Play Hard

We chat to Maria Caruana Galizia of Candle & Bell about her journey from Games of Thrones to starting up an award-winning film production company in the North East

“I am a woman and I’m creative and I can hold a camera and I can edit and I can produce and I can handle money and I can run a company. And there’s space for me. The stories that I want to tell, people want to hear”

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 08.07.2022

Candle & Bell doesn’t have anything to do with candles or bells, by the way.

Just thought we’d lay that out for you straight from the off.

The name is actually inspired by the work of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose theory of cinema spoke of film as a medium that could alter time and our experiences of reality – using the recurring motifs of candles and bells as symbols of film itself in ‘sight’ and ‘sound’. And their game is to do just that.

See, founder Maria Caruana Galizia wanted to ensure her film production company had its roots planted firmly in the artistry of cinema. Maybe that was purely down to her love for her craft. Maybe it was to quieten a little of the rampant sexism she experienced as a young producer entering an industry still dominated by men from the outset. Maybe a bit of both, who knows?

Well, we do actually. Because we asked her.

Now maybe it was just us, but we couldn’t understand why, with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine making headlines only five years ago for its drive to tell female-driven stories on film, TV and digital platforms, more people weren’t talking about Candle & Bell? A female-founded film production company with an all-female team (including exceedingly cute office dog, Scout), telling stories not only seen through the lens of women but which are also rooted here, in the North East.

So, we decided to be the ones to start the conversation – with the help of the entrepreneur, producer and all-round local legend herself, Maria…

Tell us about your journey in the film industry.

It’s been nine years now since Candle & Bell was incorporated as a limited company. I had studied at the New York Film Academy and the SAE Institute in Scotland, then I got a job in Scottish television and I didn’t know how good I had it – working 10am ‘til 6pm as an Edit Assistant! But I decided to go freelance and became an assistant for actors like William Hurt and Ethan Hawke.

Then I worked in the camera department on Game of Thrones and began getting a lot of experience working on big TV sets. While it was ok, it wasn’t something I was particularly happy doing. I had also met my husband, who is from the North East, so I decided to move up here to be with him.

 

 

Is that when you first thought about starting Candle & Bell?

I think I showed up at a particularly bad time, because governments had changed and the policy towards film funding had changed; regional offices were shut down and a lot of broadcasters left to become even more London-centric, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity here.

I was just mulling around working freelance jobs, but I knew I wanted to be a producer. So, I did a course with Teesside University and Digital City and that was when I realised that something about running a company appealed to me. I knew nothing about what it would entail! I just knew I wanted to tell particular stories and there wasn’t anybody employing young producers looking to tell those stories.

What was it like to become an entrepreneur?

Even if you’re experienced in your field, I think when you start a business it’s like jumping off a cliff and assembling the parachute on your way down! You see the floor getting closer, but you keep saying to yourself: “I can do it!”

 

 

You mentioned you wanted to tell a particular kind of story – in what way?  

I’m not originally from the North East, but I recognised early on that there’s a great tradition of storytelling in the region, whether through music, writing or oral histories. And none of that is in cinema or on television. I was confused, because I feel like the North East has its own idiosyncrasies which I find so interesting. Recognising that exclusion motivated me to try and bring those stories to the screen myself. And at the end of the day, if the world can relate to Middle Earth then I think they can relate to the North East!

What does the role of Producer involve?

I’m biased, but I think the producer has the most exciting job in film. You’re involved in every single aspect of production.

The start of a film project is always different; either a writer approaches me or I’ve seen someone’s work and get in touch with them. The writer might not even have a full script, it might just be an idea, so it’s about having that connection in terms of story, style and values. I then go out into the market to try and finance the project – through a film fund, broadcast or private investment. I’m also responsible for hiring the crew, making sure everyone is on the same creative wavelength and overseeing the production.

I see the project through post-production, too, during all the editing stages. And, finally, I sell the project: taking it to film festivals, selling it to sales agents and distributors. You’re there through the whole life cycle of the film and so you’re forever attached to it.

Why did you want to provide filmmaking classes with Candle & Bell?

