The hugely successful New York Writers Lab, supported by Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, is coming to the UK. The Writers Lab UK & I is for women-identifying writers over 40 (submissions close 22 April 2021) and is ran in association with Birds Eye View. Birds Eye View is a not-for-profit that centres the female perspective in film and campaigns for gender equality in all film spaces. Birds Eye View run nationwide film events throughout the year bringing ever-greater audiences to films by women. The Director at Large and Oscar winning producer (Six Shooter), Mia Bays, has worked in the film industry for over 29 years as a producer, creative producer, distribution and sales expert.
We spoke with Mia about the importance of The Writers Lab, what holds writers back and what needs to change within the film and television industry, but first, here's some information about The Writers Lab UK & I...
The co-founders of The Writers Lab, Elizabeth Kaiden and Nitza Wilon, created the lab with the aim of combating sexism and ageism within the film and television industry. Its alumni have gone on to have their projects optioned, landed writer-for-hire jobs, win awards and its first completed project is Alyson Richards' horror, The Retreat. This script development programme will take place in June, virtually, across four days followed by five months of post-lab development, support and mentoring. The exceptional mentors on this programme, from producers to writers, include Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Motherland), Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther), Tanya Qureshi (I May Destroy You), Abby Ajayi (How To Get Away With Murder), Angela Kang (The Walking Dead) and Meg LeFauve (Captain Marvel, Inside Out). The Writers Lab UK & I is partnered with Untamed Stories and supported by Cate Blanchett's production company Dirty Films.
Amy Watts: Tell us about The Writers Lab and why it's important?
Mia Bays: It's not something we've set up, we're involved because of Birds Eye View's mission is to bring ever-greater audiences to films by women. Firstly we were a film festival and then for last three years, we've been a nationwide, year round collective - basically we're cultural activists. We're not really involved in making films. We followed the news of the Meryl Streep (backed) New York (Writers) Lab that this is inspired by and we thought it just sounded fabulous so when Julia Berg, who set up the lab and is running it, contacted us and said, 'would you like to be involved?' - we thought immediately yes. Obviously having the chance to kind of collaborate with the company Cate Blanchett (Dirty Films) runs is wonderful 'cause these kinds of labs need endorsement and from people who can get movies made and it really is a struggle for women over 40 in the UK to get recognition. I know several fabulous writers who just really struggle to be seen and heard and they're terrific. So all of those factors add up to why this is really important for us.
AW: Why do you think it is that women over 40 struggle in particular?
MB: Well I think lots of people struggle who are from underrepresented groups, it's not particular to women necessarily, but that's what we're focusing on in this case. There's a whole issue around ageism generally anyway and it doesn't make any sense from a writer's perspective because the older you are, the more you have to say, the more life experience you have, the more practice you've had but the way that the film and TV industry works - it's predicated on star names, even in writing. Particularly in television, if you're a writer with any kind of track record, you really have to have starry credits. Often people come from theatre and you really have to have got an enormous amount of big credits under your belt before you're taken seriously within your own right. In the film industry, we put a big focus on writer-directors so a lot of writers struggle if they don't direct their own material, if they don't have a collaboration with a known director, they're kind of floating off by themselves. A lot of writers very happily want to be in the background, that's often what makes them really good, but they're shier, they're not good at the business side and that's a problem for writers cause they kind of need to be. That's why there's focus on writer-directors because you need the confidence to build your own personal "brand," I don't like that word but so often writers just can't do that and then if they don't find someone who's going to advocate for them and champion them, then they just spend years struggling. The industry needs sort of reorganising in a way to recognise this and that's why this lab is really important I think.
AW: There are some great mentors involved in The Writers Lab such as Sharon Horgan and Abi Ajayi, you've worked in the film industry a long time and had huge success, who were some of your mentors?
