To kick off the start of Springboard Week, the NFTS equivalent to Fresher’s Week, Oscar and BAFTA nominated screenwriter/director Alex Garland, a regular visitor to the NFTS (being our Associate Director) stopped by to deliver an astute Masterclass to 200 new and eager to listen students.
Alex, screenwriter and director of Ex-Machina and Annihilation, spoke candidly on an array of topics related to filmmaking, his first foray into television with new sci-fi series Devs and the importance of the c word – collaboration!
During a Q&A hosted by NFTS Director Jon Wardle, Alex recalled how his career progressed from novelist to screenwriter to director. Having “always loved film” Alex was keen to experience working as part of a team after spending much of his time writing solo. His first novel, The Beach was hugely successful and was adapted for the screen featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead with Danny Boyle as director.
Having written the screenplay for the post-apocalyptic 28 Days Later, once again directed by Boyle, Alex’s transformation from writer to director came from spending time on set and in the edit, leading him to really get under the skin of understanding the disciplines of each member of crew: “the why, the what, knowing why props suddenly need to jump in to move a wine glass two inches to the left.”
Highlighting how vital it is to work as a team to achieve the best results Alex said: “Collaboration on a film is key. I think of myself as a car mechanic, how do I make this engine run as smoothly as possible? My projects always start with a writer/producer relationship. If things go wrong that relationship is key to getting through the difficult times. You’re going to be in the trenches so it’s easier if you get on. Everything is a conversation, creatively and collaboratively.”
Alex’s pre-production process involves getting heads of department together from the get go. “We discuss everything and gather thoughts from tone to the look and vibe. Tone is the key thing to pre-production.” The pre stage also includes rehearsing with his actors for an intensive period of up to two weeks, a tip he picked up from Danny Boyle with his theatre background. The prep schedule enables the shoot to begin smoothly so once actors are on set they’re not discussing motivation and can dive straight into filming (a win for the budget).
Asked what he believes is the most important thing when he’s in the Director’s chair, Alex emphasised the need to foster a good culture on set. From keeping to agreed working hours so crew can keep a work/life balance, to ensuring all departments communicate with each other “from the DOP to DFX to the gaffer”, everyone knows what they are doing and can get on with their specific jobs. “The crew works harder in that period and don’t feel ground down.”
However, Alex was keen to point out that the students should be under no illusions about the realities of making a movie: “Film-making is messy and hard. You can never know how a film was really made unless you worked on it.”
With his new 8 part FX/BBC series Devs due to drop in the Spring, Alex discussed the merits of television versus film, describing each medium as “oddly similar”. He described both as having their own strengths and weaknesses but concluded that television did have a different culture, one he has been part of for the past two years while working on Devs.
Alex was positive about the increasingly fragmented content landscape which he believes offers more opportunities than ever; music to the ears of our new students. “Niche is no longer niche, there is so much opportunity for film makers now – a lot of people want morally complex, spiky, dark content.”
Asked by a student whether he has an emotional attachment to handing his work over for others to adapt Alex said: “When you hand it to someone who elevates it, it’s a great experience.”
Another question posed by a new student asked whether Alex ever felt nervous or suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’, revealing it is something he identifies with: “Imposter syndrome is very interesting. It lasted around 10 years for me. The key turning point is when you realise everyone else is in the same boat. Everyone feels the same and the realisation of that alleviates the anxiety.”
Jon asked for Alex’s thoughts on diversity and inclusion within the industry and whether he thought things were changing. “It did and does need to change. People just need to get on and do it, it’s very clearly required and incumbent of people who make the decisions.”
Finally, Alex drew the session to a close with some impassioned words for the first year students: “Make your own judgement calls, there is no cookie cutter. A group of individuals all have their own methodology and there’s nothing wrong with following that.”
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If you’d like to experience life as an NFTS student and can picture yourself asking the questions during Masterclasses taking place during Springboard Week 2021, register for one of our Open Days here: nfts.co.uk/events/openday