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From The Shire To The Stars: Glen Milner Q&A

8th May 2017

Glen Milner is a York filmmaker we’ve known for a long time and it’s been a real treat to follow his career from aspiring documentary filmmaker to world traveller and renowned documentary maker. His latest adventure was to work on Star Wars: Rogue One, collaborating closely with director Gareth Edwards on the making of the film. We chat to Glen about his filming experiences and he has some incredible advice for filmmakers working in York.

Glen Milner, director Gareth Edwards, designer Doug Chiang and some spaceships

Glen Milner, director Gareth Edwards, designer Doug Chiang and some spaceships

One&Other: You’re primarily a documentary filmmaker. What drew you into this particular area?

Glen Milner: I just wanted a way of getting paid to go on holiday really and thought this might be the best way to do it. But I’ve also always been keen on photography and photojournalism and used to really love 8 Magazine, which sadly no longer exists. It had incredible photo essays of stories from around the world with great access to people and interesting perspectives of different cultures by new photographers. I think I felt a bit jealous about how free photojournalism was compared to the restrictive nature of making films. You didn’t need a cast, crew, kit, and loads of money - just a camera and a good story to tell.

When I was at university I specialised in cinematography and we would shoot on 35mm film but it was also when new digital cameras were coming through so it was an interesting time. You could start to get beautiful HD images from cheaper, smaller cameras so, after graduating, I travelled with a friend to cover a story about genocide prisoners in Rwanda. It was just a crew of two and I loved the experience of spending our days filming real people with so much to share and the uncertainty that came with following their stories. I was pretty much hooked from then on.

I was directing a commercial in a New York and just got an email from LucasFilm asking if I would I be interested in doing something...

O&O: How did you start out with your filmmaking? Low budget, your own stuff, working for other people? When did you leave York?

GM: It all started at school getting into films like Pulp Fiction, Leon, Taxi Driver and La Haine: real visual cult films that you would have posters of on your bedroom wall, and thinking to myself how cool it would be to do camera work as a career. I loved the coverage of the scenes and iconic shots that still get referenced time and time again.

My school at that time, Millthorpe, didn’t support media arts or any creativity beyond the odd paintbrush and clay pot so it wasn’t until I eventually got into York college that I really started playing with cameras. I studied film and media there and would make shorts with fellow students on an evening with a little DV camcorder that we would borrow. It was actually those little films that really got me onto the film production degree at the University of Westminster Film School.

O&O: Tell us about your major projects to date, your travels and some key experiences. What’s next for you?

GM: I’m pretty lucky to travel a lot with my work: documentaries and journalism do enable you to go to interesting places and meet amazing people from all different cultures.

Earlier on in my career I made a lot of films for organisations such as UNICEF and then as a video-journalist for The Guardian and The Telegraph where I covered all sorts from climate change in Antarctica and drug cartels in Mexico to child trafficking in Haiti and Geishas in Japan. But in terms of key experiences I would say dressing up as a Japanese power plant worker to go undercover in Fukushima was one of those interesting ones that sticks in my mind. I think it was the point where I laid in the back of a pick-up under a tarp in the pitch black of night travelling back over the police blockage clutching my radiation geiger counter that I began to question whether I’d thought it through properly.

Since then, I’ve gone onto direct more long-form documentaries for broadcasters like the BBC and I don’t know if they would encourage that sort of thing. Great fun though.

As for the future, I actually hate talking about that stuff because more often than not, projects don’t happen for one reason or another. We do have an under-wraps documentary that has been commissioned and starts shooting in Yorkshire in a few weeks but generally speaking, I want to do more four-part series type formats where we can let the stories breathe a bit.

STAR WARS: Rogue One Documentary from GLEN MILNER on Vimeo.

I even met George Lucas one day at Pinewood so that was a big tick off the bucket list

O&O: Obviously tell us about Star Wars and how you got into that production.

GM: I remember I was directing a commercial in a New York and just got an email from LucasFilm asking if I would I be interested in doing something for them on a forthcoming project. After I met with Gareth Edwards, we seemed to get on well and he was super kind about my work that he had seen. So he asked me to come on board and document the making of Rogue One.

It was a great couple of years and an amazing thing to be a part of. I was in the pre-production meetings, across the whole shoot and spent weeks with Gareth in the edit. You learn a lot from being around so much experience, I even met George Lucas one day at Pinewood so that was a big tick off the bucket list, it was all very surreal at times.

