Sarah-Lee Jones has an MA in Fiction Film from the University of Salford. She has been working freelance in TV since 2010 on shows such as the Jeremy Kyle Show, Embarrassing Bodies and Geordie Shore. She is now a Producer with Future Artists, an independent film production company.
You studied at The University of Salford, obtaining an HND in Media Performance, a BA (Hons) in Media and Performance and, finally, an MA in Fiction Film in 2009. What was it like transitioning from being a student to taking the first steps in building your career?
Sarah: It was really scary! Nothing can prepare you for the big wide world. Working in the industry is a hands-on profession, so you learn on the job. No amount of studying can prepare you for it, especially in this field. I’m really glad I started at the bottom as a Runner and worked my way up through the ranks! I found each role on the way up educated me and came with a different skill set. I found that working part-time when I was a student also helped; I worked for a radio station for many years, on the events team, at the cinema and also working as an extra/celebrity stand-in. I enjoyed making short films and adverts for other students. All this knowledge and all these contacts that I was building up while studying really helped my CV.
You started out as a Researcher on ITV's Jeremy Kyle Show in 2010, working subsequently as a Casting Researcher with Lime Pictures on Geordie Shore, before eventually moving up to a Senior Casting Researcher post. What did you learn in those first years of working in the television industry?
Sarah: That it’s not for the faint hearted! Those first years are the hardest as you're constantly trying to prove yourself and build up a reputation. As a freelancer, you have to be the best of the best as it’s word of mouth that decides whether you get your next gig. The TV industry is a very small place, everyone knows everyone, so I kept my head down, worked hard, went the extra mile, made sure the show was cast, and always had a plan B and C. One of the main reasons I enjoy freelancing is that every TV company you work for is different - new systems in place, new staff etc. Flitting from place to place every few months, I learned how to be adaptable, flexible and employable, as I added each job to my CV.
You moved on to work as a Casting Producer on shows such as Baggage, Super Scrimpers and Embarrassing Bodies. As an experienced freelancer, do you have any tips for individuals who may be considering going freelance in TV?
Sarah: It’s all about freelancing these days - it’s almost unheard of to get a long contract with any company, or to be employed full-time. It is difficult in the beginning as there are times when you may be out of work for a few weeks at a time. I’d say to get your CV out, even if you have a few weeks left in your current job. You can always negotiate with your current employer to either keep you on, or leave a week early. I haven’t worked freelance in TV for over a year and I still get at least one call a week asking what my availability is. Being a freelancer has positives and negatives - I used to take advantage of my unemployed status and book a week abroad, as there are times where you don’t have a day off for 2 months! Enjoy your down time, eat well and sleep loads! This may sound like obvious things to do, but trust me - when you're living in hotels on 4 hours sleep each night and eating service station food, you’ll understand!
You're currently a Producer with Future Artists, co-producing your first feature film The Lost Generation in 2010 and more recently, the web-series Portal for Dailymotion. You've spoken about the importance of juggling your work with being a new parent - tell us about what a day of work might involve for you?
Sarah: I’ve just finished Producing a VR project which I hope to take to the Venice Film Festival next year - the deadline was yesterday and I will get the call soon if my colleague Mark Ashmore and I made it through! We were selected as a part of a group of 12 from over 200 people all over the world. We're the only UK group to have been chosen, so I’m proud of that. I had to pitch my idea in front of the Venice press, take my daughter Indi-Lee abroad for the first time and work 10-hour days on scripts, budgets and production schedules… while juggling family time (I hired a nanny to help me) - it was bloody hard work!!!
What I found fascinating about that process is that I really struggled financially to pay for flights and other costs whilst out there, as we had to self-fund this phase. No-one would help. I rang over 50 different film/art grant council places. Eventually, a company called Skillset part funded it - otherwise I couldn’t have gone! That’s another story….
Juggling work and being a single mum… Exhausting, ha ha! I had to quit TV as I really struggled getting back into the industry after I had Indi-Lee. It was impossible for me to travel around to film/recce/cast etc., so I would have to work entirely from an office. I couldn’t mentally/physically work 12-hour days like I had done in the past, as I had no childcare after 6pm (that’s when the crèche shuts). Also, Indi-Lee only started sleeping through the night for me in June, so I was like a zombie, surviving on minimum amounts of sleep. Working for Future Artists suited us both - I got to choose my hours (8am-4pm), and we only work a 4 day week, so I get to spend a long weekend off with Indi-Lee.
A day of work starts at 5am. I get Indi-Lee ready for crèche, drop her off at 7.30am, and start work on my laptop. This past week included script-writing, meetings with companies about virtual reality, budgeting (the Venice gig is potentially worth €150k!) working on a production schedule and staffing the next 8 months. I finish at 4pm, answer emails and some calls at home, pick up Indi-Lee at 4.30pm, home, bath, tea, read, bed for Indi-Lee at 7pm, bed for mum at 7.30pm…
Thinking back to your University days from 2002 to 2009, what advice would you give to your younger, student self, or to anyone else who is looking to work in a role similar to yours?
Sarah: I didn’t appreciate the freedom I had then - I didn’t have the mundane worry of paying bills, life was one big party and I loved it. Made some great lifelong friends, worked 3 jobs and studied at the same time, put myself under too much pressure for no reason (I’ve never felt pressure like University pressure... even when having to meet a deadline in TV!).
I'd say get yourself out there, offer to get experience anywhere and in anything relevant to what you want to do. Volunteer at the local radio station, offer to act in a student film, send out CVs, and don’t worry about being ignored or rejected (sod them, their loss)… Happens to the best of us. Focus on what you want, because believe me, anything is possible once you put your mind to it.
Good luck and enjoy your chosen career.
You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahleecasting