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This Q & A was compered by producer, James Cotton.
Going into the industry as predominantly a writer, the modus operandi is to get noticed, and for many other people in the room, that is the key. So your script, UNDERGROUND, is probably what got you the most attention from the British film industry. Could you tell us a little bit about that first script getting attention? What came before that in your struggle to get attention?
Well, I’d always kind of had this feeling in the back of my mind from making films at University that it wasn’t enough simply to make something. It’s a busy world out there, and you need to grab people’s attention somehow. I looked at the University filmmaking society I was in as a sort of microcosm – you know, getting recognized within this group.
The simple answer is do something a bit bigger and more ambitious and hopefully better than what everyone else is doing. Which wasn’t hard because I think most people in my industry just wanted to do sort of Derek Jarman experimental art films. Not that I’d cast aspersions on that, but it was kind of easy to differentiate because I wanted to do something different.
There was me and one other guy who wanted to do narrative filmmaking. Everyone else just wanted to put colours on the wall and move things around. But I very quickly sort of felt from my second year, ‘Just do something bigger than what everyone else is doing.’ So sort of year one we all made sort of three-minute, four-minute short films. Year two, everybody else stayed doing that, and I got hold of the revolutionary half-inch video, which shows how old I am – and made friends with somebody else on that course who bought that equipment to be my DP.
So at the end of year screening, everyone screened their 3-minute Super 8s and then at the end it was like, ‘And now, tonight’s main feature…’ – and I’d made a 50-minute video drama. So very early on I just sort of thought, this is what I needed to do. You can’t just look at the work. You have to be aware this is a commercial art form, and you have the career that you want to build, and if you want to build the career, you have to be the one who gets noticed.
So I did that, and then I went to America for a year. When I got there I wasn’t meaning to do anything filmic at all, I just wanted to have a great year of being a university student pretending I was in a John Hughes movie.
I met all these actors and I went into the local cable access station where it was like WAYNE’S WORLD and everybody has cameras and equipment to use. And I got the biggest cameras there and I made a feature-length movie in my spare time that year, which was insane, but I literally moved my courses around so I was shooting Monday,Wednesday, Friday and I came out with an 18-minute movie.
Then I got back for my final year and I thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing else I can do to be noticed, because I’m back at this Uni with smaller equipment’, and I was working towards my finals. So I started thinking ahead, how do I get into the industry? Half of me was thinking of writing scripts, and the other half was thinking maybe I should apply for an MFA at an American Film School or National Film & TV School. So I put all my applications in, and I actually got accepted to Columbia, but I couldn’t find the money to go.
Then as far as writing was concerned – I had loads of sort of film ideas, but I didn’t know what to write first. So the summer after graduating I was just sort of wandering around London on the Tube, thinking of what I should write. Going on the Tube reminded me of when I was five, when Star Wars came out.
I remembered my parents taking me around by the hand on the London Underground, and it was the only place in the world that reminded me of the Death Star. All the corridors and everything. I used to imagine as a kid, all the Stormtroopers running around the London Underground.
Then I thought, ‘What would it be like to have people running around these corridors firing guns at each other, in the real world?’ And I thought, ‘Well, a hijack.’ At the time it wasn’t ISIS, it was IRA – so I just came up with a story based around a hijack on a rush hour tube train under Piccadilly Circus. I just thought if you were a bunch of terrorists, you could take over that station, maybe more than one station, and make a little underground kingdom for yourself. Then what would you do?
I kind of built ideas onto that, and at the time we were still in the vogue of DIE HARD-style scripts. So Air Force One hadn’t come out or been made – and from a commercial perspective, I had always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a big action movie in my town, instead of somewhere in America?’ So it just kind of seemed a natural thing to write.
The one thing I never really thought about was the practicality of it actually getting made. I never thought about that. It was just fun. I didn’t have anything to lose, I was on the dole, and I joined an extras agency.
I lived fairly near Shepperton Studios, and so weeks when I wasn’t writing or drawing dole I would go down to Shepperton and walk around in the background of movies, and that’s what I did as a way to get close to producers.
Everyone cared about the stars and the directors, but I would look at the canvas chairs and see who the producer was. I happened to be at the craft services table when he was getting coffee – with a script in hand. So the weeks where there was no work, I was writing. I literally typed my first script on an electric typewriter, because laptops and computers were only just taking off then.
A friend, the only person I knew in the film industry, gave me a few notes – and I sold it. So I did that at 24, which in truth was a little bit sooner than I expected to get in. But it was also kind of lucky, because I don’t actually know how much patience I would have had. That’s the worst thing about being in your early twenties; you have no patience – and sort of, I knew realistically that a lot of people took five or six years to get in.
Yeah…when you’re living at home with your parents and they’re looking at you, like, ‘When are you gonna get a real job?’ You’re aware the clock is ticking down. If you don’t achieve that goal within a couple of years, you’re going to end up being that guy who’s a lawyer, writing a chapter a morning on the train if you’re lucky, which is what it is for a lot of people. I was quite lucky, but also I was hustling my butt off to get that script in people’s faces.
I read somewhere that at Screen International at the time, there was a page which showed everything in production and studied by genre who was doing what you were writing?
Yeah. There was no internet as such at that time, so where you went to was the BFI Library to get the knowledge, and you’d look through that. That’s where I looked at agencies and which agencies represented writers and directors who I admired in the UK – and luckily the one that came out top for me was the one who signed me, Casarotto Company, so that was fantastic. And, yeah, looking through Screen International – every three months they would have a big state of the nation type, ‘Here are all the projects in London, here are all the projects they’re developing.’
