Two years ago, Justin was a development executive at Working Title Films; for most of us, a job to envy. You may remember he did a Q&A for the blog (in fact, it was the very first of the Q&A series!) and gave us an insight into the development process of the UK's biggest and most successful production company.
Then, he made the big and brave decision to go freelance as a writer/director. Quite a bold move indeed, because, as we all know, living the life of a freelancer is no easy task, no matter who you know or what your last project was. So, how's Justin been getting on? What has he been up to? I fired another Q&A at him to find out...
It’s been two years since you went freelance (hasn’t it?!). What have you been up to, and how are you doing…?
I’ve been writing mainly and I’ve also made a couple of shorts.
Can we watch your shorts on-line or are you aiming for the festival circuit, or are you simply hoping to increase your experience, make more shorts, and eventually make your debut feature?
I made a Sci-Fi short called LIFE:XP which has been extremely well received but I never saw it as a festival film, a view that was endorsed by the fact that we got turned down by Edinburgh. We tried a couple of others too, but they also told us to piss off, so I’m going to hang fire for a while. I’ve heard that the US festivals are more receptive to this kind of film so maybe we’ll try a couple of those. But the purpose of doing them is above all to make a decent film with the resources available.
However intuitive you might be, you’ve got to practice and I really relish the challenge of making a story work in 10-15minutes. There’s a pressure to make a masterpiece every time, which is fine, but of course the reality is you need to learn, so for me the shorts are above all about actually doing it rather than just talking about it, which is where I came from with a background in development. And then yes, the feature will be the next step.
How has your experience in development affected your approach to writing and directing?
While I was at Working Title I was privileged enough to work with, or see working, some really classy people. In my view that’s worth as much as a year at film school not least because they are doing it for real ie they are making films with the pressures of real money behind them and an expectation that the movie will perform in theatres. It’s something that can’t be simulated – I’m not sure how healthy it is to function without a sense of the business side of film-making, even if you are a writer or a director.
Anyway, that’s my own view and Working Title was the engine room of decision-making and commercial awareness that I needed to experience personally. I’ve had a rather sheltered life and I needed to see first hand the way these people worked. It was a steep learning curve, and what is happening now is I am putting that experience together with my more instinctive, creative self that’s always been there and forging ahead with my own projects. There’s also no doubt I learned a hell of a lot at WT about myself and about scripts. But development as a way of life, it just wasn’t for me ultimately. There’s a danger that it can become an end in itself, as if there is this perfect thing called the screenplay that can somehow exist in isolation to production.
I remember showing up on set for LIFE:XP, it was like a religious moment when I just had this overwhelming sense of yes charge through me. And then I realised – development is about one thing if it’s about anything, and that’s production. But because it’s so hard to achieve that you become risk averse, after all there’s nothing threatening about an unmade script. I think you can almost kid yourself into thinking that you’ve made the film when you’ve developed a script ad nauseam. But you haven’t, it’s only a third of the process, only a third of the journey.
What’s a typical working day now that you’re freelance?
Well, I get up at 6.30am, get my five year old son off to school and return at about 8.45 for a cup of coffee with my wife. Then, if I don’t have any meetings I go into my office, which happens to be an old garden shed I insulated and rigged up power and internet to. It’s a truly awesome little space. I can’t quite describe how special it is to me. My garden overlooks a little river called the Wandle that flows into the Thames, so it’s quiet and I get a lot done. The daytime isn’t really for writing though as I also freelance as a script editor on a few projects and I am a visiting lecturer on a screenwriting MA at Westminster University, so I have quite a workload from those things too. There’s the inevitable phone calls too – I’m finishing a short, I’m developing a script with some writer friends and I’m chasing up on my own script which has just gone out, so all that needs attending to. In the afternoon I stop around 5-ish to help get the children to bed, something I am very protective of, and then after supper I’ll go back into the shed and write for a few hours. I’m trying to follow Stephen King’s example of writing every day whatever the circumstances; it’s not easy to achieve.
