In 2020 Lewis directed and executive produced Des for New Pictures and ITV, having created the three-part drama with writer Luke Neal.
In 2018 he directed Dark Money for BBC One and The Forge. The four-part drama follows the family of an abused child who accept hush money from a famous filmmaker to remain silent.
His previous credits include Broadchurch and Humans, which became Channel 4’s most successful original drama in over 20 years when it aired in 2015. After directing two episodes on series one, he was asked back a year later to direct the lead block of the second series for Kudos and AMC. In 2018 he also directed the first four episodes of Cleaning Up for Sister Pictures, having developed the six-part drama with up and coming writer, Mark Marlow.
It was on graduating from the National Film and Television School in March 2013, that Lewis embarked on directing his first TV project, directing with two episodes of the final series of BAFTA-winning C4 show, MisFits. He followed this up by directing the first four episodes of Russell T Davies’s new E4 show, Banana, and was named a Broadcast Magazine Hotshot 2014 for his work on both shows.
His short films Charlie Says and Echo, made whilst studying his MA in Directing Fiction at the NFTS, screened at a host of international film festivals, picking up various awards including a National Film Award for Best Short.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I stole the idea off my best friend at the time, David. He had dreamed of being a film director since he was a little kid.
When we were around fourteen-years-old David bought a VHS camera and he would pull me in to help him in his filmmaking endeavours. During our years at school, we started by making some awful stop frame animations; using the free figures you would get out of the Kellogg’s cereal boxes. However, it wasn’t long before we started to upscale our ambition, making little short films that mimicked our favourite films. I remember one time being in a caravan and trying to recreate the bullet time scene from The Matrix by acting in slow motion whilst David ran the camera around me.
We had no additional kit and so had to edit in camera. This raw, low-fi approach also meant we couldn’t cover scenes with multiple angles and takes, having to rewind the VHS to check or redo a take. If we wanted to go again, we would have to rewind and cue the tape manually, before taping over the old take. It meant we had to rehearse a lot, whilst also being very clear about what shots we needed to tell the story. It was all very low-fi really and although we didn’t realise it at the time, we were learning valuable lessons about how to tell stories visually. I also started to get the bug for filmmaking. The buzz of watching your hard work back after all that time crafting a film was, and still is, so special.
I personally was in awe of David’s knowledge and passion for cinema, and I suppose looking back, one of the biggest impacts he had on my own career, was when he forced me to join him in getting an unlimited cinema pass. Now, up to this point in my life, like most teenagers, I was limited to watching the latest horror films being spoken about by the kids at school. However, now, due to this unlimited card, my mind was suddenly and violently expanding. I was experiencing new genres, new directors, new landscapes, new languages. Over the course of a year we saw everything that the movies had to offer, films like Almost Famous, Cast Away, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Remember The Titans and Moulin Rouge.
David had inadvertently opened my eyes and ears to the world of cinema and this is where my film education really started, and it didn’t take long to turn into an addiction. I’m still not as big a cinefile as some directors who I’ve met over the years but I do try and watch everything, from kids movies through to B movies and dare I say it, even the occasional Danny Dyer flick. I try to not put my nose up at any genre, director or movie, watching and absorbing all the movies the world has to offer. It surprised me at film school when certain people refused to watch certain types of films, not watching blockbusters, franchises or even movies by certain directors. It’s strange, as I feel you have to be really open to everything. You can always learn something from any film and sometimes some of the worst films have moments of brilliance.
Back then though, filmmaking was still just a hobby as I was focused on trying to become a graphic designer. The idea of working in films and television was just not a realistic ambition. No one I knew worked in the media and I hadn’t the first clue how to go about getting a career in this field.
Whilst I was studying A-levels I continued to make films, using my job at the local cinema to save and buy a video camera. This was so I could start filming and editing my own skateboard and skit films. I spent every evening and weekend filming skateboarding and teenage idiocy, but then I would take so much pleasure in editing these sequences to great tracks like Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny Be Good’.
