Nick Rowland is an award-winning directing graduate of the National Film and Television School (NFTS). Before graduating, his work as a director had earned him a Royal Television Society Award for Dancing In The Ashes, a nomination for Best Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival for Out Of Sight and a nomination for Best Short Film at the BAFTA’s and the BIFA’s for Slap. Before Nick committed to film, he also had a promising rally driving career. He was selected for the prestigious MSA British Rally Academy, before competing in the Chinese and British Rally Championships. This experience fed into the making of his last short, Group B, which earned Nick a Student Oscar nomination.
Since the NFTS, Nick directed episodes of Cuffs, Ripper Street and Hard Sun for BBC One. Nick’s debut Feature film, Calm With Horses, premiered at TIFF 2019 and went on to be nominated for the Sutherland award at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, before its general theatrical release in 2020.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I have a bit of an unusual background compared with a lot of filmmakers, as I never really had any ambitions to pick up a camera until I was in my early 20s. Before that I was a semi-professional rally driver and my whole life was dedicated to cars and motorsport. I was competing in the Chinese Rally Championship and the British Rally Championship, and had very little time for anything else. Growing up in the Midlands meant I was never really exposed to cinema. There was no real way of watching anything art house and I would have to travel to the closest city (Peterborough) to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
I became interested in film after my racing career ended and I moved up to Scotland. I guess it was a period of soul searching. I was away from a lot of my friends and had very little going on, so I would always end up watching loads of movies on the Film4 channel every day. I started to really pay attention and get excited by film around this time. Watching Trainspotting for the first time really changed my life. It was the first time I not only enjoyed being told a story, but I was fascinated by how the story had been told. I was fascinated by the bold lighting, the way it was cut to the pop music, the use of graphic wide angle lenses etc. This was the first film that made me want to learn more about the filmmaking process on a technical level. I loved how expressive and bold it was.
Around this time I was feeling very directionless, and started thinking about going to university. I went on the UCAS website and did a multiple choice questionnaire that was designed to suggest courses you might enjoy. My results said I should become a librarian or filmmaker, and as I am dyslexic that didn’t leave me with much choice!
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
First of all, I had to work for a year to save up enough money to study. Then I went to the Arts University College in Bournemouth for a BA hons in Film Production. I really felt like I was starting from zero and always having to play catch up with the people that had been interested in cinema for much longer than I had. I guess I had an imposter syndrome that I have failed to shake even to this day. I never felt like I was cultured or intellectual enough to be a filmmaker. But I found I really enjoyed making films and I had a knack for working with actors and making things emotionally engaging. I was painfully shy and thought I could never be a director because my idea of a successful director was someone who was loud and confident and enjoyed the sound of their own voice. It took me a while to learn that a director can be any type of personality and being an introvert was okay too. I always struggled with an insecurity that I had nothing worthwhile to say as a filmmaker, but I think it just takes a bit of time to find your voice.
Once I finished my degree I felt like I still had so much learning to do before I could be ready to direct on a professional set, so I applied to the NFTS to do a masters degree in Directing Fiction. The NFTS was really life-changing for me and really helped build up my self confidence and skills to the point where I was ready to start working professionally. By the end of my time there I had started to feel comfortable in my own skin and started to get a sense of how I worked and what was useful for me personally. Luckily, one of my short films that I made at the school was nominated for a BAFTA, and that really kick-started my career and I began directing TV dramas for the BBC immediately after I graduated. This was incredibly lucky for me because by the time I came to the end of my studies, I had built up a huge level of debt and bank loans that I had no idea how to pay back.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
For me, the biggest setback was also the biggest motivating factor. I had no money and no financial safety net or support from anyone. I had to rely on myself and failure was never an option because of the debt I was getting myself into through my studies. I think this really forced me to always work at my maximum and be determined to overcome any setback that came my way. Filmmaking is such a stressful and insecure career, that I think having financial worries on top of the stress of your work can really take a huge toll on your mental health. I always try to only ever make decisions that work creatively for me and further my goal of where I see my ideal career, but it becomes hard when often the choices I want to make are the ones with the least financial benefit. In the final year of making my debut feature film, I had to leave my flat and sofa surf for 12 months because I could no longer afford rent. People look in from the outside and assume the life of a director is glamorous, and maybe it is once you became very established, but for the most part if you want to stay true to your creative and artistic sensibilities it is a huge struggle to make ends meet.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
All of the shorts I made were via film school. To be honest I would not know where to start if I tried to make a short film any other way. With film school you have all the free kit and facilities, and a whole crew of eager and passionate collaborators to work with. For me, film school is the perfect way to learn about filmmaking and storytelling. The opportunity to learn from your peers is crucial, and building up a filmmaking community of friends and crew that support each other and work together is so vital in the early stages of your career.
After I moved into TV I found that world to be incredibly nurturing. Of course when you move into a professional level there is the added pressure and responsibility of doing good work, but I find everyone I met within television was sympathetic with how I was still learning, and always helped and supported me through the process. You find so many people in the industry are very generous with how supportive they can be. As long as they can see passion and hard work then I find that is usually rewarded with trust and encouragement from their side.
How did you get your first break?
My big break really came when a short film I made at film school was nominated for a BAFTA. It felt like a really huge moment for me as it lead to agents and production companies suddenly getting in contact and expressing a desire to work with me. Before that I made very few contacts in the industry and I saw no immediate path towards professional directing. It made me realise that no matter what the quality of your work is like, exposure and some form of pedigree can really help your chances of standing out from the crowd as a young and unproven filmmaker. Entering film festivals and film competitions can be a great way of building up a name for yourself, and you will also meet loads of useful contacts along the way.
As a new filmmaker, you are ultimately a risk for any production company to hire, because you have no track record for a job where you would be responsible for a hugely expensive shoot. So while the industry is always hungry for new blood, I find that they are always looking for signals that reduce the risk of hiring you in their eyes. So if you can have your work screen at a well regarded film festival, or if you can win or be nominated for a well respected award, it can act as a level of reassurance for the people that may potentially hire you, and tip the odds in your favour.
Secondly, I think its really important to practice your pitching and meeting skills aside from your film work itself. Once you pass the first hurdle and manage to get an agent and a job interview, so much of it is about how well you can perform in the pitch or meeting to show a level of confidence and understanding about the job on offer, and what is required for it to be a success. You need to demonstrate not just a creative flair but also professional competence that shows you will handle the pressure and stay on budget, etc. Displaying good communication skills and an ability to be a team player and good collaborator are so important in landing that first job.
TV Credits: Cuffs (2015), Ripper Street (2016), Hard Sun (2018).