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Categories: Jammers Of The Month

Actress, director, producer and writer Caroline Bartleet dishes her intense, BAFTA-nominated new short “Operator”


Our Jammer of the Month for February is Caroline Bartleet, a multi-talented filmmaker and actress whose debut short as a director, Operator, has been nominated for the BAFTA for Best Short Film. The film stars Kate Dickie as a fire service operator who answers a call from a distressed mother (Vicky McClure) whose house has caught fire in her sleep. From Vancouver to LFF and LSFF, Operator has met acclaim across the festival circuit, and Caroline is now up for one of Britain’s top short film awards. 

Caroline’s first love was acting, a passion she continues to pursue as she delves into writing and directing. Educated at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Caroline started out working odd acting jobs while also temping and waitressing. Soon she had decided this wasn’t going to be a fulfilling career for her, and so she began collaborating with some of her drama school friends, working on their projects as an actress and producer.

On her first short as a producer, Laura McAlpine’s Last Wash (2011), Caroline found that the job suited her; she was able to flex her creative muscles, especially as the low budget of the film required some imaginative organizational work on her part. In 2014, she produced her second short, Paul Andrew Williams’s Intruder. Caroline also acted in both films, something she would not repeat when making her directorial debut with Operator

“I knew I didn’t wanna act in it,” Caroline told me, “I knew that if I didn’t direct it, I probably would never direct anything, because it seemed like [it was] now or never.” In an extensive chat, Caroline explained her experiences directing for the first time, and the creative process that’s helped her become one of British film’s brightest rising stars. 

Congrats on the BAFTA nomination! Where were you when you heard the news, and how did you react?

The funny thing is, you don’t get an email until the middle of the day. I actually found out because someone had seen it on the news on Twitter. So I found out at like 8:30 in the morning. People always say “oh, it’s so unexpected, we’re so shocked”, but we genuinely were actually really, really shocked.

The film was based on a real 999 call – can you tell me about the original call?

I was writing something else, and I was researching a small scene in [that]. Someone [in the film] had made a call to the ambulance service, and I wanted to check that I was getting it vaguely accurate with what I was writing, so I googled “999 calls” and spent quite a lot of time online listening to various calls. 

I came across one that was for a service that I didn’t want – the fire service – but I pressed play, and this woman screaming came blasting through my computer speakers and it just took my breathe away. I couldn’t believe how frightened she was. I’d never thought about what it must be like to experience being in a fire, and more than that I was just completely blown away by how calm the operator was. 

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 12.38.58 AM

It was about a ten minute call, and she was so unrelentingly calm, and so kind to this woman who was absolutely losing it. You would be – she was there and she thought she was gonna die.

I started thinking that it would be so interesting to see a film where you saw the operator, because she’s got this kind of weird thing to do. She’s got to be really calm, but she’s probably also really scared herself, because you never know, do you, that the person on the other line is actually gonna be ok. So I was really interested in what it would be like to look into what’s it’s like to answer one of those calls.

It all started from there, and I remember talking to my boyfriend and saying, “do you think it’d be really boring to make a film where you were in a room just with the operator, and you didn’t see the woman in the burning building?” Because obviously we would never have had the budget to make a film where you saw the woman in a burning building.

She was so unrelentingly calm, and so kind to this woman who was absolutely losing it.”

Was there anything specifically challenging with confining the film to one location?

When I was writing it, not so much. It probably took us until we were in the edit for us to think that there were sections of this that [were] gonna be quite tough. We knew right from the very beginning – the DoP and I talked a lot about how we didn’t wanna do lots of fast, choppy cutting, because it would just be a bit naff. We wanted it as much as possible that the camera would really linger, and the way that we shot it was we tried be as fair to the actors as possible, and also to give the actors as realistic an environment to be in, because I knew that would give us a better performance. 

How did you work with Kate Dickie to develop her character?

I was lucky because I got a bit of time with Kate and Vicky before we shot, but not as much as you’d like to, but I’d come to a lot of decisions about the kind of character she was beforehand. 

It was just amazing to get Kate, because when I was writing it – this is not a lie – she was the person I was thinking of. You know when you’re visualizing a character, you’ve got a face to make it feel a bit real when you’re writing? It was her I was imagining. So when someone said to me when we got really close to raising the money, “who would you in an ideal world have in this role?”, the first person I said was Kate Dickie, so we were incredibly lucky that she said yes. 

She’s such an amazing actress, you know. Her and I had lots of conversations; more really about what it would be like to be an operator, and talking about the stress of that. And also I’d done some research and we had a lot of support from the Fire Brigades Union and London Fire Brigade. So I’d gone down to the control room in south Wimbledon and spent time with operators there, and listened to lots of calls there and sat with them while they were making calls and understood the process.


How long would you say you spent researching the film?

That’s really hard to quantify. All I can remember is, early on, after I listened to the call, I’d written a vague script, and then I thought I really wanted to check with somebody who knew more about it, whether what I’d written was in any way realistic.

[Visiting the London Fire Brigade] cut down my research massively, because I could go down there and just ask all the questions without having to do a lot of work myself instead of trawling through stuff online. That was absolutely invaluable.

