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Directors (and learning new things)... The Road to Sonnigsburg, Part 4

Ian Stenlake as Frank, episode one of Sonnigsburg

I was recently asked about the challenges and benefits of making an independently produced low budget TV series. It might be easy to say that everything was a challenge, because with a small amount of money, everything is a bit harder than when a show is fully funded. On the other hand, it also made us think about how to make things work with no money. It forced us to come up with creative solutions in how to depict large scale events that were baked into our plot.

It was great that Fiona encouraged us, in the writers’ room, to tell the story without worrying too much about how we were going to make it work. In some cases, though, we did find fixes in storytelling terms to make production easier. Other times we had to change locations or which characters were in certain scenes, based on actor availability. Having no money and limited resources is a challenge, but in some ways it’s a benefit. It makes you think more creatively.

The other benefit of doing everything ourselves is that it allowed us to try our hands at new things. Director Glenn Triggs has made a number of movies, but the first episode of Sonnigsburg is his first episode of television. Director John Erasmus had mostly worked as an editor and director of photography before directing three episodes of this series.

Two of our writers, Alex Scott and Meaghan Bell, directed two episodes of the show, because when else would they have an opportunity to direct television, if not on a series they helped create? We all got to learn things about pre-production, production and post that we hadn’t known before.

While I was originally planning to direct episode five, based on my own schedule, I had to back out of that commitment. I still had a chance to learn a lot about script editing, giving feedback and collaboration in script writing. I was committed to making the scripts the best they could be; if that meant I needed to re-write or be re-written, then that happened. If another episode needed a polish, I was happy to lend a hand.

I even ended up directing parts of episode one. Having a second-unit director is not unusual on feature films, but in this case it was a matter of scheduling and I was free to help out. I have a lot of experience working with actors in theatre, I just had to get my head around where the camera was going to be. Thankfully, we had director of photography, Bernard Winter, on board. His work on Sonnigsburg is outstanding; we might have had a small budget, but from a visual perspective, you cannot tell. The show looks amazing.

So even for someone inexperienced in film/television directing, the support from cast and crew made my first experience directing television very smooth.

Working in independent theatre and film/television, we all learn to pitch in and do whatever needs doing. Ferrying actors to and from set. Buying lunch for the cast and crew. Helping to set up or pack down lights. Last minute re-writes. Press releases. Producing. Directing. Background acting. Everything that needs doing gets done when we’re all committed.

Getting to learn new things while on the set of your own TV show, that’s a challenge but a huge benefit.

By June 2014, we had the first episode written by Fiona Bulle. We had our director in place. We wanted to start shooting in July.

In May, we started the process of casting. That’s the next step on the Road to Sonnigsburg.

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