The British writer/director of Submarine on breaking into the industry, the mystery of PR and the many inspirational Andersons.
First published in October 2010; updated in February 2012.
What first inspired you to get into your craft?
It was largely accidental. I did comedy at university, and most of it was utterly unforgivable guff propped up by the talents of others. Not much has changed since then. I think I’ve managed to get ideas past people when they were weary or bored. I’ve been lucky.
How did you first break into the industry?
Difficult to say what the exact point was. I think getting to co-write and perform shows at the Edinburgh Festival in a vaguely professional capacity.
Which professional figure in your field do you find the most inspiring?
I like Paul Thomas Anderson a great deal. He’s both inspiring because he’s so audacious and brilliant and unique and depressing because he’s so audacious and brilliant and unique. Wes Anderson’s great. Roy Andersson. All the Andersons. Mike Nichols. Ingmar Bergman. Woody Allen. Jaques Tati. David Lynch. It seems weird to say this, because I know him, but Chris Morris is very inspiring. He’ll vomit if he ever happens upon this, but he is.
If you hadn’t managed to break into your field, what was your plan B?
To not break into the field, thus making it a kind of ‘plan A’.
Which film/TV programme do you wish you could have worked on?
The shipping forecast.
How did you come to choose Submarine as your debut feature?
It just so happened I was doing music videos at Warp Films; they’d optioned the book and thought I might be a good person to try and adapt it. I guess I’ve always liked the subject of adolescence, and I think that I also thought that if they liked the script I’d also get to direct it.
Submarine is the first script you’ve adapted. How did that differ from penning original scripts?
You just hope it’ll be operable in a way that allows you to move forward. However, you tend to be so enmeshed in the problems of simply trying to squeeze out the writing you tend not to look past the end of any particular draft.
There were quite a number in this case, at least 10. It becomes difficult to know just what is a draft after a while because you never really stop tinkering with it; you change stuff up until shooting, then during shooting. We’d even film something, look back at it, tinker, then film again.
How does your experience as an actor affect your approach to directing?
You’re certainly mindful of what can be undermining to you as an actor. When you’re directing there’s so much hyper-oxygenated fizz going on around you all the time, whereas as an actor there are often great waves of inactivity while you’re hanging around.
It can be a maddening process to try and act on a film set after you’ve been waiting around in the drizzle for seven hours and then suddenly you’re on for two minutes in front of 50 people before the light goes.
As a director you must try and think about that: to try if possible to understand the actor’s way of going about stuff and not just focus on your own problems at the time. One of the worst things you can say as a director is when an actor asks, ‘was that OK?’ you simply reply, ‘I’ve got to move on.’
Actors are often treated like idiots who are able to do something but are still felt, essentially, to be in the way. Acting is potentially a very humiliating and exposing thing to do, and you should try to avoid making them feel that.
Was it a big leap from writing and directing for TV to film?
In terms of writing, I suppose it was a big jump… well, different simply because of the demands between the two. In the film, it’s much more about the pace and weight and having to be more structured so it’s sustained for longer.
As for directing, I don’t really know. As with TV, it’s often just a response to the writing. It’s been different with all the various things I’ve done so this time round hasn’t felt like a particular sea change.
It’s perhaps different for other reasons. For instance, we shot the film with all natural light which you just wouldn’t do for TV; another one was that with TV you normally have a transmission date so you’re always hurtling towards that with people editing as you go along so they can get out the first episode in a block.
With a film, there doesn’t seem to be quite that sort of pressure and you can keep the thing as a whole. In a way, TV is harder because of the volume and how quick you have to be.
Were there any people who supported/mentored/championed you in the early stages of your career? How important are these kinds of relationships?
Virtually everyone you work with helps in some way. I haven’t done anything that hasn’t had some kind of collaboration and they’re all very important. I don’t want to name them in case they’re ashamed or feel that they’re in some way responsible for the fact that I’ve managed to get work.
What single piece of advice would you give to a person trying to break into your discipline and get noticed? How do you stand out from the crowd?
I don’t know how to get people to notice what you do. That seems to lie in the murky world of PR, an area that’s completely mysterious to me.
There are so many brilliant things that are undiscovered and so many terrible things that are celebrated, so I think it is potentially dangerous to assume that there’s some kind of logic or underlying merit to popular success. I think you have to do what you think is right and keep your fingers crossed.
1. Trying not to get depressed definitely applies to both. You need be healthy so don’t get a cold.
2. Noah Taylor [who plays Oliver’s father in Submarine] told me the main thing as director was to get comfortable shoes because you don’t sit down for two months.
3. The best tip for directing I ever heard came from Roman Polanski who apparently said: You rehearse a scene, then you stand where you want to see it, and that’s where you put the camera.