Bronwen Hughes [Interview]

 

Hello, Folks! We have an absolutely wonderful interview to share with you all today. Today’s interview subject is an absolute mastermind in the world of the creative arts. The great Bronwen Hughes has put some incredible work out into the world for over 30 years, and continues to do so to this day. As I usually tend to do, I sought out to have Bronwen on the site to ask about one particular project that meant a lot to me over the years. And as it tends to happened, I then learned that this incredible director’s body of work is INSANE! In fact, her work is so incredibly diverse that the aforementioned project was actually a film I loved as a kid, Harriet the Spy, and it turns out that she has worked on two cohesive projects that I loved as adult, and would probably NEVER show to my kids, which would be the legendary series Breaking Bad and the legend in the making, Better Call Saul. I swear on my life, I never thought there would be a connection to my childhood crush Michelle Trachtenberg and the dad from Malcom In the Middle turning to selling meth. But alas, here we are! Hell, to throw in another curveball, I may even get a little respect from my mom because she directed the Sandra Bullock fronted romcom known as Forces of Nature 20 years ago. How you like me now, Mom?

In all seriousness Folks, I am so excited that Bronwen was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us and even considering gracing our digital pages today. Hughes gave some wonderful insight into the world of film and television, and actually presented some very compelling arguments to some questions that we have sort of asked in the past. Much like her body of work, Bronwen is incredible and fascinating. So please enjoy some wonderful words from the brilliant Bronwen Hughes!

 

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When did you first discover your passion for the world of film and television? Was it an early aspiration you had since you were a child, or did you just happen to find yourself in this world one day?

In fact, photography was my first passion, and I knew nothing about film.  My intention when it came time to choose a university was to study photojournalism — probably where my love of true stories comes from, and the process of exploring them.  But when I went to visit the country’s best school of journalism, it was a minus-40-degree January day in Ottawa, and I changed my mind.  The back up plan was a fine arts degree in film and photography.  By the end of the first year, film had its hooks in me.  I did the cliché film student thing, going to rep cinemas for double bills at least six times a week, and living on a diet of popcorn and falafel.  Heavenly times.

What was your very first paid gig in the world of entertainment? And were there any sort of lessons learned from this experience that you still incorporate into your work today?

Almost straight ouf of film school, I was signed to the largest production company in the country, and was directing by the age of 23.  My first professional directing job was a commercial for the launch of a romance novel. The actress was afraid of heights, and wouldn’t go to the top of the cliff.  The actor was late from an all-night rave, and arrived covered in mystery bruises.  The DP was an ancient fifty years old, and had no intention of doing things my way.  The agency creatives were doing their first spot, and thought we could achieve Doctor Zhivago on a one-day shoot… and the lesson I learned which rings true to this day is that the biggest skill a director requires by far is PEOPLE MANAGEMENT.  Shooting is like the gravy if you get that right.  P.S. it’s exhausting!

 

 

One of your earliest gigs as a director happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time, which would be the brilliant sketch comedy series The Kids in the Hall. I am curious to know how your experience was working on this extremely hilarious program, and what do you believe it is about the show that has earned such a legendary status in the world of comedy?

Kids in the Hall was one of those gigs which you think might just be fun, just because they are awesome, and it turned into my calling card in Hollywood.  Who knew?!  And here I was thinking it would be my deep, serious, ponderous arthouse pieces that would get an agent’s attention.  Ha!

I was lucky enough to come aboard the film parts of the Kids in the Hall show when they already had such a fantastic following.  I figured my job was to shoot each of the sketches as individual short films, whole in themselves, and to stylistically find a film language that suited that particular story.  One size did not fit all.  Scott’s Stairway to Heaven musical needed a different approach than Mark’s Daryl Science Experiment, which was not the same as the dark intrigue of the serial killer of Kevin’s Oom-Pah-Pah band.

I find K.I.T.H. fans all over the world when I travel — connections which have no logic, other than the sense that many of the sketches had a seed of some kind of universal human trauma, for which funny is the salve.  Funny people have been through some shite in life, it seems to me.

As for the ahead-of-the-curve nature of the show, the guys had to compete with each other to get their sketches chosen, which meant a constant state of invention and re-invention.  No resting on laurels.

Because I was such a fan of the film as a young kid, and it has been a film that I have passed down to my own children, I feel compelled to ask about your work on what I would consider to be one of the finest films geared towards kids to ever be made, which would be Harriet the Spy. So, I am curious to know how your experience was working on this film? Was it as much fun to create as it was for 11 year old Ron to watch back then?

I had one guiding philosphy in making Harriet the Spy, which was to take Harriet’s predicament as seriously in the filmmaking as it felt to Harriet herself.  I remember at about that age feeling like the world was weighing down on me hard, and so the tone of the film needed to be through Harriet’s own experience.  No condescending to kids.  No rolling the edges off.  Adults may look at Harriet’s problems as slight and insignificant, but the kids Harriet’s age — me at Harriet’s age — needed to be taken seriously.  And also it was incredibly important to show the way back to self-confidence, which is the point.

I took flack for not making it lighter.  But flack from adults, not kids.  Kids write me letters that prove they connected.  Hope your kids do, too.

