Ep 26 | Dr Jon Wardle - Director: The National Film and Television School

Credit: NFTS


Note: Please be aware this transcript is generated by AI, there will be small inconsistencies with the published podcast.

Mike: 0:00  Hi Guys, Mike here today's episode I found a really uplifting one for those wanting to get into film and TV. I talked to the head of one of the world's best film schools, the NFTS, and he gives a masterclass on how to use strategy in your career, how things will work out in the end, as well as touching of course on best practices for applying to film school and his opinion on both sides of the question, should you go to film school, from the man who runs one. That's enough for me, here's the episode.

Jon: 0:23 I think the six the key to success was was being yourself but knowing what you do was like I just said to them, guys, you know, you shot Billy Elliot, there is nothing I'm going to tell you that you don't know about cinematography. That would be embarrassing if I even tried, but you know what, Brian, I know what students need.

Mike: 0:43 Hello, and welcome to Red Carpet rookies. My name is Mike battle, a screenwriter and production team member working for Studios in London. Each episode, I bring you advice and stories from film and TV professionals to help educate and empower the next generation of filmmakers and crew. Thanks for joining me. Let's get started. Today's guest is an exciting first for the show, a preeminent name in the world of film and television education, with a frankly incredible amount of qualifications and facets to his CV, including a doctorate from the University of Bristol. Our guest now sits as a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the National Association of television production executives as a member of BAFTA and as an advisor on education to the Royal Television Society. But believe it or not, that's not even his day job. That is of course as the current director of the world renowned National Film and Television school in Bekins field England, alumni of which include none other than Sir Roger Deakins, Nick Park, and Harry Potter director, David Yeates, as well as hundreds more. Our guest is Dr. John Wardle, how're you doing today?

Jon: 1:54  Very well, Mike, thank you. Great to be on the show.

Mike: 1:56  Thanks for being here. Now, John, I know that you've listened to a couple of our episodes. And I asked all of my guests the same first question. What did your parents do? And did it affect your career choices moving forward?

Jon: 2:05  My mom was a teacher and my dad worked in, he was involved in designing the first cash machine, which they don't really exist as much anymore to that who uses cash. So no, nothing to do with film and TV grew up in Coventry. I ended up in getting into what I'm doing because of an inspirational drama teacher, really some opportunities that came from that. And I always loved film, and I always love television, and what a dream to be able to do it or be kind of part of that industry. But it didn't necessarily feel achievable. I'm an example of somebody who's benefited from, you know, teachers and other mentors who have who have created those opportunities for me and kind of extended the hand in and helped pull me in.

Mike: 2:52  I'm really interested in mentors and those relationships which foster careers like your own. Do you have any memories of that drama teachers specifically?

Jon: 3:01 Yeah, his name was William and I was at Sixth Form College in East form. By that point, my family have moved to East born. And I never wanted to, I did a level of drama, and I never wanted to be a performer. I was always drawn to the kind of back stage stage management, lighting, those sorts of things. And he was just really supportive of that. And when he found out about my kind of love of film, and TV, he was like, Well, I've got a My sister in law works in television, maybe I could ask her to give you some work experience and his sister ended up being sister in law ended up being Alyssa Evans, who produced Father Ted, oh, now she's quite a famous novelist. She wrote their finest and various of old baggage and things like that. And she took me on for a week of work experience that I never left, I worked on every series of Father Ted, the Christmas Special, the three series and, and it was just a fantastic kind of intro to actors to script preparation and kind of really focusing on what's on the page, and the routine of recording in front of a live audience every week. So it was a fantastic opportunity. And I look back at that, and I've got a lot to thank William for and Alyssa for giving me that opportunity. And that's why I'm so passionate. Now I think about giving other people those opportunities.

Mike: 4:19  Amazing. I love Father Ted, famously one of Spielberg's favourite TV shows. Did you have any interactions with Graham Lineham?

Jon: 4:26 Oh, lots. Yeah. And, and Arthur, and all the kinds of guest stars, you know, Graham Norton's in it. Kevin, who went on to play one of the lead roles in, in train spottings in an episode and yeah, I mean, amazing cast and an amazing moment. And I feel very privileged that that was part of my life. I dressed as a giant peanut for one of the episodes. So, you know, I got to do a lot of cool things. At 17 years old, and I'd get the train up to London 1718 Basically, I was on that cusp and I got the train up to London for the rehearsal. days and then the record every week. And then I go back to college and do a bit of that, and then University eventually, and then go back to London for the rehearsals and the records. And it was fun. It was just brilliant and absolutely gave me the bug that this was an industry I wanted to be part of.

Mike: 5:16  And what did your parents make of you doing this because your father was making cash machines. It's not, it's not a very similar career.

Jon: 5:23 They were supportive in the sense that they totally believed of following your passions, my dad's actually now given up doing that, and he runs a food bank, because he felt like that was something he wanted to make a difference in. So they've always been supportive of that. But it was a totally alien world to them. And it still is, you know, when I go home at Christmas, so he's there and things like that, and we talk about it, I think they're like, really, this is a world we don't really understand. Whereas my brother, he did a law degree, it looked like he was going to be a lawyer, solicitor and then pivoted into being a lecturer in college, and that was more familiar. So maybe I'm a blend of that now. Maybe working in higher, you know, in the NSCs and in higher education is kind of the acceptable face of show business.

Mike: 6:13 Yeah, that's great. Now, as we heard in the intro, you've got an awful lot of qualifications, John, so please correct me if I'm wrong this but am I right, that the first undergrad you had was in TV production at Bournemouth?

Jon: 6:23 Yeah, that was amazing. I love that it Bournemouth is a group was a great place. We made a lot of work, I met a lot of friends, a lot of my friends from that course now hold senior roles in various bits of the industry. That was fantastic. But I also learned a lot there. So for example, I went there, like every kind of 18 year old thinking, I'm going to be a director or a cinematographer. And I realised there was about halfway through the course we had to pick a specialism. And by picking a specialism, it then determined who you worked with, for graduation projects. And I knew if I pick cinematography, or any of those sorts of roles, I was never getting on anyone's graduation project or anyone I wanted to work with. So I picked sound record. I did it completely strategically, because I realised there were much more talented cinematographers. And I became the go to person in the year to do sound for your Beograd film, and worked on lots of film, and it got me my first job on leaving, but it wasn't a necessarily an area of passionate, as I said, it was a strategic choice. I wish that somebody at that point told me what a producer did, I don't really think Bournemouth did a good job of telling me about that they're probably better at that now, maybe my life would have gone in a slightly different direction. But I picked sound. And I directed a bit and I realised in directing that I wasn't even the most talented director in my small cohort of 50. And I was like, and we're one course out of maybe 200 in the UK. And there's all these and I thought God, I've I'm not even the most talented or even in the top five on my course, I've gotten no chance on leaving. And so that was you know, I look back on that, you know, you can look back on anything, I gave up my dreams, maybe at that point, but actually, it was the making of me because I got on and got further faster, because I made those choices earlier. So I loved being there. It was great. I made a lot of work, Bournemouth a great place to be a student, lots of friends. And as I said, I grew up and I learned a lot about if I was going to work in film and TV, what did that look like? And a lot of what we do now at the end FTS is go out and talk to people about the fact that there's not the only roles in film are not director and cinematographer. Yeah, you know, I've got 66 Teenagers here at the film school this week and and, you know, sound recording visual effects, production, design, editing, is getting them excited about those areas and also areas of distribution exhibition, business affairs and production accounting. And I think we do we're pretty poor, as an industry are exciting people about some of those other those are the roles, really important roles that are fantastic jobs, and you get paid well for as well. But there's an obsession with directors and cinematographers, which is unhealthy and is stifling the the creative skill shortages,

Mike: 9:25 Well you don't see the sound recordists in the junket interviews which is probably why.

Jon: 9:29 Yeah, so everybody name is sound recorded. I mean they have a cinematographer and most people can reach for Roger Deakins, who very proud alumnus, but name is our coolest bit harder, and that's a problem, you know, and it's in, that's something we've got to change.

Mike: 9:42 So after Bournemouth your first degree was there a bit of a Will they won't they with your career as going into crude because obviously to my understanding you then stayed on a Bournemouth and moved into the educational sort of bodies that are there. Did you have one going to go into crew what happened there?