I remember most days chatting on set with John Knoll from ILM and then being told he invented Photoshop! Oh and that he had several Oscars. It was just a great education to be around that level of filmmakers and also really cool to part of Star Wars generally when I’d grown up watching it repeatedly on my brother’s VHS taped off the telly.

A lot of great stuff in the making-of documentary had to be left on the cutting room floor, which breaks your heart but it was one hell of a learning curve. Projects can be a challenge when there are so many people involved. But they did use one of my doco shots in Rogue One, which was a great feeling to see on the IMAX at the premiere.

I’ve found that filmmakers with vast experience like those making Rogue One have often proved to be the nicest and most open. After leaving university I worked as a camera assistant and got to meet an editor called Caroline Liddleton. She edited films like E.T and was amazing in showing an interest in my own ideas and I would send her cuts of my early short docos to give feedback on. It’s people like that who give you encouragement to build, rethink and progress.

There are more creative industries in York than ever before

O&O: Do you think filmmakers need to leave their small home towns and head to the cities to work in film and TV, or do you think there’s been more of a ‘small town industry’ going on these days?

GM: I left York in 2003 and back then there was very little going on in terms of film work or people making films in general really.

I remember in the late 90s, when the Yorkshire Museum used to screen more arthouse type films before City Screen opened, and picking up leaflets for film schools in London and flicking through the pages in awe. It was a long way from the village I grew up in and it all looked so focused on creativity, which was something I hadn’t experienced. I wanted to move to London to not only learn and make films but also be around people totally different to me that I could learn from. I’m sure it’s the same for anybody that leaves their home town for uni.

Thirteen or so years on, there are more creative industries in York than ever before. There is also a real desire for more regional filmmakers from broadcasters like the BBC and Channel 4 and the internet is totally different now to when I lived in York and used to wait days to download one music track at a time off Napster. It’s so much easier to work remotely now from the production companies that might be based elsewhere.

Commissioners want local stories with great characters and filmmakers with something to say. I often return to Yorkshire to make films and have done projects covering gay Iranian asylum seekers living in Leeds, an Indian couple with the longest marriage in the world in Bradford and even a blind Leeds fan who overcomes the fear of losing her sight by going to matches. The identity that comes with your home county always proves to be a great source of inspiration and sometimes it really pays to make a film about something or somewhere you know. Generally, I think the most interesting films will end up come from smaller towns away from London because the filmmakers won’t be bound by ridiculous rents that only bankers can pay. Creatives are being pushed out of the capital more and more each year.

Take inspiration from the makers and not the talkers

THE HORSEMEN from GLEN MILNER on Vimeo.

O&O: What advice can you give to aspiring documentarians and filmmakers?

GM: Right, I’ll do this as a list:

  • Watch loads of different types of films and question yourself why you like certain ones. It will help you work out what type of films you want to make.

  • Don’t read too many blogs. Take inspiration from the makers and not the talkers - which is exactly why you should ignore everything I’m saying.

  • Don’t think too much about your early ideas for shorts as you will just talk yourself out of doing it. When you come to make larger projects you’ll have plenty of time to procrastinate, so while you are experimenting just do it and take the elements you like into your next project to build your own voice.

  • Put your work out there. Vimeo has been an amazing platform for me and getting a bunch of staff picks has brought in commissions and led to me being represented for commercials. BUT Lucasfilm didn’t approach me because an agent put me in for that project, they saw my work online and got in touch.

  • Think small. Sounds stupid but some of the smallest ideas and concepts have brought me the most success to build from. I once made a 2 minute film for the Telegraph about a book binder’s in Leeds that took an afternoon to shoot and it got over a million views online, was tweeted by Apple, and led to further work and entry into the commercials side of things. It was more about the execution of a simple idea for a simple story.

  • Don’t be scared to reach out to filmmakers for advice. Just send a short email and be nice. You might have to be creative to find their email addresses, but more often than not you’ll often get a positive response - even if it does take a while. Just don’t ask too much of them.

  • Be around other filmmakers. Whether it’s at university or a short course or whatever, it’s great to bounce ideas around and learn from others.

  • Don’t be too precious. If early scripts or edits get ripped to shreds often it is for a reason and then you can rebuild and make it stronger. Unless everybody has totally missed the point, in which case you should just tell everybody they are all wrong and that you are the next Kubrick.

Follow Glen online to see more of his work by clicking below.

Glen Milner Website
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