Creative Spotlight Series #3 — Matthew Penry-Davey on compassionate leadership

Here’s where we shine the spotlight on the brilliant people behind-the-scenes who bring stories to life day in and day out.

Matthew is a well-respected 1st AD on the global stage and a passionate advocate of diverse representation, equal opportunities, and compassionate leadership.

See Matthew’s full career credits on IMDb >

Matthew Penry-Davey in action as a 1st AD

Matthew Penry-Davey in action as a 1st AD

POP: How did you get into the industry?

MPD: It was my first term at college studying a media film course — one of only 3 in the country at the time — and I very quickly realised that the course was going to be great, but I had this notion that I needed to get ahead of the curve. So I wrote to Peter Richardson (The Director of The Comic Strip Presents… ) one Summer to ask for work experience and a week later he phoned me up and said if you get to Dartmoor tomorrow I’ll start working with you.

I was over in Guernsey so had about 12 hours to decide, and then I was on my way to Dartmoor! I realised I had no accommodation so I ended up sleeping in his mum’s shed at the bottom of her garden and did two weeks on Queen of the Wild Frontier (The Comic Strip Presents), and a month later I was back at college and Nira Park called and she asked me to come back. So for the next 2.5 yrs I did The Comic Strip Presents.

I was still studying at university but every two weeks I’d go away for a week, so it was hard to keep up the study and the lecturers didn’t love that I was balancing the two. Working alongside studying was definitely not encouraged at that point but my dad said “don’t give them the excuse.” I was determined to graduate with a CV and worked bloody hard when I came back to college to make sure I didn’t give them any excuse.

In the last term a shoot ran over and I came really close to being thrown out of college but I graduated and then went straight on to Funny Bones in which I played a policeman stranded with Lee Evans at the top of Blackpool Tower.

POP: So did you know you wanted to go into a career as an AD at this stage?

MPD: At this point I still had the notion that I might continue in performance, but there I was, a floor runner and loving it. I was being paid more than I’d ever been paid (still £121 a week) so didn’t really know which route I’d take.

POP: Brilliant that you had the foresight to get hands-on experience, why do you think you were so set on working as well as studying, especially when it meant going against the grain with the college?

MPD: It’s about the only sensible thing I’ve done in my life. If you’re given the opportunity, take it.

POP: And here you are now, as a brilliant AD that’s worked across the world. We appreciate it must be hard to choose, but do you have any truly standout career highlights?

MPD: Working on the film ‘Everest.’ A job I was passionate about getting and gave me the privilege of standing on the mountain itself. It was also the biggest logistical and welfare challenge I will probably ever face.

Another highlight was that I set myself the silly idea that I wanted to become a 1st AD before 30 — same as wanting to get ahead of the curve when at uni really. I got a 1sting gig on Trauma when I was 29 — and I just remember feeling that I’d achieved what I set out to. I knew I had to 2nd as a step but I was determined to move on quickly as I’m heavily dyslexic so I knew that Key 2nd role especially wouldn’t be right for me, being on the floor looking after today is very different to always being back at base planning tomorrow which is the Key 2nd’s role.

Then my next 1sting job was on the Nicholas Cage film, Lord of War which meant I’d broken into $40–50M mark. This was my next career highlight because I’d broken into a different bracket quite quickly.

After that, I made a conscious decision to take interesting films that filmed more locally so I could be home more. As Esme, my daughter, was born in 2000 and it became untenable for me to be so far away so often.

POP: You talk about being Dyslexic and what that meant for different AD roles, how else has it shaped your experiences?

MPD: As a child it was very different to now, early years at school were not much fun as Dyslexia wasn’t recognised as a disability in the way it is now. I was really lucky because I was involved in a pioneering US scheme and had lessons at St Barts, the hospital. I don’t know how she did it but my mum got me onto the scheme and she even went on to become a dyslexic teacher as a result.

POP: Part of everybody’s story are mistakes, can you tell us times when you’ve made mistakes & how you’ve dealt with them?

