Uprising: Why Ella Jones Wants to Challenge Preconceptions

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September 16, 2022

The Chromista director discusses going from child actor to genre-blending director with a penchant for usurping audience expectations, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Why Ella Jones Wants to Challenge Preconceptions

Now a director at Chromista, Ella Jones’ creative beginning actually lies in acting - something she began professionally at the age of just six years old. Going on a decade-long adventure with her father, who was also her chaperone, she travelled the world acting in film, TV and theatre before starting to make films and direct at university.

“I loved a lot about being an actress - growing up on sets, the passion and energy that goes into filmmaking, and the buzz of collaboration between all the people involved. All the skills and many different types of people needed to create a film or TV project attracted me to the industry as a whole, combined with the feeling that everyone was doing it because it was something they loved. After all, it’s too difficult a career to simply fall into!”

She continues, “However, I struggled with the lack of control that acting often brings and craved more agency and creative ownership over the whole process. At university, I began directing theatre and found myself instantly more comfortable in the role. My work as an actress has helped me be a better director, particularly in how I work with actors. Hopefully, I have an understanding and empathy for what they need from a director.”

Growing up in the heart of central London - in a surprisingly residential part of Waterloo -before moving to a cooperative housing scheme on the Southbank - Ella felt “incredibly privileged” to be able to hang out with friends by the Thames, walk to Covent Garden and take advantage of the free tickets for the National, Old Vic and Young Vic theatres that were offered to local residents. “It’s definitely made me a diehard city-lover,” she says. “And also very aware of how important such low-cost housing is, particularly today when lower-income families are being pushed out of the heart of the city.” Her love for London was only deepened by her education at a large, mixed-comprehensive school which celebrated the city’s diversity, difference and creativity.

Always a “voracious reader” and someone who loved building imaginary worlds, both through her writing and physically with miniature Playmobil figures and doll houses, she has had a consistent fascination with human behaviour. This curiosity is something that informs her character-based stories to this day - and was initially inspired by her mother’s (and now sister’s) occupation as a psychotherapist for the NHS.

At 18, Ella earned a place at Cambridge University to study history; quite a nerve-racking prospect to enter “a grandiose, old-fashioned place” so different from the world she grew up in. Fortunately, she found a group of “nice, more ‘normal’ people”, including her future husband, and here, alongside her studies, she moved her focus from acting to directing and producing - even taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“After directing a few plays at university, I knew it was the career I wanted to pursue,” she says “However, when I graduated, my first priority was getting a paid job and a means to pay the bills! I was lucky to get a job working in film and TV development, which taught me a lot about the industry but also (most importantly) that an office job was not for me. I did this for three years whilst making shorts with my friends onthe weekends.”

She eventually became a freelance script editor and worked her way “up the directing ladder,” expressing gratitude for this time of her life and the lessons it taught her about story, communication and having confidence in her own work. While editing scripts, she says, her directing work also began to take off. “My first proper opportunity came when I was selected for a short film scheme for female comedy directors, run by Creative England. This led to me making a short film called ‘Sarah Chong Is Going To Kill Herself’, written by a fantastic writer called Elaine Gracie - who I’d incidentally met while we were both working at the TV production company. This film became a kind of ‘calling card’ short for me, leading to me signing with my UK film and TV agent and also getting my first work in television. From there, I started making short TV work (such as pilots and comedy tasters) before finally booking my first full TV series - a show called ‘Enterprice’ for the BBC.”

During these early experiences, Ella learned the importance of opening your unfinished work up to critique, especially from people whose opinions you trust. She says, “When I was first making shorts, I would be so nervous to show anyone until it was ‘perfect’ (which of course is an impossible end goal anyway). But this meant that any useful feedback or thoughts came too late for me to take on board and, as a result, made me even more nervous about hearing their thoughts.” During the production of ‘Sarah Chong’, she took on this advice and showed early cuts to friends and family. Whilst not implementing every piece of feedback, she says it helped the story and boosted her confidence going into the later stages of production. “When it comes to working on professional projects, there will be a lot of voices in the editing process. Knowing how to take feedback, whilst also ensuring your vision is not lost, is such a key part of directing!”

During her first paid directing job, a 10-minute comedy pilot for Channel 4, she learned this lesson the hard way. Being too inexperienced and nervous to challenge other writers and the producer, she explains how she blindly accepted all of their notes - to the pilot’s detriment. “Now, I would have tried to address the elephant in the room early on,” she says, “and find a way for us all to clearly and collaboratively build a vision for the show upfront. In my experience, this is so key to a successful collaborative relationship!”

The turning point in her career, however, was directing the second season of the BBC show ‘Enterprice’ - her first full series. She says that it was “fast-paced, intense, and loads of fun,” and opened the door to her becoming a full-time director. “I had a fantastic team who supported me in achieving my vision and made the process incredibly enjoyable at the same time. I ended up winning a Royal Television Society Craft Award for directing the show and the series was definitely the real start of my long-form TV career.”

