Phil Hawkins is a commercials and feature film director. He has directed hundreds of commercials for national and international brands, directed five feature films released by Sony Pictures, Lionsgate and Netflix and worked with A-List talent such as Christopher Walken. He recently completed Star Wars Origins, a self-funded crazily ambitious film which combines Star Wars with Indiana Jones. The film was shot on location in the Sahara Desert and has been critically acclaimed as an “epic masterpiece”.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
My obsession began with a recipe of Jurassic Park and The X-Files. And, it was an obsession. After being so affected by these stories and the spectacle – especially Jurassic – I tried to find out exactly how they were made. I mean, as I was watching in the cinema scared stiff on my aunty’s knee, I knew it wasn’t real but for that 127 minutes I totally believed. Star Wars cemented it too after seeing that on VHS. I think looking at those names in the credits, frozen from the experience, I realised there were actual jobs that people did to create what I just saw. Knowledge was scarce… there wasn’t the internet or as much public information about filmmaking as there is today. I’ll point out here that I’m 35 years old and really ancient, so it’s pretty amazing that even in the length of time I’ve been trying to make films, how much has changed and developed to make it even easier to go out there and just do it.
Because of this lack of behind the scenes info, I basically wanted to just try and figure out how they were made so I got hold of a camera and started to shoot my own versions of them. I had to clean my mum’s friend’s house and help fix her computer (I was/am a bit of a geek) in order to borrow her video camera. We couldn’t afford one in a million years and I didn’t grow up in a place that particularly bred people for “the arts” (I hate that term!) because people either had no job or a “proper” job. Director? That was pretty laughable and a pipe dream.
So I made these sort of ‘fan films’. I made a 50-minute Star Wars spoof, a side-story to a Matrix film (complete with some pretty awful looking bullet-time sequences!), a pilot episode to a supernatural high-school drama, an X-Files episode style short (or three)… all roping my mates in, my teachers, shot in my school, the streets even once on an abandoned railway line that ended up not being abandoned (run!!). I made countless films in order to learn the craft. With every short I wanted to better the last in some way. That obsession continued.
I think it’s also important to mention theatre here. There was a period of time where I wanted to be an actor. I was a member of many youth theatres in Manchester (Royal Exchange and The Contact Theatre) as well as school plays. I had an agent for a bit and didn’t do that much but it taught me how not to run an audition later on after a crushing experience, as well as got me on a few film sets so I could really see how things were made. I wasn’t great but being on stage taught me some invaluable lessons about how to work with actors. All strings to the directing bow I would find out later.
My first ‘real’ experience outside of my own little shorts was being the director of my high school’s annual play. I also spent a whole summer writing it too. I was 14 and it had never been done before. It was basically like getting the blockbuster tent-pole movie directing gig at a studio… well, it felt like at the time! Then my lead actor had an accident before the run so I ended up being in it too. I think that was the first big test of directing but it all came pretty naturally because I knew what I wanted.
I continued to study theatre in college and, although I knew I didn’t want to act professionally, I loved performing and drama. It was also my first experience at being taught Media Studies formally and although I had amazing supportive teachers, I found the course itself really disappointing. I thought I’d find all these like-minded people who had made loads of films like me because I really wanted to learn much more, and I ended up basically being bored by the course and teaching people how to use cameras and editing, etc. I did make tonnes more short films though because I finally had access to digital cameras and editing which were just coming in at the time. MiniDV anyone? Before this I was editing on a linear machine with borrowed time from a university and with just two domestic VHS tape recorders cabled together and re-recording what I’d filmed to make edits. Yes, the quality was as awful as you’d imagine… it’s actually probably cool and retro now.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I think the disheartening experience at college made me want to try and get as much experience on sets as possible, as I knew that would be the place I’d learn the most. It wasn’t going to be from formal education. So, I looked out for as many student/no-budget/indy film “job” postings as possible. Job, in the loosest term as there was no money in any of them. I ended up getting a place on the BBC Mentor Project which ran for a year during my time at college. It was a great insight into television production but not drama which is where I knew I really wanted to be. The best thing was that they had actual money to give you to make a short film; I felt like I’d won the lottery. So I made this rather ambitious Rosa Parks inspired film involving a bus hiijacking, a closed down street and an actual police car with sirens and lights and everything. (I was rather excited by being able to hire things!). I mention this as it was at a screening of this film where I got my first job as a runner on a commercial. I’d worked on a student WWII film which I ended up being the 1st AD on which involved actual explosions (what were we thinking?!) and that was screening on the same evening. What were the chances? Anyway, that was made by people that had already graduated uni and one was working as a production manager for a commercials company. They were shooting an ad the next day (again, the chances?) and asked if I wanted to be a runner. I, of course, bit her hand off and presented myself for duty that very next day.
I didn’t go to university. Once I’d left college and the world of running opened up to me I realised that it was going to be my film school. I was basically the best runner ever to have worked on a film set. I don’t say that to brag, I say that because I worked my arse off to try and make it true. Because I knew that people might have a bit of time for me to explain a few things, give me advice, let me shadow them a bit if I made sure I was super awesome at my job and making sure they always had the perfect cup of coffee/tea in their hands when they needed it most.
