Writer-director Stuart Hazeldine was interviewed as part of our Insider Interviews series way back in 2010, and this Q & A was originally published on our old site. Since this interview came out, Stuart has sat in rooms and talked hard story with Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann, seen not one but two of his major movies burn in the flames of Hollywood’s development hell, and kept the big screenwriting deals rolling in.
Stuart Hazledine Interview, 2010
Going back to the beginning, when did the idea of working in film, entertainment, showbiz/TV first come onto your radar?
I think it came onto my radar before I even consciously knew what I was doing. I was compulsively filling school exercise books with elaborate drawings inspired by watching TV as early as four years old. I didn’t even really know what I was doing. I was just a kid in the corner who was doing SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN robots and all kinds of crazy stuff. I was pretty obsessed with Sci-Fi back then. I think my mother went to an open day, and the teacher asked whether she had any idea how obsessed with science fiction I was and my mum said “he’s not that obsessed with science fiction.” And he said “Mrs. Hazeldine, let me put it this way: If I asked your son to draw me flowers, he’d draw me flowers on Mars.” So that was when I was literally six or seven, and at the time I didn’t even know how movies were made, I didn’t know what a film director was. I think it was just in my DNA and like it is for a lot of kids. It wasn’t really till the first year of University that I thought of doing it as a job, because there are no Careers’ Officers out there telling you how to become a film director. I didn’t really have anyone in my family who was in any way engaged with the entertainment industry, and film cameras were pretty expensive when I was a kid, so I never asked for one and they never game me one. But then I got to University and there was a filmmaking society there that had Super 8 Cameras and film and we’d just go out around the campus shooting stuff. I caught the bug pretty quickly and I just knew from the end of my first term that writing and directing films was what I wanted to do.
Was the big goal always to direct?
Absolutely, yes. From moment one I never planned to be just a writer. Getting into writing, as tough as it is, in comparison to directing is easier and there’s less financial investment. To write you only need to get a software package and write something good. It doesn’t cost a lot. I was always a compulsive writer. I wrote huge long stories in secondary school that I got so involved in I never gave them in for marking in Creative Writing. I never saw any reason to give up the creative leadership of the process if I could carry it all the way. If I could get the original idea, turn it into a script, direct it and see it through to the screen, then why not do that? Then I found out that the film industry occasionally allows that to happen. I think that because I started out with the desire to write and direct I just decided to push on down that road. If I was going to be stopped, I wanted to be stopped by me realising I was inadequate, or by everyone that I knew telling me so. What I didn’t want was to be stopped by people saying that’s not how we do it in the industry. That, to me, is not a legitimate reason. So I just carried on down that road. The reason I chose to specialise in writing in the beginning is because directing features is a job you don’t jump straight into. You either get to direct commercials or pop promos or you get to work up through one of the craft routes: editing, photography, or writing. Out of all those it seemed to me the key was screenwriting, being able to write a great script was the main foundation. And I was aware that a lot of the professional screenwriters who turn into directors fall short in the non-writing departments. They don’t have a sufficiently developed eye or sufficiently developed overall visual vision for the film. So I knew that if I got to be perceived as a writer there would always be that question mark. But I always believed that I had what it took visually; I started out visually when I was a kid, and the writing came second. But going to the film sphere I felt it needed to be the other way around, I wanted to learn the craft of really solid screenwriting. I knew that when the day came for me to direct that I could bring my visual sense out of the closet. I think, thankfully, EXAM has started to show that I’m not just a writer who has leveraged his way into directing but I have actually got some directing skill as well.