Jon: 9:57 Yeah, there was a there was a moment of change. Ah where actually I got my first job on Channel Four documentary straight after as a sound recordist. It was at the moment where unscripted teams were being encouraged to have single camera sound record like single people who did it all. And this particular director didn't want that she wanted a separate separate camera person to sound recordist. But production wasn't going to pay a premium for that. So I was drafted in as a new graduate to be the sound recorder great opportunity. It was, it was part of the cutting edge strand. So I did that. And then I went worked for various other production companies doing shows like the real dating show, and the farmer Farmer Wants a Wife shows like that. And it was kind of exciting to start with. But then I realised that it took a massive toll on your life, I'd get phone calls, when I was working on the real dating show, I remember, we filmed three, shoot three dates a day. So we'll do one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. And you get home, but maybe kind of 11 o'clock at night. And then you think you're going to be in Birmingham the next day, I live in East Boston at this point. And they get a phone call at 11 o'clock, say actually the date change, you're now not going to Birmingham, you're going to Kevin, so you get your map out this book is Google Maps to customers. And you try and plot that out. And you wouldn't really sleep because you'd be anxious because you hadn't really worked it out and your girlfriend or partner would be like so you're not going to be back for dinner tomorrow that you're going to be. And I just found that really tough. And then a phone call came in from my former head of department at Bournemouth and he said we've got a role for somebody to teach sound recording, are you interested and I thought a regular salary regular hours chance to continue my own development because I didn't I knew I had landed in an area for strategic reasons not love for if you know, I mean? Bit his hand off. So move back to Bournemouth and work my way up basically from being the most junior and junior person to on the management team of the school. And the school is probably one of the biggest media departments in the country. It's got something like 3000 students, and it's in the department. And over about 10 years I worked my way through and I did an MBA during that time. And I did a doctorate. I did those because at different points, I was interested in different things. So the MBA was because I did think okay, well maybe I can build my life teaching media business, you know, produce, so commissioning, pitching, regulation, all that sort of stuff that taught that for a bit having done the NBA and quite enjoyed that and made really good industry connections through drafting guests in. And then I did the doctorate when I realised that actually I was probably going to spend my life in education and actually having a doctorate would be really important to that this kind of qualification matter in higher education. And so I did that I didn't enjoy it. Particularly I had two children during that time. It was a grind, you know, like every Sunday, I go to the library and I'd say to my wife, I'm not going home until I've written 1000 words. And some days I'd be there three hours, some days I've been there 12 hours. And she got that and she was incredibly supportive. But But did I love it and enjoy it? Not so much.

Mike: 13:15 Wow, amazing. And that one of the things that Bournemouth, which is an intriguing title, which is certainly saying I don't think any of my other guests are ever gonna be anywhere near was the director of the Centre for Excellence in media practice, which sounds a little bit like you might have been a secret agent!

