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Penny Woolcock

June 21, 2011

Penny Woolcock is someone whose career is tricky to define. Peter Dale introduced her at a Sheffield Doc Festival talk as ‘slightly mad’ which she laughed about.

She began filming at 38 after various low income jobs. She had no craft training and her first short was an improvised drama with a group of girls at an Oxford Youth Club. She kept telling everyone it was going to be on C4 – which somehow it was.

Later preparing TV news items in Newcastle meant she had to learn how to put a story together in the edit which gave her a better insight into shooting. She took a particular interest in Consett and wondered ‘what people do with space’ when jobs are cut? She wanted to make a ‘lament for a place’ which became a dramatized documentary When the Dog Bites – full of ‘performative’ characters reimagining themselves and their lives. The subsequent Tyneside Cinema screening offended some of the audience but her risk taking was noticed and Paul Watson commissioned her for the BBC.

Shakespeare on the Estate was another performative piece, people making sense of how to be themselves and use space – now fully occupied by theft and drugs – but with a sense of entrepeneurism. There’s a theme of wasted talent – people making sense of things in their own way, which is dramatically moving.

Penny talked about her process, once she’s got an idea it becomes her passion and obsession. She then has the confidence to persuade others. She’s usually working on several things. The scary bit is if someone says yes! She then feels unsure how to do it. She’s quite shy so has to be brave and persevere with access and gaining the trust of her participants. She hangs out with difficult people in difficult situations. It can takes days or weeks. People know she’s being herself and in it for the long-haul.

Casting is key to her films – finding people’s emotional range – how they can play themselves on film. She will recreate scenes told from anecdotes. To this extent she does real stories. She will script and cast and create scenes like a drama. People don’t remember lines so it’s all improvised, shot on the fly with different takes and pov cut in the edit. Handheld doc crew are key and they just improvise too.

Before filming she’s anxious. She’s full of anxiety – can she do it?? Then it’s exciting and sometimes magical things happen.

I’m interested in films that blur the lines between fiction and documentary, Clio Bernard’s award winning The Arbor being a case in point, so it was great to hear from a female director’s career journey – past and present – who had negotiated that landscape.

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