You’d just sort of look down and see ‘these guys do romantic comedies, these guys do horrors, these guys do a bit of everything’. The same producer’s name would come up on every project, so it just kind of helped me target them. But I actually joined an organisation called the New Producers Alliance, as a way of really getting alongside them. I don’t know if it’s still going – but at the time it was just the beginnings of the Brit Pack thing. Soho House had just started up in competition with Groucho – the NPA had started up in competition to PACT.
There were a lot of young people in the industry who just didn’t want to do it in the way the old guy had done it, and they didn’t wanna be in a group of people who were mostly in their late-50s to 70s – they wanted to be around, and have the same energy of all doing something together. So I went to the NPA, and you give them £50 and say you’re a producer, and you’re a producer. So I said I was, but really I was just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because I was a writer trying to sell a script.
They used to meet at the Royal College of Art, and they’d have these lectures, and I went in there and saw 200 people and saw that actually only about ten of them were actually doing it. Everyone else was just saying that they were doing it. I would walk around and shake hands, and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got loads of projects in development.’ That was not what I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be the guy who was just all talk. So actually, I asked a lot of questions.
I didn’t say too much, to anyone, until I felt like I had something. And even though you may feel like you’ve got some promise, it’s always nice when other people say it back to you before you start saying it yourself, otherwise self awareness is not something creative people are overburdened with, sometimes. You almost have to delude yourself just to get anywhere in this industry – but I didn’t want to be too deluded, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll wait until somebody says it back to me.’
I just started knocking on doors and making friends with assistants, and through various different schemes I managed to get it in front of the right people. They started responding. Sometimes you’d go in and meet them, and some of them were the right people – so I sold my script to Jeremy Bolt and Paul Tribe, who were both going down that road. Jeremy had just made SHOPPING with Jude Law and Paul Anderson. Paul had just made the YOUNG AMERICANS with Harvey Keitel and Danny Callen directing. They were the right guys – I targeted them.
I wanted to go into Hollywood on their coattails. I could tell they were looking to make commercial movies. It’s not that I had a goal to only ever make commercial movies, but pragmatically I thought ultimately I would love to follow the path of a Steven Spielberg and be able to be commercial and also do more personal films. Which are you going to do first? It’s a lot easier to, you know, make an action movie – and it’s kind of a young man’s game, I think.
You win friends and influence people by making them think you can make them money, and later on you go, ‘I’ve got this personal thing I can do…’ Steven Spielberg didn’t make SCHINDLER’S LIST at 24. I wanted to go down a similar route and err off towards my commercial side. That worked with Jeremy and Paul. I was getting some meetings with some other producers who weren’t doing what I was doing.
I had a guy who was making romantic comedies call me in. Sarah Radclyffe, who was making movies like A WORLD APART, which I loved, and PERSONAL BEST and movies like that – she wanted to meet – and different people wanted to meet, because I was doing something different. It was kind of like, ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’
I was gonna ask, because at that time, 1995, you were, if you went to see a British movie it was MERCHANT IVORY, and…
Yeah. It was pre-TRAINSPOTTNG.
Working Title had just begun, but there were no movies like that at the time.
No, there weren’t. It was a few years before we had SHOPPING, THE YOUNG AMERICANS and then SHALLOW GRAVE – I think those started to change things, and soon after that the Lottery money came in and the consortium’s started. But if you were in that room of 200 people, you would see the ones who would go on to become, to begin that new cycle of British commercial filmmaking.
I think the biggest problem was there was a lack of material always – and I’m not sure all the producers had as much taste as they thought they did, I think some did. It was just a case of trying to get in. I remember them giving a year end sort of NPA award – and Jeremy was on the board. He goes, ‘The award for the most flagrant disregard for commercial reality’ went to me, for writing Underground – because it was a £60m action film. But I just thought, if it’s good enough, and I could find the right people through to Hollywood – an American studio won’t care if it’s set in the UK, they’ll just think, ‘Can I put an American in it?’
So I wrote an American lead role. It was about an American ex-soldier teaming up with a British pickpocket. I thought, well, you know, you got a bit of both worlds there. That was what got me in, and I signed with an agent. I got a job to write an episode of a British show after that. It never got made, but I got paid. Then I wrote a comedy spec, and I was just trying a few things for a few years. I got to go to the States with Jeremy on a development trip for Underground. It was a nice little entrée, and I started writing properly American-based specs, one in the US and one in Oregon.
I did a thriller, I did a horror, I did an action movie – so by the time I really went to LA and focused on getting an American agent, I had about eight spec scripts. Back then there were no PDFs – so I would go and copy ten copies of every script, and I contacted every British executive or agent. I would find out there was some British guy working for Ridley Scott, and I would just fragrantly use the British thing.
You’re always, in the film industry, trying to take the one chip you’ve got and turn it into two. So in the beginning it was using the little thing I had to make a sale. When I sold a script I had a chip in the LA game, because I knew I could go out there and say, ‘I’ve got a British agent, and I’ve sold a script, and it’s commercial.’ Yes, I could have waited for my British agent to sell me over there himself. Maybe he would have, maybe he wouldn’t. But I wasn’t really that patient – and I got the opportunity to go there, shook a lot of hands, and then thought I had to generate a lot of material so I had something to send to these guys.
