Meet Emma Smithwick and Phoebe Bourke. Duo behind Rockfleet Productions
Meeting the two formidable women behind Rockfleet Productions was indeed refreshing, especially during a grey January mid-week morning. As I settle into their bright boardroom on their top-floor office in a rather hip-chic Soho building, Emma and Phoebe welcome me with genuine smiles.
I start laying out my notepad and quickly sip my glass of water (I am cutting back on the caffeine - part of that whole New Year’s resolution guff…). I try to read through my notes and prep my questions, but as I do, I pause. With such fascinating ladies in front of me, I know our conversation will ebb and flow into topics I couldn't have guessed, and it will be a detriment to the interview to give it such a rigid structure. I want to hear what they have to say. So, I close my notepad and just focus on keeping that voice memo app on. I get ready to meet the ladies.
And here they are: Emma Smithwick, former BBC comedy and drama producer, and Phoebe Bourke, live comedy director and producer. Together they both clock copious amounts of hours for television, as well as over 50 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, their body of work across the UK, US and Ireland.
Just over six months ago (same age as Cinegirl!) Emma decided to branch out on her own and asked Phoebe to join forces to create a new, scripted comedy/drama production company for both long-form and short-form shows called Rockfleet Productions.
F: What is your background? How did you end up in this industry?
P: I studied biochemistry and was supposed to be a doctor, and soon discovered it was boring. So, I started getting involved in live comedy through university. I took some sketch comedy shows up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, so when I left university I met with a friend, who had a similar path to mine and together we decided to set up a company that would take shows to Edinburgh. We realised that we didn’t want to just sell shows, we wanted to be part of the creative process (just like we did at University). So we started directing and producing live shows (from pre-production, to production of the show, to PR). It started growing rather quickly, from a handful of shows to many more. We were working and collaborating with people that we knew and liked. After a while, I took a side step into TV, because I knew that live was a bit of a dead end for a creative, like myself. So, I started off in comedy entertainment as a researcher on a stand-up show and started building up my TV Credits whilst still doing the Live Shows. Thereafter, I started working in development with a production company, and knew I wanted to be in scripted. I then met Emma.
P: It was amazing. An amazing spark. We had the same taste, liked the same shows and all the things I was lacking in terms of scripted experience, Emma had.
F: And what about you Emma? What is your background?
E: Very similar to Phoebe, actually in that I was going down quite a traditional route. I didn't do film school or get any formal training in film or tv - I studied law and french and then moved to Paris to do my legal internship in European Law.
F: And then what happened?
E: Basically, Luc Besson happened! I was doing his conveyance work (particularly his conveyance contracts) in Paris as he was buying up studio space. On hearing the detail of his work and how film studios operate, I soon realised that I was at the wrong end of the contract. My interest was more than piqued. I then went home to study for some exams and whilst back in Ireland, through some film contacts, met David Friendly (producer of Little Miss Sunshine) and Pierce Brosnan who were filming just outside of Dublin. David offered me a job working as his assistant in Ireland on his next film, which I took and that was that - the move from Law to Film was made! After the film, I moved to London and started work at the BBC as a PA to a department head. It was amazing - it was in Entertainment so I worked on any show that would have me -Strictly Come Dancing, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria etc. I then took a side step and went into Radio 1 where I helped set up the multi-platform teen arm of the BBC, BBC Switch. I worked my way up over four years to become a producer across comedy and drama and then moved into commissioning. After the BBC, I went on to series produce a continuing drama and then into scripted development for independent production companies. I found myself delivering to other people's visions or fixing scripts or shows that had gone off track and I was itching to do my own thing, starting from scratch. I had been approached before by investors and other producers, to set up shop but the chemistry wasn't right. It's a huge decision to go into business with someone but when I met Phoebe, I felt like I had someone who not only shared the same vision but with whom, I wanted to be creatively tied to a very long and hopefully, fruitful future!
F: Tell me more about Rockfleet’s future plans and ethos.