I ran on commercials then moved into the camera department trying to work up the rungs of the ladder, then into being a 1st. I had a bunch of experience on the no-budget stuff so used that to try and wing doing ads. I was still incredibly young which didn’t always rub people up the right way but, hey, all part of the learning curve. I desperately wanted to be working on dramas but I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at this experience.
But I didn’t stop making films. Eventually the commercials company I was working for the most saw a few of them and took me under their wing. I started assisting the directors, editing commercials, doing anything and everything around the company to find out what everyone did. I worked every hour I could. I was trying to be a sponge. I knew if I was going to earn the respect of these crews and direct, I better know and have a respect for what they do too.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Maybe it’s hindsight or rose-tinted nostalgic glasses but I didn’t find the early years of becoming or being a director particularly challenging. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult or didn’t require a stupid amount of hard-work (and luck). I was just obsessed with it (that word again!) so it really didn’t feel challenging in anything but a healthy way. I love to be challenged. I’m not someone that takes no for an answer and I’ve never waited for the phone to ring. I’ve always got out there and just made stuff, talked to people, cold called companies, etc. So I kind of made my own luck.
I think my obstacles and setbacks came later when I was established (not as in famous or anything, I mean it being my full time career). And man, did the knocks come.
After directing two features (more on that later so I don’t skip over questions you probably have about how those films happened!) I got stuck in ‘development’ hell on a few feature projects with indie producers who didn’t really have the knowledge/experience/funding/contacts to pull it off. And these were projects I fell in love with so that was pretty hard when my naivety about independent film started to wear off and I realised the realities of making them. But, I turned these setbacks into a positive thing and went out and made my 3rd feature in just 48 hours: a 90-minute comedy satire in two shooting days! A crazy idea but it attracted a bunch of telly talent to it as it was so crazy and we pulled it off.
I’m now five feature films in which have sold to the likes of Netflix, Sony Pictures, Lionsgate, etc. But they’re still small movies on the grand scheme of things so I feel like my biggest challenges are now. I’m trying to really jump into big, studio filmmaking. I’m really done with making low-budget independent film because the chances of your film going out and winning Sundance or Toronto, for example, are so small (especially as a British filmmaker!) that how are you going to get that studio attention?
Of course, you’re reading this as someone who probably hasn’t made a feature yet so you’re probably thinking why is this guy complaining about having a career! I think it’s because a bunch of people talk about how hard it is to get into the industry but there aren’t many that say how it really is once you’re working. Those dreams to “make the big stuff” don’t go away. To use an over-used cliche, it is a marathon that you’ll probably never finish or win because it lasts a lifetime. If that sounds too tiring and challenging then you’re probably not going to make it. You know that stuff I said about obsession? I am obsessed with this job. It’s not even really a job. I think about how I’m going to push myself further every single day.
And I’ve had setbacks. How about being fired by Al Pacino because he wanted his mate to direct a movie you’d written? Or spending months scouting Morocco with Ridley Scott’s production designer and Spielberg’s production manager on a project where the money was pulled at the last minute… then came back but they got someone else to do it and didn’t tell me? Or getting shafted by some young writers who you helped bring finance and credibility to a project that attracted a big franchise producer only to be binned for someone “more experienced”?
And this is just a few. I could write a book full of them. The industry is full of challenges and setbacks that either make you sink or swim. And I actually quit a few years ago. Yep, after a life long dream of wanting to make big movies and drama it all became a little too much so I quit and just tried to deal with maybe my lot in life being one of selling stuff to people on the telly.
Well, I tried. That obsession to tell stories, to make the films like Jurassic Park and Star Wars is almost impossible to quash.
So, I’ve just spent three years and a tonne of my own money to go out and make my own Star Wars movie to prove to the studios that I can make big budget film. You can watch it on YouTube (it’s called Star Wars: Origins) and I’m currently riding that wave. We’ll see what happens but I feel like I rediscovered that passion to make these kinds of movies. Fingers crossed.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
You know “finding your voice” is one of those industry/creative terms that annoys me. What does it actually mean? I think it’s such an abstract concept that isn’t helpful to people starting out. Yes, we understand what it means but do you think Spielberg sat around thinking about his “voice”? No, he just went out and made stuff. I may be in a minority here but even after 15-plus years directing I can’t tell you what my voice is. I have a preference for certain stories – either writing or when I’m considering scripts – as well as being drawn to certain characters more than others but is that my voice? I only say this as if you think it’s as confusing and as unattainable as an idea as I find it, then don’t worry. Just go and make stuff.
Little rant over, my film school was making shorts. I learnt more from making films and trying to copy the techniques I’d see on the big screen in my back garden than any text book or course I’ve ever taken. The same with writing. I’ve written a whole bunch of screenplays and you get better every time you write one. Reading books is not writing. I think it’s an unhealthy amount of pressure when you see these amazing “first time” filmmakers making features that win Sundance, etc. When you do some digging you realise they’re commercials people, or have been making tonnes of shorts or music videos, etc. Nobody makes something for the first time and it’s awesome. I say that because I think we’ve lost the idea of being given the “permission to fail”. Many, many, many of my shorts don’t work – I either knew it at the time or when I look back – but they helped me grow. There’s a feeling that as a filmmaker you need to make that first film absolutely perfect and standout or you’ll never get the chance again. And we need to change that as an industry. Have a look at Paul Greengrass’ career and early work at ITV and you’ll see what I mean – he bangs on about a similar thing too.
