Rob wrote, directed, shot, co-produced and edited micro-budget feature film Strings at age 17, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival. The film was acquired by Vertigo Films and released via the BFI. Rob won the Discovery Award at the British Independent Film Awards for the film; the youngest director ever to win a BIFA. He was named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow for the film.
Rob’s television output includes work written and directed for Channel 4, FX and Sky, where he directed three episodes of Jez Butterworth’s big budget Roman epic Britannia for Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions. Most recently, Rob has directed the pilot episode of Soulmates, a Black Mirror-style anthology show for AMC and Amazon studios.
Rob is currently developing a number of TV and film projects including a supernatural thriller for Studio Canal, psychological horror Seaholme with the BFI, SALT with Chernin Entertainment, Dawn of the Deaf with producers Rob Watson & Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and Eric Heisserer. He also has Rawblood a horror series with Natalie Dormer who is set to produce and star.
Rob is a Sundance and Berlinale alumnus and has won a number of awards for his short films at festivals including the London Short Film Festival, Raindance, and Sitges and was the recipient of the BFI Future Film Award in 2011. Rob’s 2017 film, Dawn of the Deaf, was BAFTA shortlisted and has played at over 100 film festivals worldwide, including the Sundance Film Festival and Oscar qualifier Sitges, where it won the Melies D’argent for Best Short.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I took a pretty atypical route to becoming a director. I grew up in the middle of Shropshire, with no connection to the film industry and a lot of spare time on my hands. I was obsessed with comic books and spent a lot of my time drawing, with the intention being to create my own graphic novels. Despite living in a small town, I lived just a few streets away from Charlie Adlard, who illustrates The Walking Dead – he gave me lots of useful advice and for a while it seemed like that was going to be my path.
Then, instead of hiring a babysitter one night, my dad put me in front of the TV and played me a dusty VHS tape of Akira, the Katsuhiro Otomo anime classic. My mind was blown. I became obsessed with animated movies and from there began to educate myself on all aspects of cinema. It struck me that filmmaking was extremely similar to making comic books – all the lessons I had learned about composition and visual storytelling translated completely.
The next milestone was watching Apocalypse Now, still one of my favourite films. I can still remember watching, wide eyed, as the rules of storytelling were rewired inside my brain. Until this point I had no idea that film could achieve anything beyond plot and story. What I was watching was undeniably art.
I became obsessed – each week I’d try and educate myself on a different aspect of film history. One week I’d try and watch as much German Expressionism as I could, the next week I’d binge all of Hitchcock’s work, stopping and rewinding so that I could unpick how they were constructed.
I saved up some money and bought a £50 flip-cam out of a mail-order brochure and began filming EVERYTHING. I tried to replicate shots and sequences from my favourite films, used lamps and torches to light scenes, roped my friends in to star. I still look back on it as the most creative time in my life.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
By this point I was 17 and my A-levels were looming. After exams, we had a long summer break and my only plan was to get drunk with my friends. I decided that I could probably find a better use for that time. Without any real plan, I started telling people that I was going to make a full-length film over the summer. I even set a date. I had no script, no team and no idea what I was doing, but the fear of social embarrassment forced my hand. I’d told everyone I was making a movie, so I better fucking make one.
I was so clueless about the film industry that I didn’t even realise that short films were a thing. In my mind, it was a feature or nothing.
I locked myself away for a week and wrote a rambling script about two teenage fuck buddies who fall in and out of love with each other and called it Strings. I had £3000 that I’d been saving for university, which became my budget. I borrowed an HDV camera off a friend of mine and started to teach myself how to use it.
At the time, my bible was Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez, a book that chronicles the making of El Mariachi, Rodriguez’s $7000 debut feature. In this book, Rodriguez advises to look at what you have available to you for free, and write it into your movie. For El Mariachi, Rodriguez had access to a zip-wire, a school bus and a tortoise – and so they all went into the movie. I did the same thing. I spoke to my college, who allowed me to shoot in the empty building over the summer. I worked impressive locations into the script, as well as striking props that I could access for free. Anything that would give the impression of high production value.
