The Bafta-winning film director Susanna White first realised what she wanted to do with her life when she visited the set of the BBC children's TV show Crackerjack at the age of eight with her pack of Brownies. "I remember it like it was yesterday," she says. "There were four cameras. And one had a red light on, and I'm thinking, 'Why's that one got a red light on? And what's that one doing now? Which one's on Peter Glaze?' I went home and begged my parents to buy me a Super 8 camera. I knew there and then who I was and what I wanted to do."
Forty years later, White and I are sharing takeaway sushi at the Oxford Street offices of Working Title Films. She is on a lunch break between casting sessions for the sequel to the Emma Thompson comedy Nanny McPhee, but I'm here to discuss a project that could not be further removed from this Mary Poppins-like family fare or her former directing gigs on BBC1's acclaimed Bleak House or her Emmy-nominated Jane Eyre. For White has directed four of the seven episodes of HBO's Generation Kill, the new series from David Simon and Ed Burns, the men behind the Baltimore-set drug-dealer saga The Wire, for some people the greatest TV drama ever made.
Currently screening on FX (Channel 4 has picked it up for wider transmission later this year), Generation Kill is based on the Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright's account of being embedded with a Humvee full of frontline US Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Dark and complex storytelling of the highest order, and with a cast that included several real-life Marines, it is thousands of miles away from the Dickensian London of Bleak House.
"For a lot of people, it seems like a big leap," she says. "But it really isn't. This is also about handling a big ensemble cast and juggling multiple storylines. Anyway, I thrive on moving between things."
But how exactly did you come to be hired in the first place? "The honest answer is that David Simon and Ed Burns wanted Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) to direct it, but he was doing a movie, State of Play, so my agent, who's his agent, said, 'You ought to think about Susanna.' So I got a meeting and David Simon and I really connected. We're both very similar. We're born four days apart, and he has come out of being a newspaper journalist, while I have come out of making documentaries. And we both don't like seeing the acting in any work that we do; we both believe in naturalistic performances."
They also agreed on the look for Generation Kill – lots of hand-held 16mm cameras to get inside the Humvee and react naturalistically to events – and the casting, for which White insisted on hiring Alexa Fogel from The Wire. "She likes using new actors, or people who haven't necessarily acted before, and she was very open to using real Marines."
And having Bleak House on her CV didn't turn out to be a disadvantage. "David sees himself in this very literary tradition, and he loves it when people compare him to Dickens or to Balzac," says White.
But wasn't the shoot, with South Africa standing in for Iraq, and with an entirely male cast, an intimidatingly macho environment? "I was absolutely certain quite early on that the all-male cast and this huge South African crew – not known for their feminism, necessarily – looked at me and thought, 'Why is this small redhead in charge of this?'" she says. "But that went away quickly. All that actors and crew want is to be able to trust leadership. As soon as they saw that I knew what I was doing, they just got on with their jobs. In some ways, it was very liberating being a woman directing it. Some of the actors said that often there was this alpha-male thing going on between the director and the actors. When that dynamic went out of it, other stuff emerged."
In any case, White has spent her entire career being a woman in a man's world. After reading English at Oxford, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study film at UCLA before returning home and down to earth with a bump.
"I had a terrible time trying to break into television," she says. "It was the mid-Eighties and there weren't that many women doing it. I remember having an interview at the BBC with all these guys in grey suits and one of them asking me, 'Why did you go to film school in America?' It seemed to me that it was a wonderful thing to have a Fulbright scholarship and to have been at film school in America. I was also interviewed by Ray Fitzwalter to work on World in Action, and he spoke with his back to me! I gave him three programme ideas and he said, 'I wouldn't pick my nose with them – they're crap.'"
The legendary 40 Minutes editor Eddie Mirzoeff, who also gave a first break to Molly Dineen, came to White's rescue, and she went on to win a Bafta in 1996 for her film about the V&A, The Museum.
"The hard thing next was making the transition out of documentaries," says White. "People said, 'Why would anyone trust you to direct drama? Directors are big, powerful men.' 'Look,' I'd say, 'it's in my DNA that I'm a director, and it's also in my DNA that I'm a woman.' Even now, I go to these meetings and people say, 'Wow, it's amazing that a woman directed Generation Kill.' You wouldn't say, 'Wow, it's amazing that Joe Wright directed Pride & Prejudice, a woman's book written by a woman.' I guess there are these long periods away from home and the assumption that women are primary carers. I have two daughters – 11-year-old twins – but also a very supportive husband [an Oxford academic and part-time dairy farmer]. I remember I was at the Emmys and this British television bloke said, 'But how do your children cope?' And I thought, 'You would never say that to a male director.'"
She did make the transition to drama, however, by way of Channel 4's Teachers and a Bafta nomination for her drama Love Again, about the poet Philip Larkin. Not that White immediately knew how to handle drama directing, she says. "Actors were so mysterious to me when I started. I didn't know what to do with them. And then I worked with Tony Garnett on Attachments and it was like a lightbulb going on. He said, 'Look, it's just like making a documentary: you just ask yourself if it's real.' That's been my maxim ever since."
White became close to the real Marines in the cast and her dedication to naturalism shows in Generation Kill. There's a particularly poignant scene in the third episode (which screens this Sunday), in which the Marines shoot up some camels and kill a boy as well, something that really happened. One of the Marines in the cast was visibly shaken. "He was experiencing it in a new way, as an actor," says White. "I would never expect that I would bond in any way with an American Marine: my politics are far to left of theirs. I'm a pacifist, and yet I found that I had a surprising amount in common with these guys. They are very smart, have very high IQs and really do push themselves." Not a bad thumbnail self-portrait of White herself, you feel. Meanwhile, she was thrilled that veterans approved of Generation Kill.
"We had these two premieres – one at Paramount for the industry and one at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps HQ in southern California, where we had done our research. Everyone was really nervous about the Camp Pendleton premiere. But they loved it. They got all the jokes immediately; they recognised the characters and situations."
The movie industry also approved. "Both here and in Hollywood, it's been like a dream come true," she says. "I've met just about every person I'd ever wanted to meet. I now have meetings with DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, Universal. My next project is with Tom Stoppard. What other film-maker gets the chance to do a $52m series with every kind of kit at their disposal? The great thing about shooting in South Africa was that you could do a lot of construction; you could build a lot of streets. And then blow them up!"
The next episode of 'Generation Kill' is on FX this Sunday