E: Well, perhaps I should explain the name of the company which hopefully explains what we're hoping to achieve?! Rockfleet Castle was the home of Grace O’Malley, the sixteenth century Irish Pirate Queen. Grace was many things - a rebellious plunderer, a shrewd politician, a successful merchant and a fearless leader. At the height of her powers, she had hundreds of men and numerous ships at her disposal. Grace didn’t much like the rules set by the English or the indeed the wider patriarchy so she broke all of them and remade them her own way. Rockfleet isn’t just a name for us, it is our mission statement. We launched in August in 2018, very deliberately in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival. I come from a drama background and Phoebe comes from comedy, but what really makes us buzz are those shows that are fairly undefinable because they do both so well. We have pretty broad tastes but mostly, the stuff we love is really sharply rendered characters, grounded in truth - depth of character, executed well is delicious.
P: We are really interested in true stories inspired by people’s real experiences. People we haven't heard from before, whether it’s women or minority groups, bringing those stories to life is really fun and people learn from it and can relate to it in ways they never imagined. I get that there's a place for it but we're not the company to tell the stories of slightly hapless white dudes having mini life crises...
F: How do you deal with differences in sense of humour / scripts? Different writers from different backgrounds / nationalities / cultures?
E & P: To be honest, it comes down to us and whether we find it funny or not. We are literally banking on their being enough people with the same sense of humour as us to make up a modest TV audience so if it makes us laugh, that's a good start. Drama is pretty universal so it doesn't feel so culturally dependent.
F: Have you had any obstacles because you are women?
P: I had found out that I was getting paid half of what my male colleague was being paid, for the same job, at a previous company which was FUN! I have definitely been in many situations where I was the only woman. I’ve never been on a set and had a majority of female crew. I’ve also had experiences where some of the older male crew were gobsmacked when, on set, they'd realise that I was the producer rather than a guy.
F: Do you think women are collaborative when they reach that “high-status”?
P: I think it depends on the person. I think either you are the kind of person who is open and going to share, or you’re not. The saying “Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make yours any brighter” is very accurate in hopefully encouraging more women to help out other women.
E: Just like anything, you can't generalise... I know some unbelievably strong, brilliant and busy women who are reaching down to grab hold of the next women coming along, to pull them up but I also know some others who are riddled with conscious or subconscious misogyny. As a company we want to see more women across the board and not just women - we want to be a really inclusive company. That's pretty fundamental to how we work.
P: I think people automatically feel that men are a safer pair of hands. Such a hard thing to shake. Someone one has told me that men are often employed for their potential rather than their experience and if we could only shift that for women too.
E: Once I was the only woman in the room developing a film and there were two writers and three executive producers - all men, all of a certain age, mid forties - and I had a problem with the main male leading character in the script. I raised the problem that I was struggling to believe this male character in the script. Rather than taking my notes and discussing my concerns, the head writer leaned forward and asked my age and after telling him (35 years old), he replied condescendingly “Yeah, you don't get it because you just haven’t met these men yet”. It stunned me and there was silence and like this tacit agreement from everyone else. I pointed out that I don't know any cannibalistic serial killers yet I believe Hannibal Lecter. But by that stage, it had revealed so much. He didn't respect me or my experience and had an arrogance that I couldn't break through on my own.
No wonder women start developing a confidence problem, when you keep being told in subtle and nuanced ways that your opinions are just not valid. How do you change things? How do you influence when you are constantly told you are not valid? I have worked with a brilliant director who, for filming on set, actively de-feminises herself in order to get more respect from her male crew. That's insane but such a reality for so many women working in the industry.
F: Any piece of advice for women out there who want to became writers or producers or directors?
E: Understand the importance of language - verbal and body. We are so good at making ourselves small. Don't do it with your body language or your language.
Oh and don't wait for permission... if you believe in it, just go and do it.
P: Don’t say “sorry” and don’t say “just” all the time. Like “I am just going to do this..”. Do it. Delete these words from your vocabulary. Be bold and don't second guess what people want. Take risks.
Photography by Nic Roques