Tell us about your early experiences with the industry in that post-University phase when you knew you wanted to be a writer/director…
Well, I think that if you are a creative person wanting to get into a creative industry, you realise you’re going into a highly competitive field. And it behoves you to set aside ten percent of your creativity for developing strategies on getting into the industry, the rest of it can be what you are actually producing, but you need to funnel some of your creativity into “How am I going to make a career of being creative?” The film industry isn’t an easy thing to get into, but it’s also not hiding away. They just want to know that you’ve got a good product, and that you’ve got self-belief. If they are going to give you money, you need to believe that you can deliver before they’ll believe that you can deliver. I came to the conclusion in University that I needed to start getting into the habit of looking at what people around me were doing and trying to be noticed, trying to do something that was a bit more ambitious than what other people were doing, creatively or structurally. So when people were making short Super 8 things, I moved up to video and was making forty-five minute drama. In my third-year I made a feature length movie in my spare time at college. No one else was doing that. Ever since then, I think it was 1991, no one has made a feature-length movie at that University or even in that town. They still show my film on the local TV channels fifteen years later. I was just looking around at the tools I had to work with and thought “what can I do that is more ambitious?” Not because I thought at the time that that was going to get me into the industry but I thought it was a good habit to develop. So when I started out as a screenwriter after graduating, I tried to transpose that attitude and think “what can I do in London, that will get me noticed?” And I came to the conclusion that I should write a huge budget action movie with no regard to what British film companies could actually do. It wasn’t really being done in the early 90’s. There were no eighty-million dollar movies being made in the UK where the story was set in contemporary London. We were doing INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and JUDGE DREDD but we weren’t doing any contemporary British made Hollywood style movies. I thought even if people don’t buy the script, at least I’ll be doing something a bit different to what other people are doing. So I wrote the script called UNDERGROUND, which was basically Die Hard on the London Underground. It was still during the time when those scripts were selling, AIR FORCE ONE hadn’t come out yet. I started hitting the pavements of Soho and I did my research at the BFI for agencies and production companies I wanted to get to know. Screen International, every couple of months, did a whole list of all the development projects for all the production companies. So I very quickly swatted up on which producers liked which kind of genres. I talked to a few producers, one was Jeremy Bolt, Paul W.S. Anderson’s producing partner, they had just made SHOPPING, and Paul Trijbits had just produced THE YOUNG AMERICANS with Danny Cannon. They were sort of hot young producers who very clearly wanted to go to Hollywood and were making flashy, ambitious movies. I thought they would be perfect guys, and managed to get their assistants to read the script and like it; they had been looking to collaborate on a project together for a while. Their interest got me an agent, and my agent pressured them to get their act together and find some money. A French company called Pandora financed the development. That kind of got me into the industry and I was also taking a lot of meetings with other producers at the time who were making far lower budget movies and didn’t have the aspirations that Jeremy and Paul had. Those two wanted to meet me because it was just so weird and they didn’t get those kinds of scripts submitted to them. They were like “What are you doing? Where did you come from? Why are you writing a script of this budget? Are you mad?” But also “This is kind of interesting!” It was just fresh, and script readers will appreciate anything different to the norm. At the time I think there were just a lot of Merchant-Ivory wannabes and there were a lot of kitchen sink and Ken Loach wannabes and I just wanted to do something different. I love Ken Loach and I love Merchant-Ivory but I just wanted to stand out because it’s your best chance of getting in early.
How did things unfold in the years following the initial script sale?
I got paid for every draft of UNDERGROUND that I wrote and I got paid an option renewal fee every twelve months. I think I did three drafts of UNDERGROUND and the option was renewed twice, so that gave me enough to live on for a couple of years. I did one episodic script of a BBC show called BUGS for Carnival Films which I got paid to write but never actually got filmed. It was one of the couple of scripts every season that didn’t just quite come together. Then UNDERGROUND fell apart when Pandora shifted their business model. I needed to figure out what to do next and by that time I had enough ammo, I felt, to get noticed in LA. And I’d been fortunate to have Pandora pay for one trip out to LA for me to do a draft with Jeremy while he was prepping SOLDIER in LA for Warners’ and I got to meet a few agents there and started to get acquainted with the town. So I ended up leaving my agent at Casarotto because I very clearly wanted to go the US and wanted to have an American agent.
During this whole period and from an early age had there been one eye on the studio system and bigger movies?
