Woman on the verge

Antonia Bird is about to storm cinemas with her new film Priest. She ta lks to Sheila Johnston WATCH THIS FACE . . .in the cinema
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Over the past year I've seen an exceptionally large number of rotten movies by first-time British directors. Funny Man, White Angel, Shopping, Beyond Bedlam, Staggered, Deadly Advice . . . the turkeys kept right on coming: films with excellent pro duction values and experienced crews, but also poorly crafted scripts and, too often, nothing much to say. That's why, asked to pick a Face to Watch in 1995, I've chosen Antonia Bird.

The word that occurs most often in her conversation is "passionate". Not passionate about movies (though she is that, too), but passionate about what she wants to say. She's not a Quentin Tarantino-style buff (QT will have a lot of third-rate wannabes toanswer for in years to come) whose entire work seems like ironic quotes from other movies. Her films have urgent, contemporary subjects.

The first, Safe, was a Dantesque journey through the underworld of the young homeless. Her next one, Priest, which portrays a priest struggling with his gay sexuality, presaged the current crisis wracking the Catholic clergy. "Both Safe and Priest immediately hit me in the gut," Bird says. "They concern things I personally feel passionate about and think we should all be debating."

If you reckon all this sounds worthy-but-dull, you would be much mistaken. As one would expect, Bird cites Ken Loach as a major influence, but also Martin Scorsese. Her film-making style carries a definite American inflection, with its speed, energy and kinetic, ever-moving camera: "You make films like your personality, unfortunately, so mine are a bit out of control sometimes."

They keep storming festivals: Best New Director in Edinburgh for Safe, plus the Hitchcock Prize in Dinard and a British Academy Award. Priest was named Best British Feature in Edinburgh last summer and, in Toronto, won the People's Choice Award. It's notknown yet if Bird can draw the floating punters outside this rarified festival circuit: Safe went straight to television despite critical acclaim. But Priest will hit cinemas internationally.

"It's gonna go all over the world, except Japan and Argentina, where the distributors said they would be either shot or put in prison if they showed it." In America, it has been picked up by Miramax, a hard-nosed distribution company which made small Britpix like The Crying Game and Enchanted April into sizeable hits. It opens in Britain in March.

Bird contemplates her biographical notes in the press pack a little gloomily: "They make me sound like I'm 55." She's a good deal younger, though it would also be fair to say she has been round the block a few times. She has a solid grounding in theatre and television and, unlike other directors who rushed into celluloid before they were good and ready, she took time to develop a mature vision and technique.

"I was about 27 when I started directing for the theatre. I was a resident director at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs for five years, where I did plays by Trevor Griffiths, Hanif Kureishi, Jim Cartwright: good British writers. I also did something called Submariners by a new writer. The BBC bought it for a Play for Today, and that's how I moved into television.

"I thought: `I need to learn this craft': there's no way you can shift straight from a Play for Today to major film work. So I joined EastEnders in its first year, shooting on video with multiple cameras. We worked very fast, nearly live; we would shoot two episodes over two evenings. I spent six months there and thought, `I'd better stop doing this, fast.' Then I worked on Casualty." In the early 1990s, she worked on more prestigious stuff: The Men's Room, A Masculine Ending, Inspector Morse - all shotfor TV, but on film. "I had really found my medium.

"I left the theatre because I wanted to reach a wider audience, and I felt we were preaching to the converted. Also, I adore working with actors and I found the camera was able to get into their souls. You can't do that in the theatre because you have todemonstrate in such a big physical way." However, one thing Bird has retained from the theatre, and which also sets her apart from many new British directors, is a firm sense of the importance of the script. Priest was written by Jimmy McGovern, whose work includes the much- praised Cracker series.

She is part of an elite corps of female directors, along with Beeban Kidron and Gurindha Chadha: a pitifully small club, because we still have, compared with other countries, a terrible track record in putting women behind the camera. "We've had very fewrole models, whereas women started directing features much earlier in America. And on a daily working basis there's more sexism in Britain. When I walk on to a set for the first time, I hear `Oh blimey, it's a woman then, bollocks.' Always, for a large proportion of the crew, I'm the first woman director they've ever worked with, and it's a thing, an Issue. In America they're much more used to it."

Bird has spent the last year in Seattle making Mad Love with Drew Barrymore: she has a three-picture contact with the Disney subsidiary Touchstone, which wooed her after seeing Safe. "When I talk to other British people in Hollywood, the thing we naturally gravitate to is: How can we get American budgets for British films? Safe cost £500,000. And Priest cost just over £1m. Mad Love cost $13m. If I'd had $13m to make Priest it would compete in the marketplace with any top-quality American movie."

Fortunately for us, this doesn't mean she's off in a cloud of dust for the foreseeable future. "At some point before I die, I am supposed to make another two films for Touchstone: there's no time limit. And I can take projects to them: I hope to do something generated here with them as producers. There's a little bit of success in my life at the moment. I'd like to cash in on that and make a film fast and passionately about a subject I really want to do, and that maybe at other times no one would give me the money for. What drives me as a director is the society I come from. I'm too old to become an American."