“We owe it to ourselves to go out and do it!” – NFTS graduate Shady El-Hamus talks film directing

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Do you want to know a lot about directing films? Then chat with Shady El-Hamus, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the National Film & Television School (NFTS), or modestly read on and decrypt the messages below.

Shady’s short films focus primarily on relationships within the family and how pressures from one’s background, social status, and psychology all impact one another. After watching Over Zonen (About Sons), winner of the Dioraphte Award at the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival, I felt compelled to contact Shady and discover more about where he came from and how he manages to create such a compelling drama in the space of 15 minutes. The film secured Shady a place at the NFTS in the UK to study his craft in safekeeping for two more glorious years.

There was no one anecdote that secured Shady’s interest in filmmaking, rather both his parents have been writers and actors for years, so an impressive feat for accomplishing artistry must come as second nature. More specifically, Shady always loved storytelling and film fell into this love quite naturally. But, at eighteen, he admits not entirely understanding much about the process other than that a director essentially tells the story. However, the film school in Amsterdam (a 4 year BA) divides writers and directors – a long time to commit to one discipline! Despite enrolling in writing, Shady’s desire to direct his own scripts surpassed the schools regulations and he was able to convince the school to make Over Zonen. Without this go-getting attitude, film directing (and NFTS) would never have happened – I believe this is the case for anyone getting into the business – you have to have an element of single-mindedness that allows you to do what it is you actually want to do.

In a dream world, Shady does want to find a co-writer, another mind that can gel with his own to explore the many themes that he is curious about. Two minds can be greater than one. If you find someone with qualities you lack, for example, then it is likely to be most prosperous working with another writer. Let us not be misinformed, Shady is adamant about his love for collaborating, it is clear from his thoughts that it would not otherwise be possible to become a director. A director works with many people, something that Shady believes should be an enjoyable experience and come effortlessly, collaboration as a kind of disclosure. Shady targets another interesting thought that you have to be positive in order to be and stay creative. He then goes on to say that communication should go beyond language. It is a matter of getting other people inside your head. Whether right or wrong, this director understands how to work and evidently knows how to achieve what he wants – a bridge more fundamental in the craft than arguably anything else – essentially understanding yourself, “your mind”.

Shady has been fortunate (and wise) enough to focus solely on directing his films without wearing the producers hat too. The producer is not just the person to hold onto all the logistical and budgetary baloney and to force him or herself away from screaming in public, but actually to aid the director in vision, according to Shady’s welcoming experiences. He believes a producer should guide you in the right direction, “to keep you on the right path” throughout rehearsal, production, or whenever. But, the producer needs to understand first what the director is trying to achieve, and then help him to reach that specific goal. Shady is incredibly humble and talks about a habit of getting carried away with actors, or being overcome with excitement in the moment, and, therefore, finding someone who can remind him of a scene’s essence, or the core of the film, broadly a sustainability, is the most valuable asset that a producer can have.

When talking with Shady about actors, he underscored some central characteristics that are essential to a director. He explained his method, but then concluded with the philosophical truism that “everything will always be different.” And, therefore, the director “must have a very progressive state of mind.” It sounds quite simple really – just don’t be a conservative! But, we all know it is never that easy to give up that little piece, or a core idealism, that you wrote on that one long stormy night at 3 in the morning. Another interesting point is raised when thinking about the language used to engage with actors. It should never be from an audience’s point of view, but rather always that of the character. For example, “This guy is an asshole,” shouts a young lad at the screen – a very judgmental comment, but the director should not shout at the actor, “play an asshole!” There is no one way an actor can know how to play an asshole. The character just needs to know the why of what he is doing and the audience can judge in any which way they feel is appropriate. A director would be at a complete loss if he or she started making direct judgments about a character. Give Shady a message if you need this bit explained better!

After a chat about our favourite filmmakers, Shady talks crucially about coming at autership and cinephilia, as it were, from a place of theme. Watching a director for whom you recognise a certain theme within. “To me, that means that they have something to talk about.” Theme is not like style; style resides on the surface, whereas theme runs deeper, and ever deeper. It is enthusing to hear Shady talk about theme with such profundity. “The story is the vehicle, the ride… the theme is the core… not present, but existing in there somewhere.” Shady also believes that it is theme that essentially allows a film to be “timeless and universal”, look no further than Yasujirō Ozu for a few examples. It seems there are no bounds to the philosophy of film and its makers!

