhood in his dubs and edits and loved it. I did a maths degree and then got into TV.
‘I had been assistant producer on Pet Rescue and had just finished as a researcher on Great Estates when I started looking into film schools. But I didn’t want to study for another three years, I wanted to do something practical. I was between jobs when I met Anna.’
The ‘something unique’ they built was the London Film Academy – a buzzing, efficient warren of edit suites, libraries, studios and classrooms all Tardis-ed inside a converted chapel in Fulham, west London.
Back then, this ‘boutique school’ offered the first ‘super intense’, one year, multi-disciplinary, film-making diploma. ‘It required total 24/7 commitment,’ says Macdonald, her keen, darting enthusiasm instantly infectious, ‘but that was OK because we were in our late twenties and were young and naive and thought everything was possible.’
The LFA is also unique in being Britain’s only female-run film school. The gender split among its students is ‘almost 50/50’.
Nowadays, the Oscar-winning likes of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Jane Campion (The Piano) and Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation) may inspire future female film-makers. But the hard facts are that only 14 of the feature-length films made in Britain last year were directed by women, compared with the 164 directed by men. Why was this and did Gili and Macdonald deliberately set out to change that?
‘For me, it’s not about gender, it’s about commitment,’ says Macdonald. ‘You can organise your life. It’s about passion, it’s as simple as that.’
But Gili, who had her first child last December, acknowledges there are perhaps extra challenges for mothers sustaining a career in the industry. She says: ‘I think men are much better at going: “That’s my goal, I’m single-mindedly going for it,’’ but it is still possible to juggle.
‘I shot a film with Anna last September when I was seven months pregnant. I’m just editing it now. I wanted to feel my daughter inspired me rather than held me back.’
Disproving the adage ‘those who can’t do, teach’, Macdonald and Gili are both very much working film-makers: Gili directs, Macdonald produces. The Summer House, their 2009 short starring a ‘before Twilight’ Robert Pattinson was, impressively, No. 1 on iTunes’s film chart for three days. And that’s ahead of all the downloadable feature films – proving shorts can make money too. And they run the school as a working production house.
‘Employability is key for us,’ says Macdonald. ‘All the tutors we get here are practising professionals who come with their own contacts and 95 per cent of our students get work within the industry.’
A starry line-up of speakers includes Danny Boyle, Peter Capaldi and Bourne director Paul Greengrass. Actress Alice Lowe and director Nic Roeg will be presenting the school’s annual awards tomorrow.
The school is non-profit but even so, it costs £19,500 to do the one-year diploma, although Macdonald points out there are a number of bursary places. And with an array of shorter courses, including a ten-day film-making foundation on offer (which runs mainly on weekends), the school has remained surprisingly recession proof.
‘There’s a smaller number of really good people applying,’ says Gili. ‘But we respond to that by choosing to take fewer students.’
‘For us, it’s always about quality, not quantity,’ states Macdonald. ‘A certain number of people have applied with their redundancy money.’
Still, in this day and age, with the high quality of low-cost digital cameras on sale, do budding film-makers really need to go to school at all? Can’t they just shoot something on a smartphone and put it on YouTube?
‘You don’t have to go to film school to make films,’ Gili declares disarmingly. ‘But the biggest gift we can give people is teaching them why you juxtapose two shots and how you work as a team.
‘It’s also about managing expectation. A lot of people want to be directors. But they can’t just direct their own scripts and edit their own small films. They are forced to collaborate and it makes them stronger as a result. Even people who have gone on to write and direct have told us they really valued that process – even if they are a little scared of it at the time.’
‘The bottom line is: can you tell a story?’ asks Macdonald. ‘If you do want to choose a film education, it should be about who your peers are, who you’re taught by and the level of contact time they give you, the equipment and the amount of films you actually make.’
Those are the LFA’s founding principles but most important of all for Macdonald and Gili is ‘the access to contacts and a pool of people’. Film-making is not a lonely profession.’
The London Film Academy showcase is on tomorrow at BFI Southbank. http://www.londonfilmacademy.com