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Emma Parkinson: "I’ve always preferred making people laugh."

Emma Parkinson: "I’ve always preferred making people laugh."

David Knight - 13th Feb 2023

Blink's new signing talks about how her comic inspiration arrives in various ways - including after being dumped on Valentine's Day.

Following her triumph in November with her hilarious short Dishes Dishes Dishes at Yarns, the short film competition run by Stitch Editing, Emma Parkinson has now joined the directors roster at Blink, where she will be represented for music videos and commercials.  

Parkinson, 23, comes from Bath. She is a BFI Film Academy alum and former BAFTA mentee who began her career as a casting director specialising in street casting for Lane Casting in London, before spending a couple of years working in advertising, including at Wieden & Kennedy via their training scheme The Kennedys.

She also got her start as a director making music videos for the likes of Byker Grove Fan Club and Aga Ujma.  Her return to directing after her stint in adland with the delightful Dishes Dishes Dishes - where the apparently mundane issue of washing up threatens a budding relationship - as well as her equally amusing short film I Love You, Rob, demonstrates her distinctive talent for drawing humour from the quirks of everyday life.   

With her just signing to Blink, it feels like a good time to find out a bit more about Emma Parkinson. So we sent over a few questions... 

I’m still a little scared of defining myself as a ‘comedy writer/director.’

You’ve made at least two very funny short films. When did it become apparent that you preferred to write and direct comedy?

To be honest I think I’ve always preferred making people laugh. But there was usually a funnier fella around when I was younger - or at least, that’s what I was led to believe. It was only when I joined The Kennedys at W+K that my mentors really started encouraging my funny side, and then lockdown provided so many opportunities to get weird.

I’m still a little scared of defining myself as a ‘comedy writer/director’. I think the best stories always have a little humour in them.

What’s the background to I Love You, Rob  - apart from the fact it’s the story of your mum’s first boyfriend - and how did you land on your approach to the story?

So I was kind of dumped last Valentine’s Day (unplanned, I should say for the benefit of the person involved). At the time, I was trying to find a positive way to spin the situation and the only spin I could think of was the fact that it was a bit of a family tradition. The film started as a piece of writing - this letter to Rob - which I sent to my friend, James Barlow. He texted me back: ‘We need to make this’. 

James is a great collaborator and we came up with the initial visual approach together. As the story itself is pieced together from things I was told as a child, it made sense to approach it like a children’s storybook, with these caricatured vignettes. Obviously I asked my mum for permission, but like any good daughter trying to pay tribute to her parents, I was acutely aware of the fact that it was really all about me.

So we took this aspect of selfish self involvement and ran with it. The words on the characters’ lips are mine. The narration is mine. The woman Rob ends up with is me. The asshole director is me. Stylistically I’ve never made anything like it before, but I don’t think I could have approached it much differently.

You have had training via the BFI Film Academy and BAFTA mentoring. What were the most important things you learned from those experiences?

These programmes were basically my Uni experience. Super practical, super tailored. I think the regional BFI Film Academy courses are particularly important for bringing more young people in, considering how London-centric the industry is generally.

They were a good introduction to the process and potential career paths, and I met some lovely people who are now my closest friends. My BAFTA mentor gave me a lot more practical guidance - she really encouraged me to Just Make It.

What was your first music video and what did you learn from making it?

‘He is wed, and she is a milkmaid’ for Avice Caro. I made it with my then-housemates and the artist in our little flat. The concept was a Renaissance painting brought to life, and I’m really glad we kept it as simple as it was, considering the £300 budget (aka my overdraft).

My housemates are all super talented filmmakers/artists in their own right and they brought a lot to it. I guess you could say I learnt the power of having the right collaborators.

According to your brief bio, you started your career in street-casting. How enjoyable was that? 

I loved it. And it was very valuable seeing that aspect of production in so much detail - they definitely don’t get the credit they deserve. Hannah from LANE is a powerhouse and I’m thankful she took me and my questionable fashion choices in at the time.

Bone-bleaching isn’t a hugely common component of working in adland.

How did you hook up with Byker Grove Fan Club and three intense darkly comedic videos for them?

The lead singer/bassist Huw and I met a few years ago in our home town, bonding while bandaging up a drunk guy who’d gone to town punching a wall. This meeting seems to have set the tone of most of our work together.

I was first asked to do a video for their song Cake Shop a few years ago. It’s one of the more disgusting things I’ve done: a cake eating contest with cakes made of mushy peas, custard, sardines, frankfurters, pickled eggs, meringues, and lots of other uncomplimentary ingredients.

I only realised after that we could have faked how gross they were. But the guys were so down, and I’d like to say both cast and crew had a good time with it (only one guy threw up a bit). They encourage my more horrible parts and I am always impressed / appalled with how far they let me take things. 

You have worked at ad agencies, including W&K. What has working in advertising taught you? What have you worked on in that world that you’re most pleased with?

I did so much, especially while in The Kennedys, that I would never have done otherwise. For example, I now know how to clean bones, after bleaching some for a window display. Obviously bone-bleaching isn’t a hugely common component of working in adland, but having a broad toolkit is definitely encouraged. It’s also a space where you fail very regularly. I hate failing. I’d like to say I’ve learned how to hate it less. 

I actually made my first comedy film while in The Kennedys, about a mannequin who I was living with at the time. I would say I’m quite pleased with that, even though it’s not strictly advertising (soz).

The cameos so far have mostly been out of necessity, or in a ‘meta’ way.

Dishes Dishes Dishes immediately struck a chord with the Yarns audience, who loved it  - and that’s probably the case with everyone who’s seen it. It’s the obvious question, but did this arise from personal experience? And if so, which side were you on: OCD or super-relaxed about washing-up? 

I hate to say it - I think I’m more lax. Or at least I hear that’s what my housemates have been telling people (I see you, Pablo). But my neurotic tendencies lie elsewhere, so I can very much empathise with the protagonist in that sense. And I think the subject of the story could easily be replaced with any domestic task - it’s really about the fatality of being a politely avoidant British man. I’m really glad it resonated with people. I hope they take it as a cue to be less politely avoidant. 

To answer the question - it is not based on a personal relationship experience of my own, but I fear it’s definitely opened me up to scrutiny with future lovers. 

You have made cameo appearances in several of your films. Will that continue now you’ve joined Blink? 

The cameos so far have mostly been out of necessity, or in a ‘meta’ way. I think it really depends on the project. Even though it appears a bit self-indulgent, it also feels quite vulnerable, and it’s good to put yourself in vulnerable positions, right? Right??

After one screening for I Love You, Rob, I had an audience member ask me if I cast myself in it because I wanted to be the woman my Dad would leave my Mum for - in a Freudian way. So I guess you could say it always prompts good conversation.

• Emma Parkinson is now signed to Blink. Watch her showreel here.

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David Knight - 13th Feb 2023


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