Writer/director Rose Glass graduated from the National Film and Television school in 2014. Her graduation film Room 55 went on to be screened at SXSW, Palm Springs ShortFest and London Short Film Festival, among others. Since then she has made shorts for Film4/Channel 4 (Bath Time, available on All4) and Giorgio Armani (Juliet, a promo which premiered at Toronto Film Festival), as well as various experimental shorts and music videos.
She has just completed her debut feature film Saint Maud with producer Oliver Kassman and Andrea Cornwell.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I think I knew I wanted to be a director since I was about 12. A few years before that I’d been on a family holiday and some of the other, older kids we were staying with had a video camera and were making a little home movie. My sisters and I played gangsters and I got to wear a spiky wig and pretend to stab someone with a rubber knife. One of the older kids showed me the awesome in-camera-transitions you could add from one shot to the other (editing was a concept I didn’t grasp until i was much older) and at the time it seemed like the coolest thing ever. So I think from then on I always thought of filmmaking as just a really fun thing to do. When my parents got a camera a few years later I immediately started stealing it to shoot silly videos with my friends or experiment with really basic stop motion. Around the time I developed an obsession with the new Lord of the Rings trilogy I started to realise how much work can actually go in to making a film and I poured over any behind-the-scenes interviews I could find with the cast and crew. That’s probably when the concept of a film director being an actual job entered my brain, and I never really wavered from that goal since then.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I figured to be a filmmaker I should just keep watching as many movies as possible and keep shooting stuff. Throughout my teens I watched more and more movies and started to develop a bit more of a sense of the kinds I liked. Tim Burton, David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg and Martin Scorsese were all early obsessions. Shaun of the Dead was the first time I saw gore in the cinema and was blown away. I watched Spaced and read about how Edgar Wright had shot a no-budget feature film in his early 20s and that’s how he got into directing, so I think I vaguely thought I’d try and do that at some point. I kept shooting stuff with my friends; after seeing Shaun, the films now featured a lot more fake blood but still always proper lo-fi home movie stuff, editing in camera, not really done for any reason other than it being fun.
To my parents’ dismay I chose Art, Media Studies and Theatre for A levels. They were always encouraging of me wanting to pursue filmmaking, but always thought I should come up with some sort of backup plan ‘just in case’ things didn’t work out. I think because it all seemed so alien to my parents, yet I was so confident about wanting to do it, they kind of just left me to it.
After school I went straight to the London College of Communication and did their Film and Video BA. I made a couple of short films and learnt what all the main roles of a crew did, started broadening the kinds of films I watched and worked as a runner on weekends for music vids and commercials. I learnt as much from the runner jobs as I did directing my little shorts at LCC, seeing how professional sets actually worked. One day I remember overhearing a more senior crew member tell another, “Be nice to the runners, they have a habit of turning into directors and producers.” That wisdom rarely seemed to trickle down but I held onto it.
As I neared the end of my studies I still had no concept of how a feature film actually got funded and I was still clinging to the idea that I would just find a way to shoot a lo-fi zero-budget film in my spare time. I still had no idea what the film would be about or anything, I just knew I wanted to make one. Then a member of staff mentioned the National Film and Television School to me and suggested I apply. I’d never heard of it.
After graduating, I got a job in a cake shop (as well as still doing the runner jobs) and decided to apply. I got to the interview stage but didn’t get offered a place. Lynda Myles, the head of the course, gave me a call and said she hoped I would apply again when I was a bit older and had a new film to show them.
I spent the next year working and managed to save up about £1000, which I used to fund a short film called Storm House. Everyone worked for free and it was just enough to cover renting a van, a location, and the insurance. We pulled in favours everywhere and got the kit rental for nothing. My mum did the catering. It was a really fun shoot. I applied to NFTS again and got in this time. (I’ll pick up the timeline from there in Q5.)
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Personally my biggest obstacles have been related to mental health and stress. Anxiety and depression are not easy bedfellows with such a competitive and precarious career path and, of course, making films can be very stressful. Almost every short I’ve made I’d have sleepless nights in the lead up to the shoot and got pretty ill throughout. This is not unusual. People that I’ve met in all departments and areas of filmmaking have told me similar stories to what I’m about to share. It is vital to take care of your physical and mental health.