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The reality is that the director is on a suicide mission. They have to clench the confidence to carry a bag of elephants up a mountain and not be told otherwise. No matter what it is that they are carrying, it has to SAY SOMETHING. “What is it that you want to tell me?” Shady realises that a film had better be good and say something if you are asking people to pay a tenner and relentlessly sit in front of a big screen for two hours. This is the responsibility of the director. A director needs to be truthful if they are taking on this task. If not, then “why the hell are you saying it?” There needs to be a REASON, “you need to know what you are saying, and you need to know how to say it.” There really is now nothing more to say! That is directing folks!

Here is an overview of talking points and insights from our chat:

  • Preparation is key for the director – Know what you are saying and how to say it!
  • The task of the director is to get other people inside your mind. This is the art of collaboration. Enjoy collaboration – You have to be positive in order to be creative!
  • Becoming a director is a gradual process of discovery. Shady discovered directing by screenwriting and views this story component as essential to directing. In other words, learn to write too!
  • The importance of theme – the story is the vehicle for the theme that runs far deeper than any style. Theme is often what resonates most with an audience’s understanding. Remember: understanding and enjoyment are two separate things, for example, one might connect with Tokyo Story thematically, and yet be more entertained by Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • For young Tarantino’s – the story will determine your style, not the other way around!
  • The director’s responsibility – the material needs to be personal in order to be truthful. Although, personal does not need to mean autobiographical!
  • Actors are collaborators too. Shady uses the analogy of giving road directions when speaking to actors – be clear and know where you are taking them. Also ensure that the actor understands what you as the director want to achieve.
  • The producer is not an enemy, they are there to guide you in the right direction and keep a tab on that core driving the film.
  • Last advice: Stick to it and make sure you are prepared; rarely does one get a second chance in film directing!

Be sure to watch Over Zonen online, for free, right here:

 

Film Producer Rob Speranza on the industry and South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network

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Rob Speranza is a film producer from Sheffield. He is one of the most proactive people I have ever come across and he is always looking to give something back by helping new people in this tough industry. Hence, Rob was happy to give me his time and chat about the terrain.

I first came across Rob’s work after a memorable sighting of his feature film Entity on board a long coach trip from Leeds to Amsterdam. It was 2 in the morning, the entire troop on board appeared to be sleeping, and I was sat up with a glowing laptop, in suspense, as on my screen, a rather foolhardy English TV crew crept ever deeper into an unwelcoming Siberian forest.

After enjoying the film and getting in touch with Rob, I realised that most of the team involved were local to Sheffield and that Rob also runs a highly educational and inspirational networking group for filmmakers, the South Yorkshire Filmmaker’s Network (SYFN). From masterclasses across the board to late evenings watching fresh shorts from across the county, SYFN have a really good thing going. I caught up with Rob, albeit at a frequently busy hour, and picked up a few relevant topics to talk about, shared in convulsions below.

As per usual, we started at the very beginning. Rob began in academia studying English literature to a PhD level at the University of Sheffield. Over a period of time, he befriended a filmmaker who opened up the craft to him. Step by step, “you meet people and you begin making films.” This is, of course, a very condensed version of what actually happened, but it is often as simple as meeting the like-minded people and fuelling the passions of one another. Rob talks enthusiastically about ideas coming from these meetings. It is essential to share your appetite and, in doing so, a network is bound to emerge. This is how SYFN emerged and how ideas like 2 Weeks To Make It (a music video competition) and other such motivations came about.

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Rob admits that he’d never really thought about producing until his friends urged him on and helped to unveil his talents for the craft. Rob was able to strike a relationship with Screen Yorkshire who soon began to perk him up with a number of wholesome commissions (of up to £21,000!) for short films and large event projects. As the steps increase, so do formalities, and in 2004 Rob ended up securing a nice set of offices in the Site Gallery, beside the Showroom in Sheffield city centre. He has been there ever since and the network, or what we could call Rob’s producing hub, is still growing and more emerging talent and filmmaking incentives continue to pop up around Sheffield and the expanse of Yorkshire and Humberside.

After talking about Rob’s own filmmaking, he highlighted that one needs a diverse skillset and the he frequently also works as a line producer. Yet, in independent film, it is often that the two can cross over and the producer will wind up lining up all the lines on a budget. The ranks can further blur if the production cannot afford a production manager, and then it is often the case that a line producer will produce the schedule too. Rob has experienced all of these commotions. Though, at the end of the day, “The cost is your jurisdiction. You are the boss of the cost”. Rob is a keen line producer, and I believe he has a sane reason for this: line producers may work across late prep-time and the shoot, likely to be around three months, but the producer could be tied up for three years or more. I think the producer must essentially be nuts, in the best way possible. Sorry Rob!