At the same time we were being forced to think about what our plans were after college. I happened across a brochure for a degree in Video Production at the University of Gloucestershire. It was an 80% practical course with the last year made up of three modules where you had to essentially make your own films in order to build a showreel. Seeing that brochure made me realise that people could actually train to become a director and that there was something I could physically do, if I was serious about it. I think this was the moment when my passion for filmmaking and films in general fused with the idea of pursuing it as a career.
It took a while to convince my family, who initially had reservations given they too had no idea how the media industry worked. The worry was grounded in the fact that I could spend a lot of money and get in a lot of debt studying video production and they couldn’t see a clear job at the end of it. Ironically, they are now my biggest fans and came round very quickly once they spoke to my lecturers and saw how passionate I was about making films. I feel lucky to have such supportive family and friends.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
All my friends had all gone off to university to study so I ended up gravitating toward the educational route too. I tried to get the most out of my time at university, directing every project I could and getting involved in work experience on sets, generally making lots of cups of teas. I just jumped at every opportunity. You have to if you want to stay ahead of your peers who are all jostling for the same space as you. As a runner I tried to show my keenness too, taking pride in making a good cup of tea, never being on my phone and just listening out all the time so I could respond to what was happening on the floor quickly. It meant crew members responded to my attitude and this led to other opportunities. It’s easy to turn your nose up at running positions when you have loftier ambitions but try to do every job you take to the best of your ability!
I came out of university with a small body of work and a youthful arrogance, which was swiftly knocked out of me over the next year, as I tried to make my way in the real world.
The biggest challenge I think all post grad’s face, is how you earn a living whilst also chasing your creative goals of becoming a filmmaker. I personally decided to move back home to Birmingham on graduating. This was for financial reasons but also in order to try to secure regional funding. I’d been inspired by Birmingham based director, Michael Baig-Clifford and writer Geoff Thompson, who had made two short films with local screen agency support. These films were called Bouncer and Brown Paper Bag, the latter of which won the BAFTA for short film in 2003. The success of these two shorts had led Michael onto directing television. Geoff meanwhile was about to write and shoot his debut feature Clubbed.
My new plan, as naïve as it was, was to follow in Michael and Geoff’s footsteps by securing a digishort grant from Screen West Midlands in order to make a new short film. Whilst I was applying for funding and making these shorts, I did various jobs to earn a living, including a stint as a runner on BBC’s daytime soap Doctors. However, I quickly realised that if I wanted to be a director this wasn’t the path for me. Running took up all my time and energy, and although it paid well, I felt like it was pulling me away from directing and actually making me less inspired. I ended up finding an opportunity at a small corporate video company in Birmingham City Centre. I had met and befriended the owner after we worked for free together on a no budget Tomb Raider fan film (sometimes free work does open up other doors, but not always). I decided I’d prefer to direct and produce smaller commercial projects for very little money, living with my parents and making sacrifices financially, then earning good money running on a proper daytime drama.
I stayed at this company for just under two years and they supported my producer Tom Knight and I to make two short films under the digishorts scheme. Neither of these films were that strong but I learnt so much from making them and the latter would end up being my application film to the National Film and Television School.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Over the course of trying to make it as a director you face many setbacks and obstacles, rejection is part of the job. However, one rejection which stands out as a defining moment in my career, was losing my first feature film.
One of the short films we made as part of the digishort scheme was a short film called Stained. It followed a prison officer’s internal battle whilst working in a maximum-security prison. I had been trying to make something about this subject for a long time, having worked for a former prison governor turned plasterer. I used to strip walls before he’d come in and we’d always talk about his experiences and how they had shaped his current lifestyle. I had been put in touch with an author called Ronnie Thompson, an ex-prison officer, who’d written about his time in the service in a book called Screwed. We immediately hit it off and over the next year we ended up developing and making Stained together, alongside Producer Tom Knight and co-writer Colin Butts.
