by Sarah Chaisson-Warner.
Writer. Actress. Director. Ella Jones has done it all. As a member of Shore Scripts’ prestigious Directors Roster, she is currently busy working in TV, directing the final block of the new HBO horror-comedy The Baby, and soon to be the lead director on the new Sky series Sweetpea.
Ella’s short films have played at a myriad of festivals, and she also won a Royal Television Society Award for her directing in 2020 and was nominated again in 2021.
We sat down with Ella to find out more about what it means to her to be a writer/director and how she sees the disciplines of screenwriting and directing informing on her work.
Coming Up in the Entertainment Industry
Ella grew up on sets and started her film career as an actress. She loved seeing first-hand the passion and energy that goes into filmmaking and the collaboration between everyone involved. “That was one of the things that attracted me to the industry as a whole,” she said. “Combined with the feeling that everyone who worked within it was doing it because it was something they loved.”
Ella has been mentored primarily by Becky Martin (Peep Show, Veep). “She’s been an amazing font of knowledge, support, and encouragement, mainly just giving me the confidence in what I’m doing.” Since then, Ella has gone on to serve as a mentor herself as well, which she has found equally rewarding.
“I love the idea of an endless chain of mentoring – of being mentored by someone further along, whilst mentoring someone earlier on. Mentoring people earlier on in their careers has allowed me to recognize how far I’ve come in mine, what I’ve learned, and the progress I’ve made. Something that we often struggle to do in a field where we’re always looking forward to the next big thing.”
Ella encourages others to seek out mentoring relationships early in their careers as well. Be open-minded about who can serve in that role, she suggests. “You can gain as much from someone just a few years on in your field, who’s taken the kind of creative or career path as yours, as from someone super experienced and successful. Indeed, someone closer to where you are might have a greater memory and understanding of where you’re currently at in your career.”
Moving From In Front of the Camera to Directing
As Ella continued to make her name in the film world, she moved from being in front of the camera to behind it. The exposure she had as an actress to the various creative roles integral to the success of the creative process helped inspire Ella to move from being in front of the camera to behind it.
Ella’s move to behind the camera has led her to exciting roles as a Script Editor and Director. As a Script Editor for the TV series Hanna, she worked with writer David Farr during the development, pre-production, and production stages of the process. In the writers’ room, she worked with Farr and the other writers to develop the initial characters and storylines. As they moved to the filming stage, Ella managed and communicated script changes to the over one hundred crew members, sent out revised marked scripts and memos of changes, and worked with the art department and others, helping to create names for locations and props and additional on-screen text.
“I learned so much from doing that job that has since been immensely useful in my directing work. In particular, it has given me a strong understanding of story,” she said. “As a director, this has allowed me to confidently collaborate with the screenwriters I’m working with, communicating my thoughts on the script and being able to pinpoint and suggest ways we can push it further.”
Working in Dual Roles and Across Dual Genres
Working as both a writer and a director has also given her unique insight into how writers can create meaningful and collaborative relationships. Ella emphasizes the importance of working early on to ensure everyone is on the same page creatively – thinking through what both the writer and director envision as the end goal for the project. She encourages writers and directors to think together about –
- Their tonal, visual, and narrative references;
- What the story is fundamentally about; and
- What the audience should take from it – emotionally and intellectually.
“If you can truly take the time to understand this and get to that place where you are on a shared page as to the film you are trying to make, it then makes the process so much easier,” she said. “You can trust that all notes from the other person are looking to push the project closer to that shared place.”
Ella is a lover of dual-genre films, particularly stories that “tread the line between comedy and drama, between light and dark, sharpness and warmth.” Her favorite stories all have something “distinctive in their tone and tread this tonal line so cleverly and carefully.”
As a director of many dual-genre shorts and TV series, embracing the power of tonal contrasts is key. It’s imperative, she says, for building a visual story world that is consistent with the genre and tone of the script.
“If the tone of the story is quite heightened or offbeat, I might look to create a visual world that reflects this. Conversely, if the power of a project is in its authenticity and naturalism, then I would look to ground the visuals too. Although saying this, there may be something special in doing the opposite too! But whatever outcome, I would use tone as a starting point.”
Similarly, having experience as both an actor and a director has brought a new perspective to Ella in her filmmaking career, and encourages writers to think deeply about the characters they are developing to bring their film alive. “Fundamentally we should be trying to build complex, complicated characters who have clear journeys and understandable motivations…Story structure in its classic form is about taking a character (or characters) on an emotional journey, and this narrative ‘arc’ is key to a satisfying structure,” she said. “Thus, when building characters, it can be useful to really focus on what the character wants and needs – a good story often involves these two things being different – the character pursues what they want, but ultimately learns that something else is what they really need. This active character want will help drive a story forward and give it a propulsive dramatic question – will Marlin find his son Nemo? Will Little Miss Sunshine make it to the beauty pageant?”