Former legal eagle and now Empire magazine’s editor-at-large, Helen O’Hara tells George White about her motivation to swap real-life killers on Death Row for super-villains on the silver screen.
Before becoming a journalist you were a trained barrister, and even spent time in Texas working on death penalty cases. What made you want to leave the profession?
I hated the bar, I was so bored. I was only interested in the philosophical bits of law, I hated the grind of cases. My friends loved it but I was bored out of my tree.
Was it still a difficult decision?
It was a big leap. I had to turn down a £38,000 salary with the government legal service for £500 a month at Empire, which was painful.
How did you come to work for Empire?
I had no journalism experience but I read Empire religiously, so I applied for their internship. I had to submit pieces in their house style which was okay because I knew the magazine so well. After the interview, they felt they could get along with me and I wouldn’t drive them mad in the office, which is key.
Do you have any advice for other people looking to enter the journalism industry? I spent a lot of time early on making cups of tea and transcribing interviews. It’s not always fun but it’s useful. The other thing is to make your copy as good as possible. Editors can’t afford to spend ages correcting grammar and spelling.
you’re nervous before every interview because you don’t control how it’s going to go
You’re now Empire’s editor-at-large. What does that involve?
I don’t really have a job description: editor-at-large means I can represent the magazine on TV and radio acknowledges that I am a key part of the Empire Podcast and ensures I’m one of the people considered for writing big features and reviews.
How do you deal with criticising people’s work?
I tend to come at criticism more in sorrow than anger, and I don’t like to make it personal because you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. Generally speaking, hundreds of people work on each film so you have to try to avoid singling people out in your condemnation.
You interview a lot of famous people. Do you still get nervous?
God, yeah. I think you’re nervous before every interview because you don’t really control how it’s going to go. Somebody could be having a bad day or they could just not get your questions. But they tend to be lovely.
Have you had any horror stories?
I did a comedic interview with Robert Carlyle and I was assured that he’d been told they were weird questions, but he had no idea and was a bit taken aback. The first few questions I was asking him essentially got a yes or no answer and I thought, “This is not good.” Eventually, he plugged into it and was a complete delight, but it took some time to get into that space.
What role do magazines like Empire play in the film industry?
We bring people in-depth information and behind-the-scenes stuff. So if it’s a film you love, we can tell you all about it. But we are also keen on bringing smaller films to light and finding an audience for them. When you’re banging on endlessly about why people should watch Booksmart or Moonlight, something that people wouldn’t necessarily watch otherwise, I think that’s where film critics are most helpful.
You’ve been critical of the industry’s lack of diversity. What needs to change?
I think the big thing is to be more open-minded. There has been a long-standing belief that female superheroes don’t work, for example, or that films with black male leads don’t sell outside the US. And the problem is that there have been so few examples of anyone else in these roles that it’s quite hard to rebut those myths.
journalism is still mainly dominated by white middle-class people
Are things improving?
I think so. With films like Captain Marvel and Black Panther, we’re beginning to build a counter-narrative to take these myths apart. We are seeing a real change in who gets to be in the room and make the pitches for the big movies. Studios are feeling the pressure to show that they have diverse filmmakers and diverse films, and I think that that’s paying off. It will take time but at least people are aware of it, which is half the battle.
Is there a similar issue in journalism?
Yeah, it’s still mainly dominated by white, middle-class people – and I count myself in this category. Not everyone has the opportunities that I had, so they’re going to have to find a different way into the industry. That’s a big question mark hanging over journalism, increasing efforts to widen access. Free internships advantage rich people who can afford to work without pay.
Are companies doing enough to tackle this?
A lot of organisations no longer let anyone work for free, but they don’t have many positions because they don’t have the money. It’s moving in the right direction, though. Certainly, at Empire we make an effort to help up-and-coming journalists from diverse backgrounds, such as the mentorship programme we set up a couple of years ago.
How can things improve further?
We need everyone to buy newspapers and magazines so we can get some money back into it!