Our plan at the time was to make the short before developing a feature film around the experiences of a prion officer. So after making Stained we all agreed to work on the feature version together, which would be adapted from Ronnie’s book. Tom and myself were talking to Screen WM about getting the money to option Ronnie’s book but the writers had already turned in a 1st draft of the script, and Ronnie ended up using Stained to raise the money for the film through a private investor. It was kind of remarkable and I was so excited. All my fears about not succeeding, the energy and sacrifice I had put into this career, looked like they were going to pay off. I was going to realise my dream and make a feature film. However, it wasn’t to be. A few weeks later I got a call from the co-writer saying, “the financier took advice and has been told to not invest in a first-time filmmaker. So we’re going to have to move forward without you.”
I was absolutely devastated. Literally crushed. This was a project I had been working on for many years, way before I had even met Ronnie. It had now been ripped out of my hands and I had no idea what to do next. It ended up being a tricky year and I was really, really low as a consequence.
At the time I was also working regularly as a 1st assistant director on music videos. This was helping to pay my bills having recently moved to London. I fell into this role by chance really. The production assistant on Stained had asked me to step into the role for a low-budget promo. Even though I wasn’t sure I knew how to do the job, he believed in me enough and with the offer of a £100, I couldn’t afford to say no. I didn’t realise at the time but the runner on the job actually worked in production at a music video company. I must have done an okay job as a few days later she called me to check my availability for another video. Three weeks later and two more promos under my belt, I was now somehow in charge of a crew of 75, assisting a £100k Tiësto music video for a lovely director called Matt Nee.
It was such a crazy month going from obscure short film director to professional 1st assistant director. I was also now finally getting paid a good wage too, and I really enjoyed the buzz of being on set and helping directors achieve their vision. It helped that in the back of my mind I knew that I was still working toward my own career as a director, developing Screwed to shoot the following year. When that was taken from me, I was left without anything on the horizon in terms of my own directing. I started worrying that I was moving further and further away from my goal of being a director and soon I feared I would get used to the money and the people within the music video world and would simply become a full-time 1st assistant director. This just wasn’t my ambition.
Unsure what to do next, I decided to go and have a look at the National Film and Television School. I had always been interested in the school. I had friends who lived near and we often passed the building on the way to the train station. I immediately fell in love with the school and although I couldn’t afford to go, I decided to apply anyway, as it felt like it could help get me back on track in terms of my directing career.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
For me there were two things, which I think really helped develop my craft. The first was my time at the National Film and Television School. When I decided to go to the film school, it was because I had become lost. I had no idea how to move forward in terms of trying to achieve my goal of becoming a director. I knew that the school would give me a platform to get my work in front of agents and employees through it’s graduation showcase at the BFI. In short, I thought that I knew how to direct and make films, having been a 1st assistant director and making stuff for years. I was attending the school to make new work and secure an agent. However, on day one of the course, with lecturer Ian Sellar, I realised very quickly that I knew very little about directing and storytelling. I had a lot to learn but it was such an amazing and rewarding two years.
Film school isn’t for everyone but for me there was no place like it. This was as because it was the only place where I could make a selection of films, maybe two or three, back to back in such a short period of time. This process meant that you would make mistakes on each film, learn from them and immediately put these lessons into practice on another film right away.
So for example, my first year film wasn’t successful for many reasons and I was incredibly unhappy with it. It didn’t work narratively, but I learnt so much from making this film. It was the same with my first digishort Spirited. I wasn’t happy with it overall but it taught me more than any of the successful student films I had made. In failure you reveal more about yourself, and for me it drove me forward. I was already driven by a massive sense of dread that I would fail in my aspiration to be a director, so any knockback I had, I would really interrogate it and look to improve. So with my first year film at the NFTS I was able to immediately rectify those mistakes when making Echo. Then, the mistakes I made in Echo, I was able to put those right on Charlie Says. You learn at a faster rate by doing, and interrogating everything you do. Had I not had the opportunity to make Echo immediately after my first year film. I may have been judged on this previous film long enough that I might never have got an opportunity to make another film. So in some ways the course is set up to allow you to try things and not be scared of failing.
