“Diamond Alice” creator, Emily L. Isaacs talks to us about her TV Series project
A London TV Pitchbox Special Mention
With this article we want to start a series of interviews to the creators of the projects that got a Special Mention distinction at London TV Pitchbox, our pitching event focused on fiction drama series in development.
Here’s our first one: Emily L. Isaacs presents us the real story of a gang of women during WWI London, the Forty Elephants, and its growth and rise thanks to the leadership of young Alice Diamond. We hope you enjoy it and get some interesting insights about it.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, why did you decide to become a filmmaker? Where did you study? How did you start your career in film?
I come from quite an arty family — my dad was an advertising photographer, so I grew up surrounded by models, make-up artists and art directors swanning around. I was quite a cute baby, so it wasn’t long until my parents got me a few modelling jobs, and then my school was around the corner from the BBC centre on Regent Street, so I did some children’s television and got my love of acting there. I think my first written fiction was around that time — I wrote the beginning of a James Bond adaptation where he had a daughter from one of his trysts suddenly turn up, who was just as good at espionage as he was. So I was quite a feminist all the way back then, in 1986!
Eventually my parents decided to get out of the rat race though, and we moved to South Coast. By then I was learning the ‘cello and piano, but I still wanted to work in the theatrical arts. Everyone advised me not to go into the difficult world of drama, so I ended up going to Trinity College of Music, and becoming a music teacher, but literature and theatre have always been another passion of mine — my academic affair, in a way.
Ironically though, it was through teaching music that I got into film. I was teaching a student whose dad was a film director, and we got chatting quite quickly about the business, as my husband’s a video editor. The director John Langridge, was starting to make a movie, and he asked if we would help him get it made — and so it began.
2. Do you have any other work in film, TV or advertisement? Can you show us/ tell us about your most noted work up until now?
The film my husband and I helped John to make, 13 Graves, has just been completed, and is due for release soon by Evolutionary Films. My job on that has been as a producer, so I helped run the crowdfunding campaign, the media campaign, and managed the production from the front lines. While the work’s not been in a creative capacity, it’s been a fantastic opportunity to get to know more about the indie film process from beginning to end. It really has been a labour of love, and I don’t recommend filming a feature film in 13 days, (that was momentous, but hard!) but it is truly amazing how magnificently a crew and cast can pull together to get a huge amount done in so little time. I have a huge respect for anyone who works in the indie industry now.
3. Tell us about your project, Diamond Alice, how did it come about?
After the storm of producing 13 Graves, I had a small gap of time where my husband was editing the film and I had no studying, so I thought I’d look into ideas for potential future projects. I’m very pro-equality, so I started looking at notable women who hadn’t yet had a movie made about them, and I stumbled across a blog that mentioned Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants. They just kind of clicked with me the most — a gang of women, in and out of workhouses and prisons, trying to do something to make their lives better.
4. I read the dossier and the pilot for Diamond Alice and I loved the whole concept from the start. To talk about gender power struggles and inequality, social mobility and so on in such an intriguing and exciting world you’ve created is a very interesting approach. Taking into account the moment in time we’re living in now, with #metoo and more and more women speaking up for situations that have been normalized for far too long, what are your thoughts on all this and in relation to your TV series project? What is your ultimate goal with the creation of Diamond Alice? In the sense of, what concept would you like audiences to stay with when they’d watch it? (apart from being entertained :))
Actually, the #metoo movement was a partial influence on my decision to write about women. Although I’ve always naturally been a feminist, I have also been very fond of chocolate box period dramas, but they’ve always struck me as being too clean, too proper, and their depiction of women always fits into a nice, archetypal image of women as ladies or whores. One of the things I love about Diamond Alice is that it offers me the space to explore a more complex and nuanced characterization where women can be brutal and tender. They don’t have to be the abused victim or calculating murderess — they can be both.
I also thought it would be great to make something that offered a huge amount of female roles for both cast and crew. It would be fantastic to have a female director and DOP to get that different perspective coming through visually.
My ultimate goal is to create a show that takes feminist period drama into a grittier place, one that gives a more realistic picture of women facing down the patriarchy on a daily basis. We’ve had a slightly feminist perspective in period drama projects that focus on suffragettes, on midwives, on maids, and to a certain extent, in period crime drama. I want the audience to come away rooting for both sides of the conflict — not seeing it as bad cop and criminal, or good cop and criminal, but that they’re all victims of circumstance, and all opportunists.
5. How long have you been working on this project?
I started it in late February this year, so it’s been quite quick! I think that when you hit upon a story that’s right for you to tell it, it all comes out onto the page more easily. I have been doing a lot of research on it throughout, as well, looking at family trees, reading a few books on the Forties, and going through newspaper articles, prison records and photographs. They were an amazing bunch of women — horrendously violent, but very fiercely loyal to each other, and exceptionally clever. There are some fantastic events to reveal later on, hopefully.
