When people ask you ‘so, what do you do?’ How do you introduce yourself?
I usually say “I’m here for the free booze”. I wish that were a joke, but I find it a bit awkward explaining the film maker thing so I fob it off and ask the other person what it is they do and generally end up with a new friend
What’s the first thing you do when you get on ‘set’
Usually I make a coffee and pester the DoP about what I want to do first. On the first day of a shoot I try to hit the ground running and start with a more complicated shot. On Nightshooters we started with that single shot where all the film crew are introduced. On Fistful of Lead we had horses and a drone. Even on COLIN we had the long shot of our soon-to-be zombie coming home, having wandered the streets of an emerging zombie apocalypse. Putting down a bloody hammer, watching a neighbour die before washing his hands and stepping back where we see that single trickle of blood slowly emerge from under his sleeve. I think Alastair Kirton has anxiety dreams that we’re still trying to get that shot. I know I do!
Do you have any traditions that you have when you are involved in a project?
I usually watch a few films before starting a shoot. Living in Oblivion is a good one. It keeps you grounded. I like a shoot to be fun and energetic. So I watch films about passionate people making a film. The other is American Movie, which is also my favourite documentary. A habit I have as things move on is to get further and further away from consulting the script. My amazing script supervisors usually stash my annotated script somewhere and I never really look at it again. Not even when editing. I enjoy the whole organic thing of finding a film and shots and working with the space we find ourselves in.
What was the most recent book you read?
I’m gonna look like a proper nerd now! I’ve been reading “On Film Making” by Alexander MacKendrick. I’m about to start writing another feature and MacKendrick’s is easily one of the most amazing books published on film making, backed up with the experience of a great film maker who had success and failure on the front line of film making. I’ve read it before and my habit is to just pick it up, flick to a chapter and start reading. I recommend it for all film makers.
Out of all the projects youve been involved with which one do you feel the most proud of?
Although I think it was a little rushed in post production, I think Nightshooters is one that I’m very pleased with. Everyone worked so hard on that film. 17 nights in a dusty building in the middle of nowhere. Great performances, some fun action and the freedom to wreck the place we were shooting in because it was going to be demolished as soon as we wrapped. It was a lot of fun. We literally shot one scene in a room, then smashed it up in order to save time moving the generators and suddenly it was an entirely different room! It’s not exactly a French-reverse, but that technique must have some name. Probably something more aggressive. A “Dothraki Reverse” or something.
What’s the most ‘starstruck’ you have been?
I don’t often get starstruck. I do get very excited though. I was working with Michael Caine on something recently and when the subject of working on Muppet’s Christmas Carol came up it was like a rapid fire round where I asked a stream of questions. Although Jim Henson had died by the time Caine started work on Christmas Carol, I’m a huge fan and it was great to hear how much of his spirit was potent on a film I’ve grown up with. I should have been excited to be in a room with 3 people and Michael frickin Caine, but what we talked about excited me more. Does that make sense?
What was one of the most memorable films you saw as a child?
Jaws was the first one that left a mark on me. There were a lot, but Jaws was the most potent. It shook me to my core and remember feeling I had to hide how scared I was or my parents would turn it off. I needed to see how it ended. I also think my love of cinema came from the first two movies I saw in the cinema. Return of the Jedi and Superman III. I think something must have happened seeing characters I was familiar with in a room full of strangers who all enjoyed seeing them on a massive cinema screen. I’ve always been fascinated with the experience of an audience and this must have started there.
What do you find the hardest part of your creative process and how do you deal with it?
I think that writing is that part that takes the most concentration. I focus on structure more than anything else and love the idea of consequences to an action. Be it a small decision that results in a huge dramatic outcome, or a big decision that fails and causes a series of smaller problems. Every time I’ve attempted to fall into line with a more basic hero’s journey structure, I find it impossible. I love that structure, but I quickly descend into the structure I have more affinity for. Which is similar in many ways to how I’ve heard the Coen Brothers describe their own films. I’m paraphrasing but they said something like “Our characters dig a hole… cause a problem and try digging more to get out of trouble but cause more problems for themselves… It goes on like that till the end”.
What is one of the best pieces of advice you can remember being given and from whom?
This was from an old man in Swansea. As a teenager, my equivalent of a paper round was selling these scratch cards for Cancer Research. I remember chatting to this lovely fella regularly and would always look forward to chatting with him. He’d show me these photos he took from his time in the war and was interesting and understated. But you could tell he had lived a rich and exciting life. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said “Direct films”. And he said “There are a certain number of directors. But there are more people in the crew, camera department, art department. Learn those trades and then when you’re a director you will understand what everyone does”. So I started playing with cameras, editing. The stuff all young film makers have figured out these days. But to young-me it was a revolutionary thought. I’ve distilled the advice down to “Just make films! Grab your phone and some friends and start shooting stuff”
If you could change one thing about the industry you are in, what would it be?
The beauty of film and film making, especially now, is that technology has become democratised and we are seeing films from across the class spectrum. Which is very exciting to me. In the 90s you HAD to have money to make a film because film stock was expensive to acquire or, even if you got it for free, expensive to develop. Now we can shoot 4k on our phones. I used to teach film making in Kilburn in the early Noughties and there were a wealth of stories and film makers emerging from that area alone to get me excited about the films we will see in the future. Especially now that the distribution model has shifted so dramatically and given some ownership to film makers. Film is always changing, evolving and reshaping. It’s amazing to me that an industry that’s never stood still in terms of technique and technology has so many people longing for specific moments like shooting on film or practical effects. You don’t have to commit to just one technique. You can use everything.
