Jessica Swale

Country: United Kingdom

What skills or attributes did you gain from your Humanities degree at Exeter?

To be open and curious- and to follow my own path. Drama at Exeter encouraged us to both look outwards and take in as much of the world as possible, and to look inwards- to really think about who we were as individuals. The biggest sin in the department was to copy or emulate- originality and honesty was valued above all else, and that’s something I’ve wanted to keep at the heart of my working process ever since.   

How have those skills been useful to you in your career so far? Can you give an example of this?  

As a film maker it’s vital to tell stories that you care about, to speak with your own voice. Trust your gut. Be authentic. If you try and follow a trend, or make choices based on what you think will be popular, you’ll not only struggle to find work and funding, but you run the risk of having to live with and promote a project you don’t really believe in. 

I fought hard to make my first feature film (Summerland starring Gemma Arterton) in the way I wanted to tell that story. My style and taste, my story- despite the pressure from big film companies to bend it to be what they thought it ought to be. I held out and refused to compromise. It meant it took longer and there were more hurdles, but I know that the film which is now out in the world is a piece of work which, when I’m judged on it, I have no regrets. Whether people like it or not, I know I made the film I wanted to make. Don’t sell out. Don’t compromise. Your work lasts a lifetime so you have to be proud of it and make sure you can stand by it. 

How did your department encourage you to develop a range of skills or your employability prospects?

The drama department encouraged us to play, to investigate, to hone both our practical skills as theatre makers and our research skills in the academic work. We read, we talked, we listened, we practiced, we danced, we rolled around on the floor, we got out into the countryside, we watched, we collaborated, we argued, we made friendships for life. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes we didn’t see the value in what we were doing. But now- looking back- I can see how all that work was vital.  

What learning tools did you pick up from your course that you have been able to employ in the workplace?

The greatest was to learn to both collaborate and to value your own voice. All the work we made was from scratch so we were constantly challenged to be creative. To work with others- which has characterised my working life as a director ever since- and to delve into ourselves to find our own stories to tell- which is why I’m now also a writer. 

Do you feel that your degree has prepared you to be adaptable to changing demands in the workplace?  

Yes! My work has changed according to the types of work which I’ve wanted to explore, moving from theatre into film, and I learnt the flexibility to shift gears into a new medium- and now to bounce between the two- from my time on the course. 

Do you have any tips or advice to pass onto future students?  

Embrace it all, do it all, take every opportunity and don’t judge. Trust that, even if you don’t immediately see the value in an exercise or a course element, in the future it will all feed you. Experiment, be bold, be cool with failing- it’s much easier as a student than it is in the real world and that is the best possible time to test your edges. 

 And finally- get out there and enjoy the countryside. I miss the sea and the moors and the chance to work outside now I am primarily London based. See the whole experience as inspiration- the course is only part of it- embrace the people, the culture, the town, the countryside. It’s the most wonderful three years- grab it all and enjoy it. And don’t be too hard on yourself. Life is hard enough and you can’t be good at everything- what’s important is to stay curious and use this time to work out what makes you happy. Who knows- you might surprise yourself. I went to Exeter being certain I wanted to be an actor. Now I’m a film maker, a writer and director and every day I get up and feel like the luckiest person alive, doing something I love. Nothing makes me happier.