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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?’
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our Insider Interview with Tim Bevan?
Continued inside the vault…
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