About three years after graduating from NFTS, (when I was 26 or 27) I got two features into development at the same time (I will go into more in the next question) and was suddenly able to quit my regular job and write full time. It was the first time I’d been paid to write – very exciting! I’d never written a feature film before and had convinced myself that a ‘real’ writer should be able to sit down Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm, and just write. Creating some structure is good, but treating it like a regular office job is completely unrealistic. (Nowadays, I’m chuffed if I spend four hours mostly concentrating on one thing, usually it’s less.) Back then I was so fixated on being ‘productive’ not ‘failing’ that I lost all perspective and, along with it, any sense of joy or excitement. A year later, one of the projects fell through and so then I was just focused on Saint Maud and steadily running out of money. As I wrote I became more and more isolated and alternately anxious and depressed. I grew to hate my script, yet thought about nothing else. I was terrified of the idea of it falling through as well and going back to waitressing, but even more terrified of the idea of actually having to make the movie, which would surely be a disaster. I also knew I was incredibly fortunate to even be in this situation (with a movie in development and close to being financed) and so I felt incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of how I was feeling.
Fortunately, things came to a head in time for me to do something about it. There were other contributing factors but I had a breakdown of some kind and thought it was game over. This is when I finally talked to my producers and let them know what was going on. They were wonderful and understanding (people generally are). I was able to take a few weeks out from writing and managed to get my shit together and start medication in time to finish up the final draft and start official prep. I still wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, but now I’d managed to get over the fear that it might go wrong and accept all I could do was try my best and trust the people I was working with. I felt like I’d come back from the dead – I get to make a movie? Fucking great!
Main things I learnt from this: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Get some hobbies that aren’t related to film. If you feel like you’re going crazy, take a break and talk to someone. Learn to be motivated by what excites you, interests you and gives you pleasure. Never forget that you’re doing this for an audience and they want to watch a movie, that’s all. It isn’t a life and death situation, your worth as a human being is not on the line. Be playful, take risks. RELAX.
I don’t think Saint Maud turned out well because I got like this whilst writing, I think it went well in spite of that. I don’t want to romanticise this stuff at all. It isn’t an essential part of the creative process or anything wanky like this. Personally, my best ideas tend to come when I’m feeling inquisitive, certainly not when I’m terrified and exhausted. Thinking about Saint Maud 24/7 only made me lose perspective of what was working and what wasn’t. In the end, some of my favourite scenes in the film I only wrote during the shoot or during the edit. (We had five extra shooting days during post – it’s really worth protecting that contingency money and keeping your scripts short!) Lots of happy accidents happened. I don’t think I’d have been able to do any of that or been open to the happy accidents and been able to turn them into something if I had been in the same shape I had been whilst writing. It’s really hard because, of course, it’s really difficult and a lot of work to get a film made and it can be absolutely terrifying. You have to do an insane amount of preparation and generally be pretty obsessive. However, somewhere amongst all that you must find a way to get over yourself and the fear of failing. You can’t control everything. Learn to live with uncertainty and enjoy playing around, because that’s essentially what you’re doing when a shoot is going well. I can’t remember who said it but I heard filmmaking once being described as ‘serious fun’, and I think that’s a good way of looking at it. You do have to take it seriously. But it should be fun as well.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I think developing your own voice mostly comes down to figuring out your own tastes and experimenting. Figure out what makes you tick and why. Not just in terms of movies but books, painting, photography, music, philosophy. Read the news, learn what’s going on in the world, talk to different people, whatever it is, but experience life and different states. One of the greatest things about filmmaking is being able to use all your own personal bullshit for something productive (if it doesn’t overwhelm you).
Film school was a great place to experiment in some ways, but it also gave me some slightly stuffy ideas about story structure and working with actors particularly. In the years after graduating, before getting Saint Maud into development, I shot several lo/no-budget videos. A couple were music vids for friends, the others were just little experimental films, one or two minutes long. With most of them I’d use my own money – budgets ranged from £50 to £500. I think one music video I did had a £1000 budget but the band put up the money for that. All these little short things probably helped loosen up some of the stuff I’d learnt at film school and got me back to the mindset of playing and experimenting. They were non-narrative visual experiments with no pressure or responsibility attached as I was mostly making them by myself for myself. (I also used them to try and get ‘proper’ work directing promos. I got a bunch of meetings at production companies but it never lead anywhere… boooo… )
How did you get your first break?
Below are some of the main bullet point timeline events from graduating NFTS to directing Saint Maud.
2014 – Graduated from NFTS. Got an agent. Moved to London. Got a job in a cafe. Started working on Saint Maud idea. Applied to iFeatures with it. Got rejected. Sent Room55 to a kajillion festivals. Get in to four, I think. Directed a really cheesy short film/promo for Giorgio Armani eyewear, which I got through NFTS as the pitch was open to recent graduates. Took a bunch of ‘general’ meetings with people who had seen Room 55. None of them seemed to lead to anything, but at least now I knew a few people I could try sending ideas to in the future (including Film4).