Writing is one of those things that looks very odd from the outside. Loads of walking about, going into shops and browsing, watching odd bits of DVDs and then chunks of intense, furious, exhausting typing. What people who don’t write don’t quite get is it’s all writing – the actual typing is only a piece of the pie. I’ve learned though that if I don’t manage any writing in a day I can be quite unpleasant to live with. You become quite gnomic and self-centred if you’re not careful. That’s where my bike comes in. The single greatest aid to a writing career. I’ve solved nearly all of my story problems on my bike, there’s something about pedalling that unlocks the imagination. So the other thing I try to do every day is cycle somewhere. I’m addicted, and it’s by far the best way to get around in London. Then it’s bed – depending on children etc between 11 and midnight, unless I’m chasing a deadline and then it’s probably going to spill into the small hours. I love working at night. It’s just my best time.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between working for a production company and being a freelancer (e.g people less willing to return your calls!)
When you’re an employee people pay you monthly on roughly the same day. When you’re self-employed, they throw your invoices into a big furnace and gleefully watch them burn.
What was the last film you paid to see at the cinema?
30 Days Of Night, which I was very excited about and turned out to be awful.
Would you like to work in TV, commercials or music videos?
Yes, yes and yes.
What’s your favourite part of the job - what makes it all worthwhile?
I love all of it. The struggle is to stay sane while you’re not doing it. I was nervous about writing as it is so solitary but I love that too. Maybe, though, just maybe the experience that nudges ahead of all others is shooting itself. Some people find it boring apparently which I don’t understand at all. The film set is the closest thing to heaven on this earth.
Who’s your favourite director?
Impossible to select one. I tend to have crazes on people. I’m just coming out of a Dario Argento obsession and going back to early Spielberg, which is unadulterated genius.
There’s a few things hovering, but my absolute priority is to make a film next year. I love this life but the only way is forward, whatever it takes.
And finally… what film that would you like to remake, and what would you do to give it a modern update?
I’d like to do Rio Bravo, but in a really violent, authentic way. To dig deep into the world and extract as much detail as possible to make it feel real. The West is like science fiction these days it’s so alien to us, and that’s very exciting as you can go into the world and build it from scratch, creating something that people won’t have seen before. Then I’d make the bad guys very scary, like the Terminator or something, endow them with a sense of the unstoppable. All building towards this massive, biblical showdown between the sheriff and the outlaws.
And I think I’d want to kill the sheriff, because sacrifice is the only real way to complete a character like that these days. And once I’d done that, I’d remake Wuthering Heights. It’s by far the greatest novel of Romanticism. In my experience love is much more of a Heathcliff-Cathy thing than it is Lizzie-Darcy. But I’d want to do it as brutally as it’s presented in the book. In a way it’s the first real horror novel, paving the way for everyone that was to follow. It’s just the most amazing story and the payoff is devastating – this man, who has been destroyed by the love of his life, comes back to wreak revenge on her family – but then at the end you realise that all he has ever wanted is to be with her again, and so he gets his wish but in the most dreadful, terrifying way. It’s just incredible, infused with dread and suffering and this epic, devastating love. Is it modern? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that film makers like Joe Wright are showing that period films are as valid as contemporary.
In Wuthering Heights you’ve again got this kind of science fiction world of stranded people in this vicious landscape. It’s completely contained and everything – even the weather – is at the mercy of the story. I think being relevant is one of the more irrelevant things to worry about when you’re making films. It only matters if it affects you personally – you just have to take a chance. It’s all risk in the end. Look at all those Iraq war movies that are tanking at the box office – nothing is more relevant than them, but no one’s interested. We’re after something that transcends our existence, not something that merely documents it. A story like Wuthering Heights has already survived two hundred years of fashion, and I’ve got a feeling it will survive another two hundred. Imagine making a film that even got close to that…
Thanks Justin! Great stuff.