Olly Blackburn is an award winning film director and screenwriter with a career in feature films, television, commercials and music videos.
He trained at Balliol College, Oxford, and was set to pursue a career as a history professor. He also worked as a journalist and copywriter before winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study at NYU’s Graduate Department of Film and TV where he wrote and directed several short films that travelled to festivals including Telluride, ClermontFerrand and Palm Springs. His graduation film Swallowed was produced with a Martin Scorsese Post Production Award and won Best Student Film at Karlovy Vary while Wonderful World also garnered awards including Best British Film at the Manchester Film Festival.
Olly’s feature film debut, the controversial thriller Donkey Punch premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was shown in competition at festivals around the world including Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Sitges.
As a screenwriter and script consultant, Olly’s worked in different genres with directors including Niels Arden Oplev (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), Fabrice du Welz and Erik Eger. His commercials work has won top awards in the UK and America including Gold Clios, Gold RX, D&AD Yellow Pencil, LIAs, BTAA Arrows and a Cannes Silver Bear. While his music video for Gomez 78 Stone Wobble got him a nomination as Promo News Best Newcomer Award.
Olly’s second feature film Kristy was produced by The Weinstein Company, Electric City Entertainment and David Kirschner/LA Sienega Films and premiered at the 2014 London Film Festival.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Like a few of us probably I was an awkward kid. I was very academic (I came super close to doing a pHD and becoming an academic Historian), loved to lose myself in books and academic work and from a very early age… films. In the ’80s and ‘90s when I was a child, then a teenager, the BBC would play these incredible film series after school – things like New Australian cinema or Hitchcock or sci-fi movies from the 1950s, plus there was a late night series of cult movies presented by Alex Cox called Cinemadrome which basically showed the coolest films ever made and the combination of all that enraptured me weekly and blew my mind for 90-120 glorious minutes. Plus I lived in North London and there were some great fleapit repertory cinemas like the Everyman (long before luxury seating & posh popcorn) and the Scala (rats running across the screen) showing all night runs of classic movies many of which I was too young for so I’d sneak into those and watch three David Lynch films in a row in a room full of drunks and nutters with a warm tin of Red Stripe which of course will have quite a big effect when you’re 14 years old. It wasn’t just film either, lots of amazing TV at a time when the BBC was making things like The Firm and Edge of Darkness which had a massive impact. There’s something very specific about that fusion of light and picture, sound, music and emotional truth through performance that only great film can hit you with. It speaks to elemental things. That was one of the most special things about that period – every new film was a potential epiphany and so much better than the reality of saying the wrong thing all the time, failing at sports or screwing up socially.
That’s the emotional answer.
Practically, I was very driven academically. I was going to be a historian or a journalist – at university I edited and ran an independent student paper with some friends doing everything from writing to typesetting to getting in ads to delivering to the printers and distributing the next day (which is not far from running a low budget film set). I’d made lots of short films on VHS and Super 8 that were Twilight Zone-y weird stories and crazy proto-music videos where I’d edit together apocalyptic news footage to pop songs, there was a short we made for a university film competition where I played Satan coming to earth looking a lot like Freddie Mercury and having an argument with God, and all those films played exactly how they sound… Not film school material.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
When I finished my history degree at college I tried applying for a bunch of different things – a post grad degree in History, journalism placements, some mainstream jobs, the closest I could find in media was a TV news company looking for runners so I applied to that too, and also film school applications. I didn’t get into any UK film schools but I did apply for and get a Fulbright Scholarship for post-graduate study in the US and that amazingly got me into NYU to study film as a post-graduate.
Film School was an incredible learning curve, particularly NYU where they have a very specific philosophy: everyone wants to be a writer-director and you’re trained in all the crafts – sound, camera, producing, editing, acting… I learnt that I’m a terrible cinematographer, no method actor but a decent first assistant director (to this day I’m second-guessing my ADs as the shooting day gets tighter and tighter). And hey – I was learning to make fuckin film in fuckin New York!!!