 

 

Over the years, you have done a lot of work directing within the world of television, on a plethora of amazing shows. The world of television has evolved immensely over the last couple of decades, and appears to be in a bubble of sorts. With that in mind, I am curious to know what your thoughts are on the current status of television and its new found respect as the place for wonderful writing. With so many options available, is it a good time to work in the world of television, or do you think the business may be getting oversaturated with content, to the point where some projects will be short lived and ultimately ignored?

I just wrapped the Season 5 premiere of Better Call Saul for the same incredible writers and producers I worked with on Breaking Bad.  In that first season of that show, Vince and Peter were paving the way by showing just how addictive and electrifying the long-haul story could be.  Before that moment, I remember hearing from network execs that ‘we don’t do serial,’ and now of course shows like Saul and GOT and so many more are going deep.  I have been lucky to be a part of watching it all blow up, and I still get rabid fan mail for just a single episode of Walter White’s story.

By sheer volume of content — the amount of practice writers and directors get while making stories for television or digital streaming on an episodic schedule — I think the creative flexing results in new visual language for both television and film.  Add the brave TV execs who demand to push the envelope every single week, and the way that a film now needs to be even better than that to hold its own… it all makes for a very exciting time.

Personally, I try to make all my directing decisions based on what a story requires.  Nothing to do with whether it’s going to end up on a big or a little screen.  I try to design an approach based on which visceral response I think we’re aiming for.  It’s all mixed up now in terms of how we watch — a home TV is bigger than an indie playhouse projection screen, and people watch epics on their phones.

 

 

I’ve become format agnostic — cinema, television, episodic, limited, streaming service, interactive, VR, AR…  I mean, you have to be!  The best thing about right now is that it is possible to develop a story for the length and format that suits it best… and that avenue will exist as a viable place to make it.  It used to be that my whole focus was writing and developing for films, which meant that novels, epics, life stories, everything had to be honed within an inch of its life to squash into under two hours.  But now, if it has meat on the bones and can run for 8 or 10 episodes, then you get to mine all of that richness and include it.

Which by the way doesn’t make it automatically easy to get greenlit in the new digital and television formats — the networks and streaming service bosses are inundate with choice, so only the very best, or very most commercially, potentially money-making get the go-ahead.  And also to note there is still rather average televsion out there, alongside the shining brilliance.  But at least there is a world of possibility right now that didn’t exist when film and television were almost antithetical.

Whilst scrolling through your IMDb credits, I noticed that in the world of film specifically, you have a very diverse set of projects that you have brought to the world. Films like Stander and The Journey Is the Destination are independently incredible, but on the surface are very different types of films. With that being said, I am curious to know what may be some sort of common ground you tend to go after when you’re picking a project you would like to work on? What does a project require in order to give you that good “gut feeling” that this should be brought out into the world?

If only I could pick and choose which of my film projects I got to make, and in what order!  If only I was the Goddess of Financing, or had a crystal ball of casting… If I was in charge of that, then you might find a more cohesive body of work.  Well, maybe not totally cohesive — I have a broad range of interests.  Plus I like to explore some new territory with each grand adventure.  I can fall in love with great characters in varying tones and genres.  But the one thing I believe is the ‘glue’ to the stories I am hoping to make — or actively pursuing — is that they tend to be true stories of extraordinary lives.  They also fall into the category of truth is stranger than fiction, ie. you can’t make this stuff up!

I love the process of having my eyes opened by true details you could never have imagined.  It’s like a treasure hunt to find all the players left in the world who can tell you what really happened.  I’ve become a pretty good interviewer.  I learned how to rob a bank from a convict in a Jo’burg prison, and how to kill a man with your bare hands from a Cold War operative.  I know the goings-on in a Dallas motel on a fateful day in 1963.  I also know the recipe for crystal meth because I had to film it.  To have the chance to meet the real-life subjects is like peeling back onion layers.  Like an archaeological dig of emotional experiences.  Best to discard the generic stuff of clichés, and delve into uniquely human kinds of crazy.

 

 

Of the existing films, the can’t make this up is definitely true of STANDER, my film of the bank robber in apartheid-era South Africa who turned out to be the Captain of Police.  It’s true of Dan Eldon, the subject of The Journey is the Destination, who traveled to 40-plus countries, published a book, started a charity, and became the youngest photojournalist for Reuters, all before the age of 22.

I’m working on two films about spies, one in Cuba and another who was a Romeo spy for the KGB.  I’m digging up dirt on Edward Teller in the Atomic Age.  I’m off to Havana on a musical about the last moments of corruption and glamour before the Revolution changed it all.  There is a limited series in the works which involves ten different people’s stories coalescing into the same historical event.

And then there are other projects which I just think are fascinating, and yet fit none of the above, so yeah… diverse.  But so very, very delicious to wake up to and work on every day.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

See above!

What was the last thing that made you smile?

I’m obsessed with British comedians from the 1970’s.  I memorize their jokes word for word, usually in a Northern accent.  YouTube has a plethora.  Check out Colin Crompton’s back comb-over.  It’s a masterpiece.

 

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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