Tessa Inkelaar is a development producer, helping film-makers get their projects off the ground. She’s applied the same principle to her career and has gone from working at a shoe shop to pay off student debts, to being well on the way to producing her own features.
Tell us about the job you’re doing now. What does it involve?
I am development producer at Film London, working in the Production and Talent Development department. Our department runs a number of production funds (for short and feature films) and talent schemes, and I work across all of the programmes; commissioning projects and selecting film-makers to participate in our talent development schemes, as well as project managing aspects of each programme.
A day in my life could be: feeding back on a short film edit, liaising with industry talent to mentor our film-maker teams, and strategizing about improvements on a current programme, or new programmes to deliver support to an underserved area of the industry. New film-makers come to us for advice and support to turn their short or features scripts into a reality.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Working with projects at script stage, then supporting the creative process through the edit, to completion. Seeing a film go through the process and come out the other end is incredibly rewarding, as is watching the team develop their own skills and take a step further in their career. Forming bonds with film-makers is key in my role, as it enables a smoother development process but also makes my job more rewarding when talent I’ve enjoyed working with go on to achieve success in festivals, or get commissioned for bigger and better projects, knowing it was our film which launched them.
Would your classmates from school be surprised at what you’re doing now?
Possibly. I don’t recall showing a keen interest in film as a teen but they would probably expect me to be working a creative role in some way.
What school subjects were you good at and have any been surprisingly helpful later on?
Art and design and English literature. Studying both art and English lit gave me a grounding in international creative cultures and an understanding of the different styles and movements throughout history which are incredibly important when developing projects. English in particular helped to build an understanding of storytelling structures and techniques and a confidence in constructive feedback of others’ work which is integral to my role as I spend much of it writing and giving notes on scripts and edits!
How did you decide what you wanted to do after school?
After completing my GCSEs I made the decision to study A-level media, art and English literature. Art and English lit were the obvious choices as they were the subjects I most enjoyed, and the ones I was best at. I chose media as my third A-level based on a previous module at GCSE around Shakespeare on Film – I studied Zeffereli’s Romeo & Juliet, compared with Baz Lurhman’s and it still remains the one lesson at school which stands out in my memory.
Did you take a gap year? Did it influence any decisions later in life?
I decided to fill my gap year by doing an Art Foundation BTEC at the last minute, which showed me I wasn’t a natural artist! Realising I wasn’t meant to be a ‘creator’, I decided to study contemporary history of art & design which at the time was only offered as a dual subject. I had to choose which subject to do alongside, and chose film based on my media A-level. This is where I realised I wanted to take a career in film further. The degree wasn’t practical but critical – studying different world cinemas, movements and auteurs from a constructive, analytical perspective. Watching at least three films per week didn’t feel like studying. Just as I did with art, I realised writing wasn’t my skill – I knew I didn’t have the distinctive voice required for a career in writing – be it a storyteller, journalist, reviewer – it wasn’t for me. But I knew I had to move to London if I want to do anything within that industry. So that’s what I did. Once I’d paid off my initial debts working in a shoe shop in my hometown of Yeovil!
And how did you get into your current line of work?
Once I moved to London, I had rent to pay. I ended up taking the first job offered which was a temp job in the NHS. I was lucky, spending my first day working in an office with a small team made up of project support manager and project manager. I worked hard and made myself useful and when the project support manager left six months after I started, I got promoted. In the meantime I was applying to every single paid admin job within the arts sector.
Applying for around five jobs a week and never receiving an interview was hard work but I couldn’t afford to go down the more obvious route of working as an unpaid intern. Six months later the project manager left and I was given the role. I was in the right place at the right time. I was still applying for job after job but I was gaining significant experience project managing in the NHS – giving me invaluable experience of working in the office environment, dealing with stakeholders and managing projects.
One day I got a call from Film London for a skill assistant job. I was interviewed and offered the role. I got the interview based almost entirely on my experience as a project manager and my evident love of film as outlined in my supporting statement was all I needed was to get in the room. Taking the job was a financial step back but the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve since had two promotions – to development and production officer and then to development producer, since I started five years ago. I still work across some of the same projects as the day I started but have also picked up new projects and new responsibilities along the way.
For the past three years I’ve been producing shorts outside of my full time job, and also studied a diploma in script development which has given me the confidence and skills which enabled my promotions. I have since raised development finance for my first feature film as a producer.
If you went to university what was your university experience like?
Coming from a very small town to a bigger city was an incredible experience on its own. I was lucky enough to live in halls with other students studying humanities with keen interests in art, philosophy, music, and film and this really widened my knowledge and interest in a wide array of different areas – I discovered amazing novelists like Knut Hamsun and Henry Miller who have stayed with me since. I spent many nights watching obscure (mostly terrible) art-house films. I listened to, and realised I will never be a jazz fan.
The most important thing I learned was time management. I worked 20 hours every weekend at my local cinema and therefore saw my degree as a full time job – arriving at uni at 9 am, going to lectures and studying in-between until 5pm when I went home and inevitably went out. I worked all weekend and partied in the evening. I’ve never been so efficient! It set me up for my life in London, working full time and managing a busy social life.
What are you proudest of achieving?
My promotion to development producer. There is a level in the industry which is very hard to get through because of a bottleneck exacerbated by recession – people aren’t leaving their roles and everyone is side stepping rather than moving upwards. I felt frustrated after doing the same job for two years so I started producing my own work – through doing this, I proved that I had the dedication and passion to take a step up. I learned what it is to be an on-the-ground producer, which makes me better at my job of working with film-makers. It’s tough to take that step up and I considered leaving the industry but I stuck with it and I’m proud that rather than sit and wait to get the job, I went out and proved that I was capable to do it.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
In ten years’ time I hope to have produced at least one feature film as an independent producer! Perhaps more.
What advice would you give someone still at school who wants to do what you’re doing now?
Research the many roles in film. Its not just writing and directing. You have producers, who make films happen, from financing to the creative development – its basically a project management role! There are distributors who take a film and put it in cinemas and market it to audiences. There are sales agents who sell films to distributors to market to international audiences. There are people who restore archive films, or finance films, or market films by creating posters and trailers. Editors, camera operators, casting agents – so many roles that are often overlooked but are integral to the success of a film. It’s competitive but there are routes in, and once you are in, you can work towards the role that you want to do.
If you want to be a writer, director or producer: watch films, read scripts, read online resources. Finally, make films! The technology is there – if you have an iphone and a computer, you can shoot and edit a film without any money.
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