My thesis short film from NYU Swallowed got into a lot of good festivals like Karoly Vary and Telluride and off the back of that I sent it to some UK commercials and music video production companies one of which signed me and I started off making my first music video a few months later for a band called Gomez. I vividly remember the thrill of actually being paid to direct for the first time. That feeling of stepping on a set with a proper crew, camera equipment that actually worked and big lights we could never get hold of in film school. Simple things like walkie talkies and a video monitor, gave the most amazing feeling that this was actually a real thing. After that I kept making music videos, more shorts, then commercials. It was very fast as things can be when you hit a groove in the industry, and then because I went to film school and wanted to be a filmmaker which meant being a writer and director (I’d also got an agent after Swallowed – I’d written a spec script at the same time which helped with that) and because commercials were absorbing everything, I took time out to write scripts. I got to write for some very cool people like Zentropa Films in Denmark. But I made a dumb mistake as I didn’t keep pursuing promos and commercials at the same time. I let them drop off and that meant I let my directing drop off and if there’s any single piece of advice that’s really important it is… if you’re a director, keep directing. Whatever the job, you will learn something every new day on set. (For a long time now, at the end of each shoot, I try and derive what I learnt that I didn’t know before and what I can do better for next time). If you don’t have that directing process rumbling on, you can lose touch with your instincts and, just as importantly, the wider world of people and contacts who are the lifeblood of any career.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
In this case, it had been a self-made set back. Something I see in myself and other directors is that a lot of our issues can be self-generated, which is a deep shame, as directing is already fiercely tough and competitive and there’s massive external challenges to overcome, like getting an agent, getting a job, getting the next job, getting through the day, making an underbudgeted show work, keeping your eye on the creative vision when there’s a million details to fix, and everything else because it never ends. You never – in my experience – reach the place where it’s all sorted, you’ve nailed it, there’s no more struggle left. You’re always fighting battles, trying to achieve something or get the next job. So then we add to that the hindrances developed from our own preconceptions – I should be making this not that, I should be handling these relationships differently, christ what am I even doing in this relationship!? And then on top of that is the direct-it-only-if-you-feel-it conundrum: you should never make something unless you really believe in it but… if you’re methodically building up jobs to get ahead, how can you avoid doing something you don’t 100% believe in? My best advice is find a big element in the work that speaks to you and focus your creative intensity on that. It may be an emotional theme in the story, it may be a visual technique, it may be that it’s so different to what you’ve done before you just want to try it out. However, if you can’t find that simple cornerstone to anchor your enthusiasm on it will show in the work one way or another. We can’t escape our instincts.
You can’t always get it right, every career is built on mistakes – like Samuel Beckett said “try again, fail better” – but the more you work, and keep working, the more you’re exposed to different styles of producer, actor, DoP, editor etc… the more you’ll learn from them, and about yourself. And like the Magnificent Seven you slowly start to pull together that crew of compadres you love and trust, and believe in – and believe in you – that lie at the heart of any successful directing career. This is a collaborative art, you’re not only as good as your actors and technicians etc – you’re only as good as the enthusiasm and trust you can inspire in them. Finding those people is trial and error over a long series of jobs that will teach you all sorts of things.
The second obstacle is a very specific one. I managed to make my first film, which I co-wrote, and it was called Donkey Punch – there was a lot of noise around it, it premiered at Sundance to a packed room and that thing happened, where all the American agents descend – it made a big splash. It was an amazing moment. The film got a lot of press. iT was very controversial and divided people massively, which I embraced – I love confrontational genre films with a brain, one of my absolute favourite directors is Paul Verhoeven – but it is a Marmite film. You’ll find equal amounts of people who think it’s brilliantly made and psychologically complex as think it’s a complete abomination. I have a Daily Mail full page column by Amanda Platell framed on my wall calling it the sickest most depraved film ever made and a column from Baz Bamigboye calling it one of the best made British films of the year – both written in the same paper! Go figure! Part of that is it’s just a completely full-on film that you should never sit the family down for after Christmas lunch, unless you want to freak your family out. Part of it was it’s a bit ahead of its time– it confronts toxic masculinity head-on and is open and equally gendered in its representation of sex and nudity, long before explicit shows like Euphoria were in the mainstream (interesting fact: the film earned an NC-17 in America for one reason alone – not the violence, not the sex, not the female nudity: Tom Burke’s penis. Which says all you need to know about American film classification). Its impact still ripples on – to this day people tell me how gripped they are by the film while others are completely horrified to learn I made it. But this other thing also happened – when I did finally get the holy grail of an American agent off the back of Donkey Punch, I ended up being offered loads more films that were kind of watered down versions of what we’d done – generic teen horror movies and pretty gnarly torture porn films. If you’re making a film as extreme as Donkey Punch you need to go all-in, you can’t fake it, you have to be 100% committed. We wrote the film with strong ideas about male rivalry and social conflict, embedded in all the tension and horror, and I just couldn’t re-enter that full-bore territory unless it was something I totally believe in.
