Through the lens: How two St Andrews graduates made the transition from students to film directors

Photo: Natalie Ulman
Photo: Natalie Ulman
Photo: Natalie Ulman
 ‘Oh, so what job are you going to get with that?’ is one of the responses that you might encounter when you tell people that you are  studying an arts degree at the University of St Andrews. What happens when you leave this small and remote town on the east coast of Scotland and enter  the real world?
The transition has been an exciting one for Natalie Ulman, who graduated St Andrews in 2014 with an M.A. in English and Film Studies, and her colleague Sunny Moodie, who graduated in 2012 with an M.A. in International Relations. Since leaving St Andrews the pair has gone on to travel the world directing, producing, and acting in their own independent films. Their most recent work, Nettles, saw Ms Ulman and Mr Moodie return to St Andrews, and they were kind enough to share a few words with me on their life outside of the Bubble, the world of the film industry, and why St Andrews was so important to them in achieving this dream.
Leaving the Bubble and entering the job market for the first time can be an exceptionally daunting prospect. However the University of St Andrews, as Mr Moodie and Ms Ulman reflect, provides a great platform from which to launch yourself into the unknown sea of real life.
When asked about how St Andrews helped her in her career, Ms Ulman responded that: “St Andrews was kind of the perfect environment for film producing. Not necessarily the classes but throwing parties and putting on plays! It sounds crazy but it clicked when I met the head of the London division of Bold Films. He said he literally learned how to be a producer by throwing parties at his London flat for his friends.”
“The skills completely transfer. Helping throw fashion shows and balls at St Andrews is not that far off from film producing! It’s a lot of emailing, planning, bringing creative people together, and getting the best price you can to create something beautiful!”
Ms Ulman was also quick to reflect that it wasn’t all parties, her degree and the actual work side of university also helped: “I studied film theory, and wrote my dissertation on Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and the American New Wave. The film taught me about the importance of nature’s impact on film which has been a major feature in all of my work. I also studied English with a love and focus on Shakespeare’s comedies and romances. As a young filmmaker, this gave me free material to make films from and play with creatively. I’ve filmed two Shakespeare adaptations so far based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.”
Ms Ulman also spoke to me about the experiences she has had since  leaving St Andrews and how she has continued to draw on her time at the University: “When I graduated from St Andrews I set off to write for The Saint that summer at various international film fests. Venice Film Festival was the most inspiring. I was able to attend press conferences and learn from the likes of Al Pacino, Willem Dafoe, Abel Ferrara, and the great international auteurs of our generation.”
Ms Ulman had her first feature film, Wild Hearts, screened at the Berlin Festival, premiered in 2014 and shown at the EFM at the Berlin International Film Festival. Commenting on the experience she said “the connections we made at the fest will last a lifetime! A surreal moment was skinny dipping at the pool on the roof of Soho Haus at Harvey Weinstein’s party!”
Feminism is a key motif in Ms Ulman and Mr Moodie’s more recent works. Most recently, Nettles, comments on the feminine role in society.
Speaking of their recent film, Ms Ulman said, “It was absolutely incredible to return to St Andrews to film Nettles. Gayle McIntyre and the communications department were wonderful to work with and their support for young artists and alumni is humbling. Besides the amazing support it provided, the University served as the perfect backdrop for my vision.
“My filmmaking style tends to be dreamy, a bit magical, and heavily influenced by nature. St Andrews’ unmatched romance and beauty suited the film’s aesthetic perfectly.”
Questioned on the choice of university as the setting of the film, she noted: “art reflects real life in the film – the protagonist and antagonist (played by Kipp Lane and Tom Loone) in the film are Art History students studying Titian’s painting Diana and Actaeon. The film metaphorically plays with a lesser known interpretation of the painting they are studying. I reverted the typical patriarchal interpretation of the painting and told the story from the female perspective with a strong female protagonist leading the film.
“The film’s climax it ends up dealing with a taboo subject regarding the female body. My goal is for young women to watch it and come away feeling more comfortable with their bodies or even learning to truly love their bodies. I felt setting the film during a young woman’s university experience was fitting as it is a time of immeasurable growth and learning, both in the classroom and out.”
Photo: Natalie Ulman
Photo: Natalie Ulman
Ms Ulman continued to write for The Saint the summer after university, and travelled around the film  festivals of the world.
This allowed her to meet several “inspiring” women who befriended her. One of these women was Michal Zebede who co-wrote Barry Levinson’s The Humbling as well as Buck Henry who wrote the American New Wave classic The Graduate. She said, “In an industry dominated by men, meeting people like Michal at the festival made it feel like it was completely possible for me to create my own films as a young woman. It opened up a veil onto a world of new possibility.”
Ms Ulman has gone from strength to strength, with recent successes in the film industry and future projects in the pipe line.
Ms Ulman is a success story from beyond the Bubble, and can provide valuable insight into what a degree from St Andrews, regardless of which discipline it is from, can offer you in the world beyond this little corner of Scotland.
As Ms Ulman and Mr Moodie have shown it is entirely possible to pursue your dreams and passions as a career choice.
So the next time someone asks at a family gathering “Oh and what job are you going to get with that?” there is no need to panic and wonder if you’ll forever be a student (my current plan), there are opportunities everywhere for new and exciting ideas and a degree from the University of St Andrews puts you ahead of the game in any field.
You can find clips and short films of the pairs work on their YouTube channel, ‘Sunny Moodie”.


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