More recently, Ella received a Netflix grant and has begun work on her first feature with ‘Sarah Chong’ collaborator, Elaine Gracie. The film, titled ‘Polly (Amorous)’, is a romantic comedy about polyamory, following the story of a woman desperately seeking the one - only to fall in love with more than one person at the same time. Working on this feature in between directing other TV and commercial projects, Ella admits she likes to stay busy and combine periods of intensity with periods of rest. “When I’m in the middle of filming a TV show, there is little room for much else, particularly in terms of developing my other projects. I like to take time once a show is finished to relax and do some more in-depth development work on my own creative projects. Part of what attracts me to the commercial world is that it offers me a good way to balance my desire for less intense development/rest periods with more intense long-form TV work.”

A commercial project that she recently enjoyed was a duo of spots for wedding company, Zola. Working with creative agency Arts and Letters, she filmed couples celebrating the days before their wedding and overcame the primary creative challenge of balancing the need for a coherent through-line with the client’s desire to follow multiple couples’ journeys. Describing the solution, she says, “I focused on giving each of the couples clear and defined personalities, to make them distinctive and easily recognisable, and used creative transitions to ensure the narrative felt like it flowed cohesively from one couple to the next.”

When deciding which projects to take on, Ella believes in “bold, ambitious storytelling that takes risks, breaks free of conformity and challenges our preconceptions,” seeking out new perspectives as a tool for creating innovative stories and shedding light on hidden or misunderstood realities. The director is also particularly drawn to comedy “as a powerful means to challenge audiences,” she says, “to explore and laugh about things that are painful and evoke discomfort that provokes one to reevaluate and reconsider. I want to effect change by pushing the boundaries of the mainstream – pure didacticism only means preaching to the choir and to me pure drama does not reflect the true ludicrous nature of real life.”

Showing that a project’s tone holds the key to her creative heart, she shares her fondness for treading the line between genres and moods: “comedy and drama, light and dark, sharpness and warmth.” Her favourite shows (to direct and watch) generally have a distinct tone and cleverly walk these fine, genre-blending lines - a challenge she says requires bravery to “embrace the power of these tonal contrasts.”

She says, “I want to make films that challenge our assumptions, not only socially and morally, but also creatively. Using the genre tropes and the preconceptions that come with them, I aim to usurp audience expectations and create satisfying yet surprising story conclusions. Like ‘Polly (Amorous)’ deliberately utilises the conventional rom-com structure to take the audience on a satisfying emotional journey that will ultimately challenge their preconceptions about relationships, love and monogamy.”

Speaking of artists with a deft touch and confidence in using tonal shifts and blending humour with drama, Ella says that she takes a lot of inspiration from the Coen Brothers and their “incredibly distinctive visual language” which “oscillates between sharp wit and real tension” - to strengthen the power of both. “They also manage to keep this unique and authored voice within every genre imaginable,” she says. “From the broad slapstick humour of films like ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ and the sketch-like ‘Hail, Caesar’, to darker, thrilling territory with ‘Fargo’ and ‘Barton Fink’, and the melancholic drama of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ – the Coen Brothers aren’t afraid to keep challenging what is expected of them.”

While directing provides her with the constant mental stimulation, creative collaboration and challenges that she craves as a storyteller, the editing process is where Ella learns her most valuable lessons. Often finding the edit’s change of pace “the most challenging” part of the filmmaking process, it is also the point where she has to review what she has (and hasn’t) achieved during the shoot - forcing her to rewrite and alter decisions according to the material footage in front of her, rather than the vision in her head. “It can be a painful process, sometimes involving the loss of precious shots or even scenes that took time to create. But it’s also a rewarding one, as sometimes editing bravery can revolutionise a struggling story beat.”

Looking at the wider industry, what excites Ella most is the “increasingly cinematic and creatively ambitious” TV content that’s pushing the boundaries of both storytelling and scale. “I love the increase in previously unrepresented perspectives and diverse stories being told, and the fantastic creative work it’s resulting in,” she says. On the flip side, she believes that the film industry is experiencing somewhat of an inverse effect - providing fewer opportunities for medium-budget films and original ideas, in favour of a monopoly of massive franchises and endless remakes.

She continues, “I think the industry is definitely getting better when it comes to increasing representation on and off screen, but it still has a long way to go in addressing this historic and far-reaching unconscious bias that has long favoured the white male perspective. I also think the industry needs to get better at creating a sustainable model for working parents (male and female) so as not to risk losing brilliantly skilled people who can’t afford to balance the two.”

When she’s not busy directing or writing - which admittedly consumes a lot of her time - Ella still goes back to her childhood passion for reading, as well as listening to music, singing and socialising with friends. Staying healthy, she also likes to exercise through cycling and yoga, as well as experiment with new home-cooked recipes. Constantly taking on new challenges and developing another skill is seemingly embedded in her very being, whether in her work or her leisure time.

“I always want to be learning new things,” she says. “This is so important to me with everything I do. I never want to become stuck doing things by rote, so I’m always pushing myself and being challenged. I have a constant need to be stimulated - I would rather be stressed than bored! I love creating things and collaborating with people. I love the adventures my work takes me on and the fact it’s always different.”

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