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Filmmaker Focus: Jessica Henwick

Jessica Yu Li Henwick is a London-based actress, director and writer. She is best known for her roles as Nymeria Sands in Game of Thrones, Jessika Pava in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Matrix Resurrections’ Bugs. Henwick’s directorial debut, Bus Girl, which screened at ASFF in 2022, has already won the Mary Pickford Award at the Coronado Island Film Festival and was nominated for Best Cinematography and Short Film at the Birmingham Film Festival. Now, it has been shortlisted for Best British Short at the 2023 BAFTAs. The short follows Henwick as main character, June, alongside Harry Potter star Evanna Lynch and Game of Thrones co-star, Daniel Portman.

1. Bus Girl has been shortlisted for Best British Short Film at the 2023 BAFTA’s. How does the narrative – which follows aspiring chef June as she navigates the world of high-end cooking – lend itself to the short form?

I can trace the moments where my life changed to seemingly inconsequential choices. Often you don’t realise these moments have set you on another path until years later. I wanted to capture that feeling – one night in this young woman’s life that changes everything. Yes, she goes back to cleaning tables the next day, and the relationship with her mother is as strained as ever. But this interaction with a stranger will nourish her dream for years to come and keep her hope alive through the grind of late nights and terrible pay. That beautifully fleeting feeling is the whole concept around making a short film. The true power of a short is to make you feel something so quickly. I knew when I was writing that I wanted it to be under 10 minutes. I was striving for five – one of my favourite shorts is Riley Stearns’ The Cub – but I couldn’t make it happen. Ten pages is the shortest I can go.

2. The film is a homage to the food industry and great food films, such as Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Boiling Point (2021). What was the initial inspiration for Bus Girl? What does your film bring to the genre?

The food industry is largely skewed towards men. Films have followed suit, often showcasing these eccentric and driven male chefs. I wanted to show something different: a woman who is not the loudest in the room or the most assertive, but someone with a quiet confidence to the way she cooks. It’s also rare we see any sort of East Asian representation on screen in the UK. It’s close to my heart. My experience growing up with food is that it’s a huge way Asian families communicate with one another. It’s how they apologise, argue, celebrate, mourn. So much revolves around food and the act of cooking for one another. I wanted to give people a chance to witness that.

3. Why did you choose to shoot the film on a smartphone camera? Do you have any tips on creating the perfect shot with a phone? 

I dropped out of school aged 16 and never completed higher education, let alone film school. I do have imposter syndrome around the technical sides of a camera. But, importantly, people have approached me asking how to break into the industry, and I always give the same advice: you have the capability to make a film yourself. It’s right there in your pocket. I would have felt hypocritical saying that without shooting my first piece on my phone. We chose to be as stripped back as possible, so we didn’t use lens. What helped was figuring out the light and how the phone responded to different tones. Each phone is different, but in general, they’re likely to struggle most with darkness. Try and figure out the parameters of your phone early.

4. You screened Bus Girl at Aesthetica Film Festival 2022, as well as the London Short Film Festival and the Asian American International Film Festival. How important are these platforms for showcasing films?

Getting into Aesthetica was such a huge moment for us. We had no idea whether anyone would want to screen Bus Girl, as we never considered it to be a festival story, so to be recognised was amazing. Festivals are so important to help nurture talent, and it’s been a great source of feedback to see the response and how it differs between territories. I’m also always scouring festival line-ups as an actor, too. They’re the best source to discover the next generation of talent.

5. You have previously written a couple of short films, but this is your directorial debut. What is next for your filmmaking?

I have two scripts that I’m developing with HBO Max, so hopefully I can discuss those properly in the near future. I’ve definitely been bitten by the directing bug, and I want to get back to it as soon as I can. It’s by far the most stressful, nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the most creatively fulfilling. I also hope to reunite with my producer, Louise Palmkvist Hansen, on a feature film, and we have started to talk to production companies.

Bus Girl | BAFTAs winners are announced on 19 February.

Interviewer: Megan Jones