I ended up signing with ICM about two years after I signed in the UK, and was straight into the assignment game at 26, 27 years old as I guess I was. I just managed to start writing script after script for the studios.
So you wrote Underground when you were 24, and you were fully in the game in Hollywood at 26, 27? That’s fantastic. But having written Underground and having hopes of it being made, while all that wonderful stuff was going on Stateside, were there any sobering moments, feeling…’I want this to get made, but…’
All the time. Any time a project doesn’t get made, it’s frustrating. You have to learn how to deal positively with that frustration. Ignore it, or use it to your benefit. I think it’s tough if you are as I am a passion-driven writer; especially when you get out onto the personal projects…it’s really hard.
What’s harder to move on from – a relationship where you were really in love, or a relationship that’s just fine? I think for me, most of the time I have to be in love to really do my best work. I meet other writers in LA, I’ve worked with some, who I would call true professional writers, in that they don’t let themselves get attached too deeply. They still have passion, but they can just move on in a way that I can’t. I can’t move on as quickly as they can. They’re like, ‘It didn’t happen.’ The next day they’re writing something else. I’m like, ‘Oh no!’ So it’s just different mentalities.
I learned about myself that when you’re driving 80 MPH in the fast lane you are fully awake and fully engaged, and I needed to have that feeling on a script, that I was working at my maximum to get the best out of myself. If you’re driving 30 MPH in the slow lane, you’re going to nod off and find you’ve crashed on the shoulder. I never want that to happen to me – so I tend to go for that kind of material.
Riffing off that word, ‘passion’ – I think I read that when you were a child one of your teachers said you were obsessed with sci-fi, because any time you were given a drawing assignment, it would be on Mars.
Yeah, he told my mum at an open day. She said, ‘He’s not that into Space, is he?’ He said, ‘Mrs Hazeldine, if I asked your son to draw flowers, he’d draw me flowers on Mars.’ She won’t let me forget that. So I was six years old when I saw Star Wars…kind of a goner at that point, so the perfect age to see that. Then came ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER…I was with the geeks in the corner of the playground reading Starburst and quoting lines of ALIEN when we hadn’t seen it yet.
We just looked at the photo novel and we knew all about these movies that we didn’t see because we weren’t old enough. Most kids didn’t even know what directors were, and we were like, ‘Oh yeah, Ridley Scott’s my favourite director.’ So I was really obsessed with that as a child. Then I got to thirteen or fourteen and you know, your emotions start to wake up, and you start to think less just about little boy things.
I’ve always loved sci-fi, and I still love it in a more adult way, because it’s a sort of ‘what-if’ medium. What would happen to the world of human society, the body or the mind if this happened? Probably deep down I was always fascinated by that, but when you’re a kid it’s just masked by, ‘Wow, that looks cool!’ or ‘It scared the crap out of me!’ But you sort of realise there are deeper currents about sci fi that you’ll probably always be attached to because of that. But suddenly I liked drama; I was going to movies and crying and I didn’t know why. I thought, ‘I need to figure this out.’
Suddenly I liked all kinds of movies, and I didn’t know why. Strange. That meant that I liked different kinds of directors as well. When I was a kid, it was like, Lucas, Spielberg and Ridley Scott. Suddenly I discovered Peter Weir, who is my favourite director, and suddenly I fell in love with his movies. This guys like a band, and he never makes a bad album – everything he does is great. Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, all of the filmmakers coming along at the time who were invigorating in their filmmaking style and their view on the world.
One thing I did notice was that writers and directors seemed to more frequently come out of the US. They didn’t seem to come out of the UK. I sort of knew, as soon as I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a writer-director. I didn’t just want to be a screenwriter.
Screenwriting was a way in, and I thought it was a better way than editing or cinematography for me. I always wanted to do that; to me, I thought writing was just the foundation to the building, so I want to be able to do that, because I want to be able to write myself out of a corner if I end up in the director’s chair and someone’s not offering you material – I’ve seen a lot of directors sort of be held hostage by their inability to write new material because they’re not being sent it.
I thought, well, if I can write myself out of a corner, then that would be great. Plus I just get ideas a lot. I get ideas for a movie; and I love the idea of going from first idea in your head, to putting it up on screen and going from one end of the process to the other. So I guess I was just in love with American filmmakers because they had that authorial voice. They were more commercial. But they had the authorial voice of some of the French New Wave filmmakers.
Over here, it was all – you’re just a writer, or you’re just a director. That’s just really the British cultural tradition of sort of craft specialties. Just do the thing that you’re doing, and don’t get ideas above your station. I heard that they will actively discourage you at some film schools which I won’t mention, that it’s almost wrong to be a writer-director – says who? Go away! All you’re doing is needlessly self-limiting.
It’s fair enough if you’re not very good at it, but at least give it a few shots and see. It’s not that way anymore, thankfully. It’s been great to start directing and see a bunch of other directors around me who are writing at the very least, ‘Story by’, but more often ‘Screenplay by’. Duncan Jones is involved in the writing. James Watkins…a lot of these guys…I find that really exciting. This industry has changed, and I think we’re going to be stronger for it.
So we’ll get onto the directorial career in a moment. But I just wanted to pick up on both passion and your mention of what-if. What if an English writer went and wrote two spec scripts, Alien 4: Earthbound and Blade Runner Down. What was the thinking behind those spec scripts?