Jon: 13:30 So you know what that was? That was a government intervention where they wanted to value basically, there was a big focus on the fact that universities have become obsessed with research. And they said, we really want people who are focused on teaching excellence, how do we get back to our universities, making sure students have the best experience possible. And so I got the job leading that centre and there was some really decent government some financial support for it. And we did some really interesting things new wrote new sorts of courses, introduced new tools, taught in you know, just experimented with how we taught, involve students in that and I learned a huge amount from that. But towards the end of that grand, that's when I saw the job advertised at the NF Ts. And I was really happy and born with as I said, I've had two children I was doing really little living by the sea in Bournemouth was great. I had job security. But when I saw that advert in the guardian for the director of curriculum job at the NSGs I thought, oh god, that's that's something that doesn't come up very often. In fact, I think the previous postholder have done that job for 30 years. So I thought if I don't apply for it now, it may not come up again until I'm in my 60s. So making that move was a massive moment in my life. And I arrived at the film school slightly as the outsider I arrived as somebody totally different to everybody else that ever employed. So I remember my interview with weirdly was in this room. had Simon Ralph, famous producer and Nick Powell, who eventually became my boss and friend and Simon Shapps, who at the time, was a senior executive at ITV and they were interviewing me and I remember Simon Ralph saying to me, John, talk to us about your work as a filmmaker. And I said, Well, this is going to be really short Simon, because I don't think of myself like that. I've spent my whole life around Film and Television education. But you know, Brian Tufano runs your cinematography department. Ryan shot Trainspotting, Billy Elliot Quadrophenia, I said if I go and talk to him and say I'm a filmmaker, and I laugh in my face, I've made some short films, I've been around film sets, but I'm not filmmaker. And I said, but you don't need that anyway. Because you've got these amazing people. What you need is somebody who understands what students want, how courses run, how to do assessment, well how to how to manage group work, and they were obviously convinced about it enough because I got the job. And but I definitely when I arrived, there was a bit of, I think there was a bit of suspicion at school at the start about all they're bringing in this person from higher education. And we're all film school. We're all film industry people. But I think the six the key to success was was being yourself, but knowing what you do was like I just said to them, guys, you know, you shot Billy Elliot, there is nothing I'm going to tell you that you don't know about cinematography, you know, that would be embarrassing if I even tried. But you know what, Brian, I know what students need and how to run a course and how to stretch things. And in the end, I think I was really embraced as an ally, I think they saw me as somebody who can help them do their jobs better. And that's always how I've kind of positioned myself at the school is my job is to help the heads of department do what they do. Even better than they you know, and because they're all from the film industry. So they've not got a doctorate in education, and they've not spent their time thinking about students. So it's about just knowing what you offer, what they offer, and seeing it not as a competition, but about how do you complement each other?

Mike: 17:05 Brilliant. I think that's really cool how you've carved your own niche. And I think you're absolutely right to do that. Because famously, film crew are very scared of outsiders generally. So smashed it brilliant. One question that I do have for the listeners, which will be one that they really will ask about is obviously you became the director in 2017. Of the NFCs, one of the world's most famous film schools, there'll be keen to hear about the application process. Yeah. Do they need a portfolio? How does that work as an entry requirement?

Jon: 17:29 Yeah, it really varies. So if you're applying for directing, or cinematography, you absolutely do. And we get a disproportionate number of applications for those courses than any others. And we're looking for people because there's so those roles are at the apex of everybody else's experience. We do we are looking for people with solid experience who are going to use their time at the LFCS Caterpillar onto some wheels. Whereas for sound recording, say thing I flirted with in my youth or assistant directing or production management, what would that portfolio be? It would be harder to pin down. And so what we're really looking for is related experience, there's a, I'll probably get it wrong. But there was a great ad student girl called Stephanie who did our ad course in one of the first years. So our assistant directing course, and she had no film or TV experience. But she had worked as part of the pit crew in a Formula One team. And actually, you can see the parallels that you're like, Okay, high performing T pressure situation. And she came in to do the course has flourished now works on big shows, big film and TV projects. And we have people who have transitioned from events and other things. So the answer to the question really is it depends, but I would actually say more of our courses don't require a portfolio than ones that do if that makes sense. But the ones that do it's because we get so many applications that we're really trying to sit it's fine detail that is going to define who we take in that final 10 students.

Mike: 19:08 Do people also do them online these days, they do anything interesting with portfolios. There's lots of website tours Now, isn't that?

Jon: 19:13 Yeah, we get those sorts of things. And definitely there's a there's a big range across the courses. I think with production design, people still tend to print stuff off and send it in. And if they've may, if they've got portfolios, they want us to see it in the best possible way. So that's, that's typical, but we don't require it. I think it's such a range across the courses. But my view is that we might get many more applications for directing. But it doesn't mean the quality's any better than the fewer that we get for production design, we get fewer for production design. But you know what, we could probably say everybody who applies really because if you've worked out you want to be a production designer. If you've bothered to put a portfolio together, then you're pretty serious. And the quality of people who applies generally very good I think statistically across the school, it's something like 11 applications for every place, but it's lumpy. So it might be two or three applications for place on, say, sound recording, and 22 applications per place on directing. It really varies.

Mike: 20:17 Should I go to film school is possibly the most asked question of those wanting to have a career in the business. Naturally, you have quite a lot of skin in the game. But I would love to hear your perspective, if you feel okay with it on kind of both sides of that equation.

