PREVIOUS, MONDAY PM: Paul Greengrass tonight delivered BAFTA’s David Lean Lecture — the London-based org’s annual talk for the world’s leading filmmakers — and issued stark warnings for the health of the UK’s directing industry. The British filmmaking scene was in good shape, he said, thanks to the area’s “simple and transparent tax breaks” which encourage Hollywood studios to invest. But he warned the industry must leverage the studios’ buying power to encourage some of that Hollywood money back into UK content.
To a full house that included British talent like Richard Curtis, Miranda Richardson and Mat Whitecross, Greengrass offered a wide-ranging talk that covered his first steps into filmmaking and his vision of the future of the business. He heaped praise on Hollywood, and said “a lot of baloney” was talked about the U.S. industry’s priorities. Hollywood is not a place run entirely by cynical hacks, he said. “It’s full of smart and committed people, who understand filmmakers… And it also has guilds and trade unions with power and voice. That’s why the studios are looking for places that don’t, and that’s why they come [to the UK].”
But he warned that UK directors have a hard time making follow-up features at home after their debuts, and that the situation in British TV is especially dire. He claimed directors earn less in residuals for helming the likes of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey than stunt performers.
Greengrass used the first episode of the BBC’s much-heralded Doctor Who reboot to illustrate what needs changing. “When the BBC brought back Doctor Who, the director who directed the first episode, and set that style, and contributed to the success of that show, earned by a wide margin less in residuals than the stuntmen. That’s a fact.” If directors complain, he said, they’re blacklisted. The issue is more serious than money, he admitted. “It’s the alienation of the entire craft.” In documentaries, he believes, directors are being shut out of the process by cameramen and edit-producers, who he claimed were “baby executives. Directors are an endangered species.” Execs needed to “prioritize and pay themselves less” to make up the shortfall.
Things were different when Greengrass was coming up, and the former documentarian was honest about the failures of his first few attempts at fiction filmmaking. His second film, The Theory Of Flight, was a “plane wreck”, he said, noting that his kids called it The Theory Of Shite. “When I first switched to drama, I couldn’t seem to find a language to tell stories in,” he said. He considered quitting after that film, but his perseverance resulted in The Murder for TV and Bloody Sunday for film. “Somehow I found my way forward. That was when I first became a director, and not just a shooter.” Young talent today isn’t afforded such time to grow, he warned.
Greengrass also made frequent reference to his left-wing leanings and insisted that the British industry needed to rebuild its trade unions in order to nurture returning talent and replenish the skill-base to keep Hollywood studios coming her. He said the industry needed to be “less white, so that it reflects the diversity of the country we live in… Studios are falling over themselves to bring movies to the UK.”
He added, “Our industry is booming, which is good, but we have to use that historic opportunity to leverage the tax breaks against the studios in order to create opportunities to our own producers and directors, to make UK distinctive content.” It was the “only sustainable road” he urged, and suggested that studios wouldn’t resist such measures, since they would ensure ever-improving local talent.
The director also, and especially, reflected on the films of David Lean. He spoke of a trip to the cinema with his dad to see Doctor Zhivago as a rare bonding experience. His dad was in the Merchant Marine and traveled frequently. One common refrain he noticed in reading about directors was that most came from conflicted childhoods. “Movies are a place of refuge and safety,” he recalled. “As you move towards adulthood, the move to make movies is about reliving those childhood experiences.”