I’d love to tell you that the thinking was deep and meaningful, but really it was just boredom mixed with an idea. I didn’t really have much else going on – and I just got an idea, and I just didn’t really think about…on the one hand I was quite calculating and ambitious. On the other hand I’d do things that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Probably that’s my least disciplined thing. When I get what I think is a good idea, I get carried away by it, and it doesn’t matter if it was writing a whole spec.
Even now I have people call me and pitch ideas. The one that’s the least set up, and the most likely to get made happens to be one that gets the crowd’s attention. Before I know it I’ve spent three weeks of free work writing something and they say no. So I really do follow the passion and just where it leads, and sometimes it leads nowhere and it’s crushing – but other times…I just don’t wanna look back and think I wasted a bunch of time doing stuff that I wasn’t motivated by.
So with ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER… I was a huge ALIEN nut. I’d heard the basic premise of the ALIEN: RESSURECTION project about Ripley being cloned, and I liked the idea of that, I just didn’t particularly like what they had done with that. I had an alternate idea, which I’d had knocking around in my head for a while. I guess it kind of energised me. I just wrote it for fun really, and I sent it to Fox.
Someone there briefly liked it before their lawyers shut it down. I think it ill-advisedly gave me some sort of thrill or something, because then the Blade Runner sequel book came out. Finally one of Scott’s disciples, JK Jetter I think, was allowed to write a sequel. I avoided it for a long time because I thought I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t like the book but I liked the premise – I thought it gave way to a potential sequel, so I just wrote it.
It was Christmas, there was nothing going on. It just kind of spilled out of me in about twenty days, which is the quickest I’ve ever written a script. Literally from first idea, I don’t think I ate or slept for three weeks. And again it kind of sort of started to work its way into the system. Harrison Ford’s manager read it and liked it, but she wouldn’t give it to Harrison unless there was an offer behind it. So I found a producer who gave it to some people at Warner Brothers – apparently some executives read it and liked it, and then we found out later that forecast had never even seen the original BLADE RUNNER, which is encouraging.
It just kind of got me noticed. It’s funny because these little specs sort of follow you around. Fifteen years later, when I was doing all sorts of different projects, I would still have people say to me, ‘When I first came to down, I read your BLADE RUNNER spec.’ You know? It’s like, I think that’s probably why you should do something you’re passionate about. Because even if it doesn’t work out, it’s still going to haunt you twenty or thirty years later in your career. So better be something where you can say, ‘You know, it didn’t go anywhere, but I’m glad I wrote it.’
I didn’t think about legality or copyright. I didn’t even think about whether I could be sued. I just thought, ‘Look. If someone wants to buy it, they’ll deal with the legalities of it. And if they don’t want to buy it, who’s going to sue me? I haven’t got any money! I’m poor and on the dole!’ So it was what it was.
It only becomes a legal thing when people are making money off it. I had heard a few people say that if you want to get noticed as a writer, take something that’s public domain, maybe a King Arthur or some great legend, and nobody is going to stop you doing that – and everybody knows the character. Or write a spec pilot for a TV show that you like, a spare episode.
So my version of that was to do an ALIEN 4 and a BLADE RUNNER script. It’s a strange thing…someone sent me a legal disclaimer last week for me to sign that the actual Blade Runner 2 that’s being made this year had nothing to do with my script. Someone at that company had heard of it, or something. I signed it immediately – obviously it’s got nothing to do with that at all. But it’s weird – once it’s out there in the ether, it becomes a bit of a thing. Even if you don’t want it to be.
I think perhaps that’s a hangover from that MATRIX lawsuit that happened in America where that guy took the Wachowski’s to court.
Yeah. I think one of the biggest causes of conflict in the industry are writers or rights holding producers who only have one project. When you have one project, it’s kind of like a parent with an only child. It’s very tempting if you only have one child to only focus all your care and attention on that one child. It’s not inevitable, but some parents do it. You can overburden the child and overpressure them; it’s a lot like that.
Some of these guys who sue studios, they’ve only got one script. They want to get everything they can do from that one thing. If you’re a working writer, then you have a whole bunch of ideas. Much as you might want something to work, you can lay it aside. So I would be amazed if I ever sued anyone over a script, because you have way more to lose than you do to gain.
Also just as I’ve got older I have realised there are certain things in life that can suck up your time, like conspiracy theories and you can grow out of that. One thing you can grow out of as a working writer is this notion that ideas are really unique. They’re really not. It’s in law. Copyright law says that it’s not an idea that you sue over – it’s the expression of it, the specific expression of it – and yet people are trying to, based upon a basic idea all the time. Basic ideas just aren’t that special.
I’m always hearing of five different versions of the same basic idea, but when you’re outside of the industry you have an over-inflated notion of the uniqueness of your idea. Really what you should be doing is coming up with ten ideas – but a lot of people just come up with one.
So you’ve obviously…already you can tell that you’re doing this every day, and as you say, not caring for it like a parent with an only child. That leads on to your work as a writer for hire to do rewrites, and to make a living off of that, really. People in the room have not had access to that experience, that unique experience of rewriting in Hollywood…so what can you tell the writers about that?
Well, I mean first of all, I had to make a specific choice. I had to decide, ‘I’m either going to move to LA, or I’ve got to find the money and the time to fly out there regularly.’ Because everyone in LA has a very short attention span, so if you’re not going to be there for a chunk of a year, you need to go there regularly, and when you are there you need to take every possible meeting you can get. Read every script, read every comic they give you or book they give you, and really be applied.