Look, I’ve ranted again! But, basically, I honed my craft from doing it. And I’m still learning and growing as a filmmaker. The crazy ambitious Star Wars short I just made out in the Sahara Desert was a real logistical and directorial challenge that kept me on my toes because the schedule flew out of the window as the whole crew got sick… and my lead actress. I had to come up with tricks and ways to get the film shot regardless so that the audience wouldn’t notice. I never would have been able to do that without having made feature films and hundreds of commercials as I needed the experience and confidence to know it would work!
I’m trying to get more into television drama which is a whole different world where previous features and commercials experience doesn’t really count for much in certain producers’ eyes. So even now, I’d love to do a bit of shadowing or having a nosey around a few drama sets to see how it all works. Again, more learning!
How did you get your first break?
I think I should probably mention here that I’m from a very low-income, single-parent family and grew up in a council house in Manchester. Put that little violin away… I don’t play that card at all but I mention it as my family had ZERO film connections. I couldn’t afford to go to London to work for free for years on shoots. We couldn’t even afford a basic video camera so I could make films. I had the love and support of my mum and a few teachers who stayed late in school so I could make films, but that’s it. Everyone else said it was completely impossible and here I am being asked to write this for you lovely people. I feel very lucky every day – but I’ve bloody earned it.
I guess my first paid, professional directing gig was with a commercial. The commercials production company I was working like a dog for (in a good self-inflicted way!) gave me the opportunity to direct a low-budget commercial for a charity which won a few awards. I was 20. I did a few like this to build the reel until I started actually pitching for ads becoming one of their “house directors”, albeit a junior one. It was great for a while until I started winning work against some of those in the company that I used to assist, so it became a little awkward, but I’m very appreciative of the start I got.
My first feature film came along from my old college drama teachers who had the idea to make a film version of the greek classic play ‘The Trojan Women’. It was a very basic, minimalist film but won a few awards and got some distribution. This led to my second – an adaptation of a Philip Pullman novel – which I felt was my first “proper” feature as it was on location with a cast and big crew and stuff.
But I had to pitch for this. As it was a book and there was no screenplay, the producers asked for a short treatment/set of notes on how I saw the book being adapted from both a story and stylistic perspective. It was also pretty dated so it had to include more modern day technology, etc., That had plot repercussions. So I wrote this 60-page document with references, a full story outline, photos, little storyboard ideas… everything I possibly could. I gave it my all and it paid off. Sometimes going above and beyond is what will make you rise to the top. Actually, all the time.
Even now, five feature films in, commercials are still my main source of income. I never in a million years thought I’d direct ads (again, I probably didn’t realise that was an actual job!) but it’s a great living, they’re short-term projects and the budgets you get allow you to play with all the toys. Like any freelance life, it can be hard even though I’m 15 years into directing ads now, but thats probably a whole other conversation!
In terms of agents, none of my features work came from having one. In fact, I only just got my agent a few years ago as I’ve been trying to push into television. Luckily I had a bunch of work to show a few different agents and had a chat so that made it easier than starting out. But agents aren’t everything. Make good work and opportunities will come – not that people will start picking up the phone (NEVER wait for that!) but you can create your own luck by putting yourself out there and showing people your work.
And, remember, agents work for YOU. People obsess about having one and put up with a lot of crap just because they don’t want to be un-repped, but like anything in this industry it needs to be a mutual relationship. I had an offer originally from quite a big agent but she thought I was “too loud” in a room (I’d call it passion) and wanted to fix it. So I told them to stick it and went with maybe a lesser known agent but someone who I totally clicked with and have a great relationship with.
For my US manager, I basically did what everyone says you don’t do. I cold called. I spent weeks researching, calling, charming assistants – just trying to get someone to watch something. Eventually it paid off so I met a few people and found an amazing manager and one of the big firms. And it wasn’t even the feature film work he found most appealing, it was a spec movie trailer for a project that never happened that he liked and thought was cool. The features were just a bonus.
I’ll shut up now. Good luck everyone. Never take no for an answer. Work bloody hard. Go make films. Go share them and make sure people actually see them. Develop that thick skin (you’ll need it!) and go make the things you want to make rather than what you think you should. And feel free to track me down on Twitter and say hello.
TV Credits: 5th Gear (2008-2009), The Street That Cut Everything (2011).
Film Credits: Please Hold (2007), Commandeered (2007), The Butterfly Tattoo (2009), Being Sold (2011), Baptism Spec (2013), The Flying Lesson (2013), A Day in the Life of a Bathroom Mirror (2014), Book 1 (2014), The last Showing (2014), The Four Warriors (2015), Star Wars: Origins (2019).
Photograph: Philm Company & Velvet Film