Congratulations on Benjamin. I saw it at the weekend and loved it. How are you feeling about releasing your first feature film?
Yeah, I’m weirdly calm. I think because I like it. And also when we premiered it at London Film Festival the reaction was so good. Everyone laughed and seemed to feel things at all the right times. Unlike Benjamin, who is an anxious lunatic – or a bit like the anxious lunatic that I was a few years ago – it’s not life or death to me.
Did you study film?
No. I did Media Studies A Level, and part of that was film, but no, I didn’t go to film school or university at all. I’m very unqualified. Could you tell?
No, not at all.
Well, that’s ok then. I definitely worked with people who had been to film school. And all the actors had learned to act. In Media Studies I remember watching Blade Runner and learning the words ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘semiotics’, and that was all I needed to make a feature film. So no, I didn’t go to film school, but I feel like, in terms of writing it, I’ve been writing things for a long time – whether it’s sketches or jokes or longer stories or bits of very personal standup – so that didn’t feel like such a leap… I don’t know what to say… I didn’t go to film school… but I could. I could still go if I wanted to.
I suppose what I meant to say was how did you get into directing?
James Righton, who did the music for the film, asked me to direct a music video for one of the songs from his first solo album under the name Shock Machine. We got on really well and I thought that he’d be a lovely person to work with, should, at some point, a film need some music. And I directed a film for the BBC called Carnage [set in 2067, when the UK is 100% vegan].
What’s nice for me about directing is that I am finally allowed to be the person that I’ve been all along. Which is the guy who is in charge. Y’know, I’ve been working in TV from about the age of 18, and when I first started I had to constantly find a way to make the thing that I was doing the way I wanted it to be, because officially I wasn’t the person who should be making those decisions. So it’s official now – I’m the guy who gets to say yes or no to things.
So did you always want to be the director, then? Was that the end goal?
I’m trying to think… I went to a Saturday morning stage school when I was 13, and I remember writing for the annual variety show two short plays, because I thought then I’d be able to give myself a good part… Also, when I was 10, my little sister was born and a camcorder was purchased to document her growth, and I stole that camcorder and started making little films with my brother, of puppet shows and things. Maybe that’s the moment.
I was fixated on television, initially, although the references for the film were Woody Allen and John Cassavetes, in terms of the metropolitan, anxiety-fueled humour and the rawness of the performances in Cassavetes’s films – I thought if I can get some of that in this, that’d be quite good.
This is a little bit of a spoiler, but your film starts inside Benjamin’s own film, which is clearly trying too hard. When the film started, I thought I’m not sure I’m going to make it through this, and I’ve got to meet you today to talk about it. So I was very relieved when it transpired that that was not your film.
I know, I know. Imagine being sat in the audience watching it with people.
Did you feel their sense of relief at that same moment?
Yes. There was a big laugh when the first title card came up, I think because the character said something funny, but ultimately because it was such a relief that the film they’d been watching up to that point wasn’t the film.
You mentioned you were fixated on television initially. It is true that when you were a kid you went on GamesMaster?
It is, yeah. I was 12 or 13. I feel like I lost a tennis game very badly, to someone from Romford. My team was the Essex Allstars and his team were the Romford Raiders. That’s my memory of it. And he did his game first and got a very good score, and he said to me, very aggressively, ‘beat that!’, which really threw me. But I wasn’t good at games.
But you were on GamesMaster?
Partly I just wanted to be on the television, but also I just wanted to see how television worked. So I would often go and watch TV shows being made, as an audience member, to see cameras moving across the floor. It was so silly – we went to see the Lottery once, which was 15 minutes long. My mum took me. It was Carol Vorderman presenting it, and I think Dolly Parton performed. And then they read out the lottery numbers and we went home.
I suppose similarly, when I decided that I wanted to direct this film, I started turning up to different sets, to check I was capable of doing it, and I went to one film set in New York where I witnesses such a badly written film being made, by a director that everyone seemed to dislike, and I thought, oh, I think I can write something better than this, and get on with people better. It kind of took the mystery out of it for me.
What kind of director are you?
A brilliant one! … Maybe I’m an actor’s director. I really like working with actors and finding people who are brilliant, and letting them do the thing that they can do. I tend to just say ‘go nuts’ to people. With James for the soundtrack as well; he asked me what it should be and I said, ‘I don’t know – just go nuts’.
So you’re not a director who shouts at everyone?
There’s no shouting. That would just be horrific. You’d just end up with really bad performances, I would think. It’s so important for the actors to feel safe, so they can reveal themselves on screen. The idea that you’d be screaming at them is so insane.
What made you decide to cast someone else as Benjamin rather than yourself?
Well, I wrote it five years ago, and I was thinking then that it would make sense if I was Benjamin because I’d written him in my voice. But then, having directed a couple of things that I wasn’t in, I felt very much at home directing rather than being in front of the camera. It was a real relief meeting Colin Morgan who made me laugh and also made me feel for him, which meant that I could tell this story without needing to be in it, and potentially make the film worse. I’m much more comfortable directing – acting was always a struggle.
You were good in Grandma’s House, though.
Well it depends who you ask. I don’t know what would have to happen for me to do that again.
It’s an obviously thing to say, but it seems like there’s a lot of you in the character of Benjamin.
I wrote it trying to figure out what was wrong with me. What had happened in my 20s? What were some of those relationships about? What was I doing that meant that I wasn’t finding love very easily, or very easy? And I learned through writing the script that I was someone who was terrified of intimacy. Because that’s Benjamin’s problem – he’s a person who is so obsessed with how people perceive him, as this filmmaker guy who made a great film once, that he’s unable to do anything else. He’s a person who’s used to going to a lot of effort in order to get some love. He’s not used to just being present with another human being without feeling like he has to be someone better. And that’s his journey – this beautiful musician character, Noah, comes and very patiently undoes all of his manic ego.