Liz Gill – Screenwriter and Director

Liz with film crew in Ashcroft, Canada.

Liz Gill is a screenwriter, director and producer, best known for her tenderly hilarious 2003 film, Goldfish Memory, which won 16 festival awards internationally and 9 IFTA nominations, including best film, director, and script.

As well as screenwriting, Liz’s wide ranging experience as a director and First Assistant Director culminated in her book, Running the Show – the Essential Guide to Being a First Assistant Director, published by Focal Press (US).

For TV, Liz has directed a diverse range of shows, from soaps such as Eastenders to the surreal and side-achingly funny series, Hardy Bucks. She is currently working on the Netflix series Valhalla, a spin-off of Vikings on which she worked extensively as a producer.

Liz tells Beth for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, ‘Gender was hugely important in my choice to abandon my career as a screenwriter. In my time working in cinema through my twenties and thirties, if anything, the gender imbalance got even worse. People think, oh we’ve had feminism, all that has been sorted. But it’s not.’

Read the full interview below.

BEGINNINGS:

In this section we ask people to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?

LIZ: “I come from a whole family of writers and artists so in a way I was just joining the family firm. From early childhood I was a writer. I think what drove me initially was necessity – it was a mental health solution.

But if you asked me what I do, I wouldn’t say writer.

I studied literature in college, and I don’t think that helped at all. Not everyone is going to be Dostoevsky. I rejected the elitism of writing as ‘art’ and spent years writing to a market. Theatre, and movies of every kind, are so expensive to produce that you have to target a buyer, to write for a particular market and audience. When I was starting in the late eighties there was a very clear form that a script had to take and it took me a lot of years of writing to find a structure that felt compatible with what I was trying to do. Goldfish Memory has a sort of circular structure – it started as a series of monologues. It allowed me to deliver something that had authenticity for me.

Poster (and trailer) for the movie ‘Goldfish Memory‘ written and directed by Liz Gill

For years I was very anti ‘art for art’s sake.’ But now I’m at a point where I want to make something that I like, that I think is beautiful.

“If theater is an actor’s medium and film is a director’s; TV is a producer’s medium.”

I have been very lucky to work as a producer in TV, which is a very creative job. If theater is an actor’s medium and film is a director’s; TV is a producer’s medium. Also, knowing as a writer what it’s like being given notes from the producer on a script, I have enjoyed being on the other side of that, being able to bring my experience. That has been the fun of producing Vikings – having an overview of the whole project. Of course there are challenging elements too, but I guess I never saw it as a day job. It was always a creative project.

‘Vikings‘ historical drama television series created for the History Channel, 6th and final season trailer

PRACTICALITIES:

In this section we ask people to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’

I do have a dedicated workspace, thank god. I’m a huge believer in developing habit, going to the same place at roughly the same time. What we’re doing as writers is very vague –a sort of making the invisible, visible; putting it on a page. It helps to have concrete habits; to make the process concrete in the body.

During Covid lockdown, every day is different and I’ve been trying to somehow sculpt a routine out of day to day unpredictability, trying to sustain a structure.

Early morning is the best time for me to write – I have been doing the morning pages lately. So, straight out of bed and downstairs before anyone else is awake, when the house is quiet and before the business of the day comes on stream.

“If you can turn up at your desk and write for that hour, it’s a triumph.”

I’d love to say I don’t know what Sylvia Plath is talking about! I think gender is integral in this question, and when it comes to creative work it feels like things haven’t changed all that much in a hundred years. The balancing act is very tricky, particularly if there’s anyone in your life that you want to look after. The only practical solution I can think of is that hour in the morning. If you can turn up at your desk and write for that hour, it’s a triumph. Until you have a very strong rhythm going, the world will conspire to distract you.

