In Conversation: Director Jon East (Downton Abbey Christmas Special, Whitechapel)

Hi Film Folk!

We have a very special festive treat for you today for our In Conversation section.

An in-depth interview with highly-respected filmmaker and BAFTA award-winning TV director of the upcoming Downton Abbey Christmas Special,  Jon East!

Jon East

How did you know you wanted to work in the industry and how did you know you weren’t mad to want to do it?

In 1969 my grandfather took me to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I emerged completely awestruck from the cinema and knew instinctively that I wanted to start making films. Because I was only seven years of age and had encouraging parents I never considered whether I was mad or not. I hope that neurotic question doesn’t inhibit anyone from pursuing their creative dreams.


How did you make your start? 

By the age of ten I had persuaded my parents to help me buy an 8mm mute camera, projector and splicing block. By saving my pocket-money I was able to buy film stock and by using my ‘Boots the Chemist’ vouchers (sent as Christmas presents by my loving aunt) I could get the reversal film processed. After cutting the rushes one could send it – again via Boots – to have a small magnetic strip applied to its edge. Then by running it through the projector (which had a sound head) one could record twin track sound ‘on the fly’.)  Later I used my childhood and teenage short films to get onto a Film & TV degree course at the West Surrey College of Art & Design in Farnham, (now called The University of Creative Arts).


What was your route to directing?

That route was serpentine and mercurial, and has many highways and byways…. so, being pithy is tricky! I always knew I wanted to direct but after leaving college the route was not clear. After two or three years continuing to make (self-financed) short films and selling my other skills (e.g. storyboarding, as I can draw pretty well), I decided that the best route to directing would be to become a film editor first and ‘graduate’ from there. The route into editing was much clearer – become an assistant, then a dialogue editor, then a sound fx editor and finally a film editor (that was the BBC system). To that end in 1987 I applied for and eventually got holiday relief work at the BBC’s film editing department. Immediately I was in a highly creative and productive environment, surrounded by and able to learn from hugely talented individuals…. directors, editors, producers etc. The temporary job soon became a permanent staff position. It was an incredible education, upon which I thrived and it enabled me to move quickly through the ranks into editing. This fed into my own filmmaking and with the help of supportive friends I was able to plough this new knowledge into two far more accomplished short films on 16mm. By showing these to a BBC executive producer I secured a job as an assistant producer, directing on short factual items, e.g. CRIMEWATCH UK. By sending such (pseudo?) dramatic content to soap opera producers I then got a job directing on EASTENDERS, then Channel 4’s BROOKSIDE (where I also soon started to produce) and then back to EASTENDERS to act as Chief Storyline Writer, Producer and Director. After two years there I had built up a huge range of technical and editorial skills, which then took me forward into my current directing career, (with a brief 3 year BAFTA winning sideways step to act as Head of BBC Children’s Drama & Animation Department).

Jon East describes coverage to the cast and crew of THE LAST WEEKEND. (Photo courtesy of DoP Adam Suschitzsky).
Jon East describes coverage to the cast and crew of THE LAST WEEKEND. (Photo courtesy of DoP Adam Suschitzsky).

You directed a short in 1999 (IT CAN BE DONE) that played at Cannes and Venice Film Festivals. What was your process with absolute free reign/total control? Did you deliberately strategise a ‘festival film’ or was it create what you feel like and ‘see what happens’? 

The 22 minute film – set in the USA in 1956 – was not conceived as a festival circuit film. It was mostly a teaser for a feature film (ultimately unproduced) that I was then developing, about the scientist Wilhelm Reich. As such my two colleagues and I decided to shoot it on 35mm to a very high standard. That – and the period and vfx elements – meant spending a lot of cash, besides the usual begging, borrowing and stealing that goes into many a short film’s production cycle. As I am not from a wealthy background that meant that the usual self-funding was not going to cut it, we would need several ‘outside’ investors. Once you’ve taken those funds then the last thing you have is ‘absolute free reign / total control’, investors want a return, or at the least some say in what you’re doing. That said, there is an issue with having (relatively speaking) the sort of authorial control in a short that one rarely finds when working in the mainstream industry. It is both an opportunity and a danger. It’s clearly an opportunity, as one has the freedom to address subjects close to one’s heart in whatever manner one sees fit, to really demonstrate the clarity of your vision and your power to articulate it. The danger however is that unless one seeks wise counsel (feedback on script, edit etc), or has a very clear understanding of the audience you’re trying to reach or the part of the industry into which you hope this enterprise will thrust you, then it’s easy to get too inwardly focussed. This can result in an indulgent naval-gazing quality that will serve neither the audience nor your wishes for career advancement. Thankfully this was a danger I avoided and in fact the film – acting as a glossy showreel piece – enabled me to jump from directing soap to directing primetime drama like THE VICE and BODIES, (mostly skipping that middle ground area of long-form soap, e.g. HOLBY, CASUALTY etc).


When (and how) did you get your first agent?

As soon as I completed my first block of EASTENDERS I sent the finished tapes to an agent whom I knew (by looking in The Knowledge) represented such directors, he took me on. I changed agents once thereafter and have now had the same representation for the last 12 years.