6. At what stage are you with it at this moment? What do you need and/or are looking for to further develop it?
At this stage, I have five seasons roughly plotted out, all with episode names, and a much clearer idea of where the first season should go. I guess, as with all projects, it’s all about the money. Any period drama is going to be expensive, so we would need a big network or production company backing us to get it going. How that structure of producers, crew and cast develops would realistically be down to the funding we could get.
7. Do you have anybody specific in mind that you would like to be a part of your project (actor, actress, d.o.p, producer…)?
I have so many ideas on this — I’d love to have a diverse and gender balanced crew, a gender balanced writing team (whether that’s two people or more), a female director and DOP, and then my dream team; Jessie Buckley as Alice, Florence Pugh as her lieutenant Maggie Hill, Janet McTeer for the formidable Mary Crane, and Emily Carey as Scully. I think Anthony Head would make a brilliant Detective Sergeant Beard, with William Mosely as Detective Capstick, and Harry Lloyd as Lancelot. I would be over the moon with that kind of line-up!
8. What do you think stands out most in Diamond Alice?
I think it’s just the most amazing story. The Forties actually started in 1870, and Mary Crane’s reign was fabulous, but it wasn’t until Alice took them over that it all started getting serious — and big. For a 19 year old, relatively uneducated to take charge of sixty odd women and turn them into a nationwide criminal organisation — it’s huge! And they didn’t just shoplift — they ran all sorts of different heists and crimes, posing as men, as maids, nicking off famous actresses, raiding on a scale that was just immense! And to do that when sociologically, most women didn’t even have the ability to vote — it was utterly ballsy and brilliant.
9. Had you shopped it around before uploading it to Filmarket Hub? How did it go?
I’ve entered the script into another competition which offers distribution, and I’m just waiting to see if we’ve got through to the semi-finals, so that could be exciting. My associate John Langridge kindly took the project to Cannes Film Festival this year with him, and pitched it to someone there, so something may still come of that, and my producer Ri Chakraborty is making some links with some people she knows in the industry, so we kind of have a multi-pronged approach of attack!
10. What made you apply to London TV Pitchbox?
It seemed like the perfect place for Diamond Alice to get seen. Just after I began working on it, I discovered ‘Peaky Blinders’ (I know, I know, very late to the party on that one!) but the possibility of getting the chance to pitch Alice to Jamie Glazebrook was really a no-brainer!
11. Do you think, as a director/screenwriter, is it important to be involved in all parts of the process of making a TV Show, not just writing it, but marketing it etc.?
It’s pretty much a given today that it’s important to keep in as much direct contact with your audience as possible, but I also thinks it can help to ensure that you keep your feet on the ground! But when you get your teeth stuck into a project, you need to focus on that, so at that point you might need someone to take over your ‘public voice’ for a while, so that your stylistic vision for the project has some continuity and maintains that communication. I’m not sure there’s enough time in the day for one person to do so much with the hours needed in filming. I learnt quite quickly from 13 Graves that when you’re essentially living with a crew and cast, there should be no room for egotism on a set. We had the most amazing team who were willing to go above and beyond every second we were on set and in post-production. Not just in terms of the energy they brought, but in their willingness to create good working relationships, and also in their creative capacity. When you don’t have the luxury of throwing money at a problem, it forces everyone to think around problems to find the solution, and we nearly always managed to achieve that in harmony.
12. At Filmarket Hub we tend to have a hard time finding projects led by women. In your experience, what’s it been like working in the film industry? Who are some of your role models?
I’m so new to all of this that so far, my experience has been really positive. I’ve met quite a lot of women in the industry, both in networking situations and in online groups, and although we only had one female main character role in 13 Graves, we did manage to have quite a diverse crew, both culturally and in terms of gender. There have been a few moments where I’ve been slightly surprised and disappointed at individuals’ attitudes, but I think awareness is growing, the industry is responding and adapting, and that’s great, but it’s probably going to take some time to get to a place where we don’t refer to people by gender any more. I think my first instinct when I think of film and tv role models would have to be Verity Lambert and Kathleen Kennedy, who are both completely inspirational — not least for producing material that was seen as a typically male genre at the time.
13. We want to get to know you better, so here’s a mini questionnaire:
Three favourite screenwriters:
· Aaron Sorkin
· Bruce Miller
· Nora Ephron
Three favourite screenwriting books:
· Rocliffe Notes for Screenwriters by Farah Abushwesha
· The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier
· Finish The Script! A College Screenwriting Course in Book Form by Scott King and Angela Gouletas
Three favourite directors:
· Jodie Foster
· Guillermo del Toro
· Patty Jenkins
Three favourite movies:
· The Color Purple
· Little Women