Jon: 20:29 Yeah, I think it really depends what you want to do. But I think there is definitely a route for people to just gain, work your way up and take 10 years to work your way through from being a runner through the ranks. What I think happens, though, and this is where a lot of our applicants come from, is, you get told that's possible. And then five or six years in, you think crikey, I've been doing this quite a long time now. How am I going to actually make the jump from being a camera assistant to being the director of photography? How am I going to make that jump from being a director's assistant to the director. And really, the only way to make that jump is to have a portfolio of work. And so most people come to the school to build that portfolio. Louis Arnold's a good example, Lewis did our directing fiction course, he was working as an ad before he came to the school. And I think he thought either put up or shut up, I want to be a director, I've got to commit to trying to do that. And I know if I go to the NF Ts, I'll make three substantive short films. And then after that, you know, I can make a decision about whether I'm cut out for this nice, yeah, he actually hasn't stopped working since he does. He just did time on BBC One and got a BAFTA nomination versus I would say, that's quite a typical example of people who have got to a certain level in the industry and thought that what I really want to do is this, and this production company, or these companies are, they ain't gonna give me that gig. There's always somebody else who's got the portfolio to get that job ahead. And so that's why people come. The other thing I'd say, is people often say to me, but oh, it's really expensive. And I'll say, Well, there's two things about that. One is if you're a Brit, you're pretty likely to get some level of scholarship support is means tested. But there is absolutely scholarship support available, I think it's something like eight out of 10 students last year, so 80% of the British students got some level of financial support last year. But the other thing about it is, and if you're on a cinematography course, or a directing course, or an editing course, is we pay for all the films. So you know, you're gonna make three and a half, we basically make three big short films on the on the fiction course, and a small film, I kind of half filled, it's like five minutes. So you're gonna make four films in two years, and we're going to give you the budgets to kick the crew, the support to make them. So if you took your 14 grand say, you were going to pay us although as I said, not everybody even pays that you'd struggle to make a substantive short film for 14 grand if you've got to hire the equipment, if you've got to get the crew if you've got to pay the actors. And, and that's the argument I often say to people, if nothing else, if you if you and by the way, I don't recommend this if you were to check out of all the teaching, and just think it's a it's a relationship between I'm going to make three films, and you put a cost value on all those you're getting exceptional value from them. Because I would say our graduation fiction films where we give them a cash budget, I think it's 16,000 pounds. So that's not to one students, for TV students, but they get all the kit, all the post production resources, all the kind of facilities support that short is probably worth more like 70 grand. So I think it's being thought there's been pragmatic about it. And if you think you can self motivate yourself to make three short films in two years without that, then good good luck to you. But a lot of people can't a lot of people don't have the connections lot of people don't have the equipment lot people don't have the access to resources. And

I do believe that coming to film school creates relationships and networks that last them forever. You know, Lynn Ramsay still works with the same sound designers she worked with at school. Nick Park still works with the same composer he worked with at school. You know, these are graduates from 3020 20 plus years ago, longer in Nick's case, and they're still working with a lot of the same people. So what's that about you? And a lot of it has to do with the fact you go through the fire together you make film the bond the by the way, there's nothing else to do in Bekins field other than make films so you really, you really immerse yourself in it. And I think If you can do that, if you're a self starter, and you can do that on your own outside of that environment, go for it. But I do think there's a, there's a false myth perpetuated, which is you can work your way through from the bottom to the top, just on merit. And I'm like, actually, you can't, because people are very risk averse. And they want to usually see a show reel, or a body of work that read that shows you're ready to be the editor of the show, or the cinematographer of the show, and so on. So those are my Yeah, but the other thing is, it's a lot of fun. You know, somebody just said to me this morning, they were like, a graduate they said, I admitted really miss film school because it was a part of my life where every day I came in, and I knew I was making a film that I cared about. Whereas now I'm often paid to work on other people's films. And but those two years were very precious to me because I got up every morning, and it felt utterly fulfilling. So yeah, of course, I'm an advocate for it.