Yeah, and definitely one eye rather than two because I never wanted to entirely disconnect from the British film industry. That wasn’t really my desire because I like a wide-range of movies. I think I’ll always want to be free to make a smaller more personal British or European movie. But I felt the movies that I liked as a little kid, the Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg movies, they are kind of a young man’s game and I thought if I got in early, I could write those movies at the time when my contemporaries were at a similar age writing those films. There was a nine-month period where I was trying to get signed by any decent agent and all the time I was writing more specs. I wrote something like five specs in eight months. In the end I spent my last thousand pounds on a big trip out to the States, photocopied all my specs at Kinko’s five times, called up every British agent and every British production company, and called whoever was at Scott Free who would meet me, using UNDERGROUND as this thing I had done. I met a couple of agents while I was out there but it initially seemed like the trip hadn’t been successful and I had run out of cash. I ended up being a script reader for New Line for a couple of months, which was a frustrating time because I was reading scripts that were a lot worse than mine and they were coming in from represented writers. But I had to keep the faith, and finally the phone rang and it was a big agent from ICM in LA saying he had read my two scripts and they were really promising, and he wanted to take me on. Then very soon after I got a rewrite job for Ed Pressman, a legendary LA producer, on a project called THE MUTANT CHRONICLES. I rewrote that and they were happy with it so I got to rewrite something else called THE TENTH VICTIM. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lee Tamahori came on based upon my draft so that got me a lot of heat in Hollywood. From then on I was just rewriting in Hollywood. I got rewrite gigs for Disney, sold a picture to Universal and started working with Alex Proyas down in Sydney. I didn’t know it at the time, but that first job in LA back in 1997 was the last time that I wrote something for anyone other than Hollywood. I didn’t write for a British producer again.
Were you ever approached by British producers? Did British opportunities to work come your way or were you under their radar?
I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, I wasn’t represented in the UK so I wasn’t being touted by agents. Secondly, I think there was that slight problem of if you are living in the UK but you’re working in LA they both think you are in the other place. So there’s a certain bit of like “I didn’t even know about you!” Also the moment you start working in America you very quickly price yourself out of the UK market. You might not be trying to do that, that’s just what happens. And you become aware that if you are being offered two projects that are of similar interest to you by a UK company and a US company, you are going to do the US company because it pays better. My first two jobs in Hollywood were not studio jobs, they were not Writers’ Guild jobs which have certain minimums. But even those jobs, even the jobs for Ed Pressman, I was being paid far more than I would have gotten paid in the UK. But you still keep one eye on the industry over here, because if it is something you love then it’s not about money. And I did say to the occasional executive that I met that I am looking to direct, so if you are prepared to back anything that I am writing then it definitely isn’t a financial issue. I’d get lip service from that end but in reality I don’t think they were that interested. You have to prove that you’ve got something. It took me until 2004 to get around to making a short film. Once I made a short film then I started to concentrate my efforts more on transitioning to directing, but still it felt like lip service until I made EXAM. Now I know that people will back me to direct something, but it’s almost like “we’ll only back you to direct a feature when you’ve already directed a feature.” I’m just extremely lucky to have earned enough money from screenwriting in Hollywood that I can invest in my talent to do that. But there will be a lot of people who were in the position I was in who won’t have the money to finance something but who have a lot of talent to offer. So I think it’s a shame that the British industry doesn’t take quite as many risks as it could with new talent. And that’s really for me the two main differences between the two industries. There’s a lot more money in LA and maybe because there’s a lot more money people are prepared to take risks with young talent. A key element of me being successful at a young age was going to America, because over there they weren’t judging me, they weren’t interested in my age, my age didn’t mean anything positive or negative, they just were looking at what was on the page. Over here I think there’s a bit more of a sense of doing your time. It wasn’t that anyone said it to me, but I just got this feeling in the air that if I worked up through the British film industry I would probably be successful five years later than if I worked up through the US industry, and I’m fairly sure that’s true.
Moving onto EXAM, how long were you really really looking for something that ticked all the boxes that EXAM ultimately did i.e. self-financeable? How long were you out there hunting for that material, and then how did that material ultimately come to you? Were you thinking in specific terms?