I’ve been asked to go into universities quite a few times and talk about filmmaking. A lot of students would approach me asking for work experience and my capacity to meet with everybody and offer experience is limited. I could see how good universities were at teaching craft – sound, editing, camera work – but there was very little in the syllabus about producing. And producers are the backbone of the film industry.

Above The Line is about offering an insight into filmmaking from the perspective of a producer. It breaks everything down – how to create a budget, how to think about film festival strategy, how to approach a writer and contract them to work with you. We also bring in great guest speakers who have had award-winning careers. So, the classes are a resource to give people more of an insight into being a producer and maybe even encourage more people to set up production companies here in the North East. That’s the mission!

How would you love to see North East filmmaking develop in the future?

It’s great that people are talking about facilities and studios, but bricks and mortar aren’t what make an industry. Investing in people who own the intellectual property, that’s the currency of filmmaking. If you can purchase a script, book, play or even a song, then raise finance, bring people together as a crew and create something that then goes on to earn more revenue, then that’s how you build an industry. So, I’d really like to see people care more about investing in production companies here.

What do you credit to your success in a notoriously difficult industry to succeed in?

It’s important to know that so much of film is chance. It’s not even to do with talent sometimes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Which is frustrating but that’s just the reality of it. You have to have that perspective when you work in the film industry, because so much of it is out of your control. You get rejected a lot. You get disappointed a lot. Everybody has an opinion about whether or not your film is good. So, you need to have a suit of armour and good perspective. I think I like that I have a degree of autonomy as well and I’ve taken opportunities to develop my own skills and style.

Who in the film industry has had the biggest impact on your career so far?

A filmmaker called Alejandro Amenábar. He’d just won an Academy Award for his film The Sea Inside, which was beautiful, and he was making this big-budget production called Agora with Rachel Weisz and Oscar Isaac. My job was to follow him around and film behind-the-scenes content for a documentary. So, I had a lot of access to this incredible person.

The way he collaborated with people, his patience, the way he listened to people’s opinions but was also very good at communicating what he wanted; he was the kindest individual I’ve ever met. And he could have shown up with such an ego because he’d just won an Academy Award, but he didn’t. And we deal with a lot of egos in the film industry! So, if I ever aspire to anything, it’s to be a little more like him.

The filmmaking industry is still dominated by men. What’s it like to be a female producer?

It’s rubbish being a woman in the filmmaking industry. It’s changing now, but when I was in my early 20s, I used to receive so much sexual harassment. I was looked down upon. Career opportunities were not as readily available to me as they were the guys. It took me a long time to understand what was happening.

Even when I first started Candle & Bell, I was shocked at how sexist people were towards me. I would have people come up to me and say: “why are you filming? When are you going to hire a proper camera operator?” What they were saying was that they didn’t think a woman should be operating a camera because a man could do it better.

I’d go into meetings and I’d feel this unconscious bias that women can’t manage the production of a film and I was most shocked at how blatant some people were with it. That was the hardest lesson for me. But you become wise to it.

Have you changed your approach at all to combat such sexism?

Definitely. Now when I pitch, I try to educate my audience on what an expert I am. I show people my entire process at the start of any new project, so that breaks down a few barriers. I’ve also started working with more women. It’s so great that women lift other women up. It makes you feel like you’re on a level playing field again. Because it should be about who has the best ideas, not a case of: “you’re wearing a skirt so I don’t think you should be on a film set.”

I hope that I can show the industry that it really doesn’t matter that I’m a woman, but I am a woman and I’m creative and I can hold a camera and I can edit and I can produce and I can handle money and I can run a company. And there’s space for me. The stories that I want to tell, people want to hear.

And what advice would you give other women looking to enter the filmmaking industry?

Find mentors, production companies and bosses who are understanding. I’ve had situations where I’ve had juniors come in and I’ve seen them be harassed or intimidated by older men; I’ve recognised that straight away and said no, that’s unacceptable.

But don’t let sexism put you off. If you have this urge to be a filmmaker, go for it. You will find people who care about your stories, so find your crowd. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but that’s what it comes down to.

To find out more about Candle & Bell and to be the first to hear about their new projects, workshops and opportunities, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Candle & Bell, Pride Media Centre, Gateshead NE10 0HW

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