Farren Blackburn is a British film and television director and screenwriter. His work includes Netflix’s young adult love story, The Innocents, the psychological thriller Shut In starring Naomi Watts, Netflix/Marvel’s Daredevil, Iron Fist and The Defenders.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I was a kid growing up in a small village in rural Lincolnshire who spent all his time kicking a ball around. I came from a single parent family and the closest link anyone I knew had to the film industry was that we’d all seen Star Wars. For 18 years of my life all I thought I was going to be was a professional footballer, filmmaking was a million miles away from someone like me.
I did sign for a pro club but it didn’t quite work out though thankfully I’d stuck with my A-levels so didn’t wind up on the footballers’ scrapheap. I’d always loved film, from the times I spent with my Grandad watching all the old black and white classics on Sunday afternoon TV; Casablanca to The Maltese Falcon, Brighton Rock to The Third Man. That really was the start of my film education and from there I developed a real fascination with all genre. What I loved the most was how a film could transport me into a world entirely different to my own where I then got to hang out for a couple of hours with some cool characters. I still feel that magic whenever I walk on set and the buzz of trying to make, make-believe believable.
A pivotal moment in my understanding of the filmmaking process then came when I saw The Making of The Shining and the idea that there was this person behind the camera called the Director, calling all the shots was a revelation. But I still didn’t feel for one moment that it was ever something I could consider doing. In my mind I was still just a footballer from Lincolnshire.
I moved to London to do a degree, which was related to my sports background and nothing to do with the industry but over a course of time I met people who’d maybe written a stage-play or a stand up routine, who’d directed some student theatre, made a short film or had a crack at a pop promo. My outlook began to change and I reached a kind of epiphany in my early 20s where I realised I had as much right as anyone to be whatever I wanted to be and I was reminded of the famous William F. O’Brien quote; ‘it is better to try and fail than to fail to try.’ Something I’ve lived by ever since.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Even though I now had an idea I might want to pursue a career in the film industry, I really had no idea of how I might go about it. Looking back now I’ve always been convinced fate dealt me a bittersweet hand because towards the end of my University days my Grandad, the man who inspired my love of film sadly passed away. He wasn’t a wealthy man but he left me £5K in his will and I decided to use it in his memory to kickstart my pursuit of a filmmaking career. At the time Barclays Bank were offering what they called a Career Development Loan so I made an application, matched the money my Grandad had left me and went to study for an MA in Film & TV down in Bournemouth.
I came away from my course after a year of pretty intense study with a decent but flawed graduation film and then to this day I still don’t know how, managed to get onto the BBC Production Training Scheme. This unfortunately no longer exists but the eagerly awaited ad appeared in the Media Guardian once a year and received 500-plus applicants for ten places. Usually these were always taken by Oxbridge Graduates so I think they must have dumbed it down the year I got on. The scheme was a two year paid contract for graduates that allowed you to negotiate your way around the BBC, working on a variety of productions to get as much experience as possible. My salary, meagre as it was, was paid by personnel so I was a free resource to programme makers and could literally find a department that interested me and worm my way in.
I was soon directing short films for music programmes, arts shows, entertainment that kind of thing but that’s where the scheme was limited for people like me who only wanted to direct fiction, no one was ever going to give me a drama to direct as a trainee. So I milked it for all I could, I worked in the drama department script editing for a while, I shadowed a couple of directors on some single films, I managed to get a bit of drama-documentary directing towards the end, I made as many contacts as I could with people I knew would help me get more short films made and then at the end of my two years I walked out the door despite job offers being on the table. My colleagues thought I was mad because we were supposed to be the future commissioners of the BBC but that’s not what I wanted, I wanted to be a filmmaker and I knew the only way to achieve that was to keep making shorts.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
In the early days I think I probably faced similar obstacles to many directors; a lack of opportunity, access to funds, countless rejection letters from producers and funding bodies, an inability to feed myself and pay my bills, that kind of thing. But starting out on the road to becoming a filmmaker I think one of the biggest obstacles for me was the frustrating catch-22 nature of needing a film to show people in order to get funding or maybe a job, but not being given that funding or job because you haven’t got a film to show.
