Leading director of televised long form documentaries at Presence, Tanya Stephan, discusses her favourite and most hated creative productions, and the work that has inspired her through her career
Tanya Stephan is a leading director of long form documentaries for TV. She’s directed high profile singles and series for Channel Four, BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. Her trademark is capturing people’s stories with humanity, and crafting compelling narratives. Her films have been nominated for the documentary Grierson Awards and three Royal Television Society Awards. Tanya has recently completed a series of documentary films for M&C Saatchi.Here, she discusses from her favourite to her most hated creative productions, and the work that has inspired her along the way.
The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…
When I was a teenager I saw the film ‘Paris is Burning’ at the ICA. I loved the intimacy and warmth of the interviews, and the magic of seeing New York’s ballroom subculture on the big screen. The documentary is controversial, but it was ground-breaking. It opened my eyes to documentary as a creative form.
The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…I knew early on that I wanted to make documentaries but I needed female role models to show me this was possible. Molly Dineen and Kim Longinotto were two film makers who I admired and who self-shot their own films. They’d been to the National Film and TV School years before so I decided that would be my way in to the industry, and it was.
The creative work (film/album/game/ad/album/book/poem etc) that I keep revisiting…Last year I had the privilege of working with one of my favourite photographers, Wolfgang Tillmans, filming him designing a production for English National Opera. He photographs the apparently ordinary with such clear-sighted purpose – every image has layers of meaning. Photography is what I keep going back to, most recently Diane Arbus. I’m fascinated by how she relates to her subjects with such honest directness. She isn’t catching people unaware. They know they’re being photographed and they’re with her in the moment.
My first professional project…Fresh out of The National Film & TV School in my 20’s, I landed my first job directing for Channel 4 on a series about teenagers and mental health. I spent a year with a family whose teenage son Michael had schizophrenia. It was a really collaborative film, because Michael and his parents wanted people to know what it was like to live day to day with a mental illness that affected all their lives.
The piece of work (ad/music video/ platform…) that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that*…I slammed my laptop shut half way through watching a documentary that retold the murder of a young woman but glamorised the killer. The film makers’ blind spot was shocking. Thankfully several female filmmakers have been redressing the way that violent crimes against women are treated: the BBC’s brilliant ‘The Yorkshire Ripper: A Very British Crime Story’ and Anna Hall’s excellent ‘Catching a Killer’ series on C4 are both essential viewing.
The piece of work (ad/music video/ platform…) that still makes me jealous…I loved the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign for Sport England – the irreverence, the positivity, the fact that an ad campaign could change how women see themselves and how they are seen. I’m a big fan of Kim Gerhrig’s work and also loved her ‘Life needs Truth’ film for The New York Times that I admired before I realised she’d directed it.
The creative project that changed my career…There are still very few female directors who get given the bigger projects in TV and a few years ago I wanted to step up to series director, to creatively shape a series and oversee a bigger team. I was asked to direct the first series of ‘Liberty of London’ for Channel 4 a behind the scenes about the iconic department store. It was a departure from social docs where my heart is, but I had a lot of fun directing the series and we got the highest viewing figures for 9pm on Channel 4 that year.
The work that I’m proudest of…I haven’t made the film I’m proudest of yet. I’m hoping it might be my next one: a feature documentary about the children who went missing from an Irish Mother and Baby Home across four decades.
I was involved in this and it makes me cringe…I recently shot a drama reconstruction that involved nuns. It’s for a documentary about a historic crime, but there’s something so comedy about nuns if you’re not careful! It could have been toe-curling, but fortunately I was working with the super talented DoP Diana Olifirova who pulled us back from cringe and gave our shots a chilling beauty.
The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most…I just finished making a documentary, ‘Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum‘ with Sheridan for ITV1. All my documentaries require a lot of trust, and in this case, I was working with a celebrity opening up about her mental health during the last months of her pregnancy. I really admire Sheridan for allowing me and my camera into such a personal and sensitive time of her life to help shift the stigma around maternal mental health. The best part of it has been seeing the overwhelming, positive, heart-warming responses on social media and in the press, knowing that the documentary has touched and helped so many people.
Interview by LBB.