Derbyshire's LA-based film director and writer Elizabeth Blake-Thomas
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:31 26 July 2017
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Numbered amongst the greatest stresses in life are moving house, divorce and changing jobs. In the case of Derbyshire's LA-based film director and writer Elizabeth Blake-Thomas, these changes were the making of her, as Claire Bore discovers
Raised in Derbyshire, Elizabeth Blake-Thomas is perhaps not what you might visualize when you think of a Hollywood film director. Self-taught, self-made and resilient, she is someone who has made dreams (her own and those of others) come true – a fairytale personified.
When I first ‘meet’ Elizabeth she is just leaving the launderette (yes there are such things in LA). ‘Do you want to be jealous?’ she quips, turning to show me the vast glistening ocean and sparkling blue skies. To add insult, she points out her beach cottage perched on the corner, literally a hop, skip and a jump to the beach. ‘This is where my friend lives, the real Wolf of Wall Street. I’ll show you my view. This is the sea… this is how close I live! This is why I left Derbyshire. I’m very lucky.’
I could really dislike this lady. Especially as I am sitting at home looking out at the cold, night sky, whilst she bathes me in LA light, courtesy of a video link. Yet there is something intrinsically likeable about her. She is one of life’s grafters, an eternal optimist, whose internal make up is programmed in such a way that the word ‘no’ is non-existent in her life.
Elizabeth’s story is truly a remarkable one. The self-made director and writer’s move from Derbyshire to LA was not a split second decision – it was a move that was years in the making. ‘My daughter Isabella was six years old and we were over in New York for a drama course. Whilst we were away, this mother said to me, you should do this same course in LA. I remember thinking “LA, that’s like Hollywood, we can’t actually go there – that doesn’t really happen does it?”’
Needless to say they were soon on a flight there. ‘We were sitting round the swimming pool and there was a director. He started to talk to me and it just felt right. It felt as if this place was so open to everyone and everything,’ reminisces Elizabeth.
It took years of going backwards and forwards between the UK and the US before they eventually settled in LA, three years ago. Undeniably, the move was initially to benefit the acting career of Isabella (of Shameless and Rise of the Guardians fame). Now, however, Elizabeth is a major success in her own right, with four feature films to her credit last year, two books and four more films on the way.
Having worked with a variety of genres from comedy (Pretty Outrageous) to thrillers (Trust, Prey, Hope), and fantasy (Shadows and Broken Wings), Elizabeth is still experimenting. ‘I break every rule possible because I think – why’s that a rule, that shouldn’t be a rule,’ she reveals. ‘I definitely don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I am sure I have got a niche that works and I am sure I am going to find my forte, but unless you keep on going, you will never know and I feel in a very safe place at the moment to trial everything,’ admits Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, like many writers, takes the Roald Dahl approach of shutting herself away, albeit there is no shed involved… as yet. ‘When I write, whether it is scriptwriting or novels, I have to lock myself away. It’s about removing yourself from normality. I can’t sit and write if there is something else that needs doing. Generally, I will tell someone I have a script or a book before it is finished and then they ask to see it, and I have to sit there for two days writing solidly. I wrote two feature films in three days because I suddenly needed them. I actually caused my hands to stop working. I didn’t move, because I knew the minute I did, to check an email, get a text, help Isabella, it could take an hour.’
Elizabeth is the first to admit that writing is therapy for her and she draws on her own life to help make sense of it all. ‘Yes it’s definitely from personal experiences, being a child of divorced parents there are a lot of issues within my family that I have had to suffer from and grow through. In all honesty I think that you are a better director and writer if you’ve been through some hardcore stuff. If I’d grown up in a perfect cottage with roses, I probably wouldn’t be able to write what I write. So I think there are definitely emotions that I bring to my work because it is also a healing process for me.’ Her fiction debut novel Arabella is based loosely on Elizabeth’s real experience of divorce. ‘I think it is extremely helpful to get it out of your system through writing. I have experienced times of deep, dark despair and had to pull myself out of them, I’ve had to grow through them.’
When it came to converting this raw emotion for the big screen, it was Elizabeth’s boyfriend, American film director Sean Mcnamara who first suggested she should direct. ‘I asked, “How do I do it?” and he said “Just say you are a director”, so I did and I got the funding for my film.’ Sounds simple? But Elizabeth openly admits it didn’t happen overnight, there was a lot of hard work involved – ‘a lifetime in the making,’ muses Elizabeth. ‘Seriously from the age of six I remember doing the classes that were leading to this.’
With the recent success of La La Land, there are many perceptions about what ‘Hollywood’ is, floating around. But what does British-born Elizabeth believe is the essence of this star-studded place? ‘My Hollywood is something that people would really aspire to but initially I thought “This isn’t really Hollywood – I’m just putting on a little film”, then actually you look at it, and it is Hollywood. I am employing people, I have a crew of people who come to do every film with me, I am supplying them something. It is Hollywood,’ she reflects. ‘Sean said, “This is exactly what Hollywood is about, you just add a few more 0’s on the budget.” We essentially have the same work issues and conversations from locations to casting – whether I am making a local film for £250,000 to his £27 million film with Nicolas Cage.’
Talking of stars and moving in LA circles, Elizabeth believes there is still a strong presence of ‘who you know’ in Hollywood and that the move was crucial to her success. ‘If you knew Steven Spielberg, you could live in outer Mongolia and it wouldn’t make a difference. But for people who don’t have that surname, who aren’t in the industry, who don’t have that family, there is no way that I would be achieving what I am achieving if I wasn’t over here right now,’ she states. ‘Only the other week I met the screenwriter of the film Loving, which is up for the Oscars. It was interesting because he’s the same age as me, he went to film school and lives in America, so immediately he’s already levels ahead of where someone might need to be and yet I have just pushed through and through,’ she explains.
Having been on the other side, Elizabeth is keen to demystify Hollywood and is on a mission to help others achieve their dreams. She has even written a book, Four Features in her First Year as a Female Director’ (to be published later this year), which promises to be full of good advice to help others. ‘It’s supposed to be a learning tool,’ muses Elizabeth. ‘Because I have spent six years getting to this stage, I’m able to tell people: within a week you should contact this attorney, you will need these papers, this is the agent you want and so on. Because it took me six years to get to this point, I now appreciate where I am, but I realized how useful this information is and that I could pass it on in the form of a book.’
It’s clear 2017 is going to be a busy year for the Blake-Thomas household. For Elizabeth’s daughter Isabella, life is good. ‘She is in a major callback situation with Nickelodeon at the moment and works a lot. But it’s not just about the acting, it’s about the life – the journey, the experiences.’ For Elizabeth, too, this year is another step closer to her goals. ‘I wrote my vision board for the year and I suddenly realized that everything I had written was happening and I thought – I don’t think I can fit any more visions in! I know I will be working on my second book which is called Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret as well as four other feature films this year,’ she reveals. She will be heading for Europe this summer to scout out locations and people for a film she has been commissioned for by the charity Hopes and Homes (www.hopesandhomes.org.uk), focusing on the plight of orphanages in Romania.
‘Ultimately, I want to be able to inspire people but I also aspire to get a Golden Globe and an Oscar. I am doing this journey knowing that it will lead to that. I don’t think it is a silly assumption, I will keep on going, doing what I am doing. What have I got to lose? I have one life so I might as well go for it!’