MPD: I was on a film with a challenging director who never turned up for work in prep at all. I promised myself I would speak up but I let it go and I got fired. I regret letting it get to that point, I should have spoken up earlier.

More recently, when my dad died out of the blue midway into a film. There is this feeling one should carry on, and for good reason with money at stake etc, but it is a mistake and with hindsight I should not have carried on, everyone would have understood. I should have let my mental health take some time to process and deal with what had happened.

I’ve learnt from this as recently we were filming in the States and a team member lost a relative. In America it seems even less acceptable to take time and there’s this real emphasis put on work work work. I said to her, you need to go back to LA and she looked at me in positive shock! My Key 2nd nervously agreed and then said that it was unheard of but for me it was a no brainer.

POP: Is that a big difference between the US & the UK?

MPD: There’s definitely a difference in mentality and approach when it comes to on-set. I will always reassure that the team member can leave for as long as they need, and even if they phone us on the last day to come back for one day, then of course, I’d support that. This derives from my experience on the film I lost my father on so I feel strongly about embedding this approach for my team, though as above, this isn’t embedded in the US yet.

POP: You’re well regarded as a compassionate leader — do you think that’s nature or nurture?

MPD: Leading is something you have or you don’t. But compassion is education as well as empathy. You can learn the compassion and then learn to balance the two.

Big film companies are definitely trying to teach empathy at the moment with their anti-harassment courses which is a good thing. You can teach that, but can you teach people to be heartfelt and genuine? I don’t know.

I think it all stems from the belief that you can get more out of people by respecting them, for example, I don’t shout at people on set because I don’t believe you get the best out of people from shouting. Film naturally has this hierarchical structure but that must not be misunderstood by someone as them being more important than someone else, it’s about making communication more efficient. We’re all integral, nobody is more important than anyone else.

POP: Who do you admire in the industry & why?

MPD: Richard Hewitt — I’ve learnt a lot of it from him because he’s a great human being with great work values.

It’s really important to work with Line Producers who have a good ethos like Jo Burn who believes passionately in supporting people and positive working environments. Also Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich (DNA Films) with whom I have worked, absolutely have that ethos, and a strong focus on life work balance.

Lastly Alex Garland. His film sets are always non-hierarchical and decent, communicative environments and the quality does not suffer because of it!

POP: How have things changed on set due to the recent spotlight on mistreatment and harassment in the industry?

MPD: Courses are no longer optional, there’s a much stricter mandate over who must attend. I’ve also noticed that the number on the callsheet (welfare number/safety hotline), which has always been there, used to be a number in the states even if you were filming in the UK but now it’s invariably a number in London which helps with the time difference.

We also now have a H&S briefing every day where the challenge is to keep people’s attention by making it interesting and not allowing it to become mundane, especially when you are on the same sound stage for months. This daily briefing now also includes bullying and harassment with the full crew.

POP: There’s also been a huge spotlight on diversity and ensuring diverse representation behind the camera as well as on screen, what are your experiences of diversity in your role?

MPD: My most negative experience was when we were filming in South Africa in 2004, and I wanted to employ this brilliant crew member. He was black, from a township and had just had his first child — and I had a huge pushback from one of the production team. I was told it was not ‘suitable’ whatever that inferred. In the end I was allowed to employ him. Of course he was, as I knew he would be, GREAT! That was resistance in its most extreme form and you certainly wouldn’t get that now.

I knew then that I was going to strive to employ a diverse team but it was really hard.

POP: Why do you think it was so hard?

MPD: If I’m looking for a 2nd AD, where do you go? The only system in place was that you called someone you respected and asked if they knew anyone. Word of mouth meant that you were invariably led to someone like you. So then you have to start looking outside the box. Charlie Reed, who has worked with me for a long time and shares the same passion, and I go out of our way to meet people and go with our gut, not just the CV and therefore you get a wider pool of people.

POP: So how do you manage to recruit from outside the box now?