I tried to pin down the different factors that entice Rob into producing a project, to giving up three years of his life (“You’d better love it if you are going to tie it to your life…”), to quickly listing a whole slew of things that come knocking on realities door, it is clear that you need the whole package (director, cast, money, saleability and audience). It is all about putting together this PACKAGE. A film needs legwork and it needs to be organised, it needs the goals to keep it in the long haul. “Ask those questions.” In other words, we could also say, don’t be afraid and don’t be downhearted. It is “healthy” to produce films in the UK. Let’s not forget that %20 of your budget can be financed right now through the tax credit!

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I attempted to ask Rob if he could decipher an average correlation between prep, shoot and post times. Something Rob is adamant can only be tailored to each individual project. A couple of examples: during development, Arthur & Merlin went through four different writers and pre-production took approx. 5 months, whereas the shoot was only a month, and post was a fast-turnaround of six months. Most of the time was therefore spent in prep. Entity, on the other hand, no development hell, an even quicker shoot, but a lengthy post-production process, including three months spent on the sound design alone! Filmmaking is shape shifting. But, I don’t know how much I want to believe in this unknown destiny, can it really be impossible to meet strict timelines for a film production? To produce a method that can be sustained time and time again regardless of production and genre? I must be developing further ignorance, I need to produce a feature film myself before I can comment any further…

The importance of festivals spurred on a very conducive discussion. “I think they are the life-blood of where a film goes, how it is going to get seen, and how the market sees it.” Without these platforms for exhibition, audiences wouldn’t be able to indulge in seeing five great films every day for two weeks. A great way to fuel excitement around cinema, but also a great way to avoid “wading through all the crap.” Rob also has first-hand experience in film festivals – he is currently programming for Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASSF) – but he is not naïve to the subjectivity of different film festivals. He acknowledges having to make some very tough decisions – tough skin is required for this filmmaking business!

The loaded, but most necessary column of ADVICE. Just a quick one, Rob says this: “have a car… get hired on other people’s films… experience the set… get work experience in a production office… and learn from people better than yourself.” Finito.

And, a few final words with Rob about SYFN: They offer just about everything – advice, theory and practice on all from crew to locations, script development, festivals, screenings, networking events with Shooting People, masterclasses, equipment hire, moving-image resources, pitching projects, co-producing projects et al. “A multi-faceted and powerful entity in the city.”

NFTS graduate Daniel Montanarini on film school and becoming a FILM DIRECTOR

nftsFilm school or no film school? I won’t begin to give my own answers to this debate, and any answers are almost decadent after the spoken words of Paul Thomas Anderson: “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”

This is very true – we live in an age of information overload – but is this a good or bad thing? Hence ‘overload’! Can film schools not condense such information and give you a clear direction? Information to one side, the practice is probably the best thing you are likely to get out of film school, so let us look in more depth at the practice film school can offer.

I caught up with Dan Montanarini – who has consumed all of these experiences – and was fortunate enough to pick his brains on the subject of film school and filmmaking in general. Dan is a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, so this article will be outrageously bespoke towards the NFTS film school. First-hand apologies.

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Dan’s first short film The Guest, starring Olivia Williams, premiered at the Krakow International Film Festival and his graduate film Seahorse will be making the rounds later this year. Below is my (very particular) interpretation of this conversation with the very occasional quote from Dan thrown in to testify his presence.

From 14 Dan knew that he wanted to direct films, but what was the next step to be? There are two things to take into consideration when approaching such a mammoth task as film directing: how to crack the industry open and secondly, perhaps most importantly, how to ground yourself in the craft and the magnificent history that precedes you. Film is an “art form” – study the history and theory of storytelling and aesthetics. Dan expresses a hungry appetite for the world that film occupies, which means watching a lot of films and exploring film culture. You can’t get away without watching lots of films folks. This should be a task to relish in. Of course, a director should enjoy the physical elements of life on a film set, but equally essential as to finding your feet as a film director is being able to talk of your place in the surrounding culture.

Like anything in life that requires making something happen, it won’t transpire at the flick of a switch. Dan graduated in English literature and film from Warwick University and went on to find a full-time job. While earning his living, Dan produced and directed his aforementioned film The Guest on the side. And here is where film school comes in; it is a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once i.e. maintaining a ‘normal’ living. However, Dan had never planned on the film school route because he had the sense that if one needs £10,000 to spend on film school then why not make a film yourself? Along the lines of the old Rodriguez and Tarantino motto I believe. But isn’t this a restricting approach to the matter? As Dan explains, film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft then the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds at NFTS!

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Getting into NFTS is almost entirely based on your short film. It needs to be good. If it is good enough then you get an interview. Dan says that the interview was actually a very pleasant experience; NFTS looks for honesty in their applicants and play to a focused, yet relaxed environment. A quality any great director needs is surely to remain relaxed with an all-pervading sense of focus. Once at the school, you are free to explore your craft with great freedom. While the contact hours are very decent, Dan is sure to note that the tutors do not impose regulations. They do, however, provide detailed feedback and hold an intense reviewing process. From rushes to sound lock, every step of the phase is thought-out and given attention to detail. It looks like film school must do one thing well: harden you to feedback! When was the last time you received a fleshed out piece of feedback on your own film? Go to film school and you will never have to force someone to watch your film again!

