In conversation with... Liz Unna


‘I see life as a learning process so everything, suffering or not, is about learning. I like to make films about some sort of transformation or internal process that has brought someone to some sense of learning about the world or themselves.’

- Liz Unna

With the 21st April being Creativity and Innovation Day we spoke to Liz Unna about her creative practice and processes and how she uses her creativity to tackle pressing societal issues.

Liz Unna is an award winning commercials and documentary director. She has directed commercials and short films for numerous clients in Europe and the US, some of which include; Marks and Spencer’s, Age UK, NSPCC, Dove, Microsoft and Google.

Take a look at our interview with Liz below…

1. Can you tell us a bit about your creative background and how you got into directing?

I never even knew that it was even possible to work in TV or film, I come from a really straight laced academic background, lawyers, professors and doctors etc. At university I started working at my student paper, The Daily Newspaper and loved it and started doing a lot of layout and that opened up a whole world of possibilities I didn’t even realise were there. I don’t know why, I went to a very uncreative school, I just didn’t realise that that was even possible.

Then after university, I went to McGill in Montreal, I moved to Rome and I got a job there in a TV company that was set up by a rich Saudi family and it was broadcasting in the Middle-East, I learned there about working in TV and making promos, filming, and learned a lot. I then moved to London and worked at Discovery Channel, there I had a really great boss who created this brilliant creative team that was sort of like film school.

Discovery channel at the time had a lot of money and air time to film and so he would just say make films about this or that, explore your world with the tagline, so we could basically make films about anything. He was a real pioneer, he collected a group of interesting people that perhaps didn’t have that much experience making things but that he found were interesting creatively. A lot of us have now gone on to make films and are big in the commercials world, so it was a really creative and fun time.

He would say Liz, you’ve never shot steady cam why don’t you go shoot a piece with steady-cam and learn about that, it really was like film school. That completely expanded my world. Then he got poached by channel 4 and we all moved over with him and then I became Creative Director of Film 4 and then I launched More4 as Creative Director and took it from there, I was just really hooked on being a director.

2. What is it about the creative filming process that you enjoy the most?

I love every single bit of it, I love that moment when you know your idea is amazing and it all kind of clicks, it’s the most exciting feeling in the world. Where you know that this idea is simple but strong and is a perfect idea. Sometimes you sit on an idea and it never quite comes together but when it does it’s the most exciting feeling in the world.

Then there’s making it, I love actually filming, I love the collaborative process of working, I love working with DoP’s and art department and getting everybody’s input and problem solving.

I also love editing because I see that as a collaborative process too, every stage has its own joys I would say, but I love all of it.

3. What has been the most impactful film you have directed? (in terms of audience response or affecting the cause) And why?

In terms of audience response that’s hard to judge because the things I make go out on so many different platforms. I think actually the thing that’s been the most effective hasn’t even been released yet because it’s caught up in court cases.

It was a profile of a journalist who broke a case about girls being groomed in the North of England for The Times. For me that was the most powerful story that I’ve ever made a film about, it’s about to come out, but I made it 2 years ago.

I interviewed two young women who had been groomed in Rotherham as young girls who told their stories and helped the journalist at The Times, Andrew Norfolk, break the story. Subsequently it helped bring the police to account and councils to account and basically cause the fall of the local council who had really neglected these girls, 1,700 girls had been groomed in this small town.

That was a powerful film to make and I’m really proud of the final film, now the men that groomed them have been under criminal investigation and the court cases are just wrapping up now, so the film will be released soon.

There was another film I made which was for the NSPCC and it was about abuse and it was about 4 four different abuse survivors and how one person was really instrumental in helping them and that’s all you need is one person.

The process of people opening up and telling their stories was incredibly cathartic for them, very therapeutic and it was very moving. We were all in tears, it was incredibly difficult but satisfying. I think I like work that has depth to it and human stories, you know it has a lot of relevance to it. My friends make fun of me because they are like you only lie depressing topics, but I say no I like topics about humans being dealing with profound stuff.

4. What is your dream project and subject matter to work with?

It’s basically human stories of profundity, you know whatever that is it can be anything. It’s human beings defining something important in their lives.

I’d say I like projects that have some meat to them, something that can be learned. I see life as a learning process, so everything suffering or not is about learning. I like to make films about some sort of transformation of internal process that has brought someone to some sense of learning about the world or themselves.

