Looking for Kate Woods

March 1, 2018
One of American Golden Age TV’s most in-demand directors is an Aussie female whose last feature film was Looking for Alibrandi.

Television directors are rarely spoken about with the same reverence as film directors. Which doesn’t faze Kate Woods, a groundbreaker as one of Australia’s first female television directors who is now helming episodes of some of America’s most successful TV shows, including Nashville, The Magicians, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and most recently, the highly anticipated Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and Notorious BIG, which has just premiered in the US.

Based in the US, Kate Woods is keen to return to Australia to direct her first feature film since 2000’s wildly popular Looking for Alibrandi, which she tells us about in this wide-ranging chat about her brilliant career.

You started directing back in the ‘80s. Do you feel that it was tougher for you to prove yourself as a director than male counterparts?

When I started directing I was one of a handful of women directors working in television, the exception to the rule. It was a shock to the collective system to have a woman at the helm. That made it challenging, there was a sense of having to constantly prove yourself worthy.

Honestly, at the time I didn’t see it as a gender issue, I see that more in retrospect. While I was in the middle of it, I saw each directing job as an opportunity to learn and strive to become the best director that I could.

Did you have any formal training as a director or was it on the job?

I was trained by and worked exclusively for the ABC until I went freelance in the late ‘90s.

Who were your inspirations when it came to directing?

My inspiration comes from so many sources; artists in cinema and television and theatre, as well as my colleagues. The influences on my work have always grown and changed throughout my career. It is almost impossible to narrow it down. When I first started directing, I had the opportunity to work with Jane Champion. She had a lasting effect on me. Not just as a great artist, but a woman who has never been afraid to go her own way. And I will always remember, with enormous gratitude, the inspiring women who supported me at the beginning of my career, and who instilled in me such high standards; Jan Chapman, Sandra Levy and Sue Masters, all game changing filmmakers, who I worked with in the drama department of the ABC.

Any particular mentors, and if so/not, how/why?

In my early career, I worked alongside some wonderful directors from whom I learnt my craft, mostly men, not surprisingly, some of the titans of TV at the time, Michael Carson in particular, also Geoffrey Nottage and Peter Fisk. Later working with producer, Robyn Kershaw, on the film Looking for Alibrandi, began a most valuable mentorship that continues to this day. There are many other mentors; great writers, cinematographers, actors for example; so many wonderful artists throughout my career that have taught and supported me.

It seems that in Australia, there are proactive programs to have women into film production, do you sense the same in the US/UK where you also work?

Absolutely there are pro-active programs in the US. It is an exciting time to be a woman in all areas of film and TV production. There is a strong sense that the industry is really shifting, a very positive vibe.

You were working consistently in Australia but moved to work in the US. Was it the money or/and or long-held dream?

It really wasn’t the money and I didn’t have a long-held dream to go there. I was offered the opportunity and leapt at the chance to build on my experience and work in the world’s centre of filmed entertainment.

What was it that brought you to the attention of US?

I had an agent in the US after Looking for Alibrandi, but it was Anthony LaPaglia, whom I worked with on the film, who provided a magic carpet to the US. I caught up with him when I was meeting with film production companies in LA. He picked up his phone and said to the producer of his show Without a Trace: “I have a director sitting in front of me who you are putting on the show”. From there it expanded to other shows and well, I’m still here.

How have you found it? Is it more star-driven than in Australia, and where does that put you in terms of directing duties?

There is so much opportunity to do such a variety of work in the US, especially now in the world of cable and SVOD driven long form storytelling. A huge amount of resources is being channeled into TV, it is certainly a golden age. There is, of course, fierce competitive for this work, you have to always be aware, and tuned in, keeping an eye on the future. You have to be prepared to be a good marketer.

The job itself is the same. The crews may be bigger, the resources may be a bit more abundant, but the day to day making of a show is the same with all the attendant expectations, frustrations and thrills.

Yes, the industry in the US is much more star-driven. But apart from affording the stars the respect they deserve from earning themselves screen cache, it doesn’t really change your directing duties. They are still actors who rely on the director to steer the overall storytelling and guide the tone and emotional value of each scene.

On the set of Revenge with actor Josh Bowman

TV vs. film directing, can you explain the difference, and which do you prefer?

Fundamentally it is the same, particularly day to day directing on the set. However, you may be working on developing a film for years before it comes to fruition, gathering the team as you go, so it feels more contained, a tight knit group of people coming together with a single vision. TV by its very nature is much faster, is spread much wider, with many more voices and the sense of a controlling hand. Film has a beginning, middle and end, not only to the story but to the whole process, whereas in TV you may be joining an ongoing production for a short time, where it feels like you have to jump on a moving train, take over the driver’s seat for a while, then jump off, without upsetting the overall rhythm. The kind of directing I love the most is when you build something from scratch, whether film, or any form of TV, miniseries or longer format, where you set the vision, style, and tone and build the characters with the actors; there is a great a sense of adventure and anticipation. In the end, I love directing, working with actors and crew to tell a story, to make a connection with the audience, whether they are in a theatre or living room.

The new Biggie/Tupac project, was it the fact that you are an outsider that makes you a good choice for that job?

I had worked with executive producer/director Anthony Hemmingway previously on the series Underground about the Underground Railway established to help slaves escape their captivity in the American South, another essentially African American story. One of the great things about working in TV and that volume of work is that you are constantly being thrust into new worlds that you may know nothing about. You totally immerse yourself in those worlds, seeing them through your own particular lens, which, of course, effects how you interpret them.

You’ve listed various film projects to direct in Australia over the years, why haven’t they happened and what are you planning on doing in the future in terms of film directing?

I think most of us in the film industry are always working on our own projects, it is part of building your vision and muscle as a filmmaker. I think timing is everything and there are ones that haven’t found their moment yet. But I know they will. Currently I have two projects. The one closest to fruition is Seriously Red written by Krew Boylan, produced by Robyn Kershaw and Jessica Carrera of Dollhouse Pictures with Rose Byrne executive producing.

Have film directing gigs arisen in the US?

I have been offered two films in the US that I was very excited to do. One of them has been put on the proverbial back burner, the other is still in development and I hope will go into production in the next few years. Right now, I am concentrating my own projects that are sourced in Australia, particularly Seriously Red.

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