Martina Silcock, PRODUCER, HAPPY OUTLIER PICTURES
Born and raised in Manchester, British-Irish producer Martina Silcock’s passion for scripted drama has shaped her career. She has worked on a diverse slate of shorts, features and high-end TV dramas, including the Spirit Award-nominated Pig, The Last Kingdom, My Mad Fat Diary, Curfew, the BAFTA-nominated Mogul Mowgli, and the Emmy-winning Man in an Orange Shirt. Martina’s work in production has led her across the globe, including Hong Kong, Greece, Hungary, and now the USA. She is currently living in Los Angeles where she is developing several US- and UK-based projects. Her aim is to support underrepresented voices, with a particular focus on stories with science fiction and magical realist elements. She is a third-year BAFTA LA Newcomer Talent.
In 2020, Martina launched LookBeyondTheList.com – a resources site for underrepresented groups working behind the camera in scripted TV and film. As part of this she is working with several UK organisations to develop strategies for better inclusivity in TV and film.
What attracted you to Inside Pictures (IP)?
The number one thing I was interested in was finding other people to collaborate with. Before I applied, IP held an online Q&A session. They introduced us to a few people who’d done the course and one of them explained what IP had brought them – 19 new friends – which I thought was a really wonderful way to describe what is ultimately a work-focused initiative.
Since you launched Look Beyond The List (LBTL) what are the main priorities that need to be addressed?
More than anything, we have to change our perceptions and our own thought processes when it comes to recruitment in the TV and film industry. When I first started talking about setting up LBTL, there was a lot of support, but there was also pushback. Particularly, in relation to Black Lives Matter and the related protests during 2020. I had one person tell me that racism doesn’t exist in the UK, that we should be looking at people from working class backgrounds, aka white working class. There’s a mentality, and this isn’t just a Britain specific problem, from people who are used to having a certain amount of systemic power to decide you only elevate one group of people at a time. As if you can’t elevate everybody at the same time.
I called the site LOOK BEYOND THE LIST because there are lots of talent lists – for example on IMDb – that serve a limited purpose. They can be useful but they aren’t an agent of change on their own and also need to be used effectively by those with recruiting power. When they are used improperly, e.g. if a recruiter only uses these lists and thinks their work is done, then it can create another barrier for those from underrepresented groups trying to enter TV and Film. We all have to look beyond what we have always done in order to make true systemic change.
In the UK, I’ve been discussing with various organizations about creating a compulsory management training scheme. I think there has to be an element of accountability at the heart of the training and development of people who are, or will be, making recruitment decisions.
There is no easy fix. We all need to look at ourselves, myself included. Think about our unique privileges, and how we got here. I know I have definitely enjoyed the benefits of white, able-bodied and middle-class privilege. When I started out, I didn’t know anybody in the industry, but things have worked out in my favour, in so many ways, because of my skin colour and social background. You have to recognise what your own background is and what you’ve done. I’m sure, partly consciously, partly unconsciously, I modified my Manchester accent to make myself more employable (and understandable), but unlike other identifiers that is something I could choose to change.
An action I recommend to start changing perceptions, is to question ourselves. Think about your gut reaction to a CV. Why did you think that? Why do you think this person can do this job? And not this other person? Why do you think this person has got the right qualifications/experience to this job? It is about examining why you dismiss one person, over another. Is it because of something that you don’t want to admit to? Is it some kind of bias? Is it something else? Is it legitimate? Is it just the way it’s written on the CV? At the end of the day, a CV is just another list so we need to question our instinctive judgements and engage in dialogue with applicants in order to hire better and find our way to true inclusivity.
Moving from post-production to production, what do you think producers could do better in order to get the best out of the post-production process?
The mentality you need to have for post-production is that it’s basically another film each with its own moving parts of prep, production and delivery: every stage of filmmaking is a process that you have to go through and you really have to plan for it. Don’t mistake post-production as the bit on the end that’s only meant to last a couple of months after you’ve shot the film. While in production it’s easy to say fix it in post, and you have to back this up by planning to allow the right time, resources and money for it to be effective in post. For example, unusable sound from the production is unlikely to be ‘fixable’ in post without adding to your costs. You can end up with having to pay $1000s extra to an actor for ADR, as well as studio time etc. VFX is something that is often neglected in the low budget indie world. Do you have a VFX Supervisor on set? This added production cost will ultimately save you money, if you’re relying on VFX in post.