I feel like it was a pretty well-researched film. It was basically a year of my life that this film took up. I have no idea how much time I actually spent researching. It was really worth it, because when we showed the film to all the guys that actually do that job, it was so satisfying. They felt like it was a good representation of what they do. That was my biggest fear, something thinking “oh god, I don’t think that’s a fair reflection of us.” So that was nice. 

You funded the film on kickstarter. Was this your first experience with crowdfunding?

I’d had friends who’d used Indiegogo, so I’d learned a little bit about it from then, but I’d never done the process myself. I think that when we were raising money on Kickstarter, Rebecca [Morgan], the producer, and I were just like “we are never doing this again,” because it’s not to be underestimated in terms of how stressful it is to be thinking about it constantly. It’s such a distraction. Kickstarter is special because they have this rule where if you don’t hit your target, you don’t get any of the money. We felt like, “oh, we’ll be brave and just go for it.” 

And actually halfway through the process when we thought we weren’t gonna raise it, I kept thinking “why didn’t we try and raise this money on Indiegogo or one of the other sites [where] whatever you raise you keep?” You know that for the month that you’re raising the money, you’re gonna be spending a lot of time checking your phone to see if anyone else has chucked in a fiver. Its an amazing resource for anyone, really, but for filmmakers especially because it’s tough getting money from funding bodies in the UK, and Kickstarter is a brilliant thing. We wouldn’t have made the film otherwise. 

We felt like, ‘oh, we’ll be brave and just go for it.'”

You joked earlier that you’d never go back to Kickstarter. Would you?

I would go back to Kickstarter again, but if you’re not 100% sure you’re gonna raise the money, it’s quite a big gamble. You put a lot of work into the campaign, you get people to sign up and put money in, and none of that comes if you don’t hit [your target]. I think our target was around £6,500. Around the half-way mark when we’d only gotten to around £2,500 we were thinking “this is gonna be really tough.”

A friend of the associate producer, very close to the end, put in £1,000, which was just incredibly generous and amazing. We had someone else who we’d never met, who was connected to the Fire Service, and he put in £500. Without those people it would’ve been a lot harder for us, because most people we came across were putting in smaller amounts of money, so it really helps when someone puts a bit of a fair whack in, because you suddenly are so much closer to your target. 

What were the most important lessons that you learned as a producer and actor that helped you in directing Operator?

IMG_1875I guess I feel like I learned more through acting about directing than producing, really. I think producing is such a different skill. Basically, if you’re an acting, you’re working with the director directly all the time, in the sense that that’s the person you’re looking to all the time for what you’re doing next. And I worked with some really good directors and I working with some really bad directors, and you probably learn more from the bad directors than the good ones. 

But I knew specifically with this film I had to try and make it. What I was asking Vicky to do, particularly, was such a tough gig, in the sense that we were gonna be shooting continuously her absolutely freaking out in this house, and I knew that she’d get tired quickly, because it is tiring. 

What I wanted to do was to shoot somewhere where we could put Vicky on the top floor of the building and we could set up the call center on the second floor or something, and then have a direct line between the two actors, because I think sometimes I feel in films you know when something has a lack of authenticity. So by actually having them speak to each other, you’re automatically gonna make that performance better. 

What I learnt from acting is basically how to make something easier for an actor. I think also you learn as an actor, about directing, what works in how you speak to actors. I think sometimes directors who haven’t worked that much with actors before struggle a bit, because it’s a relationship. It’s quite difficult sometimes. If you’ve been an actor, I think you just have an awareness already of what kind of headspace that person might be in, so it can make it a bit easier to direct. 

Does the BAFTA nomination change anything for you?

I think it’s absolutely amazing, and the whole team behind it are just absolutely thrilled. I think for all of us, it’s a really nice reward, but it does mean more than that. It will hopefully make it easier for me to make another film as a director, and it makes things a bit easier because people want to meet you. People are interested to chat with you about what your next project might be, whereas if you aren’t nominated for a BAFTA – I can tell you now because I’ve experienced it – it’s much harder to get people to pay any kind of attention to your emails. It’s just harder.

Do you have any favorites in the feature film categories?

I thought Brooklyn was an amazing film. Saoirse Ronan was just amazing. I still haven’t seen all the films – I’m going to see Room this week and I’m really excited about that. I think Brie Larson is such a wonderful actress, and I’m very excited. 

What’s so tough about awards stuff is there are so many films that don’t get nominated, or so many directors that don’t get nominated, or so many cinematographers, or so many designers, and I think that’s why it’s so amazing for us to have this nomination, because it would be so easy for us not to have gotten it. It’s a lovely thing to have. 

The BAFTAs air on BBC One on Sunday February 8th. Find out more about Operator and Caroline’s work on operatorshortfilm.com

Posted on Feb 1, 2016

2 Responses to “Caroline Bartleet – “Operator” director”
Read them below or add one

  1. The Spread The Spread says:

    Hi Danny,

    The film is not yet available online, but all the nominated shorts will show in cinemas across the UK. (http://www.bafta.org/press/press-releases/bafta-nominated-shorts-to-screen-in-cinemas)

    You can also visit operatorshortfilm.com for more info.

  2. Avatar Danny says:


    How and where can I watch the full film?

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