Often there’s a bit turnover of the executives in Hollywood; you come back half a year later and half of them are selling real estate. So you have to keep going in there and meeting people. Even if some of the people you met earlier in your career ascend to run studios, it can be very…if you want to, you can rely on that. But in five years, they might be fired – and if you don’t know any of the younger ones, where’s your career going to be then?
I know I could probably call up more than half the presidents of production at Hollywood studios and they’d know who I was. I was out there a few weeks ago and I said to my junior agent, ‘Put me in the room with the hottest young executives who you think are getting stuff done.’ They could be running the studio in ten years time. It’s a pragmatic thing to do, but I think it also just makes all the sense in the world. So yeah, that’s a big thing.
You have to understand what life do you want to live. I wanted to live in London, and I wanted to work in Hollywood. So I didn’t have to pass a degree to learn to live in London. But I did to work in Hollywood. I did a lot of research, made a lot of mistakes. All the practicalities of where do you rent a car from, how do you not burst the bank to find somewhere to stay, who’s couch do you sleep on? I probably slept on a couch in every suburb of LA for close to ten years with friends.
How do you build relationships is the most important thing. Because if you’re always worried that an agent might – even if an agent signs you, if they move from one agency to another, they might cut you. They’ve got to carve off half their clients, and maybe you’ll be cut. You have to generate a lot of work yourself, and not see agents as the prime providers of employment but as really help and support.
I know you mentioned Casarotto there, but then there’s ICN, UME, managers as well, and in the US. How have you navigated that?
Well I’m actually quite strange because I’ve had the same agent in Los Angeles since 1997. We’ve stuck together. He’s moved through agencies, and I went with him. So I survived the culls, you know? I was one of his favourites. Most writers in Hollywood, it’s sort of five years at an agency, and then they move on – they change agents.
You have to decide, do you want to go down the monogamy route, and get the benefits of having a long marriage with someone – or do you want to be a serial dater, and just keep getting people to fall in love with you, and the moment you get bored, you move on. It’s gotta be one or the other, really. I just made the decision to stick with someone.
I liked the idea that you could be at lunch with someone who said, ‘I’m really looking for a thriller set in the arctic circle’, and my agent would say, ‘Oh, my client wrote one of those ten years ago.’ I kind of like that he knows my history, and he knows all the things that I’ve written. I think there are benefits to going both ways, but it’s probably a little strange to want to stay living here. Most people up sticks and move to LA if they possibly can.
As an actor or a director you have to, pretty much. As an actor you do, as a director it really helps, but as a writer, you don’t have to. I tried to play the card of, me not being there very often being a strength. ‘If you don’t see him now, he’s here for a limited time only!’ They’re always cancelling meetings with you. Half the meetings you mean to have in week one you end up having in week six – and they’re still trying to cancel then! Until you say, ‘You can’t cancel, I’m travelling home tomorrow.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh, fine – I’ll take the meeting.’
So we just tried to make the best out of that. And definitely having a British accent and living here there’s this strange sort of fascination that they have in LA, so trade on it. Why not? So I did. The reality is, if I’d moved out there, I’d be eligible for different kinds of work. Very often an executive will realise they need a rewrite, and they’ll call a bunch of agents going, ‘Who have you got – I need to sit down with someone and break something down.’ I can’t do that, unless they want me so badly they’ll fly me out.
So the script doctoring side of things gets a little harder for me. So I probably gravitated more towards the blank page or the first draft or the first draft rewrite. Not the weekly kind of work.
Have you ever had a time where you’ve taken on a rewrite and then thought, ‘I’ve done all the bloody work here’ but not received the credit? How do you deal with that?
Yeah. I’ve been in four or five arbitrations and lost every single one of them, which is kind of weird. In most cases I felt it was probably justified – I knew that what I had contributed to the script, and I knew what the percentage bar was. You know? It says you’ve contributed 33%, you’ve written one third, and I’d probably contributed about 20%. So yeah, I’ve been part of the arbitration. I would give drafts and say, this is what I did, and write my statement, but I wasn’t that gutted when I lost.
So that’s with the WGA?
Yeah. With the Writers’ Guild Arbitrations. There’s one where I definitely feel aggrieved, I definitely feel the decision was wrong. It’s not a perfect process. There was one project where I worked on it for two years, and I wrote more drafts than all the other writers combined, but because I wasn’t the first writer, and it was the first writers original idea, the bar was a little higher – but I still felt that I had met it.
Sometimes you push the arbitrators and they will give you their reasoning, and it sort of bakes your noodle. They’ll say, ‘All he did is dramatize what was already there.’ Well, isn’t that the job of a writer, to dramatize something? All he did! So it’s a little bit frustrating – and there are on-going rankles with screenwriters in Hollywood about the fact that you can work on a movie for years and contribute some fundamental ideas or characters to the DNA of a movie and find your name nowhere near the movie.
The cable bashers who just worked on the movie over the summer, they get their name on the end credits. So I’m definitely of the school of belief that there should be additional writing credits on the end credits, but there’s, you know, a Writers’ Guild thinking that it undermines the perception of how much writing the actual credited writers did. But I don’t really care about that – I still think they benefit from having their name on the front and having residuals.
There’s many other benefits that they’re sort of trying to prop up an illusion, really…the idea that everything is authored by one or two people. Well, sometimes it is – and when it is, guess what, you don’t have any additional writers at the end. But if you’re one of two or three writers and another six writers contributed to something…why foster the illusion that it all came from you when it actually didn’t? I don’t have any problem with the idea that truth is truth. If you wrote on it, it should be said.
