Producer Mary Burke shares advice for first-time filmmakers
By Elise Czyzowska
08 June 2023
The first time that BAFTA-winner Mary Burke stepped foot on a film set was with Warp Films, when director Chris Morris approached their team about trying their hand at filmmaking. This project became Warp’s first short film, the BAFTA-winning My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117, and from this experience as a runner/intern, Mary began to see the appeal of production: the flexibility it offered, the ability to tell different, varied stories.
With a filmography including Submarine, Saint Maud, and God’s Own Country, and her own production company, Public Dreams – which she launched in 2022, Mary shared her advice for finding your passion, dealing with the question of ‘profitability’ and, for first-time filmmakers, how to approach the festival circuit. Here are our top takeaways from the session…
Trusting your instincts
Mary Burke approaches every project from a stance of passion and community: what stories does she think are ‘lacking’ on screen? Who would she like to work with next? She’d love to make something in Japan, or in Greece – because of her personal interest in these areas, rather than any specific production ‘benefits’.
‘My personality has always been very “shoot first, aim later”,’ Mary explained. ‘I don’t like asking for permission, and I don’t think great artists do, either.’
After her time at Warp, Mary spent five years as a Senior Executive for the BFI Film Fund, and it was here that she got an inside look at how financing bodies make their decision – and, for the UK in particular, the different priorities for the three main bodies: BFI, Film4, and BBC.
However, while this knowledge has guided her decisions, Mary continues to rely first and foremost on her instincts – something especially apparent with Rose Glass’s debut feature, Saint Maud.
What I loved about the script, and about Rose [Glass], is that the film is about something. It’s about the NHS, and all the things going wrong in the country – but it’s also just a nasty little horror film, which I knew could sell.
The truth of the matter, she summarised, is that commissioners and financiers don’t know what they want until they see it. They might tell you what they’re hoping to find, or their current slate, but ‘when something is truly original, truly special… they all want to be at your party.’
Finding profit amid the passion
During this Masterclass, tutor Nick Cohen asked whether Mary had ever felt pressure to shoehorn passion projects into more commercial frames. The answer? ‘Yes and no.’
‘I really care that people watch the films that I make,’ she explained. ‘But it’s not about shoehorning them – it’s about sanding them. I like to think of it as a red wine reduction. You’re trying to get the tastiest version, with all your ideas perfectly infused.’
Take, for example, a recent project that Mary joined as an Executive Producer: Layla. The upcoming debut feature from director Amrou Al-Kadhi, the film is a non-binary romantic comedy – and from reading the script, Mary could see that it was a particularly creator-driven project. Her advice to the team, then, was to really think about the traditional beats that a romantic comedy hits – and to ensure they were hitting those same beats.
‘It’s not about making it formulaic,’ she added, ‘it’s about capturing the essence of your script in a way that leans towards its audience. If you want people to watch your films, you have to respect that film is a medium with an audience.’
Once you’ve mastered this combination, you’re left with a project that’s totally unique and distinct – but which studios and distributors still want to buy.
Finding connections at film festivals
Considering that there are hundreds of film festivals each year – many of which include an entrance fee, Mary began by highlighting those she saw as worthwhile to emerging filmmakers: Aesthetica, SXSW, and of course, London Film Festival – ‘the industry is there, all watching the shorts for the next big thing.’
Beyond acting as a space for your work to be seen, festivals are also a great place to connect with producers on a personal level. ‘I feel like when you get to know the people that you’re pitching to, and you find those that love and care about the same things as you, you’ll tend to be more successful.’
Finding these connections comes through being kind and being personable. ‘I don’t care about your pitch,’ Mary said, ‘I care about who you are. You are more important than your idea.‘
This is also the leading idea behind her own company, Public Dreams:
One of the first things I said to myself, when I started the company, was that I would only work with people that I really like, because people forget – you have to live with that person for at least two years.
There will be a million problems for you to overcome, together… That means you really need to like that person – to want to give them everything you have, all your creativity.
Final advice from Mary Burke…
Turning once more to emerging filmmakers and current film school students, Mary’s final advice was simple: your peerage are your team, not your competitors.
‘These will be the people that you call for help,’ she said, ‘and they’re going to call on you. It’s what I’ve done my entire career. Don’t treat them as competitors. Treat them as friends.’