I went through a real tough period where literally with only the one short film that I’d made over two years ago now under my belt, I was embarrassed to call myself a filmmaker. Despite having made some real progress, I think I was still unable to shake off the recurring thought that I was just a footballer from Lincolnshire. Whenever I was asked what it was that I do, I felt like an imposter and dreaded the question that I knew would come back at me ‘Oh exciting, so what have you directed? Anything I would have seen?!!!’
At this time I fell into the classic trap that so many of us fall into which is to start comparing myself to other directors; questioning how they got that funding or that job, how come they are making their first feature and I’m not. It’s such a destructive process and obsessing with the progress of others messed with my energy and I have absolutely no doubt hindered my own journey for a while.
I realised the solution was to find a way to ensure my whole world didn’t revolve 100% around trying to get my next film made and as ridiculous as it sounds I reminded myself how important it was to have some kind of life too. If you are purely relying on filmmaking/directing opportunities at the start of your career in order to eat, then the chances are you’re not going to be able to exist as a rounded human being and will be forced to give up and that’s what happened to so many of my contemporaries. To be a creative filmmaker you need to nourish your heart and soul and I wasn’t doing that!
I started to call upon my old contacts and managed to get some freelance directing work, mainly on music shows which enabled me to get more of a balance as well as start to put a little bit of money into my next film. In the early days I think it’s okay, in fact I think it’s really important to be something else alongside a filmmaker if you have to be because we all run our own race and so long as you cross the finish line at some point, ultimately the timescale doesn’t really matter.
Taking the pressure off myself in that way, I found the rejections took on a bit less significance, they stung a little less and this attitude actually redefined my approach to getting my films made from that moment on. I decided that in the time it takes to apply for funding, wait for my script to be read and then ultimately be rejected, I could probably have made the film on a low-budget so that basically became my MO. I gave myself a time limit to cobble a budget together, to pull in favours, use the contacts I made at the BBC to recruit crew and when that time was up I made the film with whatever was in the pot. Over the next two years I made four more films and finally, once and for all I was able to shake off the self-imposed label of being just a footballer from Lincolnshire and felt justified in calling myself a filmmaker.
But here’s a thing worth knowing, the obstacles and the setbacks keep coming regardless of the levels you reach. In the course of my career to date I’ve had my first feature end up in four years of development then never get made, I started shooting another and two weeks in the finance fell apart and the film collapsed, I was attached to develop another movie for a year then a distributor came onboard and kicked me off because they wanted a bigger name, I finally made a Hollywood movie with an A-list star and the critics hammered it, at the same time I was talking to Dreamworks about a project and the next step was literally to speak with Mr Spielberg himself but you’re only as good as your last movie and mine put paid to that. But the thing to remember is that if one opportunity falls by the wayside it won’t stop another coming along and the only advice I can give is to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and go again. It’s really either that or give up which is simply not an option!!!
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
In truth I think there’s only really one way to develop your craft as a filmmaker and that’s to keep making films but we all know that’s easier said than done. But things are different now compared even to when I started and if I had my time again I might well have taken the money I spent on film school and self-funded as many short films as I could and by that I mean make a tonne of films for a few hundred pounds a time. Production value isn’t too important to begin with, but it is crucial to develop your command of storytelling, to understand how to use every frame to maximum effect and to achieve truthful performances and I learned more about all of that from the things I did wrong than those I did right. I think it’s vital to make your mistakes cheaply so you are really ready when it counts.
