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Farren Blackburn discusses storytelling and his feature film debut


Hammer of the Gods
02 September 2013

With sadness, the FrightFest faithful are returning to normality following five glorious days of genre cinema. Before the festival The Fan Carpet had the chance to speak with Farren Blackburn, whose debut feature film Hammer of the God’s graced the giant Empire screen on the third day of this year’s Frightfest.

Farren spoke to us about the hard road of becoming a drama director, and the right to try and fail, the origins of his affection for storytelling and his involvement in Doctor Who and Luther, two of the BBC’s flag ship shows. We also took the opportunity to ask him about his feature debut Hammer of the God’s, and from there we spiralled into a discussion of his filmmaking aspirations and hopes for the future.

Hammer of the God’s is now ready to grace the small screen, and invade all of your homes… Or to put it more plainly it is out now to own on DVD and Blu-Ray…

 

 

Why a career in film and television or more specifically a career as a storyteller?

I grew up watching old black and white movies on a Sunday afternoon with my granddad. That sparked my interest; there was just something about them. In a way the storytelling captured my imagination because it seemed a million miles away for a kid who grew up in a village in Lincolnshire. That was an escape and from then on I have always been captured by storytelling of all manner; novels, short stories and movies. It kind of went from there, but it took me a little while to get to the point where I made an active decision to pursue filmmaking. As I say, being a director seemed a million miles away from where I was as a kid growing up in a village. Of course it was the likes of Steven Spielberg and all of that kind of stuff that I was watching.

As I got older and came across people who had written a short story, film or a manuscript for a novel, I thought anything is possible. You have the right to try and fail at the very least, and so I ended up going to film school where I made a short film, and it all went from there. I moved into television and continued to make other short film projects and eventually on into features, which has always been the dream.

One of the first credits alongside your short films was BBC Panorama in 2004, which contrasts to the projects that have followed since: drama, horror, fantasy and of course Doctor Who.

It is very difficult as a young filmmaker to be given a single drama, a film or a big television series to direct. There is such a lot of money involved and so much at stake that it’s very hard to break into drama. There are various routes and they are few and far between.

There are new director strands, very low budget, and I actually did one of those for Channel 4. It is very restricted because of the budget, but it is a chance to make something, maybe a half hour drama. Then there are the daytime series dramas, things like Doctors where people at the BBC will use those shows for new directors to cut their teeth. One of the other few ways in is the drama reconstruction, drama documentary where there are little bits of drama or reconstruction intercut with interviews and talking heads. They are probably looked down on a little bit by established drama directors, but they are a good way in for new directors, and it is a chance to work with actors from scripted material. Even though in the case of Panorama it was based on fact, it’s a chance to make a few little films or at least scenes that go into the overall show. It’s a way of getting in and that opportunity wasn’t something I necessarily sought out, rather it was something when looking for ways in in the early days that seemed like a route that I could take to gain some more experience. The more stuff you can acquire for your show reel, the more things you can show people, and the more progress you can make. It was an interesting project and a valuable experience but very much seen as a way of gaining more drama experience.

 

In your career to date you have had the opportunity to work on Doctor Who, one of the BBC’s flag ship shows and of course the critically acclaimed Luther. How would you describe your experiences of working on these two shows?

Fantastic! As you rightly say Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s flagship shows; historically. The re-invention of it over the last five to six years has been fantastic, because it has embraced cinematic production values. Since it returned with Christopher Eccleston, it has come on leaps and bounds, through David Tennant and Matt Smith’s kind of tenure as The Doctor and now with Peter Capaldi. The production values have really taken on an epic cinematic quality, and as a director, there are very few opportunities within television to feel like you are making a movie. That show offers that in abundance which is fantastic. Obviously the challenge is that it’s a very ambitious show, and you still have to work within the constraints of television and the tight shooting schedules. You have to deliver and there is an enormous amount of pressure and responsibility towards the long established Doctor Who audience, who can be quite unforgiving, but rightly so. They expect a lot and it’s nice to try and raise the bar every time you direct an episode of Doctor Who. It’s a massive challenge and with it comes great pressure and responsibility, but the chance to make a movie in television is brilliant.

Similarly with Luther, in a very short period of time it has become an iconic show for the BBC. It’s one of the few shows that have cracked America; they have really taken it to heart. It’s a huge show and again because it’s ambitious it’s a privilege to have both of them on my CV. What I love about Luther is that it’s heightened, it’s kind of Batman really. The guy is a police officer but it’s not your standard police procedural. It’s got a graphic novel sensibility to it, which again is fantastic from the creative point of view because it allows you to really think outside the box as a director.

In the last few months Idris Elba’s career has been in the ascendancy. He’s just played Mandela, and starring in movies like Pacific Rim, you get to work with a fully-fledged movie star. Over the years the ambition of television has come on leaps and bounds, and I don’t approach it any different to how I would approach making a movie. I want to push that ambition on the small screen all the time because we watch movies on television so why shouldn’t television aspire to those production values? So I feel very privileged to have two flag ship shows on my CV.

 

Now you don’t have to answer this question, but you remark on how unforgiving the Doctor Who fan base can be, and recently there seems to have been a backlash against Steven Moffat. Having worked with Steven how do you view his involvement in the show and what are your thoughts on these criticisms?