But, how does one keep their own direction with all these opinions? Well, as Dan clarifies, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers, be honest and you will learn quickly. By staying flexible you will eventually be lead towards your goal – “Know that it is going to come, it is going to happen.” A director does not need to always provide the answers, they just need to be confident in what they do and don’t know. This sounds well, but what happens when a director says, “I don’t know?” Quite simply, remain open to an idea and take it on board sensibly. Directors are not super-humans, but super-talent does often surround them – use it!

What’s the best method for working with actors? Give them the script, understand their interpretation, let them rehearse it and then work with them towards your vision. There is no right way to do this, the environment, the story, and personality of the actor will inform this. This is Dan’s view and he goes on to talk about other directors, including a screening he attended of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen who gave some miraculous advice: “I am a director and not an illustrator”. I.e. you cannot be too rigid on a film set; rather you should work with what you have, in the moment, so to speak. A film director needs to direct on the day, not everything can be done before (unless you are Hitchcock). Every director has his or her own way of working, which must be a paramount reason for the source of beauty and wonder that comes with this craft. Each director is unique – an art form, indeed.

 

Here’s an interesting method of directing that Dan picks upon, but, let’s be clear, does not salute to himself: letting the actor working it out for themselves until they inevitably reach a point were they become desperate for direction. Who else would play these psychological games but Lars Von Trier, or so it is rumoured. But, have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? More likely, the answer is to be a blistering performance of harrowing proportions – a very good thing for drama! Film directing is a form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. There is some honesty in this approach however, not least in the opportunity to wholly understand what your actor can bring to the scene in his or her own capacity. Nevertheless, it is up to each director to eventually find their own way.

Dan continues to talk about his love of movies and directors, moving on to the one and only Martin Scorsese – an obvious choice, but a choice that makes sense for a first-love. Hearing Scorsese talk about the movies is like spreading jam on toast or taking a close shave with a clued-up razor. It raises cinephiles to an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend on hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema – but, if you aspire to be like Paul Thomas Anderson then make sure you stay equipped with John Sturges also!

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Perhaps the next step to reignite your imagination with dreams, memories, and alternate realities would be to stop in with Fellini. Dan talks about his first experience as akin to being “stabbed.” Not quite spreadable, but an experience far closer to reality, as Dan explains the mixture of memories and textures of reality on display are for more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – undeniably, a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curious and sometimes laborious cinema will serve well.

Can you think of ten minutes that changed your life? This question was asked to Dan during his time at NFTS and is a great way to connect with your beliefs and potentially re-write your past. Film directors must find something personal in the material that they work with. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they must understand the nuts and bolts of their own lives and the various transformations occurring within. You might be thinking why ten minutes and not, more likely, a split-second (a tragedy) or a few months (a romance), but ten minutes of change and we have a movie scene! Give this one some thought.

What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt (bear in mind NFTS has super scholarships for British citizens) and geared to rev any film production to full virtuoso, you must, quite simply, just keep going. You may find yourself in the position of Lars Von Trier’s actors: you have no idea what is going on, but you eventually find yourself acclimatising and succeeding with sheer greatness – trivial, but somewhat true. A director can only keep developing their ideas, stories and writing. A director must be ready to present their greatness. Think beyond your present moment (even if Eckhart Tolle tells you not to); be aware of the past, present and future. Where are you from? Write about this. Where do you want to be? Write about that journey. Who was your first love? Write about that. These are all ideas that Dan wants to inspire and he reminds me that we are all living and, therefore, we all have telling stories to tell. We mean, all of us.

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To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS specifics:

  • Film school may be a fantasy factory, but it also requires serious hard work:
  • Rigorous review processes include showcasing each step of a films maternity to the entire school of students and professors for merciless feedback:
  • Confidence building. Tougher skin. Objectively shrewd.
  • You can find your own voice: teachers will adapt to each individual while keeping the student open to new experiences and ideas.
  • On set: “you have all these talented people around you, why would you not want them to contribute?” Enough said.
  • Actors – discover first what you are working with. Points highlighted from Steve McQueen and Lars Von Trier.
  • Scorsese will make you fall in love with cinema. His conviction is infectious.
  • Be confident even if you don’t know the answer – it is okay not to know everything! Enjoy directing!

In the best sense, watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.

 

Visit Dan’s website here.

You can also join him on Twitter.