I’m interested to know who your mentors were? You’ve gone into all this detail about how you’ve circumnavigated the agent system. I’ve understood what sells. You’ve worked out how to make it. Who was in your ear, saying, ‘Stuart do this, Stuart do that.’ Alex Priatt, would you say he’s a mentor?
Oh for sure. Well, I never really had much in the way of writing mentors. I never went to film school, I’ve never read a book about how to write a screenplay, ever. I think for me there was a part of me that was scared of finding the rules in too much of a codified, mathematical way, because for me it was a little bit of, you know, if you see what’s behind the curtain you’ll lose your mojo.
Whether that’s right or wrong, I’ve just kind of always followed my gut instinct, and it’s been just reading thousands of scripts, watching thousands of movies, and somehow it’s sort of built up in you and you get a sense of when a scene’s not working right, or when your script’s not working right – you just kind of know. And I definitely asked myself…I discovered my own line, but I don’t want to shut myself down entirely to why things aren’t working.
Often I need to explain it to myself or to writers I’m trying to give notes to. But I’ve just tried not to get too technical or mathematical about writing. The only writing mentor I would ever say that I had was a guy called Rupert Walters, who was a British guy, the screenwriter of a movie called Restoration, with Hugh Grant and Robert Downey Jr. I was an extra on it, and I mistook him for the producer – and he ended up reading a script very kindly and he liked it, and he agreed to meet me in the pub for a pint back when I was 23, 24 and just starting out – and he didn’t really give me too many notes about writing, he just was the guy I asked about how you write for Hollywood. Do you set up a bank account? Where do you hire a car from? You know? All the basic things about that, because at the time podcasts, like script notes, didn’t exist, so I just had to use what I had.
Apart from him I’d say it’s all been directors. It’s all been working for directors. And because I wanted to be a director and now I am, my focus was always directors. I sort of became a writer who wrote for directors, more than someone who writes for producers. I do, and I’ve written first drafts and I’ve written things into production, but I tend to…I think I tend to most frequently work for directors and get repeat business from directors. I think that because I always wanted to be one and to think like one, my kind of writing appealed to them.
If you’re writing for an executive, the kind of writing you want to have is spare and exciting and page turning. Constant emotional hits and spectacle hits and just burn through that script. If you’ve got six scripts on your weekend read, those are the ones you remember. Whereas for a director, their priority is, ‘How am I going to shoot this?’ What are the practical realities, and where is the detail here?
I’ve always been a bit of an overwriting, details guy – so I would never just write in a fight. I’d write in some detail about how it would be shot, and the mechanics of it. Even if they disagreed with it, at least they’d have something to riff off of, but I didn’t want anything to be so light that they couldn’t project onto it and skate by on that. Some of them did that in a way that I really admire – and I never really felt that I was the most florid guy.
There are guys out there I know that have an even deeper vocab than I do, and they treat screenwriting as poetry. But I guess pragmatically, because I was thinking as a director, I just thought, ‘You know, a lot of this stuff just isn’t going to make it through to the movie.’ It would be a pleasure to read, but you’re only writing it for five or ten people. I was only really focused on what it’s actually going to be like on screen, and what will the audience response be.
So I would definitely say that there are better descriptive writers out there, and probably better dialogue writers out there…I don’t think there’s any one particular skill that I specialise in to the extent of saying, ‘I am the best in the business at structure’ or whatever else. I was more focused on the whole, I kind of went to be…I remember a producer using tennis examples early in my career, and going, ‘Do you want to be a tennis player who’s got an 140 mph serve, but nothing else? Or do you want to be Pete Sampras, or Roger Federer, who’s good enough at everything that he’s an all-rounder, and that brings you grand slams? I would rather be an 80% all-rounder at all those things.
I wanted to have a decent draw in all those areas – plot, character, structure, dialogue, description, action – I just wanted to feel I was competent, or a bit more than competent, in all those areas. But for directors…I’ve worked with a couple of directors – Scott Derikson and Alex I think I’ve worked with five times – and that’s always a good sign. If a director rehires you, that means they don’t hate you. They enjoy the process of working with you creatively.
They feel like you’re broadly delivering on what you’ve agreed on. So…that’s worked for me. Just hanging out with directors, you learn a lot. If you can. Some of the directors are more like friends of mine. I feel like I can ask them anything – then some of them, you’re just lucky to be in the room. I got to work with Steven Spielberg, and obviously he’s a very busy guy. So you don’t have the opportunity to cultivate that kind of a relationship, but you just listen to what they’re saying and figure out where it’s coming from and hope that you can pull that into your career and the work that you’re doing. You’re just really grateful that you get that opportunity.
So would you say your first professional short was Christian?
It was my only professional short. I did a bunch at University which I hope none of you will ever see. You’re always going to make your mistakes on your first films. I was just writing scripts the way I wanted. I didn’t know how to write a professional script, I just made it up. I look back on them now and I think about them, because even I can’t bring myself to watch them.
But I remember that within…once I’d finished it, some scenes would fall away as being very amateurish and not having any kind of resonance. But there would be certain scenes and sequences where I’d think, ‘Wow.’ I felt it when I first cut it, and then even three or four watches later, I felt…I felt it would still hold up, and it does. You kind of know when you’re in the zone as a filmmaker and something is coming together in a kind of audiovisual way. And it would still kind of get you emotionally, or from a technical perspective.
