The Survivalist

Dionne Farrell talks pain, passion and perseverance with The Survivalist Writer/Director Stephen Fingleton.

16 December 2016
By Dionne Farrell
Dionne spent two years working in factual programming on a variety of projects, before joining the BFI as a trainee Script Editor.
Dionne Farrell: You were born in Derry/Londonderry. Can you speak about your experience of not growing up in a film hub such as London?
Stephen Fingleton: I was born in Derry/Londonderry, but I was raised in Warrenpoint in the 80s and then Enniskillen in the south west of Northern Ireland in the 90s. There were very few film opportunities; it was relatively isolated in terms of trying to make movies. Even today there is no BFI Film Academy that caters for kids in the south west – the nearest Academy is in Derry. 
I didn't have access to equipment, so I didn't really get a chance to make movies until I came to London. What I did get a chance to do was write, watch a lot of films, and plan a lot of things I was going to do. 
There were a few likeminded people around at the time, but today I think it might be possible to find people who are interested via the internet. You've just got to set your mind to it, look for people in a very specific way and think, “how am I going to find people in a small area?”
After moving to London and making films at university, what enabled you to get your foot through the industry door and your work seen?
I was making films on my own for years. There were incremental changes that happened. I worked with established actors on a student film at university, which was the first thing in terms of connections to the real world. Then I basically applied to everything I could. I applied to the Guiding Lights scheme, I applied to every short film competition, and was rejected from everything.
In terms of a breakthrough, I was given funding by Film London to make a short film back in 2008, although I think by mistake. They told me I hadn't got the money, and then they called me later to say I had. When the executive role changed hands, the new exec did their best to take the money back from me, and that was a very difficult political process. I also had a very difficult relationship with my crew. I didn't particularly like the film, but it did get into the London Film Festival. It was a big deal for me that it got into an internationally respected festival.
Then I did a very low budget short film called Shirin, which was rejected by Film London. Shirin had a limited profile in the short film world because some people found it too shocking, too extreme, and the subject matter too difficult. Shirin led to me being shortlisted for Coming Up, a scheme run by Channel 4 where you could have a half-hour film broadcast on television. But I didn't get through to the final selection. That was the closest I got to ever breaking through with the short film schemes.
I was at a dead end, so I finished writing a feature script I was working on called The Survivalist, which I sent to Northern Ireland Screen for their New Talent Focus scheme. They sent it to a producer, and she sent it to a UK agent, and the UK agent sent it to a US agent, and the US agent sent it to some people they knew. Then the script went everywhere in Hollywood, and within a week I had a number of agents vying for me, from some of the biggest agencies in the world. My in could be seen as Northern Ireland Screen, but if I had written that script and spent a week networking, I think the script would have spread on its own. 
Up until then nobody was giving me a chance. I was getting better as a writer, and I wrote a script that ended up on The Black List, Hollywood’s list of the year’s best unmade scripts. That's the brute force way in – write something they can’t ignore. I was still trying to do things the establishment way, but nobody could care less, so I just focused on the work I was doing, and made that work better. 
What advice would you give to anyone dealing with rejection?
Pain is useful because it is a feedback mechanism for you. Pain is a good teacher. You're feeling pain because you're challenging yourself, you're putting stuff out there. Really that's a good thing. But what you've got to judge is whether your work isn't good enough, and if so why that is. You have to combine an ability to be emotionally resilient with an awareness of where you're at in the industry. 
You need to make sure you're getting good feedback so that you know exactly how good your work is at certain times and what you can improve. Also, what you do with that pain can define you. I used pain and anger to drive me, and I put that into The Survivalist. It's actually all about an outsider, and came from that pain. 
How do you think having the time to hone your skills as a writer has helped you as a director?
There are many things it has helped with as a writer. One of the key things is how you separate the signal from the noise. You have to work out exactly what's going right and what's going wrong. The other thing is when you write a scene and you know what it's about, you know exactly how you want to direct it. 
I think one of the challenges for music video directors moving over, who haven't worked with a narrative before, is that they sometimes struggle to pull off the heart of the scene. This can be a struggle for anyone, but it's a particular struggle when your job hasn't been to be hunched over a blank piece of paper working out what this scene is about in black and white terms. 
David Mamet wrote a book called On Directing; it's basically a book about writing. I think there's a message there. 
How are you finding the process of preparing for your second feature in comparison to The Survivalist? Is it still difficult?
It's completely different in many ways. My next feature is on a far bigger scale. I’m dealing with very experienced money and working with an extremely experienced producer, with whom I am talking pretty much every day. So in that way it's really different. That's also because I recognise I don't necessarily know right off the bat how to make a film on an extremely large budget which should be opening on 6,000 screens in America. So I need the advice and guidance, because I really want to tell my story in a way that reaches an audience.
If The Survivalist had been a micro-budget film, made for about £350,000 rather than £1 million, I think it would have been a better film, because I'd have had more control. But what I wouldn't have had is experience working within various structures of power. Again and again and again, with every level of budget, you'll always get notes on the script and cuts, and you’ll always have to try to win the argument by persuasion as opposed to by force. So learning how to navigate a power structure like that is the lesson. I wouldn't have had any experience like that otherwise, because in a guerrilla film there wouldn't be a power structure, it would have been just me.

In terms of the development process on The Survivalist, were there many moments when you found yourself having to compromise something you may have wanted in the film?
The Survivalist is unusual in that there wasn't really a script development process. The script was changed barely at all. It began with a submission to Northern Ireland Screen, and I did a couple of drafts rewriting it with them, but I was more using Northern Ireland Screen and the BFI's advice as a development aid for myself to write the script I wanted. Once I got to the second draft, it basically didn't change until production, and that is a very unusual thing. It was also in my contract that the script couldn't change, which is very unusual. 
Script development happens almost everywhere else. That's kind of where I'm at with everything else. I'm developing and rewriting according to notes. You should have a clear idea of what you're working towards, or if you're working towards someone else's vision, and an idea of what that needs to be, whilst protecting the story you need to tell. It really depends on the scale: a smaller movie, you can tell your own story; the bigger the movie, the more likely it is you're going to have to meet the expectations of the financier. 
You seem to have an all-round understanding of production. How useful do you think it is for up-and-coming directors to understand the money side of things as well as being able to make a film?
There's a balance between having the naive innocence to try and make a first movie, and also knowing what you're going for in a broader context. And what you're going for is to make a feature that will lead to a career that will lead to another film and another film. You've got to understand how things work, and you've got to know how much you can make a movie for, or what's the appropriate budget for the idea. 
Have you found that having an agent has transformed your career, and how do you negotiate that relationship?
I found the producers for The Survivalist, but my agent advised me on the deal. So it wasn't a dramatic change, but what was useful was that my agent was able to give me perspective. He was able to give me advice when I had challenges with collaborators. He was able to process what I was involved in, in ways that would have been more difficult on my own. 
So I don't think it's essential to have an agent when making your first film. Agents will try to sign you very early on because they want to invest early before somebody has been proven, because if they are proven later then every other agent will be after them and it might be too late to sign them. That's really good if you're trying to break into the industry. Because of my agent, when I did my short film, SLR, I was able to cast Liam Cunningham.
I listen to my agents’ advice. I'll read what they send me, and take meetings they set up. But I'll always do what I believe is right for me. My agents might be able to convince me to feel a certain way one day, but the next day if I feel something different, that's the decision I'll make. 
Other people have a different experience. If you're a director who doesn't write, you're going to be very dependent on your agent for getting your material. Even if you're finding lots of material yourself, you still need them bringing in things and getting you meetings. But when you're a writer-director, you can write your next project and nobody can stop you.