In conversation with Lillian Crawford: the life and times of a film writer (2024)

Olivia Townsend chats with film and culture writer, Lillian Crawford, about forging a career in cultural criticism and commentary

In conversation with Lillian Crawford: the life and times of a film writer (1)

by Olivia Townsend

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Many a Varsity writer and reader has the fantasy of seeing their name printed in a Guardian byline. The idea of being paid to write about the things I love seems like an absolute dream. As a third year, harsh realities of the graduate job market lurks on the horizon – it haunts my dreams and plagues my LinkedIn. And sitting beyond that is the promise of horrific job insecurity in journalism (doesn’t the future look exciting?). Building a creative career is simultaneously appealing and terrifying. Thankfully, Lillian Crawford was happy to talk to me about her experiences of becoming a freelance film writer and critic. I find myself forgetting that every Mark Kermode has to come from somewhere, and Lillian provides an insight that demystifies and enlightens the path that can be taken when pursuing a career in cultural criticism and commentary.

“I thought, ‘If Wittgenstein can do it then I can do that’”

With a writing repertoire that spans the Guardian, the BFI, Sight and Sound, Little White Lies, MUBI, the BBC and beyond, Lillian Crawford has clearly come to master her field. Before she did this however, she was one of Varsity’s own. After starting out as a staff writer for Film and TV in 2017, Lillian was section editor by the end of her first year. A prolific Varsity writer in her day, Lillian produced sixty-seven articles for Varsity’s Film and TV section during her time at Cambridge. As we chat over Zoom, she recalls covering the Watersprite Film Festival and late nights spent in the Arts Picturehouse where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the bass beat of Spoons pulsing through the walls. “I read somewhere that Wittgenstein used to go and sit in the cinema in Cambridge and watch films all day, and so I thought if Wittgenstein can do it then I can do that.” Reviewing anything and everything, Lillian built up a portfolio of film writing, and after reaching out to Little White Lies magazine, secured an internship. She tells me that “from there it was a case of emailing anyone and everyone I could possibly find.”

In conversation with Lillian Crawford: the life and times of a film writer (2)

Lillian describes her process as “taking a situation or a piece I’d done or some work I’d been doing in my academic interests and then finding a way of developing on it and hopefully someone will pay you to do it.” Naturally, the latter is where the difficulty comes in. It’s obvious that this is not simply a case of being passionate about something and waiting for that passion to be rewarded with opportunity, but Lillian’s career is one that helps demystify the ambiguous gulf between passion and paid work. For Lillian, her love of film and her flair for cultural commentary is tangled up in her studies of History as an undergrad at Trinity (you might recognise her from her incredible stint on University Challenge). Whilst writing her dissertation on Ealing Studios she “found films that people never talk about.” As two history students, we geek out slightly while discussing the power of using films as historical sources, as well as the “snobbery” that has led to their vast underappreciation in many History degree courses. Lillian honed her interest further with an MPhil in Film studies also from Cambridge. Navigating the distance between her academic and public work is not always easy. “The most common feedback I’ll get from an editor is, this is too academic,” she admits.

“There’s a lot of great British cinema that hasn’t been celebrated, or remembered, or it’s been obscured”

But Lillian’s academic eye hasn’t been a limitation. Her writing has led her to work on curation projects, Q&As and screenings. “I voted in the Sight and Sound poll in 2022,” she tells me, which means she was selected to help rank the top 250 greatest films of all time. It’s a list that a lot of writers, critics and no doubt future historians will work from. “It does make some of the work I’m doing feel reasonably important,” she says. “There’s a lot of great British cinema that hasn’t been celebrated, or remembered, or it’s been obscured.”

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It’s clear that Lillian’s aspirations to continue working in film, whether through a PhD, archival work, on curation or as a journalist, will bring exposure to underappreciated pieces of British cinema. Moving beyond writing, Lillian has her own podcast, Listen to Lillian, and has recently developed a relaxed screening program with the BFI as part of her work on neurodivergence and film. “Film, for a lot of neurodivergent people, seems to provide a way of talking about something,” Lillian claims. Her program involves using different lighting, sound levels and curating films that aim to resonate specifically with neurodivergent people.

As our conversation draws to a close, both Lillian and myself are under no impression that being a writer, critic or creative is ever easy. We live in a society where security in that type of job is disappearing thick and fast. In spite of the uncertainty, Lillian’s experiences and successes bring some clarity to the murky waters of the creative world. It helps an aspiring writer like myself to sleep a bit easier, with the reminder that a fulfilling career in cultural commentary is not only possible, but also filled with endless opportunities.

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