Those are the times you log, and you go, ‘Okay, I know that works.’ Hopefully you’re also building up little bits of filmmaking knowledge, like, ‘Okay, well that doesn’t work. I won’t do that again.’ My first short film was a film called CHRISTIAN which is sort of a thumbnail telling of the story of Jesus in a tough secondary school.
I’m a practicing Christian – I’m practicing because I’m not very good. At school I remember getting a lot of crap from kids for being a Christian, who admitted to being a Christian. I didn’t think I was a particularly holier than thou person, and I thought, well, what would they be like if Jesus walked into a school. I thought, probably the same thing that happened in the Bible – they’d probably end up crucifying him by the end of the first day, for being too good. Because any difference at school is marked out. If you’re black, if you’re female, if you’re poor – if you’re this, if you’re that.
One of the things that gets you disliked is seeming too good, seeming too nice. So in my head I thought, you know, the headmaster is sort of like Pontius Pilate, the bullies in the class are kind of the fallacies, and the poor girl in class everyone picks on is kind of like Mary Magdalene. So I thought, you could do that in fifteen or twenty minutes. So I did.
I self-funded it and it just gave me the chance to play with some proper toys. Again it was that thing of like, I think I can direct, but I needed other people to see it. It didn’t win any massive festivals, because if you want to win at short film festivals your short has to be somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. Mine was twenty. I wanted to show I could do a montage sequence, and use a crane, and a good piece of acting. It was really just me working through the basic kit bag of what a director does. It was partly for other people, but mostly for me.
And self-financing. Adding to your knowledge base leads to four years later and you’re on the set of Exam having written, financed, producing, directing your first feature.
Well I didn’t think I’d lost enough money on CHRISTIAN, so I wanted to lose a lot more. Yeah, that was quite mad. I don’t really know where that idea came from. I mean, I sort of do.
So for people in the room who haven’t seen Exam, how would you sum it up?
THE APPRENTICE on crack, is how I used to pitch it.
I actually read online that someone had described it at the Wachowski Brothers meets Harold Pinter.
I’ll take that. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Not sure I’ve heard that before, but hey. I’m not even sure it’s accurate, but it just sounds nice. I grew up loving the filmmakers of the seventies, and you read about them. Part of the law of that is that it was a period of time where American filmmakers wanted creative autonomy, not just a paying gig making a studio movie. Whether it be Lucasfilm or starting American Zeotrope, they liked the idea of ownership.
For some reason, I don’t know, I guess I always had a slight sort of business mind. I was interested in business – how do you make money in film, beyond…that’s not the central passion for me, but it was an interest. I discovered it was more of interest to me than to some other filmmakers who didn’t care. Their focus was just, ‘I want a studio to give me $5m and I’ll make a blockbuster.’ That’s great. But there was something about ownership and autonomy…I loved the thought that all those filmmakers – the Scorceses, the Coppollas – all hang out, are contemporaries, and drove each other on to make better work with some friendly competition.
And I like the thought that they wanted to have ownership and start studios or production companies and fund their own films. So it was partly that. You hear about George Lucas keeping the promotion rights for STAR WARS and through that he managed to fund THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So it’s like snakes and ladders, but if you make the right canny business decisions, maybe you just went up the ladder and jumped 20 steps.
How do you do that? Just going to LA was part of that. It furthered my creative ambitions because the budgets are bigger out there. But also I thought, well, what’s the only way I can own a house and run a car before I’m thirty? Go to LA. If I stay here and write scripts, I’ll still be struggling to make rent when I’m 30. So just from that perspective I did that, and it was the same with self-financed projects.
I think that after the seventies thing, I remember very clearly BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. These guys probably spent about £10k making that movie, and think how much money that made? I thought if you came up with an idea that was even a tenth as successful, you’d be doing incredibly well. So I was looking around for a number of years for an idea that I could self-finance. Not aggressively, but I was just keeping my ears open.
It turned out to be a phone conversation with a friend who was shooting a short film idea. I’m not very good with short film ideas, I don’t have a ton of them. I just think in long form, but he had a bunch of short film ideas and we explored it a bit and realised it was just a very basic concept and didn’t know where to take it. I said, let’s go back to that. There are layers. If you want it to just be a thriller that keeps you guessing, it functions on that level.
But as with Shakespearean drama there are deeper levels than that to keep you going, and I liked the idea that this blank sheet of paper that freaks out all the candidates for this eighty minute test is kind of a metaphor for life. We all have a blank page and most of the time we decide what the meaning of life is based upon our preconceptions and the way we were raised environmentally, etcetera. So…I just kind of suddenly thought, maybe I could finance this.
The short film strand that was encouraging me to admit it said, well, actually, we don’t like it. So I was secretly glad every time someone turned it down, because I had to do it myself. I would pretend to be rejected but secretly be thinking, ‘I guess I’d better do it myself.’ The ultimate film school is to make a feature film with complete power – I happened to have had a great patch of screenwriting where I wrote three big spec scripts for big rewrites, and I had enough money where I just thought I could make it.
I got through to post production with EXAM and then I ran out of money. Then I went out to LA and I got another rewrite job, and managed to get a bit more money to finish. Even then I had to do even more just to get 30 or 40 prints of the movie. I didn’t have the money to put the movie out in cinemas on film, only on digital – so we had to come out on 15 screens instead of 50 screens. Simply because I didn’t have the money to make the prints. Six months later I did, and I had to make them to be deliverable for all the distributors around the world.
It sold to 19 territories?