I was looking for a number of years and I was definitely looking for a low investment, high-yield project that I could invest in, and that I could benefit from as a financier as well as a director. When you write, direct, produce, and finance a movie and you are trying to succeed in all those areas, people think you are either incredibly arrogant or incredibly mad. Possibly both of those are true but I still don’t think it’s legitimate reason for not trying. And if it’s your own money, then you can do whatever the hell you like. And, for me, I’m looking for those opportunities. It was just the case of finding the right idea, and I did have one idea of a low budget of a BLAIR WITCH style scary movie that I wanted to do, but by the nature of the concept it needed to be done in the US. But I don’t really know the LA low budget industry very well. I don’t know the guilds, the unions, and the teamsters and all that kind of stuff and how you negotiate that. And I wasn’t living there, though I was spending two to three months a year in LA, I wasn’t based there. Then this idea popped up that can be shot anywhere, which was the idea for EXAM, which a friend of mind came up with. It’s a sort of a simple idea about candidates going to an exam and turning over their papers to find they’re blank. I just got intrigued with it, and the more I thought about it the more I thought, “Yeah, there’s something there.” It started out as a possible short film to shoot for Cinemark Screen, and when Cinemark Screen turned that down because it was too commercial, that felt to me like a thumb’s up that I should make a feature. I thought I’d been endorsed now. I thought, “what’s the loss of spending a month trying to expand a short script into a feature script?” You spend three months working on other stuff and in the background building up all kinds of ideas. What would I add to the script if it was to expand from forty pages to a hundred pages? What characters would I add? What situations would I invent? What dialogue, etc.? Once you got enough ideas you ask “Can I afford to take a month off and have a stab at this?” Which I could. When I finished most people said this is really promising you just need to look at the ending a bit more. So I did a revision of the ending and tightened it all up, and everyone said this is shootable. Again, I started tentatively doing the same thing with the physicality of production: scouted locations, asked where I would shoot it, who would be my key crew, whether people would be up for something like this with the kind of money I thought I might be able to pay. I think it was April 2008, I had just spent two months working on the set of KNOWING in Melbourne, Australia and I had a nine month window coming up. I thought “The sun is coming up, it’s great time to sheet, I’ve got the money, I think I know how to do this.” I think the beginning of the credit crunch was happening then, and it was looking like there would be a dip in production, which would mean there would be more availability of actors and crew willing to work on your kind of movie. I brought Gareth Unwin on board very early. Gareth really filled in all the gaps in my knowledge of how to physically make it, because he had so much experience with feature film production as a first AD and as a line producer, and I really trusted him. I just thought between my creative instincts and my bank account, and Gareth’s practical knowledge of how to put a film together we can get this thing done within the time allotted and within the budget allotted, and we did. We finished the movie at the beginning of January 2009, which is when I wanted to finish it, and we ended up going thirty grand over budget but it was an overage I could afford. It worked out okay.
Was the intention always to self-finance?
People always say don’t invest your own money. I think in ninety-five percent of cases they are absolutely correct so you should pay attention to that. But, where is the extra risk in investing your own money over investing in something else? It’s generally a skill thing, it’s a very rare thing that someone who has money also has the skill set to carry something off creatively. I had been lucky enough to be earning money from doing what I needed to do to make EXAM so I didn’t feel it was so much of a risk for me. But did I do it wanting to earn a profit and planning to earn a profit? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have invested in any idea, there were ideas I liked that I wouldn’t have invested in, because I wouldn’t have been quite sure that I would be making a profit. With EXAM I looked at the elements and I thought it’s a genre movie, it’s a thriller with a bit of sci-fi, it’s not an itchy personal drama about incest, it’s going to have eight young good-looking British actors in it. The idea of the story also involved different nationalities, and I thought that having different ethnicities in the room would give it more of an international appeal in other territories. It was a containable budget because it was one room, and the stylistic decision that I made to shoot in a 2:3:5 widescreen aspect ratio and to shoot with film over HD, and to get a very Hollywood style score, they were creative decisions that I thought would work. I wanted to make the most cinematic one room movie that had ever been made. I set out to do that and I’m fairly confident I’ve achieved that. Some sales agents felt like this was a really good movie but it wouldn’t sell theatrically to any countries outside of the UK. They were wrong, we sold theatrically to twenty countries.
How did you find producing and directing? And how did you find the balance of your energies ?
I expected writing to be easy and it was because that’s my job. I expected Directing to be hard and it was hard but not as tough as I thought it would be. It was also an incredibly inspiring thing to do. It was something that because I hadn’t done a lot if it, I always felt that I was going to be a natural at it and I was. Producing was really tough, I can do it, I think I can do it quite well, but it takes a lot out of me, it’s not the thing I’m most natural at doing. I don’t mind creative multitasking. I’m quite happy to bounce back and forth on a set between different camera crews and be looking at two different camera feeds on the monitors and supervising two different shots, because I have a clear idea of what I want. But Producing is a sort of a lot of unanticipated problem solving and you’re just more vulnerable to all kinds of different problems and I found I had to rely on Gareth a lot more. Without Gareth I couldn’t have done it all. There is also a certain pressure that comes when you know it’s your own money. There is psychological pressure and it does raise the stress and the blood pressure, and I did get sick, literally medically sick from that. I wouldn’t say I bit off more than I could chew but I almost did.