MB: Mentors are really important. In my early career I had several really great mentors. My first boss was a women, she was called Romaine Hart and the company she owned (Mainline Pictures) ran four cinemas in London - they're now the Everyman cinemas but they were Screen on the Green, Screen on the Hill and Bakerstreet - and also distributed some amazing films, like early John Waters and Todd Haynes' first film. So that was the very first job as her PA, she was incredible, she just encouraged me, she saw something in me and gave me these big tasks, she'd just sort of give me a book or a directory with bits of instruction and then let me sort of get on with it, and it was quite scary sometimes but I did, I just got on with it and she was just really great. I had several others throughout other jobs, people who really helped and then I've had other people who were blockers so when you meet people who are higher up the chain who stop you and don't like people coming through, you really recognise how lucky you have been in other situations. The industry now is much more kind of recognising that mentoring is really important. It's not training necessarily, people you're mentoring are really great, they don't need any more training. They just need encouragement and they need to be championed, they need doors opened, they often need confidence to kick the doors open that aren't open for them so I think that's really the role the mentors will play in this kind of lab and also like a safe pair of ears and eyes and hands as well. You get to kind of ask difficult questions, ruminate on things that you might not want to ruminate on publicly. It's a really important role.
AW: I always ask this question as a way to demystify how people get into the film industry because as you've said doors are more closed for people from certain demographics. You've mentioned that you worked as Romaine Hart's PA at Mainline Pictures, what was the catalyst for wanting to work in the film industry and what was that journey?
MB: Actually I didn't even know that I wanted to get into film. I don't think I even imagined it was open to me - comprehensive educated from a single parent family brought up on benefits and my mum took me to the cinema every week for the whole of my childhood basically, so I was a big film fan. I sort of grew up with it from as young as I can remember, the first memory I've got of going is at four. I saw this job in The Guardian and I'd just finished my A-levels so I was 18 and I knew I needed to get a job in the year I was taking out before going to university and kind of against the odds, got this job. She saw something in me, she was middle class, upper class, Romaine Hart who owned her own company, and she was Jewish and I think she had a sense of like the struggle and how actually she could make a difference by giving the job to someone like me. Very often there are privileged kids coming through who know someone and the fact that she'd even advertised it in The Guardian instead of putting the word out to friends, which is often still how these roles are filled, and so I think she had a sense of wanting to do something, to give a kid a break who might not get in otherwise. Once I was in, I just loved it so much I didn't want to leave, so I never went to university and it's my 30th year in film this year, you know I've never stopped.
I've learnt everything I know on the job, I've taught myself and that's the great thing about film actually, we're kind of realising you can come from anywhere and be really good, the problem is getting in - access. I think there's a lot of really good conversations and interventions around this now, we could be better of course, we could do more but people really recognise that much more diverse people need to be in the industry because it'll be better, we'll know how to tell stories better, we'll reach more people. It shouldn't be homogenous because it's dull, it's not healthy. Opening doors for people that are underrepresented has become my passion because it's very important in what we do at Birds Eye View, to be intersectional. We really think about what films we back and who they're by and who's on screen and (make sure) that they're not all white people and that they're not all from a certain demographic and that they're not all from London and there's a real mix of cultures as much as we possibly can and that they're not all able-bodied and they're not all straight and we're really, really conscious of that. Of course we could always do better but it's never really far away, that kind of thought, and that's going to be really important for this scheme as well.
AW: You've kind of touched upon this but what are the changes you would like to see in the industry and in regards to everything that's happened this year during the pandemic, do you think that the likelihood of those changes happening, have been helped or hindered by it?
MB: We'll kind of soon see. I think the good thing is that diversity and inclusion seem to be on everyone's lips and it's kind of untenable as an organisation to not be thinking about it, and to be looking at your team and to be looking at the films that you make, and really having an audit and a real conversation with yourselves about what difference we're making. Are we just doing the same old, same old? I feel like the pandemic, in exposing inequities in society and Black Lives Matter, all of the things that have happened over the past year, people have been through a lot - some a lot more than others - and I feel like we've all had the time to look and really think, you can't really escape it in a way, so I think that's a really good reset for all of us. In a way, the job now is for those who have got power to share it more. There's a great phrase I heard recently - generous authority - generous authority is clear about what it's doing. You can't just share power and it be kind of like, no-one's in charge, because nothing gets done but to be really clear and generous with how you share your power and what you do with it and who you lift up and I feel like, film kind of needs a reset. People have been watching a lot of film and television and that's a good thing, I think cinemas are gonna open up again and we're gonna really see the impact - have people missed the cinema? Are they going to stay away? Are they going to want it more than ever because they've missed it? That's going to be really interesting.
