She's gotta have it

If focus, direction and desire are what get you into movies, watch out for Sara Dunlop.

Sara Dunlop is a diminutive 23-year-old with a big dream: she wants to direct movies. Who doesn't? Budding Tarantinos and Spielbergs are ten-a-penny. But breaking through is as much a battle of nerves as talent. Sure, you've got to be able to direct, but you must also be able to sell - yourself, your talent and your ideas. Which is just what Sara is trying to do in commercials - an established launchpad for such British Hollywood luminaries as Ridley and Tony Scott, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and Richard Loncraine. And already she's being tipped by her backers to become adland's Next Big Thing.

We meet in the cavernous depths of a Covent Garden post-production company, Complete Video. Although it's not yet 9.30am, Ms Dunlop is engrossed in a fierce snooker match with a bunch of male colleagues. She's spent the past two days with them, shooting the video for girl-band T-Shirt's debut single. The track, out next week, is a cover version of "You Sexy Thing". The video is a stylish spoof of the Seventies TV classic Charlie's Angels featuring the T-Shirt girls' mission to find their lost partner. Errol Brown, lead singer with Hot Chocolate, who did the original, makes a surprise appearance at the end as "Charlie".

Grabbing a packet of Marlboro Lights, Sara breaks off from the game to talk, before diving into an edit suite for a further four days' work. She is slight, boyish and dressed in a plain, long-sleeved T-shirt, black cords and the obligatory Nike trainers. But looks can be deceptive. She is opinionated, articulate and a frighteningly-straight talker, all too aware of the precarious nature of her chosen career and (of course) its potential rewards. "I want to work on the top style commercials - the biggest sports brands, drinks, cars and beauty products," she declares, lighting a cigarette. "Then I want to crack films."

Ms Dunlop confidently explains that she has always wanted to direct films. "When I was 12, I wanted to be loads of things - an archaeologist, doctor, lawyer - until I realised what I wanted to be was what I saw in the movies. So I decided I could be all these different things if I made the films." Persistence, contacts and luck have got her this far. With no family links with the industry ("Just cool parents who let me do what I wanted to do"), she grew up in south London and began making her own films on Super 8 while still at school. Next came a film degree at the University of Westminster. That gave her the technique, although she became jaded by the college's career advice. "Everyone at film school thinks film. They weren't dealing with where the bulk of the work is today - commercials and pop promos, which are an ideal grounding."

So, rather than follow her contemporaries into the industry by working as the lowest of the low - a runner - she teamed up with a lighting cameraman and began shooting her own ads. The pair approached Panavision for support and were loaned a 35mm camera free of charge. They then begged favours from other suppliers, facilities and wannabes eager to show off their potential for no pay. Dunlop wrote and directed her own commercials, including a moody monochrome ad for Dolce & Gabbana and an artfully shot sequence featuring a cellist for Pioneer.

Through this twilight world of freebies and favours, Dunlop met Eugene Ruane, then a creative at Saatchi & Saatchi. She begged him for a spare script and struck lucky. Their budget film for Fuji, featuring a mouse running full pelt into a photo of a mouse hole held by a crafty cat, was used. As was another she directed criticising high street banks' involvement in Third World debt, written by one of adland's top creatives, Dave Trott. "If you don't ask, you don't get," she explains, lighting up another cigarette. "I'd heard he was looking for someone cheap to do it, so I rang him and said `Why not me?'"

Trott, in turn, put her in contact with commercials production company Annex, whose recent credits include ads for the Renault Megane and Walker's Crisps. The managing director, Fred Robinson, signed her up on the spot. "It was easy to see she was going to be good," he claims. "You're always looking for someone able to bring something new. Sara's films have a modern look." It's about more than making a film that's nicely lit and well-executed, Robinson explains. "Each ad has a definite feeling - a particular mood." And luckily, Sara's still young enough to be influenced by different sources and techniques - "she's not set in her ways".

Dunlop has been based at Annex for the past year directing ads for Reebok, Elida Organics hairspray and Di Saronno Amaretto liqueur. "Anyone can start in commercials directing, although not anyone can succeed," she claims. "You see, it's not about working your way up. Few assistant directors become directors - you have to show them you can do it. It's an expensive business." She's not joking. With an average commercials budget anything between pounds 100,000 to pounds 300,000, the director must not only meet creative expectations but bring the film in on budget and on time. They must also manage the expectations of agency creatives, account managers and senior executives as well as the advertiser - all of whom can turn up on set at any time.

Quite a task, then, for a 23-year-old woman when people expect to be dealing with a seasoned fortysomething and, 99 per cent of the time, a man. Of the ad industry's 100 or so established "name" directors, there are only three women. "Shoots are generally very laddish," Ms Dunlop concedes. "All camera operators and lighting crews seem to be men. All creatives are into football and beer. While they're great to work with, at the end of the day they'll always step to one side to share a dirty joke." Not that she thinks this poses much of a problem: "I'll admit it, I make use of being a woman ... and my age. If you make a point of going up to everyone, shaking their hands and having a chat you soon get that fatherly thing going - which is really the best way to play it. It gets them doing things for you."

Often, she spends the first 10 minutes on set without revealing her identity - most people assume she's the PA. The jury's out on whether this trick has won her friends or enemies. But her age, she admits, has undoubtedly counted against her. "I'm sure I've lost jobs because of it, and because I'm a woman. But I hope when people see me walk into a room they see the possibility of a fresh approach, or a different angle on the job." And, of course, that they'll remember her. "I'm young, a woman and half-Chinese. I think I've more point-of-sale value than many other directors," she astutely declares.

Ms Dunlop may be right. But she'll need more than the gift of the gab and technical competence to make it big. "A good director must also have an ability to get on with people," cautions Geoff Smith, a copywriter at Reebok's advertising agency Lowe-Howard Spink. "No one in this game wants a prima donna." There'll be plenty of time for that sort of thing later. In Hollywood. Well, that's the plan

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £100,000: SThree: If you would like to work fo...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission £100k +: SThree: Trainee Recru...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes