Lilah Vandenburgh co-wrote nineteen episodes in the TV series Uncle, which premiered on BBC3 in 2012, as well as producing and directing segments of the show. Uncle is the story of Andy, a struggling musician, who is coerced by his sister into taking care of his adolescent nephew, Errol, on the day he was planning to kill himself. Starring Nick Helm as Andy, this comedy takes an unconventional family and follows the growth of the relationship between uncle and nephew. The series has recently repeated on BB3 and we wanted to find out how she got there.How did that transition into TV come about?
I didn’t really focus on TV before. The golden age of TV that we’re in now feels like it started around 2005, and I remember there’s this year I call "the amazing year of TV" where Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, The Wire, and Avatar the Last Airbender were all showing. There started to be something where TV was overtaking film as far as that’s where all the great writers and talent were going.
The world has changed dramatically but when we were in film school, they were focused on the idea of us as auteurs who made independent films. “Don’t sell out and go to Hollywood. Don’t try to feed yourself, just be an artist.” And a few of us were like "this doesn’t sound quite right, we’d like to be able to make a living." I personally don’t think there’s any shame in making an intelligent subversive Hollywood film. I’m less interested in trying to bypass the system and more interested in trying to overhaul the system…maybe that sounds a little ambitious.Well, it’s happened recently with Damian Chazelle, making Whiplash and La La Land, right? And obviously Moonlight too.
In the grand scheme of things, those are independent films at heart. Even La La Land didn’t cost as much as people think. The film school I went to was pushing that indie aesthetic without recognizing that it was an aesthetic. It was very ‘find your voice’ and you’d say "Right, but my voice isn’t indie,” and they’d say “find your voice.”
Because Bitch did well at Sundance, people were expecting me to go down a Sundance route and do my own Tiny Furniture, and I thought, “I don’t have that thing to say.” [Tiny Furniture was an independent comedy-drama written by Lena Dunham, who has since found acclaim writing and starring in the HBO TV Series Girls.]
I never even saw female filmmakers being encouraged to be like "you should be a big budget genre director." I never saw anyone saying that’s a good career path for women and I wonder why women were always talked out of doing this, and there’s such a barrier to entry.
I know female genre filmmakers now who do not have an easy time trying to get work but are very qualified, and love comic books and are really good at action and all the things that they say female filmmakers won’t be good at; as if somehow they won’t be visual, even though there’s loads of female illustrators and photographers.What do you think it is about directing specifically that leads to this barrier? It just comes down to money really. Big budget film is so finance-dependent and you have bankers involved at that point. There’s a cold feet element when that much finance is involved. Well it’s being worked on now, probably not as fast as it should be. There’s still a trust gap. That’s the main issue. Whenever money is involved, there’s a trust gap. Once you want to direct people, you’re asking for money and you’re asking employees to assemble beneath you and I think that’s kind of the difficulty at the heart of it. It’s slowly changing though. (She laughs and says half-heartedly) Hooray. How did you find that process of progressing in your career yourself?
Well, getting directing work is harder than getting into writing. And it’s hard getting into writing. But that barrier for entry is lower because if you have the time you can keep going and writing your own stuff. It’s not easy because the reality is almost everybody has to work a day job in addition to their own personal writing, and so what you’re dealing with when it comes to writing is time management and fatigue, and do I actually have any ideas because I’m so busy working just to feed myself? Getting into a position where you can have your passion and the work you do be the same thing is…well…It’s the dream.
(She laughs.) It’s the dream! From the outside it looks to people like you just (she clicks her fingers) make it, but it’s so incremental. You slowly make it over the course of a decade.
I think it’s a common mistake when people come up with a really good idea and they get hung up on that one idea, and getting it made, and polishing and polishing and polishing it. If that’s all you have, you’re not actually ready to be a professional writer. You need to have a portfolio and also, within a couple of years, that portfolio should be replaced. You should be looking back at that work and thinking “I have much better stuff to put in the portfolio now.”