Filmmaker Profile: Em J. Gilbertson

Em J. Gilbertson is a queer working-class writer/director, graduate of the prestigious NFTS Directing Fiction course and Channel 4 Scholar. Their graduation film, Requiem, was the Winner of Best Postgraduate Drama at the Royal Television Society Student awards 2022 and was recently screened at past of the FilmPride film festival in Brighton, in a special queer horror showcase at Duke’s at Komedia and during Brighton & Hove Pride at We Are Fabuloso in Preston Park. 

First of all, huge congratulations on all the success that Requiem has had! And hugely impressive that it was your graduation film.
Thank you so much, it has been really lovely to see how well the film has done online. And really thank you to all the Tik Tok creators for marketing our film for free ha! When I was a teenager I used to make my own fan edits for “Skins” so seeing so many young people creating them for Requiem was truly mind-blowing. Creating Requiem was one of my most rewarding experiences as a director and having people create fan art in response is a really special experience and something I hold dear to my heart.

The film has screened at various festivals including BAFTA qualifying Underwire and Norwich as well as the Academy Award Qualifying Cleveland International Film Festival. We won the RTS for best post graduate drama and we have picked up a few awards at different festivals (Hastings Rocks International Film Festival, UK 2023 – Winner of Best LGBT; Cannes Indie Shorts Awards, Virtual 2023 – Semifinalist; Golden Lemur International Film Festival. Portugal 2023 – Winner of Best Short Film and Best Director; Novella Film Festival, UK 2022 – Winner of Best LGBTQIA+ Narrative Short; Milwaukee Film Festival, US 2023 – Nominated for the Jury Award for Outstanding Short Film; + over 30 further festival selections)

Did you have any challenges making this film?
So many. I think whenever you create a period film on a small budget it’s always going to be hard. Add in a pyre scene and a church burning and you really setting your sights high.
But really, the most challenging factor was shooting in Covid. All cast and crew had to be 2 meters apart. It meant there wasn’t a lot of flexibility in what we could do – everything has to be carefully planned out. I think at the time people thought maybe our graduating films in our class would be held in higher regard because of the difficult circumstances, but the truth is no one really noticed that it was shot during covid and I think that’s a testament to our team and how we worked together.

Requiem stars Bella Ramsey, who has been all over the press recently for their role in The Last of Us. What was it like working with them?
They are absolutely brilliant, as is Safia Oakley-Green who won the BIFA for emerging talent. I feel really lucky to have worked with such brilliant young talent.

We screened your first short, Crashing Waves, (which was nominated for the Iris Prize and was a Vimeo Staff Pick) at the very first FilmPride festival in 2019, a fabulous dance film about two young men’s connection. How did this film come about?
This was a project that I pitched for Random Acts who came to the University of Creative Arts when I studied there. They were after unheard perspectives told in unique ways and I pretty much instantly had the idea for a dance film about two men. I suppose the common theme in both is about gender roles and assimilation into dangerous societies. Growing up queer in Liverpool in the early noughties was difficult but I feel like I’ve made my projects about that now. I want future projects to be more queer and more life affirming.

As a director, how do your projects come to life?
Every project is really different. I think images/moments pop into my mind and then I begin to analyse them and what it makes me feel. As I get further along in my career I am actively trying to add logic to what I do rather than work off purely intuition. Directing and writing are both crafts that you can train if you work at them and develop the skills. That being said – I normally approach writers whose work I like to work with. But I am finding that the more I learn about writing structure – the easier my conversations with writers are becoming. It’s not that you should become beholden to the rules, but when you know the rules you know when to break them effectively.

Where do you draw inspiration from in your style?
Again, it really depends on what the story is. I sort of have a fantasy that I will make 7 features that are wildly different from one another in tone and style. I do watch a lot of film and tv and I like to think on a subconscious level it is soaking in. I’m constantly evolving and changing, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what my visual style is. Maybe eventually it will settle and be easier to understand.

Who are your favourite directors?
You know I was looking at my NFTS application form the other day and it’s so interesting to see how in a short few years my favourite directors have drastically changed. I think Damien Chazelle is probably my favourite at the moment. But don’t hold me to it!

And your favourite films?
This is such a hard question to answer but my top five are probably: Moonlight, Whiplash, Spirited Away, Paris Texas and The Graduate. And my favourite TV shows are: Bojack Horseman, Beef, La Veneno, Pose and a League of Their Own.

Is there an existing film that you’d be interested in making a remake or reboot of?
You know what I would love to bring to screen? Blood Brothers! Or Hairspray. I was a musical theatre kid, what can I say?

What are you currently working on?
Currently I am working as a second unit director in television. Last year I was working on Malpractice with Phil Barantini and currently I am on season 27 of Silent Witness. I am developing a few different feature films at the moment too which I can’t say too much about right now. But one of them stars a non-binary character.

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who would like to make their first film?
I think you just have to get out there and try some stuff. I would aim to try and do a two hander in a single location just to focus on film language and see how inventive you can get. Think what is the most dramatic and absurd thing that could happen to these characters! But honestly just go out try and fail – that’s where you will truly learn!

You can catch Requiem as part of the FilmPride TV festival on Latest TV. Programme available here

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