So I wanted to try something else rather than making more films about teens and boats, and I didn’t just forge ahead and use the spotlight to move straight into another film. There were other separate things going on at the time that drove these decisions, but the end result was I didn’t have something else ready to shoot, “Just like Donkey Punch, only a little bit different” as an American agent once told me. That was a mistake. I made commercials again and that kept me directing. Eventually I did make the difficult second film, it was a horror-thriller called Kristy, written and conceived as a stylish Hitchcockian suspense piece and produced by Harvey Weinstein.
Which brings us to the third set back.
Kristy is a fun film to watch with a proper cult following – check it out on Netflix! It was also the most gruelling shoot of my life, encompassing some ghastly things. In fact, it was one of the worst experiences full stop. Without going on for a long time all I can say is you will all have some really tough directing experiences where you question yourself and your instincts. You will have setbacks. It is part of the journey. But if you’re ever unlucky enough to find yourself in a poisonous situation where powerful bullies are trying to destroy you; contact me. It’s a horrible place to be and you’ll need advice and support from people outside the toxic bubble. At the time, my agent sent me a photograph of Mohammed Ali all bloody and pulped at the end of the rope-a-dope to say… just surviving this production will be your victory.
After that I vowed not to make a film again unless the circumstances were right and to do the hardest thing possible for a director to achieve… stop being known for just one thing and do as much work in different genres as possible. That was when my career as a TV director began.
A good friend at the time recommended me for a TV drama series that they were casting called Glue written by Jack Thorne and produced by Eleven Films and I started for the first time making TV drama, moving from show to show, always trying to step up, working with really interesting writers in as many different genres as possible from drama to procedurals, to tech thrillers to costume drama. The most recent thing I’ve done was setting up Sanditon by Andrew Davies, which must make me the only director to have an NC-17 midnight movie and a Jane Austen adaption to their name! That’s one of the greatest things about this era of TV – if you keep working and meet the right producers and writers, say yes (and no) to the right sort of things, you can get the ability to flex your directing muscles in so many different ways – I’ll always have a special place in my heart for cool dark thrillers though.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Being a relative latecomer to TV I’ve found it’s an amazing way to advance your craft and keep doing what is our lifeblood…. Telling stories on film (sorry, pixels). Plus I’ve directed in commercials, promos, film and TV now and each one is a very different species that tests different abilities…
In film, the director has the vision but it’s a torturous process getting one through the gate and you can’t rely on film alone unless you’re mega like Christopher Nolan. In commercials, it’s all about the art of communicating an idea in 30 or 60-seconds which is a brilliant skill to learn. I love the creativity of a good commercial and the ability to shape this kind of 60-second piece of perfect distilled communication. In TV you have security – the season must get made, there’s a cast and sets and a whole infrastructure in place, but you have to understand that you’re fulfilling someone else’s vision: the creator or showrunner. I always try and find out as fast as possible what’s most important in the story to the creator – having written it helps because I know the process they’ve been through –then I can bring my skills into play to help capture what’s most crucial to them. It’s often going to come down to scheduling and budget and making really shrewd creative choices. There’s never quite enough to achieve what’s written and as TV gets more ambitious the bar keeps rising, so big decisions have to be made about where and how you want to devote resources, and that has to happen with the creator’s blessing. Your directing knowledge means there will be so many ideas you can bring to the table to help solve problems and realise the vision (“Hey instead of that 7 vehicle car smash as written let’s put the camera behind a piece of sugar glass blow it in the lens, park the car with some steam under it and shoot really tight” type of thing – that’s tens of thousands off the budget that can go to the big CGI finale everyone wants to knock out of the park).
