Obsessed With Film caught up with up-and-coming British director Stuart Hazeldine a few weeks back in order to talk about his debut feature Exam, which has today been released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK. ‘Exam’ is a psychological thriller set within one room, reminiscent of ‘Cube’ or ‘Fermat’s Room’. It has garnered significant critical acclaim with Hazeldine nominated in the “Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer” category at this year’s BAFTAs (which is appropriate, as on ‘Exam’ he did all three jobs).
We discussed this film, as well as looking at some of his other work, even touching on some future projects….
Robert Beames: Well, first things first Stuart. How are you?
Stuart Hazeldine: I’m ok. I’ve just got back from Cannes.
RB: Were you promoting anything there or just enjoying the festival?
SH: I was really there to do a little business. Tie up the last few territories we’re trying to sell ‘Exam’ to and meeting a few financers to look at how I’m going to finance some things I want to do in the future. I also was on a panel of young film directors, so it’s never one thing, it’s always a bunch.
RB: You earned a BAFTA nomination with ‘Exam’ and I was wondering if that’s helped you sell the film abroad? How useful is something like that?
SH: In a way I think you always look to build up as many of these things as you can, especially as a smaller film. We don’t have a lot of marketing dollars behind us, so we need all the free publicity and all the meritocratic notices we can get. I think we’ve been lucky in that every time we’re slipping from notice something else has come along which has put us back in the public eye and in the eye of the industry. The BAFTA nomination was one of the biggest of those, but we’ve had a few others: premiering at Edinburgh was the big one for getting a UK deal and getting a lot of theatrical sales around the world. I think that the Santa Barbara film festival, which we actually won back in February, is increasingly high profile. It’s just up the road from LA so half of Hollywood was there to notice my film because it won and sold out three screenings.
RB: I was talking to Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey, who were also nominated in your category at the last BAFTAs, and I asked them if they had any projects coming up. They said that, in spite of the nomination, they were still having real trouble getting funding. Are you finding it similarly hard?
SH: Well, I’m lucky in that I also have my writing career, so I don’t have as much of a need to immediately go into pre-production. I’m actually writing a movie for Warner Brothers at the moment – which feels like a holiday compared to making ‘Exam’! I’m starting to think about what I want to do, but I’m still doing press for ‘Exam’ all the time because I’m a little more wrapped up in it than other directors might be as I was producing and financing the film too. It’s a little bit a case of “be careful what you wish for”, because a lot of directors want the creative freedom that comes with being the producer of a project, but it brings a lot more work… but I don’t mind!
RB: It sounds like you’re happy to go back to just screenwriting for a while before you go back into directing…
SH: Yeah, yeah. When you are just writing project after project it’s quite easy to get jaded with the process. But after spending some time away directing I’m really enjoying getting back to it. Writing a project for a studio I don’t have to worry too much about how I’m going to direct it; because someone else is going to direct it. So I can go back to my imagination. I’m actually quite re-energised at the moment.
RB: Do you have any of your own projects on the back-burner though?
SH: Yeah. Nothing I can really talk about. I have a couple of my own scripts and a couple of novels I am interested in adapting. There are also one or two scripts by other people that I’ve read and quite like. Mostly I like to stick to stuff that I write, but occasionally you read something that really blows you away. But you’d always want to put your own fingerprint on it and adapt it slightly.
RB: With ‘Exam’, were you conscious that you were going to have a low budget when you were writing the film? A lot of it takes place in real time. Were you able to film a lot of it in real time too and did that make in easier in some respects?
SH: We shot the entire film in sequence. There was the odd bit we couldn’t do in sequence: there were days where equipment came in that we could only have for a limited time (like a big crane), but in general 95% of the film was shot in sequence. I think most people would like to when possible. And we were on one set and we couldn’t see a good reason not to shoot in sequence, so we just did it. On my next project the challenge will be shooting on a number of locations and shooting out of sequence. In a way ‘Exam’ was maybe a soft entry into directing. But then in some respects it was a harder entry than normal. The restrictions that one room puts on you dramatically: you don’t have any opportunity to cut away, either in time or location. When you don’t have that every single moment has to work seamlessly with the moment before and the moment after.
RB: In the film you have three or four big lighting changes and, at one point, the sprinkler system comes on. All of these greatly change the space. Did you consciously write those moments into the script to ensure that your one location didn’t become dull? Was the idea to make one location several locations?
