James Emmott revealed fond memories of his time at Edge Hill University after returning to give a talk to final-year film students.
A Film Studies with Film & Television Production graduate, James, from Oakenshaw near Bradford, has amassed an impressive CV based largely in film and television since graduation, working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
He shared his experiences with students on campus on what was his first trip back to Ormskirk since picking up his degree in 2007.
“My love of film was fostered here”, he admits. “The course strengthened my story-making skills and framing principles, which I’ve taken on into my work.”
James also cites film theory aspects of his course as proving crucial in adapting and interacting with key figures in the industry.
“Studying Japanese film as a module, for example, inspired my interest; film theory was key in helping me understand and adapt to knowledgeable directors and producers; technical tricks and expertise you can learn – and varies from job-to-job.”
It is ironic then that one of his most recent works has been as First Assistant Director on Wes Anderson’s double-Oscar nominated film Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion-animated picture set in a dystopian near-future Japan.
It is also with the renowned Director that he enjoyed his first break, a film project which also went on to earn two Academy nominations under Anderson’s stewardship: 2009’s Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr Fox.
“I began as a runner”, said James, who worked with stars including Bill Murray on the movie which was nominated for Best Animated Feature. “I progressed to the floor from the production office, and Wes Anderson was inspiring to work with, a unique, serious character committed to his job – and very loyal to the team around him. I learnt so much.”
Despite the often-unglamorous hours and sometime seven-day-weeks, he credits the industry with allowing him to explore and visit places he would never have imagined growing up in West Yorkshire.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel – and been given access – to some unbelievable places. I spent time on the Isles of Scilly [working on 2011 film Archipelago], I’ve been flown out and put up in some magnificent hotels in Qatar, even been to Luxembourg – when else would I have gone somewhere like that? And then I was in Malaysia working on Strike Back.”
The long-running HBO action-adventure drama series was rebooted in 2017, with James given the opportunity to work as a First Assistant Director on the show the following year, its seventh series.
“I was in the right place at the right time; the First Assistant Director took ill which led to my promotion. From working on the second unit I found myself running the main unit on the fifth and final block, planning action scenes, explosions…”
Was he daunted by the prospect of taking on the extra responsibility?
“There was no time to worry, I just had to roll my sleeves up and get on with it, and take the chance to prove myself. It was a case of, ‘Here we go, let’s take control of the crazy train…’
“I worked seven, often very long days a week, in a two-month block, in the knowledge that the hard work would be rewarded. I did what needed to be done; if scripts were late, that would extend how long my days were.”
James’ other credits include Hysteria (2011) and Panic (2016), an early production role on StreetDance 3D (2010), adverts (“I must have done around 50-60”, he recalls) a music video for Paloma Faith (The Crazy Ones, in 2015) and children’s animation Floogals – all opportunities gained without an agent, a situation he is planning to rectify this year.
“I have always managed to find work through contacts. Through being reliable and doing good work you get a solid reputation. Like a lot of industries, networking and contacts is key to picking up jobs.
“You must be on the ball, do the basics and work well with crews. I’ve been thinking about other opportunities which is where having an agent would be beneficial – the only time I really ask around is when Wes Anderson has another project in the pipeline.”
He admits he would love to work with David Yates, who received an honorary doctorate from Edge Hill last year, and is being lined up as First Assistant Director for an Alex Garland scripted work. But it is Edge Hill for which he credits much of the experiences and success he has gained through 10 years’ in the industry.
“Here is where I spent my formative years, it’s why I agreed to come back and see my old tutors particularly Dr Jenny Barrett, who gave such an inspiring speech when I first visited. It is where my love of film – and Lawrence of Arabia – developed; and it made me want to chase my dreams.”
And what advice could he offer to students looking to enter the film industry?
“Networking and making contacts is crucial, but I’d also advise students not to worry about taking a non-film job – and don’t worry if jobs don’t come in! Try to enjoy the periods when not working in between jobs, to wind down, so that you are ready to impress when something comes your way.”