Expect The Unexpected: In Conversation with Kate Herron

Expect The Unexpected: In Conversation with Kate Herron

Making her way from unpretentious short films to massive Marvel projects, Kate Herron is a beacon of resilience and hope across the film and TV industry. But she’s also a self-determined “awkward, anxious nerd” obsessed with fantasy and escaping the everyday. Laura Kirwan-Ashman meets the unstoppable filmmaker to find out what makes her tick.

Kate Herron has had a wild ride over the past few years. She made a name for herself with her comedy and horror short films, played a huge role in launching beloved Netflix series Sex Education, and directed the entire first season of Marvel’s live-action Loki series. Such a meteoric rise inspires both awe and anxiety — I wanted to know what kind of person pulls this off.

I loved her playful, inventive work on Sex Education, and when looking for a person to mentor me as part of the 2020 BFI Flare x BAFTA mentorship scheme I was looking for someone who was not so far ahead of me career-wise that they had forgotten what a mess of insecurity and existential crisis you can be at the beginning. I also wanted to speak to someone who had made the successful leap from the UK to the US – and very few contemporary UK filmmakers have made that leap in such an epic way.

Kate describes herself as an “awkward, anxious nerd,” so we got on like a house on fire. I’m always intrigued when people describe themselves in ways that don’t necessarily sound conducive to daunting challenges like helming a huge Marvel series – but, what I’ve learnt from our friendship is that if there’s one thing Kate knows, it’s how good she is at what she does. What she lacked in perceived experience, she has made up for by embracing her fierce passion that so impressed Marvel, and has been immeasurably inspiring to me.

What is the first film that captured your imagination as a kid, that first visceral experience of all-consuming movie magic?

So many! But I’d say a tie between The Dark Crystal and Hocus Pocus. The Dark Crystal blew my mind in terms of world-building, I hadn’t seen fantasy like that before. I’m also pretty sure it’s where I learnt what death means, in that blood-chilling scene where the Skeksis Emperor crumbles into dust – very suitable for a five-year-old! On Hocus Pocus, I love fish-out-water stories. I guess because I always felt a bit awkward myself growing up, so these always drew me in.

We’ve talked a lot about that obsessive passion you can feel as a kid and a teenager, where you fixate on something so much that it feels integral to your DNA. What film had that formative effect on you growing up?

The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out when I was just starting to be allowed to go to the movies by myself. They inspire me daily as a filmmaker, but it was also the first time I felt like I was part of a fandom. I adore the love and kindness present in the stories; I’ve lost count of how many times I watched Gandalf’s “So do all those who live to see such times” speech in lockdown last year. 

What film first made you want to be a filmmaker?

I saw Jaws when I was a kid and was obsessed, but then as I got into filmmaking, I saw it in a whole new light. It has everything: incredible suspense, great characters, how to block a scene, a drunken song – but most importantly, an incredible honesty about how hard it was to make that film which I am sure any filmmaker can relate to.

The projects you've worked on have massively increased in scale each time. Talk me through how you went from short films to pitching on Sex Education and Loki.

I’d actually say the internet has played a massive hand in getting me a lot of work. When I started I was a waitress and knew no one in the industry so the internet gave me a chance to network. I’d met Jamie Cairney, one of the Directors of Photography on Sex Education, when I’d filmed a short with him and some comedians, and he liked me and recommended me to the team.

After Sex Education, I didn’t want to take on anything that didn’t light my heart on fire the way that show did. When I found out Marvel were making Loki, I just knew I had to get in the room for it, so I asked my agent to phone them every day until they met me. 

What stayed the same on all these projects working with such different stories and scales? 

There’s never enough time! And the budget isn’t limitless, you’re playing with bigger toys but you’ve still got to make it work within your limits.

The thing that always surprises me is how skills I picked up making shorts for no money come back to help me. On Loki, for example, because of Covid I couldn’t have a normal amount of background actors, so I used the same tricks I did on my shorts when I had to make 10 friends of mine look like way more people. 

How do you prepare to pitch on a project like Sex Education or Loki, when knowing you don't have the same level of experience as other directors you may be going up against?

Go big or go home! I knew I was punching above my experience on both jobs, but knowing this kind of lit a fire under me as I am a board game nerd and very competitive. Plus, I never tried to second guess what they were looking for and always pitched my take. I think that’s the biggest asset you can bring, your own unique perspective. 

You were only a couple months into shooting Loki when the pandemic hit, and you then spent most of the 2020 lockdown in Atlanta, Georgia, with just your dog for company, having had to suddenly hit pause on the biggest job of your life. How did you spend that time?

When you’re filming, it can feel like you’re in this bubble, and I went from that to not really seeing another human properly for months, so I spent most of that time re-engaging with the world and becoming more politically engaged with what was going on around me. 

I also used the time to work on the show, because so often you only get to gain perspective once you’ve finished filming. So I was editing what we’d shot already, I got composer Natalie Holt onboard, and kept working on the story we hadn’t shot yet, as I gained more insight on what tonally was working and what kind of story we were telling.

Having now completed Loki, and sent it out into the world, what have you learned about yourself over the past 18 months?

Honestly? That I’m really quite resilient. The last 18 months were incredible for me career-wise, but at the same time, a lot of shit happened outside of work, and a job can’t stop for that. But, I’m still here and I did my job. I also learned that I can’t bake bread.

As a director, people look to you to set the tone and atmosphere for both cast and crew on set. What are you looking to create in those environments?

I’ve always admired filmmakers who create that vibe of a theatre company, in that the same actors and team return, and this is always something I have been building towards. I am not a shouter, at all, so I tend to gravitate towards working with people who are calm and generally want to problem-solve by having a conversation.

Also, a key teammate in the atmosphere is your number one actor. Tom [Hiddleston] was the best to work with on Loki because he is just so joyous, and loves playing music on set. It lifted everyone’s morale and, you know, it’s fun.

You're currently taking time to work on your own original projects with your writing partner Briony Redman. What can we expect from these?

I’d say to quote Loki, “Expect the unexpected!” I love Briony so much, they’re a genius and I just count myself lucky to work with them. We’re working on a ton of stuff, including a comic book that is coming out soon, but our focus is big fun genre stories with heart. 

What dramatic questions do you find yourself returning to in your own work?

I seem to always return to ideas of belonging, identity, and finding your place when you don’t feel there is a place for you.

What is it about genre storytelling that keeps you coming back?

I love the challenge of exploring and setting up a world, but genre is what got me into the movies. I don’t dislike movies that feel very grounded and real, I love so many like that – but growing up in a dreary part of southeast London, the movies I loved most offered me an escape and fun. I like being stolen away from the everyday.

Finally, which one scene do you watch and think, “God I wish I’d written and directed that?”

There are so many scenes that come to mind, like the “row your boat” transition in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the dialogue in the “wagon wheel coffee table” scene in When Harry Met Sally but what I’ve landed on is the club scene in Victoria. It’s right after the heist and they go to the club to celebrate, the soundtrack music comes on and as the camera drifts about you feel like you’re right there with them. It’s joyous.

Laura Kirwan-Ashman (@Laura_K_A) is a writer-director whose work focuses on Blackness, queerness, and a femgaze, hopepunk approach to storytelling. She was chosen for the 2018 BFI NETWORK @ LFF programme, the 2020 BFI Flare x BAFTA Crew Mentorship, and recently wrote and directed SOUR HALL, a bestselling queer horror audio series for Audible. She has two feature films as a writer-director in development with the BFI and Home Team respectively, and TV projects in development with the BBC, Roughcut TV, Home Team, and Other Productions.

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