SH: Exactly. The idea was to turn one room into four rooms. I figured if we are going to be in one room we need to make the room some kind of character. I know that other films, like ‘Fermat’s Room’, have also combined puzzle-solving and psychological stuff. And whilst I didn’t know about ‘Fermat’s Room’ beforehand, I imagine they went through a similar process with regards to making something of the space as well as the characters.
RB: In ‘Fermat’s Room’ there is a lot of set up getting to the room and also there are several external location shots, whereas you couldn’t cut away to anywhere else. In a way is that a kind of blessing, in that you can make a tighter film?
SH: It makes it tougher, but if you get it right then it enriches it. Film is an emotional exercise. We go to see films to get a way out, but we also like to have an emotional exercise and, especially with a psychological thriller, if you can nail it, if you can string that tension together from beginning to end without cutting away too much, then I think it can pay off. We needed to break down the script into chunks to help with shooting, so I turned the script into 40 chapters and so when we’d get to the end of one of those we could clear the set, bring everyone in and rehearse and block for the next scene. It was very tempting to want to keep going and get those extra shots sometimes, but you have to be quite disciplined.
RB: I was looking over your film work and saw that you had a hand in writing ‘Knowing’, you wrote and directed the short film ‘Christian’ and you also have the Christian character, “Black”, in ‘Exam’. Is that a superficial link or is faith and Christianity important to you in your work?
SH: That’s well spotted! Yes I am a Christian and I take that fairly seriously. I think there are three ways you can do it: you can completely ignore your faith, you can try and stuff it in or you let it come in organically whenever you feel it makes sense. Whatever is important to a person, whether it be faith, cultural identity or ethnicity, it’s very hard to keep that out of what you’re doing. You tend to write what you know. My beliefs are not particularly front and centre, but those are my interests so they do come through. On ‘Knowing’ the director [Alex Proyas] and I both had spiritual interests, although we’re at different places spiritually (he’s much more of an open-minded enquirer rather than a committed believer), and we were both interested in looking into that. Christian was based on my own experiences of growing up at school as a Christian and occasionally getting the crap kicked out of me for it (and I thought it was a good metaphor for bullying the idea of Jesus being bullied) and it seemed to transfer well into a secondary school environment. But with ‘Exam’ it’s a bit more muted because “Black” is someone who appears to be Christian (and he is) but he finds it very hard to implement his beliefs. He wants to be Martin Luther King, but he finds it hard to do that when everyone around him is Malcolm X! The character in ‘Exam’ who does the moral thing is not “Black”. I like to play around with that and say that it’s not about wearing a badge, it’s about how you act.
RB: I read that you’ve written treatments in the past for a ‘Blade Runner’ sequel, an ‘Alien’ movie and you also worked on ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ remake (aswell as ‘Knowing’). Is sci-fi something that appeals to be especially and would you like to be directing those kinds of big science fiction epics in the future?
SH: Yeah, I’d like to. When I was a kid ‘Star Wars’ was the thing that turned me onto film. I was about 6 years old and the perfect age to get completely hooked. Then later I got hit by the one-two punch of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ and I was a goner at that point. I think in my teenage years my interest in film broadened massively and my influences got much wider than the genre of sci-fi. I wouldn’t call myself a sci-fi geek. My definition of a sci-fi geek is someone who would prefer a bad sci-fi to a good something else… and I’d prefer a good romantic comedy to a bad sci-fi. I love science fiction, but only when it’s at the tip-top level. But I am very seduced by the idea of trying to make a sci-fi at that level. I’d love to make a ‘2001’ or a ‘Blade Runner’ and I find that I’m quite comfortable in the science fiction universe because it’s a world of ideas and of what-ifs: what happened to the world? What happened to humanity? I think I’m quite good at building abstract cosmologies and creating universes, so I feel pretty comfortable in that, so I’ve been working in that genre for a while as a writer.
RB: Are there any particular directors you’ve looked at as an influence (maybe different people to who you’d look to as a writer)?
SH: Well, even though I’ve been a writer I’ve always planned to be a writer-director. Growing up all the people I have been fans of were directors. Ridley Scott was the biggest influence on me, in my early years. After that I’d say that biggest influence on me has been Peter Weir. I’m a big fan of his. It seems boring to say Spielberg (because everybody does) but obviously the guy is a genius. And Kubrick aswell. But I would have to say Peter Weir is my favourite director and he is so underrated. He has managed to be an auteur within the Hollywood system and he has a killer body of work.
RB: Finally, are you allowed to tell us anything about what you’re writing at the moment?
SH: Well, what I’m writing at the moment is a huge biblical epic, but I can’t say any more about it than that! I’m also involved in the Tripods trilogy which I’m working on with Alex Proyas.