Will Sharpe: Q&A

The writer and co-director of British indie flick Black Pond on the hard graft and determination that got his first feature made.

Published on 8 February 2012.

What first inspired you to get into your craft?
The honest response is that I don’t really know. I’ve always liked making things and writing things. I knew that I would never survive doing an office job for example. One very inspiring thing was something Armando Iannucci said at a talk once, which is that nobody knows what they’re doing. Everybody in every industry is just people doing their best, finding out as they go along and hoping that nobody notices they’re just muddling along. I think once you know that, it’s normal to feel like you don’t know anything, you know that you might as well get on with doing it.

How did you first break into the industry?
My first professional work was as an actor. I got signed at the Edinburgh Festival doing a sketch show. But all the work I got was for theatre and TV. So I met a lot of actors and learned a fair amount of technical stuff on TV sets – simply by asking the crew questions when I didn’t understand how something worked. But the film industry specifically – I think it’s a dangerous thing to think of yourself as ‘in the industry’.

Tom Kingsley [Black Pond co-director] and I just decided to make a film and when it became clear that it was highly unlikely we’d get any backing, we just decided to do everything ourselves: raising the money, casting, finding the crew and the kit, editing it (on our laptops), grading it and doing the FX (on our laptops) and even publicizing it and distributing it. So now, because we did somehow end up with a finished film, we are officially ‘filmmakers’. But as far as we were concerned, we were filmmakers before anybody else had decided we were – that’s why we decided to make a film. I think it’s better not to think about ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the industry. Just make the film.

Which professional figure in your field do you find the most inspiring?
I read ‘Rebel Without A Crew’ by Robert Rodriguez. It tells the story of how he made El Mariachi pretty much single-handedly – that made me feel better about how we were planning to go about things. Anyone who manages to do consistently good work, I suppose.

If you hadn’t managed to break into your field, what was your plan B?
I didn’t have one. I suppose plan A was for everything to fall into place very easily – people love your scripts, they want to pay you to work for them, they want to fund your film. And plan B was for everything to fall into place through sheer hard work and determination – nobody’s listening, of course nobody cares, we’re going to have to do this without anyone’s help. What we discovered was that plan B is actually much better: you learn a lot more a lot more quickly; what you lack in convenient funding etc you make up for several times over with having 100% creative control – which is invaluable and crucial.

Which film/TV programme do you wish you could have worked on?
I love Hal Ashby’s films… It would be really interesting to see how Woody Allen works. Crimes and Misdemeanours? Anything from the 70s/80s with Dustin Hoffman in it…? A tricky question. I’m just happy watching all of the above to be honest!

What single piece of advice would you give to a young person trying to break into your discipline and get noticed? How do you stand out from the crowd?
Don’t wait for somebody else to do it all for you. Just do whatever it takes to make it happen. You need to make all the mistakes first hand and then you’ll learn a lot quicker. There’s no secret crib sheet telling you how to make a film. Take all advice with a pinch of salt. Nobody knows the ‘right way’ to make a film. But anybody is capable of making one.

Were there any people who supported/mentored/championed you in the early stages of your career? How important are these kinds of relationships?
Ben Wheatley had just made Down Terrace in a similar way to how we’d made Black Pond and was very encouraging and supportive. Tom and I are very lucky to work as a pair because it means we sort of mentor and support each other. Chris Langham showed us enormous support even just by taking a risk and agreeing to do the project. He’d turned down other scripts in the past, so we felt unbelievably lucky when he came on board as one of the leads. He has an incredibly generous spirit and a phenomenal energy about him. He’s been a really important part of this film, giving us feedback, travelling around with us to do Q&As. It’s great to see somebody who loves what he does and who is prepared to throw so much of himself into it.  

How do you think the UK film/TV industry will change in the next few years?
Well there are cheaper and cheaper ways to make film, so hopefully that means there’ll be a whole upsurge of young and talented people who think, ‘You know what? Why don’t I just do this?’ That would be a really healthy thing for the industry. I think it’s way too commercialised. Too many decisions are based on greed and cowardice. Also, people know now that you can achieve anything with special effects. I remember when The Matrix came out I was really impressed with the action sequences. But everybody knows now that anything you can visualize in your head you can realise on screen – so hopefully we’ll move away from bombastic FX fests and back towards good stories well told.

Find out more about the Outstanding Debut Award presented in honour of Carl Foreman.