Let’s start by talking about your first shoot as a director.

My first real experience on a production is not that definable. It was kind of a gradual immersion. I started making videos for the BMX bike people before art college, and lived within that culture. I was a journalist, so I did the hands-on everything approach to filmmaking. When I started art college I had access to film since they had a 16 mm processing lab there. I was also shooting a lot on Super 8. I took this hands-on approach, because there was nobody that could teach you the technical side – it was all theory-based.

Tell me about your first music video.

The first time I did a music video was for a band called The Wedding Present, which was an English band. I shot it when I was in college on 16 mm and Super 8. We had a boombox and played the song on audio cassette so the singer could lip synch. At the time in England, there was one lady, who lived somewhere in the south of England, and you would have to mail your Super 8 to this lady. She had a bathtub with chemicals where she would process black and white Super 8. And it was really cheap to do it that way, because if you sent it to a lab it would cost way too much. So I would send my rushes for my music video to this old lady, we would speak on the phone, and she would tell me the film was exposed, and everything was fine and that there were images on it. It was funny, because it was nothing like the experience that I have with making films today, because I was doing everything myself.

What was your first shoot as a commercial director?

The first commercial I did was for the video game Silent Hill for Sony Playstation in England. This was by no means my first experience directing, but it was the first time I was doing a commercial with a ton of actors that were not people I knew or who were doing it for free. We built a corridor and essentially this whole commercial was a terrifying journey down this corridor. I managed to get a bunch of stage actors together, and we played this track from an Autechre album, which was this really terrifying music, and we had this really terrifying set, and we had blood all over the floor, and the set was all ripped to pieces. We shot it on Anamorphic 35 mm, and it was all perfectly storyboarded. At the end of the spot was game play footage, and the most terrifying things became game play footage, because there were no regulations at the time, so there were people stomping on dogs and zombie nurses with knives cutting you in the face. And that was my first on set experience doing a commercial (laughs).

When you were getting into commercials and music videos did you always see them as a stepping stone to narrative filmmaking?

No, to me they were all films. You have to understand, my mindset was that when I was in college I was making films. When I was doing music videos for Aphex Twin I was making films. It was just different types of films, and I was learning, and learning was the thing you got out of those gigs. I think about halfway through my music video career, I mainly did music videos, I hardly did any commercials at that time, that I began to look introspectively at the form of music video and look at the peers around me like W.I.Z, Chris Cunningham, John Hillcoat and others. It was a fairly social scene in London at the time. You would end up cross-pollinating all the same crew. Usually there were three editors that were pretty much cutting every music video that was being made, and this was a time when it was exciting and interesting. I felt I never had enough time with one day shoots with these complex narratives. On the other end was Chris Cunningham who was spending six days shooting a Bjork video and essentially doing the best work anybody was ever going do in music videos, and everyone was kind of looking to him as a benchmark of what could be done. But it was a fairly supportive, open little society, because we would bump into each other all the time walking around London.

So music video production was your film school?

I don’t know how I learned line theory. I didn’t learn master to close-up to over the shoulder. I didn’t learn coverage, because I didn’t know what it was. I learned by doing and it was all figured out that way as opposed to reading it out of a book. All of these things that now I can name them, like I know what coverage is, I know what a dirty over is, I didn’t have words for it then, I was just doing it.

You were learning on your feet. Did you feel like Hard Candy was a logical transition, or was it also trial by fire?

You have to understand, before Hard Candy I never had a script supervisor on set. Continuity was something that I knew about and I knew that there was a person for it. Directing Hard Candy was the first time that line theory would come at me full on. I remember on the shoot saying to myself “I know I’m getting this wrong”, and I remember going through a book about cinematography and reading certain sections and I was like  “Oh yeah, oh yeah it’s fine.” Every single shot, everything we had rehearsed with the actors for about three weeks was ready to go. And the first day on set was terrifying, absolutely mortally terrifying. I never worked with a script supervisor before and never had to. People were coming up to me saying  “How much orange juice is in the glass?” I would be like “I don’t fucking know!” Then they asked what time is it? “I don’t know, I think its four thirty.” The script supervisor helped me with that stuff, but it felt like I was going to die on my first day. I remember Patrick Wilson gave me one of those talks and said “Hey, you’re doing real well mate!” Nobody had done that to me for so long, that thing where they see you’re floundering, so they give you a bit of encouragement. I was like “Fuck, not only am I fucking this up, but everyone knows I’m fucking this up.”

Wow! So when did you hit your stride?

There was a three-hour period where I was dry heaving and thought I was going to throw up and die, because it was my first day on set with actors shooting a feature film, and that terror, that kind of mortal terror struck me like it strikes every director who goes out to do this. I didn’t sleep the night before, not a wink. So pretty much the same experience everyone has. But the first shot took one take, and we moved on, so we kind of hit the stride the first day. I was used to shooting. I had shot a lot, but my crew were largely a first time film crew. Jo Willems, the DP, had not shot a feature film before. He’s now shooting the second Hunger Games movie, and is going to go on to shoot the third and fourth. Barry Wasserman was one of the biggest 1st AD’s in all of England, I got him to come work on the film too and he was one of the reasons I managed to get through everything I did. I used a lot of the crew that had shot music videos with me, and so we were moving fast, which was good because we had nervous financiers, because of the material, they were terrified they even signed up for it. Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson were just knocking it out of the park with the acting. I guess our secret weapon was moving on before anyone from the producing or financing department got scared. I would say “I’m sorry but we’ve wrapped that scene now.” Do you want us to go back and re-shoot it?” They would be like no, keep moving, because they had a bond company on their asses.