It’s also worth considering whether you’ll be any good to anyone if you don’t do your work. Where is the threshold?  Because if you have a talent and you don’t express it, it festers. Even if your talent is just staring into space. Taking the time to connect with that silence in whatever way is crucial. And I don’t think there’s any value to a hierarchy of creativity, where we have this idea that writers and artists are the only creative people. Why isn’t cooking valued? I mean ordinary home cooking. Or gardening. There are accountants who are deeply creative people, who can perceive a bigger picture through their work. We do the world a disservice by limiting creativity to just the few ‘special people.’ Wherever people bring their imagination into the physical world, creativity happens. What else is there?

Liz on set filming ‘My Name is Emily’, 2015

At the time that I gave up on writing and directing, I discovered cooking. I remember thinking it was such a similar process: instead of a script there was a recipe, instead of actors there were ingredients, there was the process of putting them together and then serving to an audience. The act was just as creative.

Now that I have returned to writing, I am just doing it. Not thinking about where it might lead. It’s so easy to put handcuffs on the act itself. I’m trying to focus on the process of just doing it.

BEING IN THE WORLD:

Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting or screening. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?

I think it has definitely evolved. When I started out that’s all that mattered. As young people, we only know we exist if someone else supports that proposition. I went to NYU and studied experimental film, which I absolutely loved – but I didn’t want to spend my life making teeny films that no one saw. One of the things I love about cinema is the mass appeal and worldwide audiences.

“What good is it? Should I not be doing something more useful?”

Over the years I have really struggled with the value of art. What good is it? Should I not be doing something more useful? I was in Berlin recently for the film festival, and you know Berlin is a wonderful city but it can be a bit grim. Especially when you consider the history. I was on a shuttle bus going down a very nondescript street of ugly buildings and we passed a stone lion and I realised – someone has tried to make something of beauty here. In this hard, dark existence, beauty can be a release.

Now that I do believe that art has value, I still don’t try to imagine who might be the one who reads what I have written, who might find beauty and value there. Writing is about communication, I don’t try to pretend otherwise. It is for the world. But trying to control who reads it and how they receive it is futile I think.

BEING IN OURSELVES:

Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?

Despair and the abandonment of any attempt is a constant shadow. Why am I even pretending to do this? Does the world even need another bad novel? The internal censor is a constant, and the process of dismissing that voice is a constant. When you can’t see the next step of a project and that voice gets so loud you have to stop, then if you can just step away, take a breath, then the answer so often floats up to you when you are in the shower or busy with some other thing.

“I persisted for 25 years, and had a degree of success; enough to look around and say ‘where are the other women?’”

So often I was the only woman on set. So often I watched the guys progress in their careers while female colleagues got none of the same opportunities. And it wasn’t about talent. It wasn’t. If anything, some of the men who did best were arguably less talented and definitely less hard working than women colleagues. I persisted for 25 years, and had a degree of success; enough to look around and say ‘where are the other women?’ It was just so incredibly overt. There was no denying it. It became very demoralizing.

The women behind Vikings: Producer (Liz Gill), Production Manager (Anneliese O’Callaghan) Director of Photography (Suzie Lavelle), Director (Helen Shaver), and Line Producer (Breda Walsh). Photo by Jonathan Hession

Then suddenly we have Me Too. Suddenly people want female voices. On the show I’m working on now, Netflix wants female directors. I have to say, Netflix are very genuine about diversity, it’s not just talk. As a producer, my role has shifted to where I’m dealing at an elite level in global companies like MGM and Netflix. And they want female directors and that’s great – but it’s still only directors. The next level up – the people who get to choose what projects are made and what aren’t –those people are still mostly men. And even at this high level, women are expected to behave a certain way. I see emails written by men and I think, Christ, imagine if I ever spoke that way!

Any artist is going to doubt themselves and have imposter syndrome to a certain degree. But if you’re a woman on top of that and the world is telling you that you’re right, that you ARE an imposter, then it is so much more difficult.

I have finally reached a stage where I have abandoned A) the demand that my writing earn me a living, and B) writing for a market. There’s something cynical about writing for the market; it becomes transactional. Some people are very good at it, but it’s just not me. So now I just make what pleases me. You have to be a little bit in love with what you’re doing, I think. And we don’t doubt our ability to love.

Liz’s dad visiting her on set

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