Alongside making my shorts I did everything I could to develop my understanding of all elements of the craft as best I could; I read books and scripts, I watched movies with the sound turned down so I could see how the frame and the cinematography were telling the story, so I could pick up on nuance in performance and actually see how much could be achieved without dialogue, I experimented with a stills camera to understand lenses, I listened to soundscapes and film scores, I attended actor workshops so I knew what it was like to be directed well, but also badly. I did so many things that thankfully broke so many taboos for me, for example I can’t tell you how relieved I was to understand that it was never my job to actually tell an actor how to act.
But when people used to speak of my voice, I kind of bluffed my way through the conversation because for a long time I had no real idea what it was or where to find it and eventually I gave up trying which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever done. There are all these things we filmmakers are supposed to have or are supposed to do and they can be suffocating if you let them. My approach was and has been ever since to simply do what interests me whether it’s an idea I want to develop myself or a project I’m offered and what became apparent to me over time is that a voice is something that emerges subconsciously out of appropriate choices made to tell your story and because those choices are informed by who we are, what we are, our moral compass, our political bias, our worldview, tastes and sensibilities it underpins all the work we do whether we intend it to or not.
I think desperately searching for a particular voice early on might have resulted in me being pigeon-holed slightly which the industry has a tendency to do whereas relieving myself of that responsibility, I feel I’ve been able to traverse genre in a way some of the filmmakers I admire most have like Stanley Kubrick, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, The Coen Brothers and Rob Reiner. The great thing about genre is that it allows you to hold a magnifying glass up to subjects and issues you feel strongly about and examine them in the most imaginative and inventive way and I’m confident that my voice now I understand what it is, will provide a familiarity at the heart of everything I do be it drama, thriller, sci-fi, whatever.
How did you get your first break?
We all need a bit of luck at some point but I’ve always been a believer that to a large extent you create your own luck. Don’t get me wrong, some are luckier than others but for those of us who don’t have trust funds or contacts in the business, talent without sheer hard work and dogged resilience isn’t enough.
I’d worked incredibly hard to get a handful of shorts made and I guess my first break came when two of my films were screened simultaneously at the now defunct BBC Short Film Festival, one of which went on to win an award. An Exec Producer from BBC Films happened to be in the screenings and I was invited to a general meeting to just say hello and chat about what I was up to, it really was not intended to be anything more than an introduction. But I was about to write my first feature on spec and when I mentioned the idea, the BBC loved it and I basically came away with the offer of a paid development deal.
I didn’t have an agent at the time, no-one to negotiate the complexities of the deal but the Exec said with a financial offer on the table and a short that just won an award, I shouldn’t have any problem. A week later I had my agent who I’ve been with ever since, the deal was signed, I wrote my first ever feature but if you remember from earlier, it then went through four years of development and never got made.
What I learned is that we need a number of breaks along the way and that the hard work never stops. Even now, whatever my agents are doing for me both in the UK and the US, I supplement that with all I can. Since the start of my career I’ve been big on meeting people because this is an industry built on relationships. I’m terrible at networking and won’t hang around at gatherings only interested in meeting someone who might be useful, that’s a side of the industry I hate but I have always pushed for general meetings and introductions after which I’ve used any excuse possible to update that person on what I’m doing. A lot of those relationships came to nothing, quite a few of them did, most of which were some years later but this is a long game after all remember….
TV Credits: Panorama (2004), Footballers Wives: Extra Time (2005-2006), Waterloo Road (2007), Doctors (2005-2007), Casualty (2007), Rock Rivals (2008), Holby City (2007-2009), Silent Witness (2010), Survivors (2010), Vera (2011), The Fades (2011), Doctor Who (2011-2013), Luther (2013), The Musketeers (2014), Daredevil (2015), The Interceptor (2015), Iron Fist (2017), The Defenders (2017), The Innocents (2018), A Discovery of Witches (2021).
Film Credits: Looters (2000), The Game (2000), Going for Broke (2000), Bottle (2009), Hammer of the Gods (2013), Shut In (2016), Dream On (2021).