The youngest of four siblings, Sarah Gavron’s earliest experience of directing came from playing non-stop imaginative games with her sister. “I was taking control of this unwieldy life that we led,” she laughs. “I was very interested in drama and art, and I was also quite political as a teenager. I didn’t necessarily have a notion of filmmaking in my head then, but I had ideas that were sort of like moving images.” Unlike other directors, Gavron doesn’t think she had a taste for “sophisticated art-house” cinema from a young age – instead, she loved soaking up mainstream Hollywood hits such as Top Gun and Dirty Dancing.
After studying English at university, Gavron did a postgraduate year of filmmaking at Edinburgh College of Art and then worked at a production company making documentaries, first as a runner and then as a researcher. This “scratched the itch of wanting to tell political stories” but, realizing she wanted to stretch her creative muscles in a different context, she applied to the National Film and Television School when she was 27. “Taking the leap felt really ambitious and uncertain,” she recalls. “I was [asking myself], why did I think I could direct fiction? I just knew I was really passionate about it – and then I really began to learn the craft.”
The leap paid off, with Gavron becoming one of the most visionary filmmakers of our generation, helming projects such as Brick Lane and Suffragette. Her latest film, Rocks, is an uplifting story about an East London teenager known as Rocks (played by Bukky Bakray), who becomes responsible for her younger brother after their struggling mother abandons them. It is full of heartbreak and humor, grit and friendship. The phenomenal response, from audiences and critics alike, has culminated in seven nominations at the 2021 BAFTAs – including Outstanding British Film, and Best Director for Gavron. Here, the filmmaker shares her thoughts on the path to success…
If we expand our range of storytellers, then we’ll have a richer industry and, hopefully, a better understanding of the way the world operates”
“My best days begin with a very, very good breakfast
I’m obsessed with good food, and going to get the perfect coffee always feels like a good start to the day, with a walk if I have time. I love stomping around Hampstead Heath, overhearing snippets of other people’s conversations.
When I was about 18, I saw my first art-house film
It was Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives. I didn’t really get it at the time, but it stayed with me. Then I started to see films made by women and I had an epiphany, in my early twenties, that there was such a thing as the female gaze – though we weren’t using that term then – and I started wanting to make stuff. I realized filmmaking brought together a synthesis of sound, image, music and drama – and that it was storytelling in a way that I was really excited by.
We have a Rocks ‘family’ WhatsApp group, which is hilarious
It’s mainly memes – half of which, I must confess, I don’t understand. I always say I learned more than anybody else when we were making the film. We did it in this incredibly collaborative way, which is unlike most filmmaking. Everybody was part of the process, contributing right from the beginning. We found the main cast to work with before the writers started to evolve the script, so it was built with [the girls] rather than about them. That made a massive difference because it meant it was a very live process, almost like forum theater, where it kept on changing and shifting shape. It was really energized by those girls and their ideas, voices, attitudes and talent.
A defining moment of my career was when I made my first feature film, This Little Life
It was my first experience of showing a feature-length film at international film festivals, and it was so exciting to be in a filmmaking community, to meet people from all around the world who were also storytellers and to interact with audiences. That, for me, was a big step in thinking. If I can make things that impact people, then that’s what I’d love to continue to do with my life.
In my work, I’m particularly interested in stories about outsiders
I grew up with a grandmother who was a Jewish refugee and she had this feeling of being an outsider, desperate to fit in and to hide where she’d come from and what her background was. I found that fascinating as a kid, this kind of shrouded secrecy, so I think perhaps that’s always drawn me to stories of outsiders.
I go through stages of feeling sort of fallow and blank of inspiration
Then, in other stages, I’ll be walking around having thousands of ideas that I can’t write down quick enough. Recently, I’ve been looking at lots of music videos because people have been making such visually inventive things. I’m also a big gallery lover. There’s something about going to an exhibition that always fires me up – and I’m constantly pursuing ideas and stories and chats. I’m always looking around to see what feels exciting.
I find it quite difficult to switch off, but one thing I really love doing is art
My children bought me an art easel for my last birthday, and I can get really absorbed in that and forget about everything – in a brilliant way. It’s the same when I’m watching films, TV series and documentaries – I love watching stuff that absorbs me and takes me to different worlds.
When I was growing up, there were a few female filmmakers, but not that many
It was when I saw a woman telling her story that I believed I could – so I hope we can be role models, inspiring the storytellers that we haven’t seen enough of and who haven’t had enough access. If we expand our range of storytellers, then we’ll have a richer industry and, hopefully, a better understanding of the way the world operates. I hope I can contribute to that – to use any platform, I have to wedge open doors for people coming up.
If I could tell my teenage self one thing, it would be to not fear failure
Because that pressure can be crippling. I used to feel enormous pressure that would inhibit me – and if you let go of that, then you can try more things.
What’s most important to me in my work is reaching people
Sometimes, it’s just one comment. For Rocks, I did a talk at a local school, and this young girl came up to me and said how much it inspired her to see people like herself on screen. In those moments, it feels so impactful, satisfying and fulfilling.”