Lilah Vandenburgh, a Texan native, received acclaim with her Sundance short Bitch that she wrote then directed on location in Venice Beach, LA. It's the story of an antisocial pop-culture vigilante who is hell-bent on ridding her record store of pompous posers. Vandenburgh soon crossed the pond and by 2012 she was writing and directing for BBC3's British Comedy Award-nominated TV series Uncle.
Uncle follows overgrown manboy Andy, a struggling musician, whose suicide attempt is interrupted by his sister's request that Andy picks up his precocious nephew, Errol. Starring Nick Helm as Andy, this comedy takes an unconventional family and follows the growth of the relationship between uncle and nephew.
As one of two staff writers on the show, she co-wrote nineteen of the twenty episodes and was associate producer for five. Building on her prior experience directing music video promos, Vandenburgh directed the in-show music videos for five of the episodes. The series has recently repeated on BBC3 and we found a sunny seat by Camden Lock to discuss her journey from Sundance to the small screen.After you directed Bitch, how did you find the process of introducing it to the industry?
Well, one of the biggest recommendations I have for short filmmakers is to consider which festivals you apply to really carefully, as some festivals will only take your short if you premiere it at their stage. As it turns out Sundance wasn’t one of those, but Bitch had a really strong response from a lot of Southern [American] states, like Florida and Texas and I think it got an award in Oklahoma, because there is that sense that the people who identify themselves as different in these conservative areas do it in a much more extreme way. Also, Bitch had a really good response from French film festivals, because they seem to take short film more seriously as an independent art form.And do you feel that this opposition to conservative America was a part of the subcultures that influenced Bitch?
Well, growing up I was watching MTV around the clock, so I was watching these same videos over and over again and that was [Lilah adopts a grumpy old-timer voice] "back in the day when there were actual videos." (She laughs.)It was an activity. We’d all sit on the sofa and watch music videos.
Literally all day. And some of the DJs were really good and would curate it. And I remember, like, 120 minutes really fondly and Headbanger’s ball. Now I feel like I follow online music magazines and it’s not quite the same feeling…(A French pug waddles up to our table. Both of us lose our place in the conversation and stare at it.) Did that also impact all the promo music videos in Uncle alongside Bitch?
Music video was an influence on the short, which then led to me getting music video work. It pays nothing, and it’s really hard because for every video you’re scrapping together favours, and you can only do that so many times before you use up your favours. You can pay for one thing. A location or an actor or a dancer or makeup. But you can’t have them all in one video. Occasionally you get this really innovative cheap video that’s like lighting in a bottle but now it’s been going so many years as a medium…and I feel like A-Ha’s Take On Me is still the best video. (She laughs.) But that was like two or three years into music videos taking off, and, well, it’s never gonna be topped.So now it’s a matter of being resourceful?
Right. You see the same issues in short film, a lot of online stuff, and for music videos. They invent a new technology – like the DLSR cameras were a bit of a revolution - and then people will start to say "you don’t need lights. You don’t need to grade it. You just shoot it and go." And actually you do need all those things. But that ungraded look actually became an aesthetic.The webcam look?
Yeah, and that’s just a technical mistake. There were all these commissioners asking for that. One time we delivered a rough cut of a video to a commissioner, and they got used to the ungraded look, which was so milky…it looked like there was a cloud over the image. It had become so ubiquitous that people didn’t understand it was technically not very good. I’ve seen this in TV too with the feel that you can just shoot it handheld and it doesn’t need lights or grading, but if you want it to look professional you still need all that stuff.Well as each new technology comes out it seems to inspire a wave of gimmicks, right?
I have a few friends who teach film, and one of them teaches first year production students. And there’s themes you see over and over again each year: the same ideas. And a lot of them seem to stem from not being taught narrative first. A lot of their shorts will just be random images and then somebody will wake up from a nightmare at the end, because they don’t know how to structure it.
Maybe if there’s a secret it’s that they need to learn writing first…it’s tough. There’s something about the tabula rasa exploration…that once you know the rules your mind is kind of poisoned. There was a kind of filmmaking I did before I knew the rules and then a kind of filmmaking that I was not interested in after I knew the rules.Which rules do you mean?
Well at film school, I had several teachers that were very heavy on film grammar…like "this is what a shot means to most people." There’s a shared language that people who go to the cinema kind of understand intrinsically what this assembly of shots signify [sic]. There is a convention that we’ve actually been taught and ingested from watching films our entire lives. If you don’t use it, it’s at your peril. You’ll just confuse the audience. I think I was really interested in being innovative and cool when I was young.Weren’t we all.
Weren’t we all! And then I got much more interested in being clear (she emphasises "clear"). “Here’s my voice and I want you to not be confused.” Being complex and being confusing aren’t the same thing. You have to do it in the writing and then you have to do it again in the performance, and the shooting, and then in the cutting. At any one of those steps you can confuse people or you can get it half-right. That was towards the end of film school and I was focused very much on visuals and directing. In the ensuing decade that I’ve been out, I’ve been focused much more on learning screenwriting and TV writing structure.To be continued next week.