MPD: We put out a call to tech colleges and Calltime Company, who’ve helped us source people. They won’t be very experienced but they have found us people. And of course, it must still be done on merit to be truly equal opportunity.

Say for example, if you’ve got 3–4 floor runners. The 1st will be a safe bet, experienced, we like them, they like us, the 2nd probably the same and then the 3rd and 4th can have very little experience and we can train them up.

Another example is from a recent job where a team member called up to let us know that she was pregnant, and you could tell that the expectation was of not being asked to do the job. When we asked ‘you’ll still do the job right?’, her response was overwhelmed with shock; ‘I’d love to, but… I didn’t think that was an option!’

And that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The industry has to adapt and I believe that passionately.

POP: Our Commercial Director, and ex-AD Chloe Chesterton, wrote a piece about how a lot of the women she started her career with have left the industry — how do you think we can combat this?

MPD: As a dad of 2 daughters and one son, when someone asked if I’d like my 18 year old daughter to go into the film industry, I hesitated. I can’t bear it when people are negative, it is what you make it and I have no doubt she would love it but I hesitated because it is tough on women if they want to have a child.

My wife is a deputy head in a tough inner city school and she shares her job with another woman and it’s a very successful share. They gain from it. So it started me thinking, could my Floor 2nd be a different person for half the week and the answer is yes, probably, if they were both of a like mind and made time to do a handover. So I’m asking myself could I have job shares on the team and the answer is YES!

We could absolutely facilitate it. Is it easier, probably not. Is it going to put untold strain on the team? No! Some roles would be harder to job share, where ever continuity is a huge aspect, so it would be trickier. If the industry could start to make it happen and showcase it, it wouldn’t cost the company anymore but it would allow brilliant people the option to stay in jobs they love and continue their path whilst starting a family.

POP: What do you think the impact of more diverse film sets will be?

MPD: As soon as you introduce a diverse set of people, you can feel the impact, I notice it in the AD trailer in the morning when we’re all there at the crack of dawn. You need to have good banter for a good working atmosphere and having different gender and ethnicity can only lend itself to that.

I can cite examples of just a few weeks ago when a team member came in and was talking about her mum’s cooking and everyone wanted her to come up to cook for us and then it evolved into curiosity and asking questions about her heritage, and those conversations would never occur if we were all the same.

It can only stand to benefit the working environment. We need to focus on diversity from the roots and I can sense the change is really happening.

My most important message — the thing I feel most passionately about is that all these things are part of humanity and part of life and the important emphasis is that they need to come from the right place. There’s no point in carrying something out just because you are told to carry something out. Of course you should question it.

Diversity and gender balance is only truly going to improve if it comes from the right place — a belief in it. I do believe in it, right down to the shop floor. — the film set is a better place when it is more diverse. Certainly the AD trailer is and especially at 6:30am in the morning!

POP: As a known compassionate leader, how do you lead and embed compassion and respect across your teams?

MPD: The no blame theory.

Blame has a lot to account for in terms of negativity and of course on film sets things go wrong all the time. So when something goes wrong, we don’t look at who’s fault it is, we look at how we can solve it and I will always do the same.

It’s the why? not the who? The minute you say who? you’re sucking energy away from problem solving.

Of course, people make light of it, and of course we joke about the no blame ethos on set, but it’s working and you see people catch themselves and move the focus onto fixing the problem. The ‘no fear, no blame’ ethos, really does work.

POP: What would your advice be to someone just starting out or thinking of a career in the Film & TV industry?


  1. Take the opportunity.
  2. Don’t listen to the naysayers because quite frankly, it’s nothing to do with them. If we all didn’t do what we’re told we shouldn’t do there would be no film industry!
  3. Don’t live the industry — be focused, but don’t live it, have a life as well. Have other interests, have a balance.

POP: And finally, what film/TV show/documentary would you recommend everyone should watch & why?

MPD: The recent WWI documentary — They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson. Every child should be made to watch it — Nothing has brought home so clearly that part of our history. It is especially poignant with the current global political climate.

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