You are focussed on supporting underrepresented voices. Why sci-fi and magic realist stories?
I find dramatic narrative incredibly immersive and I really like it when it has inflections of magical realism in it. I think it helps unlock parts of your brain that enables you to remove yourself from everyday surroundings and/or situations which then helps you understand the real world better.
I always use ALIEN (1979) as an example of something that is otherworldly, but it says so much about the human condition. It’s essentially about a bunch of labourers, stuck in space, bitching about the pay, and then this otherworldly thing happens to them which is loaded with all sorts metaphorical aspects too.
I loved how in MOGUL MOWGLI (2020) we see Riz Ahmed’s character Zed, choking on his own microphone. It is one of the many clever ways co-writers and director Riz Ahmed and Bassam Tariq, use magic realism to amplify complex themes of identity, including cultural identity, in a lyrical way – like poetry – that makes it very personal as well. And that’s what I really like about this kind of storytelling.
What’s been the greatest impact on you/your company from COVID?
Obviously not being able to film anything was a huge impact. Now that people are excited again about investing in film, about moving projects forward, the big question that remains, especially for indie films, as the pandemic continues to be an issue, is when should you shoot? Shoot now and risk having to swallow the costs of another COVID outbreak? Or wait at least another year for the pandemic to – hopefully – run its course?
As well as COVID being a risk to a project, I am also really aware of the impact of being the epicentre of an outbreak of COVID as a result of your production. Potentially, being the cause of people getting sick. For example, we were filming in Hawaii, on Kauai, a small island, and there’s only one major hospital on the island. We tested every day, cleaned everything and took all the COVID safety precautions we could. We made it through, and we didn’t have any cases, but it was never far from my mind.
What changes or innovations, in response to COVID, have you seen in the film industry that will be for the greater good of the industry going into the future and what can’t you wait to see be ‘normal’ once again?
I think that adaptability has been key to getting through the pandemic and still produce new TV and film. One aspect that has been interesting is the ability to find the extra costs/resources needed to work safely during COVID, and I think we can take this mentality to now push for other things that we tend to say we don’t have the money for. E.g., Wheel chair access on set.
When I was in the UK, I would always insist on people coming for an in-person interview because I hate phone interviews. I feel like I need some kind of face to face to these types of meetings. Now, having done so much over Zoom during COVID, I think why didn’t I do this before? Skype always existed, and I used Skype to keep in touch with friends, but never for work. I’ll definitely be doing that more virtual meets in the future. It increases accessibility for the interview process too.
What we’ve discovered in COVID is that there are some roles that people can do entirely from home, if required. From the graphics department, to travel coordinators and things like that. They’re not seen as essential on set, because of COVID, they successfully did their work from home. These experiences, forced on us by COVID, should open non-set dependent roles up to a lot more people than ever before.
Fatigue from hours worked making you more susceptible to illness has been an ongoing discussion during the pandemic. Beyond COVID, working shorter days would have such a massive impact on our industry. The long hours that are tolerated, hinder so many people staying in the industry, let alone entering it. Talking to an experienced, second assistant director. She’s got two young kids now and won’t be going back on set. She said, I miss it so much, but I can’t go back. I can’t drop the kids off at 4am and hope to pick them up at 9pm. It doesn’t have to be like that. Nora Ephron used to shoot an eight-hour day. She never went over budget, and never delivered a film late. She believed people need to have their lives. They need to be able to spend time with their families.
If the pandemic started today, armed with what we know now, what do you think you and/or company would do different?
On a personal level, I would have gotten a better desk and chair. I’ve now got a decent set up at home, after sitting on a bench for quite a few months. If I knew what was coming, would last as long as it has, I think I would have been moved somewhere with a garden where I could escape my desk.
One positive, I’ve enjoyed during lockdown is reconnecting with people over Zoom. I’ve done quizzes and drinks with friends based all around the world. Since moving to the US, it’s so rare for us all to get together in the same country or city at the same time so it’s been lovely to reconnect with everyone so easily and to introduce different groups of friends to each other.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, it’s raining, you’ve nothing else to do that day, what film are you putting on to relax with?
One of my favourite films is NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). I think I’d probably watch that. My other films that I watch quite regularly are SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD (2010), MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991).