NOTE ON AGENTS: I got signed up by Tracey Hyde who is an agent at Casarotto Ramsay. She was in the audience for my graduation show and liked my short Room 55. She is wonderful. In hindsight though I think my fellow graduates and I all put too much importance on getting an agent and had unrealistic expectations of what they would actually do for us. Yes you will need one so that they can get you meetings and eventually do all your contracts/legal stuff, but especially the first few years, don’t expect them to do that much for you. Tracey set me up with a bunch of general meetings like I said, and that was very useful in getting my name and face out there a bit, but not much else. She couldn’t help with trying to get commercial or music video work because it’s a whole other industry. We get on well but don’t have a magical affinity in terms of personal taste and we weren’t always in touch that often. Now we talk quite a lot because there is more stuff going on, but you probably aren’t going to be earning them any money for the first few years so don’t expect to be a high priority. You have to go away and put in the time coming up with the awesome ideas and making the awesome shorts etc., so that then you can ask for a bunch of meetings to take the feature idea to, along with your recent shorts to show them what kind of style you work in. (See ‘recent’. If a year passes and you haven’t shot anything, try and change that.)
2015 – Teamed up with Oliver Kassman (one of my two producers, Andrea Cornwell joins a little later once we are in development as the more experienced party). Oliver was working as an assistant at Qwerty films and had seen Room 55. Asked me for a coffee. He liked the idea for SM, offered to produce (it was his first film as well). I said yes. Kept working on a treatment but now I had someone to bounce ideas off and get feedback from. Shot a couple of those non-narrative videos. Sent a bunch of links and emails to production companies for promos and commercials. Didn’t hear anything. Pitched on a bunch of short film schemes. Didn’t get any of them. Had another general meeting with Film4 who liked the sound of Saint Maud idea. Quit one cafe job, started work as a receptionist for a fashion college.
2016 – Quit receptionist job, started working as a cinema usher. Kept working on and re-writing the Saint Maud treatment – both a long and short version. Short for the people who would read it cold, long for people we’d already talked to about it. Shot a friend’s music video. Sent more emails and links to production companies for promo work. Had a bunch of meetings but heard nothing more. Film4 ask me and a few other newbie directors to make 3-minute horror shorts for a scheme they did alongside Frightfest. Its all super rushed and end result not that great, but not incompetent. Oliver and I apply to iFeatures with Saint Maud and also send it to Film4. Both say yes. We have to pick one. We go with Film4 but I also come up with another idea for iFeatures – they like that too and sign us up. Start writing scripts in earnest.
2017 – Quit usher job when money for both films starts to come through. Finish first draft of each. iFeatures film doesn’t happen. Write second draft of Maud. Freak out that it isn’t working. Decide to rewrite from scratch. Start doing auditions for Maud alongside writing. Lots of positive noises from financiers but no green-light or anything. All feels very precarious.
2018 – Start interviewing HoDs. More castings. More rewrites on script. Brain breaks. Time out. Shoot music video for friend. Finish script. Greenlight. Start prep. Shoot end of year.
SM was funded by Film4 and the BFI. Before Oliver and I officially submitted our treatment I had already had ‘general’ meetings with both them, the BFI, BBC films and several other companies and told them about Maud. So they knew who I was, what I was like in person and broadly what Saint Maud was about. I also had a body of short film stuff to show them so they knew what kind of style I worked in. It made sense that I was bringing them a weird surreal kind-of-horror film because I was the weird girl who came in, talked enthusiastically about serial killers and had a bunch of weird, creepy short films to show them. Ditto BFI when it came to asking them to co-finance. Financiers basically want to be able to get a sense of who you are, what your style is and to not have to read too much. So keep any docs short and snappy and full of pictures unless they’ve specifically asked for more detail. It helps if you are good in meetings, if you can talk confidently about what you like and are interested in. They want to know you can communicate well and get on with people.
In a nutshell, my advice is to figure out what excites you and then try and get other people excited about it too. Keep learning all the time. Keep shooting stuff even if its mega lo-fi. Don’t be afraid of messing up.
Final and very important: don’t be an arsehole. People will find out and they won’t want to work with you. (By extension: don’t work with arseholes, even if they’re brilliant at what they do. It won’t be worth it.)
Photograph: Angus Young