What is your directing process? What do you spend the most time on, both in pre-prod and post-production?

I could write a book on this. Hmmm. Maybe I will! But the quick answer is that my prep is a mixture of personal thinking, discussions with HoDs, casting, location hunting and camera planning. I’m the kind of director who turns up on set everyday already having shot the day’s scenes…. in my head and notated thereafter on paper. I always have complete plans of each scene, usually completed the night before or – if especially complex with stunts, vfx & sfx etc – in the weeks leading up to the shoot. These plans are a mixture of detailed storyboards (drawn by myself) and overhead camera plans that indicate all the actors’ movements, camera positions, lenses, dolly steadicam or crane moves etc. But of course, these plans only represent the notation of the process. The process itself is what goes on during prep inside my body-mind as I consider the script. As I read and consider the script in an ‘open’ manner, I am listening to & observing my feelings and thoughts and allowing my visual imagination to translate those in my mind’s eye into images and sounds. Gradually – helped by reading around the subject – these cohere into a conceptual framework where I then put my decision making machinery, (which is itself a mixture of conscious & unconscious thinking). Now I can decide – or have a good gut feeling about – should the dress be red or blue, should the camera angle be low or high, should the prop be pristine or weathered, should the actor be quiet or loud etc. Without such a conceptual framework these decisions would become arbitrary and the finished piece would lack focus, power and meaning.

Directing actor Shaun Evans on THE LAST WEEKEND (photo courtesy of producer Christopher Hall)
Directing actor Shaun Evans on THE LAST WEEKEND (photo courtesy of producer Christopher Hall)

What do you feel is sometimes an underrated or overrated part of the directing process (that people either spend too much or too little time on)?  

I can’t answer that because it presupposes that I know what processes other directors employ. I don’t. I do know that unwise or inexperienced producers like to cut directors’ prep time, thinking it is saving them money. In fact – if they want a fantastic product that delivers on time & on schedule – this is almost always a false saving. A top director’s prep day costs around £500. If – through lack of thorough prep – the shooting schedule slips by a day (by overrunning etc) then that can cost the production anywhere between £35,000 or £140,000 per day. As they say in the USA…. do the math. By contradistinction, I also take a dim view of anyone (in different departments in this industry) who given adequate time are too lazy or arrogant to do the necessary prep. I hate waste and profligacy, probably because my first films were made with pocket money that I earned by cleaning toilets in my parents’ public house, (as grim as it sounds)! So, advice to novice directors? Do your prep and by so doing earn (rather than demand) the respect and co-operation of your colleagues. Ok, now that’s off my chest, I would also add that from a technical point of view I often see beginning directors not giving enough attention to sound, often leaving this until post-production. I think there are great rewards available if when planning the shoot one is also thinking about the creative use of sound. (Read Walter Murch on this subject).


Is there a select camera kit you like working with in particular at the moment? If so, why?

Like many of my colleagues I am very taken with the Arrri Alexa camera at present. Some like the RED, and it has its merits, but for me the Alexa is the most fantastic bit of kit. I love how it is native at 800ASA and captures just so much noise-less detail in the shadows etc, with such lovely rich textures. It means the grade has become in turn so much more of a creative space. Lenses…. I’m not telling about which lenses I prefer, as they are already scarce and I don’t want everyone else going after them too 😉


What have you noticed in approaches/processes used by actors over the years? Any wise words to impart or stumbling blocks to avoid? 

I have worked with many actors of different ages, races, sexes, classes, levels of fame, power, intelligence, emotional range, skill and talent. Naturally they all have their own approach, some more similar to that of others, some more divergent. But if I think they have something in common it is this; a greater or lesser reluctance to talk about or over-analyse their own internal private methodology. I understand this. I think it is because those actors suspect that if the delicate alchemical process that functions within them were exposed to too much scrutiny or inquisition then it might somehow be compromised. That’s not to say that they cannot or will not conduct some of that scrutiny, but they often draw limits. I very much respect this and therefore do not as a rule quiz actors with whom I’m working about their processes. I feel that most actors need me to have a thorough grasp of the script, their character’s journey or arc and the mechanics of how something vaguely described in the stage directions will be concretely realised. Beyond that, some others are desirous of deeper discussions about their character’s make-up. Off and on I have studied psycho-analysis, psycho-dynamic and body-psychotherapeutic principles for the last 30 years and I can make that particular type of understanding available when requested. Stumbling blocks… I would say to directors who have not worked with actors much yet to listen to your own heart, be mindful of the emotional space in which your actors are working, because as a director you should be in charge of that. Ensure – as much as possible with the time & resources available – that it is conducive to your actors’ creativity. A great and quite famous actress said to me once – when I was just starting out – that I should treat actors like children. That statement would be easy to misunderstand, specially in a society like ours that often acts against a child’s best interests. What she meant was that children can’t ‘make-believe’ in a pressurised non-playful environment. So, as much as I can, I try to preserve for the actors a very ‘play-friendly’ atmosphere on set, keeping the always ticking clock as much to myself as possible.


What do you look for in an actor?

