Director Paul Wright talks about serendipity, beginner’s luck and being hand-picked by the NFTS.
Simran Hans: Tell me about your first short film.
Paul Wright: That was the first thing I’d written. When you’re at film school, films get made, and I was fortunate enough that mine got picked. I just saw that as a chance. There was a real naiveté about it.
Up until then I’d been at the film school and I’d done a bit of everything; I was editing, and playing with cinematography and sound, all these things. With that film it just kind of clicked together. From there, I knew what I really wanted to do – writing and directing.
Because it was nominated for the main BAFTA as well, Lynda [Myles] who was head of directing at the NFTS [National Film and Television School] reached out and said, “I really loved the film, have you thought about applying for the NFTS?”. I guess I was fortunate that these little moments worked out that way.
That was a calling card for the NFTS. When did you decide you were ready to make a feature and how did For Those in Peril come about?
I’d made one short, and that was like a three or four day shoot (and then the edit, obviously), but my experience of working with actors and directing was very limited. Going to the NFTS was amazing because – and I know people in film schools have different experiences – but for me, it was that it felt like a real luxury to be able to focus on nothing but directing for two years.
I made four short films there – five actually, because I made one with Creative Scotland during the summer holiday. I made five more short films during that two years and that was invaluable, and each of the shorts kind of gradually picked up a momentum of their own and have done well at festivals.
That culminated in my grad film [Until the River Runs Red] at the NFTS winning the BAFTA for Best Short Film, but before the BAFTA and all that, I was very lucky that the BFI and Film4 and Creative Scotland kind of had me on their radar and seemed to like my work. They were very supportive of and very interested in what I was gonna do next.
Polly [Stokes] was also at the NFTS with me, and ended up being one of the producers on the film. She’d started working at Warp, and Warp really liked my short films. So I met with Mary [Burke, then executive producer at Warp Films], and she basically said, “We want to try and help you make your first feature film,” and I was like “Great, let’s do it!”.
It sounds crazily serendipitous.
No, no, it’s true and I realise that now. Warp had a scheme called Warp X - they made 10 feature films, and it was this idea that it was a set budget [of £400,000-£800,000 for first features]. I think Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and things like that, you know, Tyrannosaur (by Paddy Constantine). They’d made some good films, and as luck would have it, they had one slot left. I don’t know exactly how it worked – if there was literally a pot of money there waiting – but they were like, we’ve got this scheme, we think you could be a good fit. And then the BFI and Film4 who were doing this scheme with Warp were in agreement.
It almost seems like you didn’t have to try in those early stages to do the sort of networking that a lot of people have to do.
I’d done the rounds whilst graduating, meeting up with production companies, but I think Warp and Mary and Polly especially, they almost went a step further, like “We’re gonna do this with you”. They told me to go away for a month or two and come back with three ideas that could be this mysterious first feature. And so that’s what I did.
How did you feel when you were asked to come up with three big pitches that had a lot riding on them?
It becomes an organic thing – in the back of my mind there were things floating about. I had ideas books that I would write down things that I was interested in – you know, the kernel of a potential idea. It become quite clear, both to me and to them, that what became For Those in Peril was the one. That was the one that I was most passionate about.
What was the hardest part of the whole ‘making’ of the film?
With the writing, the first attempt was different to what the film ended up being. It was hard getting one or two things to click together.
I had half a dozen images that were very striking to me, so I think the starting place was the boy that turns into a fish. I had to ask myself how to get to a stage where that image has meaning and emotional power. You’ve seen the film – it’s very fragmented and there’s lots of different textures and mediums – so it was about how to get that jigsaw together in a script format. There were loads of images and little moments, which is the way I write my short films as well, but obviously for a feature it’s about trying to make sure it sustains itself over 90 minutes, giving it that pace and progression where you’re building towards something.
What about in terms of the production, do you have a memory where you thought “I can’t do this”?
What’s always gotten me through is trying not to be too up or too down. It was about trying to keep your eye on the goal – which was the film and each of these scenes. Of course things went wrong for each scene, but the whole crew and I felt like we were all committed to doing this thing.
But I’m making it sound like it was a breeze, which it wasn’t. The main issue was probably the amount of material, which made it ambitious. Most scripts have one or two scenes per page, with some that are five or six pages. The script for For Those in Peril had a kind of relentless quality about the fragmented nature of it, and of course we had to film all of these things so it became about how best to manage time, and about prioritizing the time, and how to get the best possible material. I think that’s with every shoot, that’s time and money.
Did you have to do any convincing with your producers or maybe with the funding bodies you were working with to try and convince them that as complicated or fragmented as it looked on the page, it was going make sense on the screen?
They had blind faith! [Laughs] Obviously they’d seen the shorts, and these were things that were present there, so I think without the short films I’d really have struggled.
When you’re just a kid with an idea, I think it’s easy for other people not to have total faith in what you’re trying to do. I think, fortunately, having a bunch of short films that had had some success helped with their confidence. Of course there were a thousand discussions about each scene, but the overall feeling was that they felt this was going to work.
You met your producer at the NFTS. What do you think is important to bear in mind for a filmmaker when they’re looking for a producer to work with on a first feature?
Polly worked as much in pre-production as script editor, which was great. She was probably the main voice in me once I was writing, sending her stuff. It’s important – especially when it’s not completely conventional – that someone gets your stuff, and someone that likes your stuff. It’s obvious, but then suddenly every conversation is relevant. That as a starting point feels like really good, safe place.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you were making your first feature?
The biggest difference between making a feature and making shorts was the length of time spent on the project. I think it’s about figuring out how best to pace that, because everyone who’s made a short will know you go crazy for a couple of weeks. A short from start to finish is usually two or three months, or six months at the most, whereas with this film, it was two and a half years.
What are your tips for not becoming a total workaholic during the making of your first feature?
I think with your first feature it’s difficult; there’s so much riding on it and it is uncharted territory. If I could do it again, I would manage my time differently because to work at that kind of intensity, non-stop, can be difficult.
But the only real advice I have is to stay true to the idea. Keeping hold of why I was doing this got me through. When it’s been a bad day, or something’s not gone right, you can return to that idea and find the answers there.