Do you read reviews of projects you work on?
I don’t really. I’ve read a few great ones and some bad ones, but I don’t really have the narcissism to have much interest. I’m endlessly amused at the lack of hubris when someone Tweets a review of my film at me. I’m happy to directly communicate and talk about anything. But sending me a 5 page breakdown of what I did and how they understood or misunderstood it is a bit dull to me.
If you had to make a ‘bucket list’ of people you’d love to work with, tell me one name who would be on it?
This is where I get weird. The people I want to work with in this sense would be the people behind the scenes rather than actors. And even then it’s more an opportunity to talk with them. I got very excited to see that Phil Tippet recreated stop motion for The Force Awakens and that a good friend of mine has worked with and sustained a relationship with Nick Gillard. Oh, I’m a Star Wars fan, by the way! I’d love to work with Ken Ralston just so I could pick his brains about Return of the Jedi or Dean Cundey about working with John Carpenter and Spielberg. Like I said earlier, I was working intimately with Michael Caine but all I wanted to talk about were The Muppets. I can’t tell if my perspective here is a little skewed.
Neil Corbould has been working with my special effects and atmospheric guru, so when I was invited to Longcross to look at what we could borrow for Nightshooters I was very star struck. His work on Saving Private Ryan still baffles me and it was surreal showing him explosions that I wanted to recreate only for him to say “Oh I still have what we did to create that! You can borrow it if you like!”
Do you prefer day shoots or night shoots?
Day shoots! I remember at the start of Nightshooters telling everyone it would be a period of adjustment and then everything would be fine. I used to work nights in my early 20s and remember it being exactly that. But on Night 3 of the shoot I turned to someone and said “I fucked up! This is exhausting! How are we gonna get through this!?” Then pasted a smile on my face and pretended everything was fine for 14 more nights. The film we shot immediately after Nightshooters was a day shoot and hands down the easiest film I’ve ever made by comparison. But in all fairness that’s entirely down to my incredible producer Michelle Parkyn’s excellent scheduling skills.
What is one of your most favourite locations you have filmed in?
I think Falmouth in Cornwall. We shot for about 4 days on MAGPIE, which was the film I made after COLIN that didn’t really take off as much as we would have liked. It was about two estranged young parents who take their son’s coffin from the funeral to give him a more fitting burial. We arrived at our accommodation at night and the next morning I heard everyone wake up to this glorious view with an excited squeal. Our shooting plans devolved to pointing in a direction and saying “Let’s go there to shoot today!”
What film always makes you laugh?
Team America! Ghostbusters! That bit in Close Encounters where Dreyfuss thinks his watch is waterproof! I have a thing for tonal shifts or what may seem incongruous. The score in Team America is surprisingly sincere, which makes it funnier. Same for most of the score in Ghostbusters. More than that, the ghosts are taken seriously and pitched as scary…. That scene with the “waterproof watch” in Close Encounters comes in the middle of an extremely dramatic scene. Grosse Pointe Blank is an entire movie functioning with amazing tonal shifts. The action towards the end is dangerous whilst simultaneously very funny.
What film scares you?
ET. That’s it. Nothing else scares me. Not sure why. I know I’m not alone. But ET freaks me out. Always has. Despite it being one of my favourite films.
What film do you love that you feel most people might not be aware of?
I wonder if it’s fair to say people aren’t aware of it, but I do think Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. It’s superbly written by Frank Darabont, the cast are great, the effects are inventive and I love introducing it to friends who haven’t seen it. It always lands without fail and there’s a specific scene that is a good indicator of how on board they are. I don’t want to spoil it but I guarantee that you’ll never laugh harder when someone says the word “Ribbed!”
In your creative roles? What is the longest day that you’ve ever had?
The problem with such packed schedules is that it never feels like there are enough minutes in the day. And it’s important to me that we don’t overrun on a shoot. The thing to remember is that no matter how much you get everyone on board with your story and passion, it’s not the same for all of them. Asking them to stay on an extra hour every day just isn’t right. Imagine asking someone to stay on an extra hour at McDonalds or Asda. Not for money. But because the manager REALLY wants to be that little bit better. You’d tell those managers to go fuck themselves.
Do you have any ‘props or keepsakes from your films?
Not really… Not for any sentimental reasons, at least. I have the costumes from Nightshooters but that’s because they’re great and we can re-use them in other films. When it comes to our westerns, it’ll be a fun drinking game to see how many hats, jackets and revolvers are re-used in each one. I did notice the coffin from Magpie at my parent’s place last year. My dad spotted that if it were moved a certain way you got the most amazing creaky-door sound effect. So I recorded it and popped it in our CBBC pilot!
Have you ever gotten someone’s autograph? Which is the most memorable for you?
Argh! I must come across like the most unenthusiastic guy! I don’t think I have ever tried nabbing anyone’s autograph. Roger Corman follows me on Twitter, which I should add to the starstruck question. But I suspect he thinks I’m Marc Price from “Trick or Treat” and “Family Ties”. Coincidentally I AM friends with that Marc Price and we gossip occasionally about low budget films and even joked about a Trick or Treat sequel and he really got me thinking about what that could be.