There’s also the group dynamic at film school. I was surrounded by brilliant filmmakers from various disciplines. You’re constantly learning from them, as they’re interrogating your work with you and they’re making mistakes that you’re seeing and learning from too. I learnt so much about performance and visual storytelling from my fellow directors as well as the head tutors like Ian Sellar.
The other thing I believe has played a huge part in the way I work as a director was my time as a 1st assistant director. I had the pleasure of working on loads of music videos over my time, collaborating with an array of different directors who all work in a variety of ways. There where so many great directors like Ryan Hope, Elisha Smith-Leverock, Rohan Blair-Mangat and Peter Szewczyk. Being able to work and watch these filmmakers was kind of a great film school in a sense too. I was able to see the things in their approach and their work that worked. With other directors I could also see the things that didn’t. I was able to improve and develop my own approach and avoid doing things that I could see weren’t working with other filmmakers.
Being a 1st also gave me invaluable knowledge and experience in how a set operates and how to get the most out of a crew. This was because I have an understanding of everybody’s job, the logistics, and time constraints faced within a variety of situations, so I have been able to manage my own shoots more successfully.
How did you get your first break?
The big turning point for me was signing to my agent Michelle, at United Agents. Her assistant at the time, Charlotte, had watched my films, Echo and Charlie Says. This was, as all the London based agents kept an eye on all the graduating directors, to see if there is someone they want to sign. The assistant told Michelle about my short film Echo and she came to the grad show to see Charlie Says and asked me if I wanted to meet. We ended up having a two-hour meeting where I don’t think I stopped talking. This was more out of nervousness. Michelle was incredibly critical of certain things in my work and not afraid to challenge me on things. However, she also had an idea of what was working well, which tuned in with the things in my own work that I did and didn’t like.
At the time I came out of film school I was also really excited about the idea of working with television drama. When I initially met with Michelle I had explained that I obviously wanted to make a feature film at some point, but I was in no rush. We decided to focus solely on TV with a plan to get me a block on a daytime TV drama. I was keen to prove to producers that I could direct before working my way up into high-end TV drama. I knew no one was going to hand me the lead block of a new, big show as my first job. I knew I had to do some work to prove that I could complete schedule and still deliver good work.
She was able to put me forward for all sorts of jobs. We tried to get a block of Hollyoaks – they said no. We tried getting BBC’s Doctors, because I’d previously been a runner for the show, but again they said no. Then a block on E4’s show Misfits opened up. Michelle put me forward to meet the producer Nick Pitt.
I had to go to set to meet him and I remember being so nervous. I loved the show and was desperate to get the opportunity to direct it. Nick was lovely and we had a great conversation about the show, talking about what I liked and thought was really successful and when I felt it was less strong. I didn’t hear anything for months as I hadn’t got the block I had gone up for. Then another block opened up towards the back end of the series, to do episodes six and seven. Nick put me in front of the executive producers and after a few meetings I got the job. I don’t think I’d ever felt so many emotions all at once before. I remember calling my wife and my family, who all got emotional too. It was a big deal for me.
It kick started my career essentially and I’ll always be indebted to Nick and Clerkenwell Films. On the back of Misfits I got Banana. Michelle put me forward as they were looking for short filmmakers to come in and make standalone films for TV. I got the job working on it because Russell loved my short film Echo. I loved the scripts. They were essentially a series of love stories that happened to exist in the LGBTQ community, they were just beautiful, poetic stories and they felt like these individual pieces of cinema that existed on TV.
There are not many projects like that – projects where directors from short films can break into TV. I imagine in the next couple of years more of that stuff will come out because commissioners and companies are aware of the lack of inroads for the new talent out there.
TV Credits: Misfits (2013), Banana (2015), Humans (2015-2016), Prey II (2015), Broadchurch (2017), Cleaning Up (2019), Dark Money (2019), Des (2020).
Photograph: Robert Viglasky