Interview with Isabelle Sieb

13 November, 2019

This interview might come as a surprise for most of you as you have probably never heard of Isabelle Sieb. She’s one of my former university colleagues and the only filmmaker I know who’s been nominated for a BAFTA award for a TV show – a big accomplishment and a confirmation that she’s on the right path.

During my time at Regent’s University, Isabelle was one of the most stubborn and serious students. She was organized and had her homework done all the time. I’ve noticed her potential from the start and when her graduation film was finally out, I was sure. She was going to make it, one way or the other.

This interview you’re about to read was like a breath of fresh air for me. I’ve been interviewing amazing people from the European industry, both locally and internationally, people that I truly admire, but all of them have one thing in common: independent filmmaking. Isabelle comes from a completely different background: she’s a director who prefers to sit and wait for her moment on the big screen and do some TV shows in the meantime,  projects that are good experience. Even if she doesn’t have any Cannes, Berlin or any other big European award, at 32 she knows how to direct a car chase, how to film underwater or how to pitch in front of some big producers so she gets the job.

Ms. Sieb, who are you?

I am a British-German film & TV director who grew up in a tiny village in rural Germany and lived in Australia, South Africa and now I have lived in London for 9 years. And I guess I’m lucky enough to do something I love.

And how did you choose film directing?

It’s quite a funny story. When I was 17 I made a film for my best friend from Germany, for her 17th birthday, and I got all of her friends involved. It was a spoof about her life and I had so many ideas, it came to me so easily that I thought „this is great”. When I showed it to her for her birthday it went so well that two other friends came to me asking if they could have the same for their birthday. That’s when I realized that maybe this could be a business!

I was only seventeen so it took me a few more years to really understand directing was a viable possibility. Also because at the time there were no female directors to look at. It wasn’t until when I was around 25 and I made that short film in university – College Romance, I felt I am serious about this.

So you came to Regent’s to study film without being sure this is your future career.

I did know that I wanted to work in the film industry and I think in my heart I knew I wanted to direct but the degree that I took was Screenwriting & Producing, that’s because I knew producing is something I could do – having gone to school in Germany, I have a pretty organized mind, so I knew I could make all of that work and I wanted to work in film. Around the 2nd year of university though I realized I wanted to create, to direct and be in charge of the creative process.

Which part of the filmmaking process interests you the most?

The part where you actually film, being on set is the most magical part. Things come together in front of you. But purely in terms of enjoyment, I feel like I enjoy post-production the most. The pressure’s off a little bit, as you finished filming, but you still get to be really creative and piece it altogether, and that’s really fun.

Do you have the edit all figured out in your head before shooting?

To a certain extent, yes, but it’s slightly different when you talk about films and TV. With my short films I knew exactly how I wanted to piece every scene together and I had everything planned out. But now that I have been directing mainly TV, it’s a little different – the production is much bigger and you film for a long time and there’s so many factors you can’t plan or anticipate, so a lot of it comes together on the day of the shoot. Once I’m in the edit, I know how I want every scene to shape up but then again, your editor is someone who has their own ideas and might spot things you couldn’t see because you were so deep into it. So I think you have to be flexible with the edit, there might be a better version of the film, or the scene, than what you had planned.

How do you work with your actors?

Every actor is different, the two TV shows I’ve directed so far had a very different cast – for The Athena it was all very young and new actors, while for Shetland there were very established actors. The younger ones need a lot more guidance, some of them had never been on a film set before so I had to explain how everything works, and then with the more experienced actors it is all about building their trust in me and my opinions.

I like to become their friend if I can, obviously while keeping it very professional, but I want to build a relationship with them so they can feel that they can trust me.

Tell me more about this TV Show – The Athena. You’ve been nominated for a BAFTA Award.

The producers hired me when the script was nearly finished, so I didn’t meet the writer beforehand, but thankfully we just really clicked and got on very well. In TV, the writer is usually the more important person – they create the show, so if you can work well and if your ideas and vision match that makes it so much more enjoyable.

BAFTA Premiere Screening of The Athena, 2019

What about Shetland?

I was the youngest director ever on the show, I got really lucky that I got this as my second job. It kind of always works the same, my agent suggested me and I got two meetings and then I had to pitch what I would do with the script: who I would cast, what matters to me, what’s the look I’m going for and all of these things. Thankfully, they liked what I had to say and gave me the job. I had to move to Scotland for eight months, which I loved.  I’ve learned a lot, I mostly did comedy and comedy-drama so this was my first proper drama; I had never dealt with death on screen or done action sequences like car chases or crashes, filming underwater and many more. What was great with Shetland was to have the money and support to do it properly. I had stunt coordinators, SFX and VFX supervisors, a lot of prep time, a storyboard artist – all of their support and guidance made it a very good experience. And working with older, established actors, that was probably the most nerve-racking thing for me, as they can tell a good from a bad director imminently. So I really had to do my homework and be at the top of my game for them every day.

Actor Douglas Henshall and director Isabelle Sieb on the set of Shetland

I’ve watched all of your work and I’ve seen you have a soft spot for lightweight films. Why?

I think my soft spot is actually for comedy-drama, and as cheesy as it sounds, I think that’s because it’s the one genre that really reflects life. I think also for the audience it is nice to have moments of relief, like when you’re watching something tragic, you need a moment of humour to allow you to stop and breathe.

Does that make you think more about the public than the critics?

To be honest, when I make something, I don’t really think about either. I’m trying to work a lot on my own instincts and I think I can feel when something could be good and special. I guess between the two, I would choose the audience, but I try not to think about either when I direct. It can drive you crazy trying to think what people or critics will like.

You’ve directed short films and TV shows so far. How about a feature film?

I would definitely like to but it has to be the right project. Most of the production companies and studios are so afraid of losing money, they will probably invest in safe bets, like comic books, superheroes or sequels. So it’s either that or a really low-budget state funded film, which is also really hard to get made these days. I just want to be sure it’s the right time and the right project, because I might not get another one. At the moment I feel really happy working in TV, it’s such an exciting time for TV shows: the writing is great, many of the best actors are now on TV, there’s also more money and less risk adversity. And I’m learning so much directing TV that I’m quite happy to continue for another couple of years before I make a film.

But do you have any idea on your mind for your debut feature film?

There’s one and I’m at the early stages of development with, it’s a really beautiful true story set in Tasmania. I went to school in Tasmania when I was 16 and I fell in love with the place and ever since have been dying to find a story that is set there, so I read up on everything I could find and found a story which I really love.

What is your worst fear as a filmmaker?

Everything going wrong, I guess. Everything can break, anyone can get hurt, you never want those things to happen on your watch. And there is also the impossibility to give something the love and attention it deserves, because maybe you need an hour and you only have twenty minutes. Not being able to do your best because of the circumstances that aren’t in your control, that’s a fear.

And your biggest dream?

I’ve always been unreasonably ambitious – I want to make a long-term career out of this that is commercially successful but also creates work that has a meaning.


Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.