I’m Vicki Lesley.
I’m a film-maker.
I’m based in Brighton, UK.
I am currently directing an independent feature-documentary on the political history of nuclear power for cinema and TV broadcast, which we are aiming to premiere in 2016. Because this is an independently-funded film with a limited budget (a combination of public funding from Creative England, small grant funding, crowd-funding and equity investment), I have by necessity had to work solo on the film for much of the time, doing all the research and most of the production management myself and just working with other creative collaborators (eg camera and sound, film editor, graphics company, composer etc) at the relevant stages.
I also have an extremely experienced producer who I managed to persuade to come on board after I’d been working on the film for a few years who has helped guide me to the point I’m at now where we are finally starting to see the finish line coming into sight. It’s been a very long process – I first had the embryonic idea to make this film all the way back in 2006!
I graduated with a degree in English Literature in 1999 knowing that I wanted to work in documentaries and was very fortunate to get my first job as a researcher/production co-ordinator for a small TV company in Leeds within a few months of leaving university (I had done lots and lots of unpaid work experience at different TV companies before this in the university holidays as well as making short student films and helping set up and run a student TV show on the local cable station so was able to have something on my CV which I think helped – plus I don’t think there was quite so much competition for first-rung jobs in the media then as there is now).
From there on in, I worked fairly steadily on a series of short freelance contracts on high-profile documentaries for the likes of Channel 4, Channel 5, BBC2, Sky One and Discovery, working my way up from researcher to producer as well as doing a lot of work in development, devising and pitching ideas for new shows.
By 2006, I had become a little disillusioned with the TV industry and had an urge to begin making my own films on subjects that were more meaningful to me so set up my company Tenner Films to do just that. However I quickly discovered that working independently is very tough, especially funding-wise! So I carried on working as a development producer in TV alongside making a series of short documentaries, animations and other experimental pieces through Tenner Films. Eventually I decided to recalibrate the work I’d been doing on the short films into a longer feature length documentary, which is the film I’m now getting close to completing.
I was lucky enough to secure sufficient investment in the film in 2012 to go full time on it, just picking up the odd few days of freelance development work here and there. I then fell pregnant in 2013, and had my son in January 2014 so when the film is finally finished next year, I will be at a bit of a cross roads in terms of deciding how to continue my film/TV work from there in a way that’s compatible with being a mum.
Have you found it difficult to enter your profession as a woman?
I went to an all-girls school and an all-female college at university so I never had the sense that being a woman was a barrier to achievement. It was certainly difficult carving out a place for myself in TV at the beginning and I did have periods when I couldn’t find TV work and had to work as an office temp while I continued sending out applications, but I don’t know that being female was a particular factor in that. However as I got older the demanding hours of TV production in particular did strike me as being pretty un-female friendly in terms of being able to do this kind of work and have a family and sadly a lot of women I know have left TV altogether in their 30s for exactly that reason.
Did you have any help during your career?
My first boss at the company in Leeds took a chance on me giving me that very first job and he became a bit of a mentor, both in terms of teaching me on the job (informally – I never had any official training there) but also encouraging my ambitions and horizons in terms of thinking beyond TV and pursuing my own ideas even if they weren’t fashionable with broadcasters.
What do you wish you had known when you started out?
That there’s no hurry – there are a lot of working years ahead of you and there’s a lot to be said for allowing ideas and ambitions to ferment over a longer period of time without feeling you have to have ticked off certain achievements by some arbitrary point.
If you could talk to your younger self now, what would you tell them?
Be patient, stick to your own path, don’t be discouraged if others seem to be getting there before you – comparisons with other people aren’t always that helpful or relevant. Measure success by your own internal yardstick, not external measures.
Who has most inspired you and why?
So many different people – fiction writers like Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields for their complex but strong female protagonists, political writers like Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy for helping me to see and reflect on the hidden structures that imprison so many people in today’s society and understand that things can be changed by political action, documentary filmmakers including Michael Moore, Ken Burns, Alex Gibney and Franny Armstrong, all of whom have shown me a different way to tell a story.
Also on a more personal level my friend Nancy who knew she wanted to be a theatre director and worked and worked and worked at it for years, gradually creating a distinctive body of work and setting up and running her own successful theatre company. Especially in the early years of our careers, she was a constant and valuable example to me of following your own path even when it seems hard.
What tips would you give someone just starting out?
The trick if you can pull if off I think is to combine just enough pragmatism to make sure you are financially sustainable with enough starry-eyed idealism to propel you towards your dreams and not be deterred by people telling you should get a “proper job” (whatever that is!)
What was the best piece of advice anyone gave you?
To always put money aside to pay the taxman and try to always have enough money in the bank that you could support yourself without working for 3 months. Not things I’ve always achieved but at least having them as ideals to aspire to has kept me on the financial straight and narrow over the years. If you’ve got a basic safety net money-wise it frees up your mind to be creative without worrying how you’re going to pay next month’s rent.
What inspiring quote to you love and where does it come from?
“Before me peaceful. Behind me peaceful. Under me peaceful. Over me peaceful. Around me peaceful” I filmed on the Navajo reservation a few years ago and this is a Navajo blessing that I always find very calming and grounding when things seem a bit overwhelming.
Do you use any useful apps, systems or websites that you would like to share?
I use Dropbox a lot for sharing files with collaborators and allowing me to access files when working away from home without having to overload my laptop hard drive! I’ve become semi-obsessed with productivity since becoming a mum and having to fit my work into defined periods of time when my son is with his childminder.
I read a fantastic book last year called ‘Time Management for Manic Mums’ which I would recommend to anyone, whether they have children or not as there are loads of really practical tips conveyed in a down-to-earth, even quite funny way.