And your own personal ambitions within the industry, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I think you look forward to moving up through the C, B, and A list. As a writer I’m mostly further up that list than I am as a director. I’m at the top of the B list as a writer, I don’t have big produced credits as a studio writer, but I have done a fair bit of rewriting for some big movies that have been made. I am getting hired to write some big projects by the studios, so I just need a couple of those to get made and get my name on the poster and then I’ll be fully-fledged A-lister. There are a lot of projects a studio would be happy to hire me on as a writer but not as a director. So if someone offered me a project I’ve always wanted to work on and I know the only way to do it is to be a writer, I’ll do that. I’m doing that right now for Warner Bros. Similarly if I get an opportunity to write something for one of my ten favourite directors, David Fincher or Scorsese, I am not going to turn it down because I have a rule that I only write and direct my own stuff. You learn a heck of a lot. I’ve learnt a lot from working with Alex Proyas, and Scott Erickson on PARADISE LOST. But I’d also like to slowly increase the time I spend on writing and directing my own stuff. You can get very lazy as a writer. You get paid big money and you sit at home, and while it’s mentally uncomfortable wrestling with a story, it’s physically a decent lifestyle. I think my temperament is more of that of a writer but I know that my skill-set is just as much director. But I’m not in a rush to decide what I direct next. I just need to be as wise as I can with the second film, because the second film is the one that if you get it right will show you aren’t a one hit wonder. If I direct something next year and it turns out well, then the future as a director looks very rosy.
Where do you think the UK scene is at? More movies than ever are being made over here, how do you think things are unfolding in the UK scene? Is the future bright?
When Hollywood sneezes, Britain catches a cold and Hollywood is sneezing a lot right now. Until we have created a digital filmmaking economy that is profitable for everyone, there’s going to be a lot of insecurity, so it’s not surprising to see some of the bigger British companies being more conservative about the films that they are making right now. We’re used to American studios franchising the hell out of things but it definitely tells you something when the bigger British companies are looking to exploit their existing catalogs and make sequels. We’re in a risk-averse climate and I think that creates opportunities for people who are willing to work outside the box. I think it created an opportunity for me with EXAM. I think it created an opportunity for Matthew Vaughan with KICK-ASS: he made something he knew there was an audience for but something the conservative shareholder approved studios couldn’t make, or wouldn’t make.
Looking at the UK’s relationship to film in simple terms: we have a population to drive a box office, we have talent both in front and behind the camera proven by our consistent presence during awards season, we have the financial infrastructure as a nation and a great history of filmmaking. So why do so few British films financed exclusively in Britain and created by British talent rarely clear £10m at the UK Box office?
There are three reasons. Reason 1: We share the same language with the market leader America. Their distribution mechanism is that much stronger than those that British film companies have. 2: British audiences, as much as they like films, don’t like films in the way that Americans do. Americans see films as their national pastime, national entertainment. They talk about what film came number 1 in the box office last weekend in a way Brits don’t. They follow film in a different way, they are that much more into it than we are. 3: Land in the UK per square foot is more expensive and so the ground rent that exhibitors have to pay for their cinemas is higher. Exhibitors take something like ten pence more out of every pound than American exhibitors do, and that has a knock-on effect. British distributors and especially British producers see less profit from a theatrical run from a movie; it’s just that much harder for us to earn our money back and be able to plough our money into filming features.
Stuart Hazeldine – Quick-Fire Round
Favourite films? ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, AMADEUS
Favourite screenwriter? Steve Zallian, William Goldman
Favourite director? Peter Weir, Ridley Scott
Favourite performance by an actor? Robert DeNiro in RAGING BULL & CAPE FEAR
Favourite TV Show? THE WIRE, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
Favourite movie star? Early DeNiro
Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese? Scorsese, like both
Shane Meadows of Ken Loach? Ken Loach
Pacino or DeNiro? De Niro
Carey Mulligan or Emma Watson? Emma Watson
Chuck Norris or Stephen Segal? Chuck Norris is god
Last film you saw? GLADIATOR
Last film you loathed? REDACTED (Brian DePalma)
Last film you loved? KICK ASS, A PROPHET
Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with? Peter Weir, Ridley Scott
Teenage movie crush? Usherette at my local cinema