ROBERT DEL MAESTRO
INTERNATIONAL TV DIRECTOR SHARES HIS TAKE ON THE WORLD OF TV
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
Is Del Maestro a stage name?
No, there've been many generations of Del Maestros, from Parma in northern Italy.
When did you move here?
I've been a 'Busher' since '77. I came here after university.
Where did you grow up?
Near Victoria Station. My parents had an Italian restaurant on Lower Belgrave Street. My mother Lydia is still very much alive and resplendent at 92.
Period drama has no purpose if it does not shine a light on today
Were you under pressure to continue the family business?
Not at all. My parents were like lots of migrant families who want their children to have more opportunities than them.
What inspired you to become a director?
The local cartoon cinema, a weekly treat. And as a teen, I would go with my friends, a bunch of cinephiles, to all-nighters. We watched art house films with subtitles.
Where did you train?
At the BBC. I joined as a trainee and started as an investigative journalist in the newsroom. Then I was pinched to do documentaries, which I loved. I did a directing module and was given 2 actors and a 3-minute script, a post-Apocalyptic two-hander and I thought, this is fantastic.
You've done hundreds of police dramas (including The Bill, Waking The Dead and Inspector George Gently). Why are you so drawn to crime?
I'm not particularly, but it's a good medium for telling stories about interesting people. Crime shows fulfill our wish for a sense of order.
You also do historical dramas (eg Mr Selfridge). Is period filming harder than a modern setting?
Not on set, but it's hard on location, forever having to cover things up. It's worth it, but period drama has no purpose if it does not shine a light on today.
Much of your work is international, such as Law & Order: UK (based on the US hit) and the German hit, SOKO Leipzig. How does production differ country by country?
Effectively there are 2 systems. Here you get a longish period of preparation, the filming day is never more than 11 hours, and you get enough time to edit. If it's a series you might get 2 episodes and if it's a mini-series, the whole thing. For 2 episodes, you'd get 4 to 6 weeks to prepare, then shoot 4 (screen) minutes a day if it's Mr Selfridge or 8 to 9 for Casualty. And then you have a month or so to edit. With the America system, you only get a few days' prep, the cast and locations are chosen for you, plus the shoot days are open-ended. And you only get a couple of days to tidy up the rough cut. You're hired for a lot less time but much, much better paid.
Which system is best?
I don't think there is a best. The best of American stuff is phenomenal – recently, Chernobyl and The Handmaid's Tale are sensational. I prefer being part of the casting, the location hunting, the editing. Here it's your edit, in America it's not. The inescapable elephant in any room is always the schedule. There's never enough time but you have to steal your poetry in the time available.
What do people always ask about your job? And what's the answer?
How can you direct German actors if you speak no German? I speak Italian, French and Spanish, but not German. I've done courses but learning in later life... When I got the job the idea worried me immensely, but the truth is, performance is universal. Effectively, I'm directing a subtitled film. If it looks right, it usually is right.
Many see being a TV director as a dream job. What's the nightmare?
It is the dream job, but everything comes with a flipside. When something doesn't work it's scary. If the actor's not perfect, the director's loneliest walk is from the monitor to the actor. It's all the time you get to think of something useful to say.
What do you say?
You have to be supportive – of everyone but your first responsibility is the actor. You always say it's fantastic and you never tell them what to do. I often use a metaphor to suggest another interpretation, a different nuance or subtext.
What's your directing style?
A light touch. It's a collaborative process, but sometimes someone has to wear the big hat. On Mr Selfridge, there were 300-plus people on the call sheet and people want to know what to do. I've never been tempted to shout. Some directors are bullies and drag their actors through the mud – and themselves – but the question is, at what price? If you make a masterpiece, it was worth it, but if not no one will work with you again. I want a creative atmosphere and a feeling of inclusivity. There's no point making programmes espousing humanist values while treating people badly.
What do you still dream of directing?
I'm a working director but now my family has grown up I have more time to develop my projects. I'm developing two, an adaptation of a historical novel and a supernatural thriller.
Any advice for those who want to direct?
My route, from documentaries, is a recognised route, as is coming up through the production process. A lot of directors were assistants or cameramen. Or film school, although fewer and fewer programmes accept first-time directors – only Holby and Hollyoaks now I think. Increasingly, people get in by making a lot of shorts. Now is a great time. You can make a movie on an iPhone and there are a lot more platforms, such as Youtube. There's no excuse.
How and with whom do you relax?
With my lovely family, my wife Clare Odgers and our two sons. One is training to be a lawyer and the other is a broadcast journalism graduate. We cook a lot and go to the cinema.
Thank you, Robert. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed May 2019