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Opening Scenes: Emmanuel Li


Emmanuel Li

For our first Opening Scenes profile, we sat down with writer, filmmaker and self-proclaimed “groovinator” Emmanuel Li to discuss his filmmaking inspirations, the wonder of Walthamstow Marshes and all things Doctor Who.


What are you working on at the moment?


I’m currently taking my grad film around festivals and seeing what happens. At the moment I definitely feel like I’m in a post-uni limbo, trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life. I’d love to direct more music videos; I’m talking to a lot of up-and-coming artists, trying to get things off the ground with them. But my heart lies in narrative, so I’m working on a bunch of ideas for different shorts, but also toying with the idea of developing a feature out of my grad film. I feel like I’m not done with that world yet; there’s a lot more I want to say with the themes and characters, and I’ve been getting a lot of feedback that the ideas are too big to be contained within a short.


The all-important (if slightly over-egged) question: who/what inspired you to get into filmmaking, and who remains an inspiration to you today?


I’d say my interest in film began when my friend Sam in secondary school introduced me to “cinephile movies”, which I guess exposed me to what a beautiful medium cinema can be for expressing ideas in artistic and emotionally resonant ways. I kind of accidentally fell into film to be honest - I had too many hobbies and found that filmmaking, as such a multi-faceted artform, was a way I could bring them all together.


At the start, I was quite obsessed with Edgar Wright, as I’m sure many people are. I was just so drawn to the passion and playfulness that exuded from his work, and I definitely stole a lot from his films for my early stuff.


I remember watching your film Music for the End of the World; very Edgar Wright-y!


Yes, there are a lot of Wright-isms in there, and I even put him in the credits as “special thanks for inspiration from…” I’m still taking that with me but I’m also trying to move away from those influences and establish my own voice.


But I would say though, my biggest inspiration, for pretty much everything in life, has to be Doctor Who. I can trace almost everything about who I am today back to that show. I love the way it’s able to tell such grand, epic, and bizarre stories, while never losing touch with those moments of simple, intimate, and soulful humanity; it never fails to inspire me. There are just so many valuable life lessons and principles I took from that show that I still carry with me today, so I definitely owe a lot to those characters and stories.


What did you think of the new episodes with David Tennant?


I binged all of them last week while I was unwell—it’s good! I’m cautiously optimistic; there was so much expectation riding on those specials, so they were bound to disappoint in some ways. But saying that, I absolutely adore Ncuti already, he brings a really refreshing energy that we need right now.


Emmanuel Li
Music for the End of the World (2020); image courtesy of Emmanuel Li

Where do you see your creative career going in the future?


The end goal would be writing and directing feature films, but that’s a little far ahead for now. I’m trying to get into music videos and potentially commercials as a way to make an income whilst still feeling creatively fulfilled. I’m trying to build a portfolio I can be proud of, be able to keep making things with good people, and hopefully get representation. But the future is vast and unknowable; I’ll be riding the wave as best I can!


How have you found navigating the film/creative industry in London?


I’m quite lucky to be living in London because there’s so much going on all the time. There’s always a set you can worm your way onto. As tough as it is to hear, it really is about who you know, but more importantly I think it’s the connections that you build and the friendships you foster, actually genuinely trying to make friends and finding people you really connect with on a human level. I’ve been lucky enough to meet plenty of creatives whom I feel lucky to call friends here.


There are also all these initiatives and schemes in London and across the UK that you can apply for. To be honest, I still see myself as fairly new to the industry, so I’m also still trying to figure out how to navigate it at the moment. Whenever I lose my confidence, I just try and remember that there’s no single pathway into film; your journey will be completely different from someone else’s, so it’s never useful to compare yourself to others.


Is there any part of the city that inspires you in your work?


Almost everything I’ve made has been shot in London but hopefully in a way you wouldn’t recognise. Locations, spaces and environments are a big source of inspiration in my work. I’ll often start the idea for a story just from discovering a really interesting spot and thinking “what could go on here? Who could inhabit this space?” For me, any place that’s off the beaten track is ripe for storytelling. I love just cycling or gallivanting around, finding alleys and following small rivers and seeing where they lead, curious as to what tiny, glorious—or sometimes boring—places around the city that you might not notice at first glance. It’s those hidden corners of humanity that absolutely fascinate me.


Emmanuel Li
Ode to Adrianne by Idlework. Official Visualiser (2024); image courtesy of Emmanuel Li

Where do you think young people stand in this industry? Do you think enough space is being made for them?


I think young people are in a pretty great place and time right now. First off, there are stories all around us—almost too many! Filmmaking is so accessible nowadays, and young people are constantly making stuff, constantly exploring different formats of storytelling. Just with social media alone, there is an undeniable amount of creativity and artistic expression there. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t replace the horizontal, big-screen cinema experience, but I think just because we’ve been so exposed from such a young age to such a smorgasbord of perspectives out there, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of films come out in 10 years time.


You also have things like the BFI Future Film Festival, who are really championing young people and encouraging the next generation of talent to keep creating and to speak their truth.


It’s always interesting to think whether it’s places like TikTok that provide these shorter formats that make them famous, or if it’s the young people that use them.


Yeah, it’s like a constant feedback loop, and I think this generation is so persistent that even if space isn’t being made for us, we’ll just carve it out for ourselves. I reckon we’re in good hands.


Do you have any advice for young people wanting to start out in filmmaking?


It’s been said to death, but the best thing you can do is just go out and make stuff. It’s really important to be proactive about the stuff you want to make; don’t be afraid of experimenting, stealing ideas, asking favours, or just making terrible films. Everything you do you will learn from. 


I guess beyond that, just work on yourself as an artist and as a person. Try and seek joy and fulfilment outside of film—otherwise, what are you going to make films about? So I’d say just let yourself indulge in guilty obsessions and niche interests, and really try and get to the heart of what makes you tick. If you constantly investigate who you are, and what your beliefs are, it’ll become easier to find your voice. Then the stories that you and only you can tell will reveal themselves to you.


I guess that’s not the most tangible career advice, but I think allowing the space for self-love and self-development is so important, particularly in an industry that can keep breaking you down over and over again.


Emmanuel Li
Fortune Favours the Fantabulous (2023); image courtesy of Emmanuel Li

Best spot to go to when you have writer’s block?


Anywhere there’s nature and wilderness. Where there’s a good frolic in a field to be had, or a weird gnarled tree to scale, I’m there.


Any particular favourites?


Walthamstow Marshes and the canal running through it, just going up and down and discovering the sights and sounds. That’s the place I’d go whenever I need to clear my head. When I discovered the marshes for the first time, I couldn’t believe it was in London because it feels so wild and removed from the city, it’s almost this place existing in its own bubble of time and space. It’s very calming and therapeutic, and that’s a really good space to be in for ideas to flourish.


I don’t know if I ever consciously try to break writer’s block though. The creative process for me rarely works when I try to force it. When I feel like I’ve hit a wall, I just try and take my mind off it by doing other things that invigorate my mind and my spirit, that will allow that seed I’ve planted in my subconscious to grow and blossom organically, when the time is right.


To see some of Emmanuel’s work, go to his YouTube channel or follow him on Instagram to keep up to date with his newest projects.


 

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