Zoe Alker, one of Watershed's Future Producers alumni, worked alongside Mike Leigh, a director at the pinnacle of his powers, on his latest feature Peterloo. We caught up with her to find out more about her amazing experience - of how a young filmmaker landed a job with her hero.
Zoe grew up in Cornwall and started off working the Cornwall Film Festival, studying film production before moving to Bristol to study filmmaking and screenwriting at UWE. In 2014, she applied for Watershed’s Future Producers talent development programme when she was 20 years old, whilst still doing her degree. She later featured on Rife Magzine's "24 Most Influential Bristolians Under 24'" list in 2015.
Firstly we asked Zoe about her experience of Watershed:
“What was interesting about Future Producers was being taken seriously – it’s such a massive thing for young people. A space like this sometimes can feel a bit hidden behind closed doors. To be let into that space, to be asked about your ideas... that was one of the most beneficial things - to be told that this space potentially could be for you. That can give a young person a lot of confidence. So that was a huge thing for me.”
Then we asked Zoe about how she landed the dream job of working on Peterloo:
"The story is so crazy, the succession of events. Growing up in Cornwall, feeling isolated from opportunities - then coming to Bristol and through UWE, Watershed and Future Producers, suddenly you can just see opportunities where you never really had them before. So I just took in everything…Oh there’s a screening of that…Oh there's a course about this - yeah I’ll go!
Then, when I got near to graduating, I applied for jobs here, creative arts jobs - but really I wanted to be a director. You can’t really be 22 and apply for directing jobs! I felt I needed some serious mentorship from a director. I was making short after short - but it felt like I didn't yet have the actual, tangible skills. I remember thinking it would be great if i got a job as comms person at Watershed or a job at Arnolfini - but how exactly is that going to help me become the director that I feel that I am?
I’ve always been interested in social realist, contemporary dramas so Mike Leigh was my hero, you know. So I thought - I want to learn from him. I sat in a cafe in London thinking about the things that matter to me, the kind of work I want to make - and it kept coming back to Mike. So a few months after graduation I wrote him a handwritten letter, saying: “I love your films, and I would love to ask you some questions... I know you probably won’t have time...” I genuinely felt, maybe naively, that I was a filmmaker writing to another filmmaker. This would have been Spring 2016.
So I sent the letter and incredibly a few days later his assistant emailed me and said we’re actually looking for somebody to do this mad project with him. He really liked your letter - do you want to come and talk about it? And this was Peterloo! I just couldn’t believe it - so I went to London and met his assistant and his rehearsal manager and just got on so well, he surrounds himself with really marvellous people. And then I met Mike and we just like clicked, and a couple of days later they offered me a job."
We got Zoe to tell us more about what the job was actually like:
"I’m credited in the film as a 3rd AD (assistant director). We had a massive cast and I worked with the rehearsal manager to create little sets for the actors to improvise in. Really we were laying the groundwork for when we got on set. And helping Mike - doing bits of research in archives because some of the characters in Peterloo were real and some were made up - and it was really important to seamlessly transition between the two. It’s so well researched. I’d say we were trying to hold together the ‘film world’ and the ‘Mike Leigh world’ and that was a big part of my job.
It was an incredible experience and Mike was so generous with his time. With somebody like Mike you might feel you should just leave him alone - but he wanted me to ask him questions and he’d answer them. I would work again with Mike in a heartbeat. It was such a joy. He’s an amazing person, I’m so grateful. It’s changed my life. It’s changed my outlook on everything, how I work. It was an amazing experience.”
Then we asked Zoe what’s next for her:
“I’m just finishing a short now that I’m hoping to take to festivals next year. I’ve got two features that I’m pitching next year... and then I’d love to work with Mike again! I’ve definitely got the right mindset for it now having worked with him, I think it’s just the case of putting the time and effort in. If I learnt anything from Mike it's not to rush.
I think that's been the biggest thing with Mike is that making my own features doesn’t feel like a dream anymore, it feels natural because he took the time to explain to me how it was real, how it works in a real practical way.”