Motley Pioneers: An Interview with Chanya Button, film director

by Ilana Lever on

Chanya Button, the British director, producer and writer, talks to Ilana Lever, co-founder of Motley London, about life as a female director, entrepreneurship and Virginia Woolf.

Her film “Vita & Virginia”, which explores the relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolf, made its debut screening at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11.

So Chanya, what do you do?

I’m a film director. In other words, it means that my life has zero structure and maximum excitement. There’s genuinely no normal day.

OK, what was yesterday like?

I just got back from premiering my second feature film Vita and Virginia at Toronto Film where I was with my two lead actors Elizabeth Vicky and Gemma Arterton, talking to everyone about our film. It was ultra glamorous, and I got to show off your amazing jewellery which I was very proud to wear, but now I’m off to Prague to go and wade around in the mud and reshoot half of World War 2.

What skills do you need to be a director?

(Chanya chuckles.) Yeah, that’s a very good question. It’s a really exciting job to do because there’s no one route into it - in this country, there are no great traditional film schools. I studied literature, I then did a Masters in theatre directing, I’ve worked in film since I was 16 but there’s no one route in.

To get a film job, do you have to do an interview? Do you find the film or does the film find you?

There’s a huge difference between TV and film. In TV, they’ll need a director for a show and you will go in and interview for it. In film, projects are generated from the director. There’s something I’m writing at the moment, which I’m going to pitch to various distributors and financiers. It’s then essentially a rolling interview that lasts for the couple of years it takes to get a film together. You pitch it and re-pitch it. Being a film director has a huge overlap with any kind of entrepreneur. You’re looking for investors, you’re developing your brand – it’s exactly the same as starting a business. Whereas in TV, it is a bit more like going for a job interview.

Does a director get known for having a specialism in something? And if so, what do you want to be known for?

No artist wants to be pigeonholed, but everyone inevitably is a little, if only because that’s the way audiences and consumers make sense of your work. I like work that explores complicated female characters.

Can you tell us about some of the key milestones in your life that have got you to this point?

I directed an enormous amount of theatre at university - collaborating with brilliant, creative people and making work alongside studying was hugely formative in thinking I could go out into the world and do that professionally. I then did a theatre director course at RADA, where I met an unbelievable bunch of actors who I work with consistently. (Chanya’s best friend is Hannah Arterton, the sister of the lead in her most recent film, Gemma Arterton).  Those are formative places where you build really brilliant relationships. 

Do you have advice for young directors starting out and asking themselves the same question?

There was a moment when I made my first feature Burn Burn Burn, where I became cognisant that I was no longer making work in a hand-to-mouth way. I realised this could be a sustainable career. Noticing when that moment could be and being ready for it when it comes is really important. My advice isn’t so much centred about how you start out, but it’s once you’ve started, how you then embed that and carry on.

In terms of your industry, what about it most surprised you?

This is very cheesy, but what surprised me is how happy it could make me as a human being. When it’s at its best, how happy and fulfilling and brilliant it can make you and how you can take that happiness with you into other parts of your life.

And at its worst?

Obviously, there’s an enormous and very necessary conversation happening around being a woman operating in this industry. It’s a very difficult conversation to have because every single woman has had experiences that they have written off. They've said, “I should be fine with that”, “That’s not a big deal”. Being a young woman in a position of authority is very difficult when most of the people who work for and around me are male.

What’s the most positive action you’ve seen to make progress?

Everyone’s asking that, but I think it’s a very premature question. Nothing is sorted out; the shift is in progress. I feel very positive about it; but it’s something we’re going to have to wait a little while to be able to reflect on. There are a couple of opportunities that I’ve been given recently that I think are great strides but I’ve waited a very very long time for them. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a while, or because attitudes have changed. So I think we’re going to wait a little while to answer that question.

What has been your biggest ‘Oh, Shit moment to date’?

Well, nothing major, but whenever I’m shooting everything, I lose all of my personal items immediately. Everything’s gone. My watch, my phone, any valuable – my glasses are OK because they’re on my head – but every time I’m shooting, all my personal items disappear.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

A producer who was helping me with my first short film wrote a list of everyone I was working with on that film and asked me to think about what was in it for them. It was an exceptionally brilliant piece of advice about leadership, management, creativity, advice in general. In general, it makes you a nicer human being if you are constantly thinking about what other people’s needs are and if they’re being served.

Motley thinks of jewellery as art. If you could own a piece by any artist, what would it be?

Because of the film I’d just made, I’d want something that Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant had painted. Vanessa Bell is Virginia Woolf’s sister, and Duncan Grant was her best friend, soulmate and artistic partner. Vanessa Bell created and built Charleston Farmhouse in East Sussex, which is obsessively decorated; there are murals everywhere. She made her home a work of art, which I think is quite uniquely female. There’s one portrait Bell painted of Duncan Grant in 1920, which is him looking at himself in a mirror. It was in the process of painting this process that Duncan Grant realises Vanessa was really in love with him. They weren’t married, and he was predominantly gay, but they chose to have a child together as an expression of their commitment to each other, and he lived with her their whole life. I think that was really beautiful.

If you could have three guests to your dinner party, who would you invite?

Right now, it would be Virginia Woolf, Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino because, I mean, sure. And… …Steve McQueen.

Nice. Do you think they’ll get on with each other?

I have absolutely no idea. I’m really interested to see.

Favourite dad joke?

The best joke ever written is in Mrs Doubtfire. It’s when Robin William throws a lime at Pierce Brosnan’s head, and says, “It’s a drive by fruiting”. That’s the best joke anyone’s objectively ever written.

Why Motley?

All of your designs are bold and fun and worthy of conversation. It makes a statement; you notice you’re wearing a tiny penis necklace, but other people won’t notice. It feels like what you wear to amuse yourself rather than display yourself to other people. It makes you feel lighter and happier. That’s pretty good for jewellery.



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