5. Do you feel like the gender balance within film, particularly directing, is becoming more equal?

No, I really don’t. What I do think is wonderful though is that it’s now a topic of conversation and interest and it’s not going to go away. So, I do feel that we’re hopefully at a turning point, just it might take quite a long time for things to really become even but I guess I look at it in the grand arc of history and it really has not been that long that women have been in the workplace at all. You know if we think back to the 50s and 60s in this country, in the US and the western world, women were barely in the workplace. So, you know if a relatively short space of time we have really come a long way and so I think there’s a lot of hope there and it’s about working together and moving forward and not demonising men or the patriarchy but that we’re all trying to figure this out.

I’m excited about it because this is not going to go away, and I think it boils down to unconscious bias and visibility. So unconscious bias I mean when people think of directors like if you were to look inside their brains you would see the image that would fire up when you hear the world director, is a man with a baseball cap and a beard going ‘CUT!’ I think that is what most people think of as directors and I don’t think that they know that they think that, but that is the norm. We need to slowly break that down and where that starts I think is how we gender children. And girls we still do that ‘oh you’re so pretty’ to girls and ‘what are you building to boys’ i.e. girls you’re an object and boys you’re a subject. I do think it goes back to that frankly.

I think there’s that, unconscious bias and then I think there’s visibility. The more women that direct, the more we can start to break down the bias of who we consider directors, the more younger women will want to become directors. You know some people say if you can’t see it then you can’t dream it, the more women we see directing the more that will become normal.

6. Who has been a key inspirer for you and why?

I would say I look to women mainly for inspiration I must say, and it sort of changes. Right now, an artist who I find really inspirational is Georgia O’Keefe, I particularly love her work, but I love the way she approached her work and she approached her life.

This is going to sound very gendered, but she lived like a man in the times, she didn’t have children. She took herself and her work so seriously that she put it above everything else and I think women tend to fall into a trap of domesticity and taking care of others and I know these are huge blanket statements. But in my experience women can have a tendency to not put themselves and their work first and not to treat it as absolutely vital. I can see artist friends of mine doing that and I think what I admire about her is that her work was life or death and it was her reason for everything.

I’ve been to her house in New Mexico and everything in it is absolutely beautiful and rigorously beautiful with her incredible eye and I think she lived really beautifully. And she also cooked you know, she had amazing food and friends and a beautiful garden, it’s like her life was a work of art I would say, and I admire that tremendously.

7. When inspiration is lacking, when you’re feeling creatively sapped, what do you do to refresh?

I tend to look at photography and paintings more than films actually, I think it’s just looking at other people’s work it’s incredibly uplifting. I also think walking, being outside and clearing your brain. I think your brain needs to rest, so just being outside, going on long walks and being in nature. I know that’s very cliché, but I think it’s the source of everything.

8. What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your creative practice? How did that lesson happen?

It’s a lesson that I keep learning and that is that sometimes you do get it wrong and that you can make mistakes and it’s better to own your mistakes and say oh I messed up there and this is what I learned.

I made a wrong call on an actor’s performance on something I shot recently and on set I thought it wasn’t working and then I looked at the rushes and it was working. That was really important, I was rushed, and I didn’t take the time to sit with the performance, that was learning curve for me. I still think the capacity to mess up is okay, I used to be terrified of it and now I think that’s where all the learning happens.

I also always used to worry on set that I didn’t know what I was doing when I was really young and now if I don’t know what I’m doing I’ll just say I need a moment to think this through. I used to be terrified of the moments where I didn’t know, I thought directors had to know all the time and now I know the not knowing is a really interesting part of the process and not to run away from that but just that’s where you kind of figure things out.

I think I thought directors were supposed to constantly be in charge and know everything and have it all thought through and I didn’t realise that you know it’s a process of discovery, of sculpting something and sometimes you don’t really know where you are in that process.

I wish I could have told my younger self that, I thought I had to be super confident all the time and know the answer to everything and now there’s so much pleasure in going I really don’t know right now but that’s fine and ill figure it out but right now I’m just sitting in the not knowing.

9. What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?

There’s some films that keep coming back to me. A recent film for some reason the film I keep coming back to is Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer and I don’t know why, I think it’s the most profoundly beautiful and perfect film. And I think visually it haunted me, I think it was perfect and the score was incredibly beautiful. I don’t know why but that film has actually got under my skin.

I mean Terrence Malick, Badlands is always my perfect film as well.

10. What project are you working on currently?

I’m working on a feature documentary, I’m trying to put together a feature doc about women’s stories around abortion. A global film about women basically telling their abortion stories in 12 countries around the world so I’m trying to get money for that, I’m trying to be positive, but we’ll see it’s a really big budget and a very entrenched topic, so we’ll see how that pans out.
Liz Unna directed this powerful commercial ‘Pink Bra’ for Mark’s and Spencer who donated 20% of it’s proceeds from pink bra sales to Breast Cancer now.

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