From pub to screen - the development of 'She's In London'

Director of She's in London Stuart Dunlop talks about turning page into screen.

The setting: Stonhouse Pub, Clapham, London March 2014.

How will the viewers react when they see a man's name whizz by as director on the credits of the UK's first lesbian web series?  It's a worthy consideration and one I want you to know I’m fully aware of.

There is certainly no shortage of social commentary regarding women being overlooked in key production roles, and the team behind Ultimate Planet and distributor Tello share an ethos of putting women at the helm. So why had Katie called me?  I posed this query to her over a pint, her reply was “you’re the right person to get it made."  

For the past 5 years I've developed LemonWedge Productions a media company with the right team, the tools, the skills at hand to get tight budget products off the page and onto screens, we’ve had some festival success with short films and an award, produced a TV broadcast food series around the world, over 500 promotional campaigns for international clients, we’ve launched Youtube channels and even a documentary, it was time to delve into a drama.  Katie’s web series was something I could squeeze in, especially with a distributor already onboard keen to get LBQ content created from inside the UK.

"Well Im certainly intrigued Katie, can email over the script?"

"It's still a work in progress."

"Even better...”

Cut to: My flat Balham, September 2015

As I write this on my Mac, in the background the render bar of the editing software Final Cut Pro is caterpillar creeping along, adding a fancy little light transition from a living room scene to the Pride parade on episode 5.

From day one it’s been a collaborative affair to remember.  Katie certainly wasn't precious with the script, so once pre-production workshops started with her, myself and Producer Kat, it was relatively easy to split the series into 6 eps, rounding the characters and finding the motivation and backstories to drive the action. 

Flashback to pre production

Dates were in the diary.

Skype calls to the US were giving the green light.

A Kickstarter campaign was planned. 

Time to find the actors. 

We posted online, using the Ultimate Planet community network, acting websites, word of mouth and an extremely open casting call to the keen - “Wanted Actresses for an LBQ series.  Experience not vital.”

There was definitely leeway for novices to get involved as scenes were short and the cast an ensemble, all we needed was chemistry, that spark, and an ability to take quick direction and play with the lines. 

There were no shortage of applicants covering a spectrum of ages, experiences and backgrounds and over two long days the doorbell went and the parade of potential Theos, Mels, Jills, and Sams sat on the audition stool. We didn’t provide full scripts or character synopsis and sometimes (almost cruelly in hindsight) switched the dialogue on the spot when suddenly we spotted opporunities to take scenes in another direction.

Everyone who attended really gave it their all, but as the 80s band Buck’s Fizz once sang ‘the camera never lies’ and a shortlist of candidates edged out the foreground. 

After a second round of auditions we were looking for 3 actresses out of a possible 8. We put all the combinations through speed scenes each having 15 mins max.  Once over, gathering everyone on the sofa I clasped my hands, tilted my head in a sincere manor and tried to soften the blow...

“I really wish I could cast you all!”. 

“So do it then!”

Cheer from the sofa. Bravo Lauren Karl - that was the moment that flipped a switch for me.

On Skype two days later with Katie and Kat, I revealed my cards for my choice for Mel, Sam and Theo. After a second or two of dead silence where I thought crap I’ve got to fight to explain my favourites Kat answered.

“We had them down too, we were hoping you would say them!” 

“Terrific” I replied “and I’ve found a way we can include all of our shortlist.”

More characters and scenarios added, we started running script workshops with all the actors, in the pub to sweeten the deal, and with the name change of the series to “She’s In London” it was really taking shape.

LemonWedge Productions comes well quipped for location shooting - Canon XF305, 2 hard lights, 2 soft, 1 toplight, a rainbow of coloured gels and diffusers, reflectors, a dolly and slider, 2 zoom recorders, a boom pole and mic, a go pro, headphones, battery packs and chargers we were ready to shoot.  Advice for wannabe camera operators, learn lighting techniques - without the light you fight with the camera for white balance, gain, focus.  My advice for budding directors out there - learn to edit first. It tightens time on set, you know the angles you need to cover, you see the take you want to use first hand.

Even though on this project I handled the directing, lighting, camera and editing, I’m no one man band.  Luckily I had Holly Harwood joining me as sound recordist, and Ruben Perez as lighting assistant, we had runners on set who were all hands on deck, and keen eyed continuity going on for resetting during takes. 

Advice to runners on location, keep in the background and stay within ear shot you never know what might happen for you to step and save the day - poor Holly came down with a serious bit of food poisoning and despite bravely trying to carry on, the hot lights on a hot summer day in a hot flat put her action for the first weekend, leading to our location runners to get a crash course in the equipment - thank you all who helped me out!

The work ethos on She’s in London was superb, long days were managed with ease, spirits and energy stayed positive, everyone was well fed and watered, and health and safety considered in every location. We had the team work nailed.

I have to say hats off to MIRI (Theo), Joanna (Sam) and Clare (Mel) who came on set with dialogue down pat meaning dropping into scenes for takes was quickfire.

Filming the club scenes with all the extras was great fun.  Having revealed the secret of creating background buzz and splitting into groups came the hard task - all the extras to dance and act 10.00am - 11.30 often to no music, doing the same thing over and over for continuity - that was a workout so thank you to all our extras who gave up their day to get involved.

Since the start we knew we wanted Pride to be a feature of She’s in London and had a series of cameras capturing the event.  Luckily the sun shone, this was a blessing as we were intercutting together too locations into one sequence and not only that it was the climax scene involving the big series reveal. 

Season 1 of She’s in London is 90% in the can with just the opening titles left to shoot and the release date on Tello set for Sept 27th.  Then we sit back and see if the gamble having me direct the show is going to generate a positive result or whether I incur the wrath of angry women on social media.  In the words of Jake Graf’s character in the show “it’s my balls on the line.” 

Initial test screenings and the signs are good, when I played my edit of the sex scenes to Katie and Kat from Planet M Productions the feedback was “that’s brilliant ….great for a man.” Yes, I’m one of the minorities on this project, a flip that has been a good reminder to take on my next collaborations.

I’m proud of what our merry band has achieved.  Creating something that reflects an under represented community, and I value greatly being part of the process.

Empathy and humanity is not gender exclusive, when it comes to functioning in this mad mad world I’m a lot of Theo, I’m part Sam, I’ve been Mel, I’m a Jill in waiting, I wish I was as gung-ho as Hana.  These are universal characters and are relatable that’s what She’s in London is all about…

oh and a bit of sexy time in a toilet.

In another blog I’ll go into the shooting, directing and editing of the more intimate scenes in She’s in London so stay tuned... in the words of Theo, “It’s real juicy.” 

Thanks for reading.