Fenn O'Meally | Spotlight
“It’s okay to not know what you want to do. It took me a really long time to understand what I was good at and what I loved doing.”
Fenn O’Meally is an award-winning filmmaker, director and journalist. Beginning as a fresh graduate with little contacts in the industry, Fenn’s drive has seen her catapult her way through the world of media; her ability to translate honest moments to screen enabling her to add creations for big-name brands like Paul Smith, Henry Holland and Nike to her portfolio. She is also the face of Girl on the Ground for BBC Radio 1Xtra. Her refreshing approach to directing and work ethic makes her one of the most influential young filmmakers today.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a filmmaker, journalist and director from Birmingham but now based in London. I find it hard to call myself a director because I don’t feel like I’m there yet but I read a quote from James Cameron the other day who said that if you pick up a camera, shoot something and put your name to it you’re a director, so, I guess I am.
Tell us a bit about how you got started.
I was always extremely creative as a kid and am fascinated by the world of TV, particularly interviewing people. I met someone at Birmingham Clothes Show Live who gave me the contacts for someone at This Morning where I managed to get an internship. It’s so hard to keep your momentum going with internships, so I moved to London to study so I could intern more. Doing internships allowed me to build a portfolio of work: stories that I’d written for magazines, and editing. Through this I realised my love for combining my ability to interview people with my ability to capture them.
This grew to me making my own short films. Every day, when you have conversations, you’re always trying to work out ways to relate to someone, if you want that relationship to go well. It was the understanding that I am a people person and I love human contact. I love being able to translate a story on film. That’s how it grew.
Let’s talk more about learning about a person and capturing them, especially through interviews and how you use your films to do that.
It’s about capturing something in a person that they’re not always open to show. The way that I can capture personalities [through film] and take quirky and honest moments is what I love. Social media has become so saturated with things that we’re told is great, when we actually just need honest stories and content, whether that’s about somebody famous or life situations that we all go through. When I’m interviewing someone or trying to direct them on camera, I try to make them feel as comfortable as possible so that you can connect with them in ways that doesn’t make them feel like there’s a camera. It’s just between me and them.
I watched a film with a photographer who said they count down from three and take the photo on the second count. I thought that was really interesting, because when you’re prepared for the camera, you’re on guard and never your true self. I like to get a real insight into who that person is. It’s the same with radio; there’s no visuals to accommodate the conversation, so you have to get into natural conversation quite quickly. I think that’s a great skill to have. I like to go back to asking about everyday situations to warm them up. It always makes me smile when somebody else smiles and you know it’s come from a real place, especially when I’m editing, I’m always smiling to myself.
The House of Holland film was the first time I really realised that. I’d been invited to a talk with Henry Holland and I went up to him after and asked for his contact details. He told me that if I emailed him I needed to write a stand out subject line because he got so many emails. I emailed him with something like ‘twerking tips from Rihanna’ and he replied and asked if I wanted to do his SS15 films. On the day I was absolutely shitting myself; I was alone in a room with one subject at a time for 24 hours, and I had to film and edit it all at the same time. My equipment was alright but it wasn’t the equipment I needed to do the job efficiently. But when I came to edit it, I thought “this is actually pretty good.” From there I loved capturing people’s way of genuinely being, whether they’re off-guard or or in front of a camera. That’s when I realised that genuine human emotion and stories are the ones I’m really inspired by.
Do you shoot, edit and write?
I’ve had to do everything by myself from the beginning, so that’s all I’ve ever known. When I was interning I learnt how to edit because, one, if I can edit footage that someone else shoots, I can get it done quicker and, two, it’s another skill I can take on. At the beginning, it was about me wanting to get it done, because if you’re relying on someone who may not have the same drive to edit, it can be a little frustrating waiting to get it done, so learning how to edit, write a treatment and direct was part of that. It’s a great skill to have - being able to see something through to the end - but sometimes I can get too involved.
I am getting to the point where I do need to start giving things away to other people. [When you collaborate with others], you learn from them but I think it’s important to learn how to edit so you understand how long it takes. Knowing how much work goes into a short film has allowed me to get to the stage that I’m at today.
What’s it like being a female in the industry?
I think being a woman in the industry is a great advantage. I just want to learn, whether that’s from people on set or people whose work I admire. Being a woman, especially directing in the way that I do, is an advantage because of the way I have conversations; I think the way women approach conversations can feel a little more engaging. [Men] can sometimes be like “this is what we have to know and this what we have to get so this is how we do it”. That’s not to put down men in the industry because there are some incredible guys out there that can hold very gentle conversations. But, I think there’s never been a better time for young women in film.
There’s always going to be moments where women are put down and I’ve had so many moments like that; where you and your abilities are doubted. But, being a woman in film and tv is an interesting one, it has both advantages and disadvantages. You have to grow and accept what is happening and get on with it. You know your work is more valuable than what’s going on in your head and you have to get through that phase.
Was there any thought of this behind your film ‘Other Vision’? Were you trying to inspire women?
That film was between myself and my friend Iggy who is an incredible director. We were both in New York and I asked if he wanted to shoot a film. We were going through ideas of what to shoot and I was listening to our conversation. I thought that we should just have a conversation about our views on being young directors: what it means to be a director, to capture different moments and who has the power when you’re directing. That film was about seeing what we got from each other and understanding each others perspectives.
What I learnt from that from that was to just have fun. There was no pressure with this from a brand or management to make anything, we were just having fun with it. I learnt there’s no one way to capture something. I edited it and I think that if Iggy or someone else had edited it, it would have been completely different. There are so many different interpretations so it’s interesting in terms of how different it could have been with a different director or filmmaker.
Do you tend to work with your friends a lot?
I tend not to work with my friends so much because I am a perfectionist, I worry that I would frustrate people. So, I work with people who are very aware of the fact that I am a perfectionist and are okay with that and just want to get the job done. I think you make friends through your work, rather than work with your friends , because your vision and goals are similar. I have so many incredible friends outside of my work, but in the industry, who it’s so much fun to work with. It’s brilliant to have a friend who understands your vision.
What is your favourite thing you’ve worked on?
The Stormzy edit I did was one of my favourite pieces because I was sat for four days looking for a soundtrack. His management sent me over some backing tracks from his songs, but they felt too obvious. Then I found this classical music on Soundcloud and they let me use it. For me, that music makes so much sense because it’s so unexpected.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In 5 years time I’d like to have got at least a few music videos under my belt, maybe have my first short film out and maybe be over in the States. I love New York so much, I always feel at home when I’m there. I’d love to have great director representation, which I’m getting to very soon, so that’s my 5 year goal. Maybe have a few kids - joking, I can’t even look after myself let alone a kid.
Do you have anything else, or any advice, you’d like to share with us?
One thing that I’ve really learned is always be nice to people and learn how to make a great cup of tea. That will get you far, especially when you’re running around and people have to be on set for 10 hours and all they want is a great cup of tea.
Also, it’s okay to not know what you want to do. It took me a really long time to understand what I was good at and what I loved doing, but have some drive. It’s fine to not party loads - I don’t party that much. Don’t feel like you have to fit in, it’s fine to be a nerd, I love being a nerd.