Fire

Chanya Button

How did you get into directing?
I started working as a runner on large scale feature films shooting in the U.K. whilst I was still at school; so I really grew up around filmmaking, learning about every element of film production from working as an assistant director to script reading and research for producers. But it was when I went to university that I really started to realize that I was a director. I studied English at Oxford University, and the opportunities for making theatre there are truly fantastic. I started directing theatre, choosing productions to align with the literature I was studying; and I still work with a lot of the actors, writers, producers and other directors I met there. Even though I always knew I wanted to work in film, my studies at Oxford, and then in Theatre Directing at RADA, fortified my love of storytelling.

What is your most recent project?
I’m developing a half-hour sci-fi short film with my consistent writer and collaborator, Sian Robins-Grace. I want to make a short at maximum capacity; taking the form as far as it can go, with massive ambition and high production value. Alpha Omega is a short that conjures a future in which a ravaged London is in the midst of a century-long civil war, where the battle line isn’t race or religion: it’s gender. And the resource at stake isn’t land or wealth: it’s reproduction. Exploring the future of fertility science, and how advances in science and technology have the fearsome power to reprogram our social and sexual DNA, Alpha Omega is shaping up to be a project, on which I’m excited to collaborate with top young British creative talent.

What is the best part of being a director?
The chance to collaborate with a cast and crew,  all of whom only ever seem to brighten and improve your own ideas. It’s an amazing privilege to be the focal point of a group of people working together to create a world. There’s this sense that being a director is a role fuelled by ego and individual ambition, where everyone is working for you, serving a single vision only contained in the director’s mind: but really the element of the job I love the most, is how much you learn from your cast and crew, how the film develops through every conversation you have with each cast or crew member, and how–even though you have to have faith in your own opinions and a strong creative vision–it is a role in which you can be strongest as a collaborator rather than a dictator.

What is the worst part of being a director?
I’d say the only risky and unpredictable part of being a director is that uncertainty of how and when you’re going to be able to make your next piece of work. That’s the only downside really, and it’s a challenge every freelance artist faces. But that feeling of craving an opportunity, working through and against seemingly insurmountable challenges to get a project together, on the flipside makes that opportunity all the sweeter when it is achieved. And it makes you absolutely sure, when you are on set or in the editing room, that film-making is what you love.

What is your current career focus: commercials & branded content, TV, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre–comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
Currently I’m working with a fantastic production company in London, HOME.corp, focussing on commercials and music videos. At the same time I’m continuing to develop a large scale sci-fi short film, Alpha Omega, in the hopes that it will lead to an opportunity to make a small budget feature film I’m developing–about a group of young adults, who have a surreal and revealing experience at a family funeral. I’d say thematically my focus is genre films; I’ve made romantic comedies, period pieces, and my current project is a sci-fi piece–so without confining myself to one genre in particular, I enjoy working within one, immersing myself in the history of that genre and making something contemporary, resonant and relevant within it.

Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates most with you?
At the risk of sounding horrifically sentimental, and at the risk of him reading this and his ego swelling to gargantuan size, my father is my mentor–though I don’t think he knows! He’s worked in the film industry for 40 years, and I’ve learned simply from watching him work: how to have a strong sense of your own taste, an unrelenting and passionate work ethic, and most importantly I’ve watched him treat absolutely everyone he works with, with kindness, sensitivity and respect. Even though we have very different tastes, and have taken very different paths into the film industry, the lesson I’ve learned form him that resonates most is that, if you treat people well, it’s not only a respectful way to make work, but better work is made as a result.

Who is your favorite director and why?
There’s a lot about the way Tim Burton works that I love.  You could take a still frame from any of his films and know that it’s a Tim Burton film; but he never feels like an overbearing presence in any of his movies. I admire how distinctive his taste is; he has such an immensely strong sense of self. I also respect how he’s developed strong relationships with a core group of actors that he consistently works with. I feel drawn to that way of seeing relationships with the artists you collaborate with, as an ongoing conversation across a lifetime’s work, rather than feeling like every single project is returning to zero.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
Epic ‘70s and ‘80s films like Empire of the Sun, Gandhi and Indiana Jones are some of my absolute favorite films. The way those films were made I find utterly romantic and inspirational; in a world before wild advances in visual effects, CGI and the raft of technological support that we use today. The amount that had to be achieved in camera, makes you feel like you’re really having to live that scene, to totally create it, in order to capture it. The live-ness to that I find so exciting. The fact that for Gandhi’s funeral scene, there were, literally, 716,000 extras in that sequence, blows my mind! Every stunt had to be captured in camera, there were no ways around enormous and ambitious visuals. I have a soft spot for British-made films.

Tell use about your background (i.e. Where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up on film sets. My earliest memories are of wandering through elaborate film sets, spending whole weekends sitting on the back of a camera truck watching the machine of a film crew whir around me. After directing many theatrical productions at Oxford, I moved on to work in development at the Film Fund of the UK Film Council in London. Shortly after, I moved to L.A. to undertake work in the Creative Department at Warner Brothers. I have also worked extensively as an assistant director in feature film, notably on many of the Harry Potter films. I then went on to study an MA in Theatre Directing at RADA: I think as a director you can have amazing technical and creative support from a DP, an editor, a production designer, but there is no shortcut to having an excellent relationship with your actors. Shortly after RADA I was commissioned by the BFI to make a short film, Fire, for the Charles Dickens Bicentenary Film Festival, on the strength of my short film Frog/Robot.