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Latimer Talks with Emma Cooper – September 2013

Aaron Akinyemi is a writer, journalist and producer. His work has appeared on BBC television and radio, The Guardian and CNN International, among others.

Spending two months alone in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere probably isn’t most people’s idea of the dream TV job. Nevertheless, this is just one of the less salubrious tasks Emma Cooper tackled on her circuitous route to becoming commissioning editor at Channel 4.

Speaking to a packed room of aspiring filmmakers at September’s Latimer Talks event at Camden Collective, Emma recounted how she worked her way up from organizing hymns for Songs of Praise as a junior at the BBC to filming high-speed cop car chases on the mean streets of Philly as Louis Theroux’s producer/director.

Looking from the outside in, Emma’s rise to the top may seem effortless but things were not always plain sailing and Emma had no master plan to set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker.

“I didn’t come out of university knowing what I wanted to do,” she said. “I just wanted to fall in love with something and I came across something that I loved.”

“I was a secretary for ages at the BBC, which isn’t exactly where I wanted to be but I was in the world. I always say just being in this world starts to make you feel alive. It whets your appetite for where you really want to be.”

After joining the BBC as a religion and ethics researcher, Emma moved to the documentaries development unit in 2003 and began series producing Louis Theroux’s programmes in 2008. In 2011, she was appointed as documentaries commissioning editor at Channel 4.

“If you really want to be a filmmaker – any opportunity you can – just get in the building,” Emma advises. “Be the person that is always there and is massively interested in what everybody’s doing. That doesn’t just help you get a job, it also completely informs the way you become a filmmaker.”

As well as persistence in getting a foot in the world of television, Emma says becoming a filmmaker also involves taking chances.

“You have to take quite a lot of risks to get noticed and to get your film made. Just go and shoot something on your camera phone. You don’t have to show me a short film – just show me your eyes. Show me what questions you’re asking. I want to know who you are as a filmmaker.”

Emma herself is certainly no stranger to taking risks. Her stint as a researcher living in a trailer in a prison town in West Virginia where “nothing worked” definitely took its toll at the time.

“That was a big risk for me,” she confessed. “I was scared to be honest. I was completely alone and I didn’t know what I was doing. But in the end, they made a film out of it and it went on the telly.”

Similarly, shooting a Louis Theroux documentary in a prison rife with hardened criminals eight months after giving birth may have seemed like a gamble. But it was one that certainly proved worthwhile – not least because Emma’s child now sees her as the world’s coolest mum.

“The risks have paid off because I have a really interesting life, “ she said. “I have changed as a person because so many people have invited me into their lives.”

“It’s been a real privilege and my whole outlook on life has changed because I’ve spent so much time working on documentaries with people I would never have met. I know it sounds a bit schmaltzy, but I think it’s the most amazing profession in the world.”

In order to get into this much sought after prized profession, Emma also advises aspiring filmmakers to hone their craft by sharpening their storytelling skills.

“I want people to tell me what is going on in this country, what is going on in the world; what I don’t know,” she said. “There’s just too much vanilla around at the moment. We should be shaking things up a little more.”

And as for Emma’s three golden rules? “Watch lots of documentaries, have an opinion about the world and just keep going, because it really pays off.”