It's a bit of a wait and see for a few months and then see what behaviour looks like when we come out the giddy, everything-is-open-again stage and we get back to a kind of normal. I think it's like, okay what do we want? There's lots of conversations around the new normal, what does that look like? What have we learnt and what do we want to get rid of? What don't we want back and what do we want to keep hold of and what do we want less of? You know I feel like those organisations that have got quite a lot of power and influence and finance, they have to be asking those big questions. And quite a lot of the time, I don't know how relevant a lot of British cinema is to be honest, a lot of it I look at and I don't know who it's for and it often ends up not being for anyone and that's a problem. What I'd love with this lab, we'll get some really untapped talent who've been working on some amazing stories for the past year and they've had some time to really put some work into those scripts. We're gonna have a slate that we can develop into some fabulous stories that have not been told and also to spotlight people who often don't get to lead films and also not just tell London centric stories, where are the stories around all the nations and regions? How do we make those relevant to everybody? And how do we give some hope as well? I really do think hope is a really important thing for everyone now going forward, a glimmer of hope.
AW: You mention there about some of British Cinema not being relevant or for anyone, I wondered if you could explain a bit more about what you mean or give some examples?
MB: Yeah, you know we're known for either social realism, gritty urban films or kind of costume dramas, you know very often they're exported to America and they've got the big stars in and it often feels like we don't do much genre, I don't know why. I feel like, where are the great comedy stars coming through in film? I don't feel like they're anywhere. And more genres I would say like great psychological horrors and where are the stylists? British Cinema used to have some great stylists like Powell and Pressburger and think about some of the great 60s and 70s filmmakers, where are they coming through next? I think I'm bored of social realism personally, I just think it all looks the same and feels the same. I think there's some exceptional people who have been doing it for a long time, who did get copied, you know like Andrea Arnold, I think she's fabulous but why lots of other people want to try and make another Andrea Arnold film and fail, I don't know why, I'm not sure what they're doing. I just feel like that we have to look at the interventions, like this is an intervention, this writer's lab. I think there are too many writer-directors and it doesn't help us. You know, separate those two roles, privilege more writers and get directors concentrating on the art of directing. What you find is when people are writer-directors, they're making a film every four years - it's too slow, how can you practice and hone your skills and your art that infrequently? It's too difficult. I've felt strongly for ages that there are lots of great writers who are just kind of floating around that are not able to grab onto any kind of chance and the class of the mentors on The Writer's Lab, the high profile talent - people that can really open doors, this can actually discover some real talent that can go onto have careers - I'm absolutely certain we will.
AW: Who are some of your favourite women writers over 40 or films by women writers over 40?
MB: Abi Morgan (Shame, Iron Lady, Suffragette) is a great example, I don't think she became successful until she was over 40, I think it happened in theatre first. The TV writer Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Gentleman Jack) I think is fabulous. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, The Old Guard) who's wonderful, she doesn't necessarily always write but she's been badgering away for years and had a massive hiatus, as happens to lots of women, particularly Black women, they manage against huge odds to make one film and then they're just out in the ether for ages and finally because times have changed, people are recognising them again. They would be the off-the-top-of-my-head examples. I'm sure there's loads more I could think of. I'm a big fan of Maren Ade who made Toni Erdmann which is one of my favourite films. I absolutely love her, she will have made Toni Erdmann just when she was turning 40, I think she's a genius. She's a writer-director but still.
AW: What's next for Birds Eye View when cinemas are open?
MB: So we've got a bit of a tour with Billy Piper on her writing/directing debut that she stars in called Rare Beasts which will be in cinemas. We're doing an event on Sunday around Polly Styrene: I am a cliché that's online but we'll do a few events with that when the cinemas open up again. I mean the great thing about this last year, because so many films have been delayed, there's loads of good stuff coming out and cinemas are bringing out stuff that's been out online for a while because they still feel like there's audiences who want to see the films on the big screen so that's really good, and that's very unusual, it used to be that when a film came out that it was old news quite fast but this last year has changed that dramatically. Nomadland, we're doing quite a bit of work on, I just absolutely love that film by Chloé Zhao. Those are the main ones, and a wonderful documentary called Rebel Dykes which is about the lesbian scene in the 80s and this incredible group of women who created this really radical all female space and it's wonderful. It opened Flare Festival and it's had amazing reviews, a really important part of British women's history that's unknown - a really fun, inspiring doc.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All women-identifying writers over 40 SUBMIT YOUR SCRIPT NOW for The Writers Lab UK & I - you have until 22 April 2021
Check out the amazing array of upcoming events from Birds Eye View