Mike: 26:00 Of course, but thank you for that very well rounded answer. I think that was really brilliant. Now, John, I'd like to wrap up on Reykjavik Ricky's with my own Oh, two in the actor studio, which I'm sure you are, many of your students have watched a lot of. So this is a little quickfire. So if you could just say what comes into your head, first of all, are you ready? Okay, number one, what is one of the best pieces of advice you've ever been given?

Jon: 26:21 You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? Yeah, it's a massive thing. Be nice to people and, and you get what you want. Usually?

Mike:  26:31 Number two, do you have a favourite film?

Jon: 26:33 Yeah, I've got two really, I've got the one that maybe you know, I go back to when I'm feeling ill, which is the Shawshank Redemption. And I've got the one that probably got me into cinema, which is Louis Mao's. My Dinner With Andre. And they're just deep in my soul deep, sort of for different because obviously films don't have these actual answers. But films are connected often with what's happening in your life at that times.

Mike: 26:59 I thought you might have said Brassed Off.

Jon: 27:01 Well, I love Brassed off. And actually Brassed off was a film that I did tell the Beaconsfield Film Society, which is maybe where you got it from, was my favourite film. And the reason for that is that my family are we're all we're reminding families of Durham. And I remember going to see that film with my grandma and my mom. And it being like this hugely cathartic moment for us.

Mike: 27:28 Number three, what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day to leave the NFCs?

Jon: 27:33 Well, every day, I directly see how my work impacts other people's lives. You know, I think that's a massive privilege, the opportunities I can create for people, the introductions I can make. Yeah, I mean, just today, an opportunity came in from Disney, and I was able to connect a recent graduate with it. And that's their career off now, in a way that, you know, without me just and somebody else could do that, obviously. But it's a great link, it makes you feel great. And, and I do that every day. And it's a hugely exciting thing. And also, this school has a huge bus. You know, you come in and people tell me when they walk in through the front door, there's a great atmosphere. And it's somebody who described it to me as like the Hogwarts of filth. Well, I wish we had the buildings of Hogwarts and the magic, that obvious magic of Hogwarts, but there's definitely that sense of possibility, you know, like, stuffs gonna happen here. And I love that.

Mike: 28:35 That's brilliant. Number four, which job in industry would you do if you weren't doing yours?

Jon: 28:39 I'd be a producer. I always think that that was another life. amiss there another life. It was like sliding doors. If somebody told me at that age, I've got I've got three kids now and a mortgage and a life. So I'm being a producer is bloody hot. I can't reboot it, I'm afraid but. But I mean, I'm sad about that. Because I think I sort of had had, I think I've got the aptitude and the skills to do it.

Mike: 29:05 Number five, if you could work with one person living or dead, who would it be?

Jon: 29:09 Well, that's a really tough one. I think. What? Well, the people, I'd love to be heads of department at the NF Ts. Maybe I'll approach it that way. Hopefully, one day, Roger will come back as head of the FBI, he'll run our fiction course. Lynn Ramsey, you know, our cinematography course ylim Ramsey might come back. She's done lots with us and run our directing course. So I've got some dreams about people are enticed back to come teach full time at the NHS at some point.

Mike: 29:35 Maybe one day, I'm sure they'll do that. Number six, what is a book ideally a film book, you know, for careers and things like that, that everyone should read?

Jon: 29:42 One that I absolutely got excited about when I was younger. I haven't read it for a long time was Robert Rodriguez, his book, back rule of filmmaking. Rebel Without a crew? Yeah. And I remember reading that and thinking, yeah, he's right. It's just have to get up and do it while I'm waiting for other people to do the permission and that's I think that's a really important lesson. But John York's book on storytelling Into The Woods is amazing. So yeah, there's two.

Mike: 31:40 Fantastic and finally if you won an Oscar who would you thank?

Jon: 31:42 I would thank my wife she's pretty amazing. And I would thank this school you know I'm not a graduate of the NFTS but I think I probably should be because I have been here now 10 years I love it so much.

Mike: 32:27 Amazing I know that no our time comes to place thank you so much Jon, for your time, for your wisdom and advice to the next generation of Roger Deakins and Nick Parks! Thank you!

Jon: 32:36 No problem. thanks, Mike really enjoyed it!