You went from Hard Candy, a movie that you shot in eighteen days for less than a million dollars, to shooting 30 Days of Night and then Twilight, did these big studio films feel like first shoots?

It always feels like the first time, every time I make a film, no matter what it is, I’m always terrified before I go on set. 30 Days of Night and Twilight weren’t small independent films, they were huge studio films, so there were politics involved and they were exponentially bigger. When I’m working with something too big to wrap my head around, I break it down into small parts. I need to figure out and plan things out with a hundred post it notes that show me how to do this mass killing of vampires attacking an entire town shot from a helicopter for example. It’s all broken down into these specific pieces, which are encoded thoughts, which was the vision I had for the film, that I’ve already seen in my mind very clearly, and that includes the lens size, framing, angles and everything else. I have a really weird photographic memory for shots that I’ve completed. I don’t really watch dailies. On set I can remember which take was the best take and why, and later I can sit with an editor and know if we’re missing something, because I know we shot it, and we would have to go search for it. When I’m watching a performance, I’m remembering the parts that I know are great, so I’m kind of editing it in my head as we shoot.

What would you tell a young filmmaker coming up in this environment today?

It’s important to understand the rules, certain rules are more important than others, and when I say rules I’m talking about understanding a wide shot, a medium, a close-up, understanding what line theory is, understanding how to give direction to an actor. Of course those staples you must always learn, you cannot expect to become an astonishing abstract painter unless you’ve mastered figurative painting first. You must learn all the rules, but at the same time those rules are all set to default, and once you’ve learned the default settings its great because you’ve learned how to make a film like everyone else does. The notion that you are going to do it completely different from the way everyone else has ever done it is quite scary to a lot of people. Whenever I start a project, I meet with all of the default people, and try to switch them out of default mode, and have them be open to a different way of doing something. I think film schools need to do this, books on filmmaking need to do this, of course you have to understand the basic premise of everything, but what happens in film school is there’s a level of indoctrination almost, where these default rules are really hammered into you. People argue with me over line theory, and tell me things like the hands are crossing the line. They probably are right, from a textbook point of view, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to the film that’s being made. Those shackles come with the film school learning process.

And you avoided that mindset from being very hands on when you started since you never went to film school?

The more you do on your own, the more you understand how difficult each part of the process is, and how valuable those people who are really good at it are to you, and you’ll become respectful to those people as you work with them. It’s one of the things I’ve learned through more years than I’d like to talk about is that (laughs), having pulled my own focus, having loaded cameras, having to set up my own lighting, having done all that stuff, I know how difficult it is, so I know when to give people more time to do the best they can do, and I’m impatient inside because I want everything to be done and finished. But I give people the time to do the things they need to do, because if I don’t it’s not going to look the way I want it to look. So yeah, that’s the thing, the more you know about what every single part of the film process is, the more you’ll have the ability to shape it, simple as that.

I hear that TV is the future for directors and writers. Have you found that to be true?

Yes and no. One of the first things I did in televison was an episode of Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is shot in New Mexico with this wonderful family of people who love what they do for a living, none of those people were working in default mode. It’s just a really great, phenomenal little environment, and I think everybody feels like they are part of something special. So, that was one side of it. I was then offered a TV pilot called Awake, which was for NBC. I remember talking with Vince Gilligan and he said “When you go and do this show, don’t let it upset you, network television will be very different than doing something for AMC, just try and be positive”, which I thought was very funny. He was right, At NBC everyone started in the default mode we discussed earlier, but slowly everyone got behind me because they knew I wasn’t fucking around, and that I actually had a very clear picture of what I was trying to make. It’s not even about territory or owning anything, it’s not about that. You have to kind of push things around, and shift things to the way that you want to work, and in network television, there are people that have been doing it forever, and those people are not easy to convince, but you try, and you do, and eventually they come around.

What do you think of the current state of the film industry?

It seems to me that the film studio model has been running on fumes for a long time. I went to see the film Berberian Sound Studio recently, it was in a rented theater off of Hollywood Blvd, like a hundred yards from where someone was stabbed to death a few days later, and they used a domestic projector, it was a really scum-baggy theater in Hollywood, it was just this bizarre experience of going into a dark space that didn’t smell good or feel good. I always thought that would be the model for independent films, places like the New Art in Los Angeles, which were independent spaces that show great films that are being made outside the studio model like Upstream Color. But, after seeing Berberian Sound Studio in this really creepy rented theater, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to work either. When a studio spends $400 million dollars making a movie, they have to make so much fucking money to break even, and that model is kind of teetering on the brink before it collapses too. Art house theaters, where I pay ten bucks for my ticket, and there’s only eight of us in there, and people can get it on their TV next month, that 80 bucks isn’t really going to help that movie either. So it’s an interesting time, I think if you would have asked me four years ago, I would have said it’s a terrifying time where everything is coming to an end. I think now though it’s an interesting time where the paradigm is shifting and I am really excited about that.

Is there hope for us cinefiles?

Television is essentially going to be the model for the delivery of film in the very near future, there will be an eventual or mutual path towards a model like video on-demand, and maybe only studio tent pole movies will show in theaters, but eventually theaters will close, or there won’t even be TV at that point, maybe a giant computer on a wall will be the way you watch stuff.

What is you favorite movie?

I think I would go with 2001 A Space Odyssey. I have seen that film projected more times than any other film. I have researched how every single special effect shot was done, I’ve read more analysis and critical study on that film than any other film and still I find metaphysical mystery in it.

Have you seen a film recently that blew you away?

I would have to say “Upstream Color” is a film that surpassed my expectations and left me floored on every level.


David Slade

Place of Birth

Yorkshire, England


Director / Logan & Sons