Talent first, then skill. They are quite different things. Plenty of the second with none of the first won’t convince the audience of the character’s authenticity, in my view. Mind you, plenty of the first with little of the second will make for an arduous shoot. So it’s about balance. The bottom line is that I feel talent enables an actor to touch the heart of the audience, great talent will enable them to touch its soul, whereas skill alone – of any level – will only enable the actor to contact the mind of the audience. I know other directors and producers might not agree with that. Obviously the actor needs to ‘fit’ the role for whom s/he is auditioning, but for me this mostly isn’t about their physical appearance, it’s about their capacity to embody and articulate or suggest the internal conflicts, degree of volition and ‘emotional bandwidth’ of the scripted character. A final word on talent and skill. Skill cannot manufacture talent, but it can unearth it. So I would always encourage young actors to acquire diligently as much skill as possible, for besides making you more employable it will maximise whatever talent with which you were lucky enough to be born.

Directing actor Shaun Evans on THE LAST WEEKEND (photo courtesy of producer Christopher Hall)
Directing actor Shaun Evans on THE LAST WEEKEND (photo courtesy of producer Christopher Hall)

What is your process when boarding pre-existing projects, such as the popular Whitechapel or the biggest British TV series in a while Downton Abbey? 

(see my answer to the next question)


How does the process differ when working with a star writer such as Julian Fellowes and how does it differ on such a hotly-anticipated, top-secret show?

These questions are really asking about how one conducts oneself creatively within a hierarchical power structure, where one is supposedly hired (largely) for one’s personal vision yet is also expected to a greater or lesser degree to deliver within a set of pre-existing expectations, forged both by one’s bosses of the moment and the generalised broadcasting arena. Within TV drama that is almost always the scenario, and it makes little fundamental difference whether one is working on extant or new programmes. Clearly if one is hired to direct a one-off or new serial of finite duration, (as I was with SUMMERHILL or THE LAST WEEKEND), then the conceptual shape of it (depending upon the writer & producer) is far less defined than that of an existing show, and one therefore usually is being asked to fill in more of that blank canvas with one’s own imaginings. Most directors obviously relish these opportunities. However, the way I go about building the conceptual creative framework (that I discussed above) is really the same, whatever I am working upon. I must – whatever the pre-existing expectations/rules of the show or genre etc – make the project ‘my own’ to a degree in order to activate the deepest aspects of my creativity. This is really what I’m being payed for – besides my ability to deliver on time & budget etc – so it is a task that cannot be neglected or given short shrift. Of course, it is prudent to conduct that task with as much genuine and sincere dialogue with one’s colleagues as possible, so that the show you ultimately deliver is both a reflection of one’s own vision AND the commercial product that one’s employers have dreamed of, usually for many many months before you – as director – joined the project. Finding a methodology that enables both parties to be so satisfied is one part of sustaining a rewarding career of some longevity.


What do you have coming up next?

As lead director, I am prepping the first three episodes of a new 13 part medical drama series called CRITICAL, created & written by Jed Mercurio for Hattrick/SKY.


Anything you’d like to tackle that hasn’t cropped up on your radar yet?

Yes, two things; intelligently written science-fiction for grown-ups and something about World War Two, which has a powerful emotional resonance for me.


What are your two cents on the Film Vs. Digital debate (that seems to have mostly petered out now)??

Arri Alexa digital camera, (see above)…. says it all.

Jon East directing actors Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis on WHITECHAPEL
Jon East directing actors Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis on WHITECHAPEL

What’s your one piece of advice to any filmmaker starting out today?

Don’t wait for someone to appoint you as a director. Just start doing it now, start filmmaking today. Technologically it’s never been easier or cheaper and all the tuition you need is available free through the internet or the inter-library lending system. I once had to select candidates for four places on a multi-camera training course. I received hundreds of applications from wannabe directors, but only twelve from people who actually had made a short film of any kind. You can guess to whom I gave an interview. If the passion is real then you’ll already be doing it, or seriously planning it. If you’re not, you might want to ask whether you’ve really got the staying power and enthusiasm to sustain you in what is an incredibly competitive environment. That sounds a bit negative to end on, so I’ll add this: if you genuinely possess that love and passion for filmmaking then do not let the negativity or pessimism or cynicism or envy of others stop you in your efforts to realise your dream. It is a great journey and the nature of the task means that you can make it your own, and that’s the definition of a fulfilling life. Good luck.

Thank you, Jon!

As if you need telling, the Downton Abbey Christmas Special will be airing on Christmas Day at 8.30pm on ITV.

Film Doctor - Downton-Abbey-Christmas-2013-2716469

That’s it for our In Conversation series for 2013. Join us next year for more!

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One thought on “In Conversation: Director Jon East (Downton Abbey Christmas Special, Whitechapel)

  • January 3, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Oh wow. I went to college with Jon – Jonathan as he was known then. Good old WSCAD. He was in the year above, and a dynamo of energy, brimming with talent. His graduation film, Meat, impressed me a lot. He shot it using a 16mm clockwork Bolex, and did all the mixes in-camera using a wind-up Rexofader!

    Glad to see he’s doing well, but then I knew he was bound to.


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