More than that. It must have sold to 30 or 40 countries. But it came out theatrically in about 12 to 15, which I think was including the UK. It ended up being a great thing for me. It’s in profit, we won a Bafta nom, we opened the Edinburgh Film Festival. If you’d said to me upfront, ‘You’re going to spend this much money and you’re going to get this from it’, I would have bitten your hand off. I would have said sure, let’s do this.
Obviously you have to delude yourself with dreams that it’s going to be even bigger, and you’re going to retire on it and all that. But 3% of movies in the 500,000 or less bracket ever make a profit – and EXAM made a profit.
So to be in the 3%, have a BAFTA nomination and suddenly feel doors opening, for me was a massive win. I’m very relieved that it worked out, and just happy and grateful to the cast and crew who decided to take a risk on me.
And it worked out because it-led to bigger things with THE SHACK. So – Octavia Spencer, Sam Worthington. Producer of LIFE OF PI and the BLINDSIDE behind that. Compare and contrast to EXAM, which was single location and a low budget film in the UK, what are the biggest learning curves and differences compared and contrasted between the two, for you?
Well it’s like you would imagine. With EXAM I had complete control, to the extent that 99% of directors, even the biggest ones, will never have in their life, simply because I was the studio. When I was making EXAM people would come up to me and ask for a decision and I would tell them and they would say, ‘Now, is that director Stu telling me that? Or producer Stu? Or financier Stu?’ And I’d go, ‘Erm…it’s producer Stu.’
It was a bit weird, because I was wearing a lot of hats, and I don’t advise doing that. It wasn’t the best way of doing that, I kind of ended up in hospital with a camera down my throat because I was so stressed afterwards. But…there was a certain kind of thrill of complete power and execution. I’d kind of walk out onto the stage and think, ‘If I was in a bad mood today, I’d just fire everyone.’ If you wanted to be Stalin, you could be Stalin.
So the challenge was to show that with that amount of power, that you could do something that worked, and not go crazy. It was to show restraint when you don’t need to, and show that it’s not a crazy vanity project. That you have an eye to what’s commercial, and it’s not anyone else doing that. I could sort of point back to EXAM and say, ‘I had complete power on that and I didn’t screw it up, so just give me a bit of trust.’
I’d seen a lot of first time directors go down the shute for reasons that weren’t anything to do with them. They had actors forced upon them they didn’t choose or they had to shoot an ending they didn’t want. They get the blame for it when it really wasn’t them – and so I loved the creative and financial side of having ownership over everything, but I also just didn’t want my directing career to die before it started. So that was great.
THE SHACK was showing that you can work within the system, and deal with all the politics of other powerful people and decision makers around you. There was obviously a huge amount to be learned from both Gill who’s double Oscar-nominated and the producer, and the guys at Summit Entertainment who are very experienced and have made a lot of big movies as well.
There was a ton for me to learn, but hopefully you’re trying to bring something of your own vision to the movie as well. So it’s not the sort of authorial, ‘A Film By…’ It was one of the projects where I didn’t think about possessory credit, it’s a team effort. The theme of the movie is this idea of God as community – the trinity of the Holy Spirit – not one person having ownership over the body.
You said on Twitter that it was a healing movie, and pointed out that it’s released the day after the general election.
Yeah. It may not be the kind of healing everybody wants, but some people respond to it. It’s not a particularly political movie, but it emphasises the benefits of unity and community. So I wanted that to happen with the movie where my goal’s just to have an equal seat at the table as one of the creative decision makers. And I was aware that there are pluses and minuses to adapting a bestselling novel that’s deeply loved by a number of people. For this, being a deeply spiritual book, it’s deeply loved by lots of people for whom it’s more than a book.
It’s almost a way of looking at their faith as they hadn’t before. So you just can’t steam in there and do what you want…you have to sit there with the studio and the producer and say, ‘Well, if we drop this…or if we change this…is this going to be fine with everybody, or will everybody freak out?’ So whether you’re doing TWILIGHT or FIFTY SHADES or HARRY POTTER – it’s the faith-based version of that.
It’s one of the top 100 bestselling fiction books of all time. So you just can’t screw around with that. That in itself was a challenge – I kind of like challenges. ‘Can I do this?’ You kind of want to know at the outset the challenge; what’s the challenge of making this film? What’s the reward, potentially? But also, what’s the challenge? And that was a challenge…to show that I could do that, and also shoot and definitely lots of different opinions flying around.
The number one yardstick is, ‘Did the people who read the book think you did a good job?’ Most of the time people say, ‘The film wasn’t as good as the book.’ Here most of the people who saw the film have said it’s as good as the book, and a few better. So we’re very happy, the author’s very happy. I’m really happy with the performances, and I think the movie turned out really well.
Everyone go and watch it in June. Talking of challenges, it’s been very difficult to fit every string of interesting conversation into one hour. So we’re probably going to have to spill into the bar for any individual questions. But final one from me – what’s next? I see the AGE OF EYRIE is actually listed on your IMDB?
Yeah, it’s something I’m working on now. I wasn’t the original generator of that project. It was something that a couple of young writers and a new producer came to me with and just engaged me as a consultant and I’ve done some writing on it, but the writers have done an amazing job as well.
It’s the Irish King Arthur, and there’s been many attempts to make a movie about the great, ancient war of Ireland and we just have a particular way into that story that I think is fascinating and has a lot to say about the Irish peace process of late. We’re just looking for a studio who feels the same. I don’t necessarily know if I’m going to direct it. As a writer and a sort of exec producer, I’ve got a real passion for it.