A force to be reckoned with: Fiona McGee
Interview by Siobhan Fitzgerald
S: Can you talk to us about how you became a director?
F: I went to film school at COFA, so I made a lot of short films and creative projects. From there I worked as a production assistant at Cherub Pictures, which in retrospect was amazing given the calibre of Directors who were represented there. Rowan Woods (The Boys), Shirley Barrett (Love Serenade) and Andrew Dominik (Chopper). I just worked as a runner and production assistant, coffee, buying Camel cigarettes for Andrew, re-parking cars. But from there I got to see how the whole thing worked.
Then I worked at a small agency called VCD for two years where I also did AWARD School. George Betsis, the ECD, was known for making brave and unorthodox choices. Lucky for me he liked the short films I’d made and entrusted me with directing any TVC with a budget under 100K. It’s crazy to think that today.
Budgets were so much bigger then, and we are talking 2002-ish.
One of our clients was ACP Magazines—Cleo, Cosmo, Harper’s Bazaar, New Weekly. They’d make 15 second ads —there’d be a five second end where it’d be like “Jennifer Aniston’s new hair” then there’d be ten seconds of live action where there’d be a bit of a story. So they were the kind of jobs that I was directing. Without that opportunity I probably would have gone into film.
At that time there was a female director called Vikki Blanche directing ads that always stood out, they were so different tonally and always so clever. So because of her I thought, maybe I could do that too?
S: You are constantly competing for jobs. Can you talk to us about that?
F: Pitching doesn’t really feel like competing. Sure you win or lose, but the pitching process is a fairly internal process. I am sitting alone writing.
I certainly don’t think it’s nearly as intense as sitting in a casting director’s waiting room with 15 of your fellow actor competitors.
Or even in an agency when multiple teams are on the same brief. Essentially creatives have come to me to see what I can bring to the idea. I have my take on it, but it may not be right for them, or for the agency, or for the client.
The boring part of pitching is the limbo of waiting to hear on a job. My family gets dragged into the equation too and that’s a juggle sometimes. We live so speculatively—next month i might be here, or I might be there. Or maybe over there.
And then there are those jobs you wish you won. You definitely learn to minimise the feelings of rejection, we all do in this industry, creatives, directors, actors.
I actually see film as a very collaborative process rather than a competitive one.
Once I get the job it's all about collaboration. I feel blessed to work in this industry with such talented people. I love the crew that I work with.
S: Of all the jobs you pitch on what percentage do you win?
F: Maybe 60-70%. But I’m also not pitching on everything, I’m not pitching on jobs that I don’t really want to do. And agencies tend to come to me for a particular reason. I think it would probably be harder if I was a director in the ‘beautiful pictures’ rather than performance specialty. That market is probably a lot more competitive.
S: What’s your process when you receive a script?
F: Pitching is a unique beast. Very different from working on a film or a documentary. After being briefed by agency creatives I get writing as soon as I can. The longer I leave it the more procrastination and stagnation set in. Also I find the better the idea, the easier it is to write.
I need to get my ideas down before involving others or talking about execution with producers. If I get people involved before I have my take on it the conversations can get murky.
So once I have an idea of treatment then I collaborate with my producer Claire Richards and the team at Goodoil. These conversations might be about the nuances of a job, or it could be about the logistics and how to shoot it. Each project is so different from the next. I love that. The Birthday Book says I am born on the Day of the Wanderer so maybe going from one project to another is my version of island hopping.
S: What traits do you think one needs to have to be a director?
F: There is no one set of traits. It’s important to be tenacious and a have a clear vision, but also to listen and be collaborative, to hold what’s important close and not give that away. My style is different to the next director’s—really you have to take on that role as your own.
S: You’re one of very few female directors in Australia. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
F: Only that it makes zero sense to have so few female directors. I often think about how different ideas and their executions could be if there were more women directing and more women writing ads. Maybe less scripts starting with “We open on Mum in the kitchen…”
I look forward to the day I can pitch against all female directors. It's only happened once before and you can probably guess the type of product it was for.
But like I said, the number of female directors really doesn’t stack up. 50.8% of the Australian population is female but only around 8% of commercial directors are female. Crazy.
S:That’s probably you, in the Australian market. You’re the 8%.
F: Ha no, there are definitely others! Amazingly talented others. But not enough. At the moment I’m mentoring a female director through the Australian Directors Guild program, G who works at Goodoil as a director’s assistant. She’s actually just shot her first ad: we basically said, “she doesn’t have a commercial reel yet, but I’ll be across the process”. Then she completely ran with it and wrote a great treatment, got a great cast approved. It was really satisfying. I was so happy that the agency (CHE) gave her the job. It showed some guts and a nice trust in her potential.
I was just looking at the rushes and it looks amazing. It’s so different from when I started shooting. She had Cooke Optic lenses, big lights —and I was thinking on my first job I had a 16mm Bolex camera and ambient light, ie the sun.
S: Aside from opportunity, do you think one of the things holding women back is confidence? You need a lot of confidence to be a director, and a creative—something that you obviously have.
F: I guess so—I am more confident directing than I am doing other things. Early on I would freak out about pitching on a job. Then even if I got the job, as a young director I’d have this feeling of, are they going to realise that I don’t know what the hell I am doing?
But opportunity is a huge part of it. There’s so much talk about there being lots of female creatives out there, but in terms of us meeting them on jobs, the people actually getting to produce TV, it’s very minimal.
I’d say probably 80% of the creatives I work with are male. So it’s not about ‘yeah there are lots of female creatives in the agency’, it’s about, what briefs are they actually getting?
S: Goodoil is one of Australia’s top production companies. What do you think sets them apart from the rest?
F: For me when you’re in a really competitive environment you need to feel supported. Goodoil has always been really supportive of me as a director, and it’s has never been about my gender, which has been a gift.
You can see Fiona's work at goodoilfilms.com/director/fiona-mcgee/
Goodoil is the sponsor for Issue #4 of Gabberish. If you'd like to sponsor issue #5 please email Siobhan at firstname.lastname@example.org.