Interview: China Moo-Young

China Moo-Young went to the National Youth Theatre before studying Drama at Bristol University, where she graduated with a First Class Honours BA in Film, Theatre and Television. She was named a Star of Tomorrow in Screen International’s annual review of British film-making talent and was selected as a Breakthrough Brit on the prestigious UK Film Council programme.

She directed four episodes of Secret Diary of A Call Girl (Series 3) and the opening block of the second series of Scott and Bailey. After completing two episodes for series two of Call The Midwife, China went on to direct a block of the third series and Talking To The Dead: her first original pilot. China has since directed Spotless and Humans, and pioneering BBC3 drama Thirteen, before going on to direct Harlots for ITV Encore/Hulu, starting on ITV 27th March 2017.

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In the last 6 years, you’ve worked as a director on ten different TV shows – is that right? How did you get into TV from making shorts?

Whilst I was working my way up in production in the commercials and music video industry I was always making short films. After I made UK Film Council-backed short called ‘Juvenile’ I applied for Channel 4’s Coming Up. The scheme gave me the opportunity to direct my first thirty-minute drama called EMO written by Nicole Taylor. Since then (2008) I’ve directed nine drama projects for television.

How has the work changed since you’ve become a parent? Are you surprised by where you are now?

Becoming a parent has coincided with me being offered quite a few dramas shooting away from home – opportunities that I have had to pragmatically turn down. Shooting away from home, both regionally and out of the country, is not something I’ve wanted to tackle just yet as it involves a travelling circus of childcare and a big change in routine for my daughter who is still under three. Though I have a nanny and nursery, and my daughter’s dad plays a significant role in bringing her up, being a director and a responsible single parent presents unique and complex logistical challenges – projects really have to be both creatively fulfilling as well as practically viable for me these days. So in this way my choice of projects have been more limited somewhat by this criteria.

I’d certainly like to be further along in my career than I am: I haven’t made a feature yet. It was always important to me not to take a long break when I had a baby. I worked until I was eight and a half months pregnant and I went back to shoot a drama when my daughter was five months old. I truly believe I am a better mother when I am creatively fulfilled and I am more creatively focused as a result of becoming a mother, so it cuts both ways.

Has becoming a parent changed, at all, the kind of stories you want to tell or how you want to tell them?

I think all the things I had been feeling subconsciously and cumulatively about the importance of telling women’s stories and the portrayal of women in mainstream media I simply feel more keenly now. I do feel a real responsibility as a woman and director on how I approach stories, and specifically the depiction of violence and sex.

It’s not about things being made more implicit or less graphic. It’s more to do with having a stronger moral compass, feeling a duty of care and culpability in what I am putting out there into the world; really considering what is the good in showing something explicitly? Does it diminish or exploit anyone? Is there a transformative quality to it? How does the story benefit its audience – whether through sheer entertainment or a more socially conscious historical / political comment – how can I keep it relevant and credible?

I do have an agenda to make strong intelligent genre pieces that are enjoyable, visceral yet don’t subjugate women. I am certainly more sensitive to storylines that perpetuate women being objectified, fetishize violence or draw their non-white characters with less depth or nuance than their white counterparts. So I guess in all those terms I read material through perhaps a more socially-conscious lens than I did before.

What are the some of the specific effects you’ve experienced, good or bad, of being a parent and a filmmaker?

Certainly I have less free time to develop my own projects and being a lone parent makes the pressure to earn far greater, yet in balance I feel that my life is far richer – emotionally, spiritually and intellectually – as a result and I feel I am far more creative, capable and efficient than I ever was prior to having a kid. Being a single parent has focused me in a way that nothing else has ever done.

I recently wrapped on a seven week shoot, doing 12 hour days on a new period drama called Harlots for Monumental Pictures, with all the production demands that entailed whilst there were disrupted sleepless nights at home with my toddler because she was really missing me. It’s good and bad and it takes real stamina. And it’ll sound like a cliché but being able to come home to my daughter and read her bedtime stories is the ultimate antidote to a bad day at work.

HARLOTS Season1, Episode 4, Photo credit: Liam Daniel/Monumental

What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming a TV drama director and wanting to have a family life as well?

Ultimately I believe it’s an incredibly personal and individual decision on how to juggle it. I deliberately didn’t take a long break after the birth of my daughter because I didn’t want to leave it too long before I was back directing on the floor or have a lengthy gap on my CV. I also chose to have a nanny semi full-time from quite early on (as opposed to ad-hoc child care or nursery) so that my child would have the continuity of one-to-one care when I was away during the days or nights, but this may be neither a concern nor an option for another director whose partner stays at home. The biggest challenge for me is that there is no such thing as job-share in directing – you’re either in or out 100% of the time so really child-care becomes the biggest evolving issue and expense to solve.

Is there anyone who has become a role model or ally buddy for you – and why? Have you encountered any inspirational work practices? 

I’ve encountered so many brilliant women in the industry who have juggled successfully rearing children whilst simultaneously being engaged and focused on their careers: actor Katherine Parkinson, production designer Eve Stewart, and costume designer Amy Roberts to name just three! I met the wonderful director Philippa Lowthorpe when I directed Call The Midwife. Over the years she has quietly been an inspiration and support because first and foremost her work is exceptional whilst she also plays a strong present role as a parent. I admire the fact that she has continued to make brilliant authored work and raise two children in tandem.

What good/bad attitudes or practices have you encountered in the industry? Are there individuals or companies that have been particularly un/supportive? 

I have had the good fortune to work with some wonderful producers and execs over the last few years. Pippa Harris at Neal Street Productions and producer Hugh Warren stand out for me as brilliant, collaborative creative and supportive forces. In the main I have only ever experienced good attitudes towards my needing to be home for my child at a certain time or not being able to attend something because I am committed to something with my child. However, last minute changes to shooting hours when filming or actioning six day weeks is a really tough yet seemingly inevitable thing I have had to deal with.

Harlots Season1, Episode 6, Photo credit: Robert Viglasky/Monumental

How will you explain what you do to your daughter? How do we normalize working mothers – particularly in film and TV – for kids?

My daughter is very young and she is being raised, rather ironically, without television or any screens – this will inevitably change as she gets older! I tell her that I go to work, that I make pictures, tell stories and that it makes me happy. I was raised by a single mother (who was a working designer and artist) and my father was an animator; all my parent’s friends were creatives so that was my environment. Personally speaking I don’t think we need to normalize the concept of working mothers: whatever you create as a framework for kids is their version of a ‘normal’ domestic life.

What would you most like to see change about the industry? What changes would help you most in pursuing your practice sustainably?

I would like to be able to claim childcare as a valid business expense. It is my single biggest expense and outgoing – I spend more than half of what I earn on childcare monthly (we’re not talking hundreds we’re talking thousands). It seems utterly crazy to me that I could claim for a stylist, driver, masseuse or PA (none of which I need), and the one thing I do need to pay for – nanny and nursery fees – I cannot claim back as a valid business expense. The maximum salary sacrifice of just a couple of hundred quid you don’t pay tax on hardly makes a significant dent.

If we want more women in the workplace and most especially women working in the film and television industry – working full time and paying their taxes – then child care needs to be a claimable expense.

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