For me honing the craft has a direct effect on each new job and making TV in the last six years has been a second apprenticeship. You’re working with a huge range of actors – trying to get the best from all of them in all their different ways, making budgets work creatively and making the day. The UK model where all the lights go off after 10 hours no matter what and overtime is kryptonite (it’s the reverse in America where you can easily pull a run of 18 hour exhausting days) is very focussing: there’s nowhere to run, so you have to learn how to pace and shape your day to achieve everything that’s written to the level of creative ambition you demand. Which means learning to make big directing choices instinctively. Also, if you get to explore different genres it can be so rewarding. Understanding pacing and suspense is integral for a thriller, also the heart and soul of comedy. You need to draw emotional truth out of your cast for drama but it’s only going to make a horror film more frightening if the performances are as truthful as they can be…
Also make lots of friends, talk to others in the craft. They can not only help you out and give advice but intimately know the kind of stresses you’re going through and you can share and vent with them. This is an intense profession, one of the other directors here compares it to the SAS and there is a kind of hell-for-leather spirit that comes with pushing such an unwieldy machine with so many different moving parts down the track. I also think we’re like football managers, with an overall strategy in mind, but always ready to change tactics, coaxing a team of very different egos and unique skills to do their best while placating and fending off the board of directors, working to a budget, at the same time keeping the punters enthralled enough to keep coming week in week out… Either way, it’s heavy duty and if you aren’t putting your heart and soul into the job each day then you’re not doing it right. But, when you’re making something, everyone’s in the zone, the stars align and you’re on fire… it’s unbeatable.
How did you get your first break?
My first big break was getting into NYU. The second was getting my short into some good festivals which got me to a commercial production company and a British agent. The third was getting Donkey Punch made. Then, starting to direct high-end TV.
Now, catalysed by a few months of lockdown, I’ve returned to some writing and working with other creators and producers at the inception stage but not letting off the directing momentum for a second. Who knows how many more breaks will be needed? A lot of people start in TV and gradually work up. I started in TV late and learnt a lot of things others would have known years ago. Although the journeys are all different, that process of learning and evolving all the time, being ready for a new break into a cool TV show, another film, a different kind of commercial (a few years ago I made a spot for Pampers called ‘Pooface’, it went viral, won a lot of awards, I’d never made a baby ad before – suddenly I was the baby guy!) remains a constant. For me the question about getting your first break is one that carries on through a career. That first break isn’t the end, it’s just the start – like a chain reaction that’ll resonate down a director’s working life and the three things that drive that journey are talent, timing and persistence.
Right before Donkey Punch I was at a really low ebb. A lot of things had failed (some my fault) which wears you down. I had a disastrous meeting at a company who pretty much told me I’d never work in this town again. Then on the bus back from that meeting I lost my travel pass and got done by an inspector who was about to have me arrested – which made it an epically shit day. That evening, my friend David called me up. He’d been on holiday in France and seen all these young crew members looking after luxury yachts off-season in the marina and wanted to see if we could come up with a story about these characters. We met up, came up with the plot to Donkey Punch pretty much whole-cloth. Then I found myself pitching it off the cuff to a producer called Robin Gutch at Warp a week later – where they were starting up a new label called WarpX in order to make low budget digital genre films. He loved it, within nine months I was directing my first film in Capetown.
As torturous and trying as directing can sometimes be, things do turn on a dime – just always remember why you’re in love with this profession. Be ready to seize the moment, make allies, foster friendships along the way that can bloom into strong rewarding relationships. Learn to identify poisonous people then stay away from them. Most importantly, get to know yourself. Try not to be a dick, learn when and how to push things really hard, also when it’s best to ease off and let others reach the decisions you hope they’ll make – which is a lifetime’s work.
TV Credits: Survivors (2005), Glue (2014), Endeavour (2016), Victoria (2016), StartUp (2017), The Widow (2019), Sanditon (2019).
Film Credits: Swallowed (1997), Wonderful World (1998), Rabbit (1999), Donkey Punch (2008), Kristy (2014).