The thing with Doctor Who is you always split opinion no matter what you do. I’ve read reviews of episodes where half of the audience say it’s the best episode of Doctor Who they have ever seen, and then in the same breath you have half the audience saying it’s the worst episode of Doctor Who they have ever seen. It’s an incredibly difficult show to navigate in terms of pleasing everybody. In terms of anyone who comes to it, whether its Steven or whether it’s a director or a writer, I think you can only push it forward in your vision, and hope that more people like it than don’t. In anything that you do, if you try and second guess and try to satisfy everybody you end up failing miserably. I don’t know too much about it, and I personally wouldn’t want to say anything derogatory towards Steven. I’ve only had good experiences with him and he’s incredibly passionate about the show. He’s incredibly supportive of directors that he wants to bring on board and he only wants the best for the show. So whether that meets with everyone else’s opinion and sensibilities is not really for me to say.

 

Your debut feature film Hammer of the Gods will play at FrightFest. What does this mean to you?

It means an awful lot. I’m well aware of FrightFest and similarly with the shows I have just been talking about, it is a very passionate and committed audience. As a filmmaker that’s what you dream of doing, making a film that will hopefully be received by a passionate and committed audience. I’m sure there will be lots of people who will be critical of it, and similarly as I have just said, I can’t expect to please everybody. The fact that it’s being screened at that venue on the big screen, in front of an audience of that nature is the whole reason you get into making movies.

I have always wanted to make movies that appeal commercially and have some substance to them, but that are also entertaining. I don’t want to make films that necessarily change the world, and have people spending lots of time scratching their chins and pondering. I want to make a good story that has something to say but is an entertaining romp at the same time. Fingers-crossed I hope more people like it at FrightFest than will not like it.

 

 

You are exclusively directing Hammer of the Gods, but your next feature Dream On sees you combining writing and directing duties. How did you become attached to direct Hammer of the Gods?

I was down in Cardiff directing the Doctor Who Christmas Special in 2011 when this script came to me via my agent. I had been to Vertigo Films for a couple of meetings over the previous years with projects that didn’t quite come off. They always maintained that they liked my writing and directing and to keep in touch, and that one day we would find the right project to work together on.

That was born out because they sent me the script to see if it was something I was interested in. Of course it was. When I first read the script the one thing that was apparent on the budget that they were talking was that we weren’t going to be able to achieve what was on the page. Quite often what happens with lower budget movies is that you see something in the script and then you have to shape it in order to make it doable for the money. So the script that I read was perhaps slightly more stalling in terms of the nature of the story and the number of characters and such. What I had to do was scale it back, hopefully not killing off the ambition of the film, but make it practical to shoot on the money they were talking. What I saw was one element in the script that was a kind of a Heart of Darkness strand; a kind of Apocalypse Now with Vikings. I thought ‘Wow, if we can harness that, scale it down and make it a slightly more character driven story, a sort of psychological drama about the main character, then we can still have something very cool at the end of it. But we don’t need massive battle sequences and hundreds and hundreds of locations and all of that kind of thing.’ We just couldn’t afford to do that. So, it was very much a case of seeing something in the original script and then taking that and moulding it into the film that we ultimately ended up shooting.

 

How does directing your own script influence the creative process?

Personally I think the choices that you make when writing are very similar to the choices you make when you are directing. Obviously when you come to direct your own material, a lot of choices have perhaps already been made. In a sense a lot of the work has already been done. I guess the downside of writing and directing your own stuff is that you can very much get a little bogged down in it all, and by the time you come to direct the film you can be a little weary of it. When the going gets tough you may not see the wood for the trees. The bonus of directing someone else’s script is that you have a completely fresh eye on it as a director. So it’s a bit of a double edged sword. As I say there are obvious benefits to directing your own material, but also sometimes it is nice to bring your take and vision to someone else’s script, and see it with a completely fresh eye.

 

Your career has taken an interesting trajectory in terms of genre. You have directed crime, horror, fantasy, medical drama, documentaries. It suggests a diverse interest in storytelling.

One thing that frustrates me as a director is that it is very easy for everyone to put you in a particular box. If you have done an action movie then you become an action director. If you direct a romantic comedy then you become a romantic comedy director. Quite often people think that you can’t do anything else. I admire those directors who have done what I am trying to do which is to tell stories that interest you within all manner of different genres. People like Ang Lee, Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle to Steven Soderbergh are directors that I admire. They all tell varied stories and that’s the kind of career I would like to have.

I do tend to gravitate towards stuff that has a certain edge and darkness to it. I have really enjoyed doing shows in particular like The Fades, which was a fantastic experience for me. The fantasy-horror element and going into things like Luther that have a slightly gothic, heightened sensibility but a darkness to them, those are things that particularly appeal to me. The most important thing for me is that there is a great character at the heart of whatever I do, and we can find an interesting journey to take that person on whether that is through an action genre, crime, thriller or horror. That of course is just the world that my protagonist navigates, and it is an interesting main character that I try and reach out for and then see what journey we can take him or her on.

 

Dream On will of course again be very different to your other credits?

Absolutely! Dream On is a very different film but again it is based on an interesting central character. You have to care about your protagonist whoever he or she is in order to want to follow their journey throughout the course of the movie. So it will be a very different movie experience, but at the same time I’m now being sent scripts from the U.S. and they vary from war movies to big sci-fi action epics to smaller and more personal stories. So it’s exciting for me that I don’t seem to have been put in a box; not yet anyway.

 

Is there something you aspire to write and direct that up until now has evaded you?

I don’t know really. On the big screen everything is still left for me to do. I have navigated quite a lot of genres on television, but in terms of the big screen it is all left for me to do. I would love to do a big sci-fi movie, but at the same time I have always been very interested in period stuff. I would really like to do something set in the first or Second World War, and I would also love to do a really atmospheric ghost story at some point.

Just fingers-crossed that I can hopefully mirror the things that I have done in television on the big screen and not get restricted to one genre or the other.

 

 

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