We sent out a casting call to every university in the country asking for audition tapes and we were flooded with responses. I selected a handful to come to Shropshire to audition and asked a couple of my college teachers to sit with me at the casting session so that the actors didn’t get freaked out that they’d travelled halfway across the country to audition for some 17-year-old kid.
We assembled a brilliant cast and started shooting a few weeks later. On the first day, I had persuaded all of my friends to come and help out. I was determined to make everything run like a professional film shoot. It didn’t. Our first shoot day was a disaster. The next day, my friends wouldn’t return my calls. Only three friends showed up, and that became our crew for the remainder of filming. From there, things became a lot easier; we moved faster, the atmosphere eased. Everyone was there because they wanted to be.
I ended up taking on every job I could – I wrote, directed, shot, co-produced and edited the film myself, teaching myself each discipline as I went. To this day, it’s the most enlightening experience of my life, both in terms of filmmaking and also human behaviour.
I didn’t have a computer and so I went to do a film course with the intention of using their facilities to complete the movie. Rather than finding support from the staff, I received a collective shrug. When I told my film tutor that I’d made a feature film, the first thing he said was that I shouldn’t have bothered. He was a dinosaur, thankfully retired now.
Eventually, I convinced the university to let me edit the film at night. They gave me a key to the edit suite and I’d cut from midnight until the sun came up. The problem is, I’d sleep in and miss the actual lectures, or even fall asleep in class. After a few weeks, the head tutor told me that I could either choose my feature or the film course. I chose the feature.
After essentially getting kicked out after a year of university, I ended up sleeping on couches in London while I found my feet. I still couldn’t afford a laptop and so I shot a string of embarrassing corporate videos until I had the money together. Finally, I finished the movie.
The timing was very fortuitous – this was before DSLR cameras were widely available, and so we quickly garnered a lot of attention for having made a professional quality movie with limited resources. The story of how we made the film became as much of a focus as the film itself, and we quickly leaned into this narrative. This taught me the importance of having an easy “hook” for whatever project you’re trying to sell. Strings became “the £3000 feature made by teenagers about teenagers”.
We played at festivals around the world, screening at Raindance for our UK premiere and the Rome Film Festival for our European premiere. The film was bought for distribution by Vertigo Films and released via the BFI, leading to a nomination and win at the BIFAs.
I was 19 at the time and this success led me to sign with Independent Talent, and allowed me to move to London and begin working professionally as a director.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
When I moved to London, I assumed everything was going to happen very fast – and for a while it did. I sold my next movie, and entered development only weeks after the BIFA win. Then, six weeks away from the start of the shoot, the finance fell through and the movie collapsed.
I was distraught at the time, but in retrospect I’m so glad that I didn’t get to make that film. I was 19 and the script was a pretentious mess. It probably would have ended my career before it started.
Either way, it taught me not to trust any project was real until I was on set, or even in the edit. The best of us only have a dozen or so films in us, and more often that not your films will fall through or enter eternal development. Being able to let go and keep moving forward was a big lesson for me.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Ever since I first picked up a camera, I’ve wanted to make genre movies – horror, sci-fi, thrillers. After Strings, I was carted around every production company in London for general meetings. I’d pitch alien invasion movies, zombie movies, time travel and could see the confusion dawning in the faces of the producers I was talking to.
They didn’t know what to do with me. I’d made a low-budget romantic drama and was suddenly pitching them space aliens? It took me a long time to realise that filmmakers need to determine their “brand” in order to sell themselves. It’s a horrible word and a cringe concept, but I’ve found it to be true.
For some filmmakers more talented than I, they are their own unique “brand”. For me, my “brand” became genre. But I had to work to get there, and reinvent myself in the eyes of the industry.
The only way to do this was to go back to short films. At first, I entered a lot of film competitions, using the quick turnaround as a way of motivating myself. One competition was the Sci-Fi London 48-hour film competition, in which you conceive, write, shoot and edit a film over one weekend. My alien invasion short Sit in Silence won the top BFI prize at the event, and gave me a shot in the arm.
I kept making shorts, using the same approach I had taken on Strings – write what I know I have access to, use locations and resources that give the appearance of high-production value. Everything was a blag. At first, I’d make the films for a couple of hundred quid at most, pulling in favours where I could.
On each film I learned so much about my own taste – whereas I used to just be imitating other filmmakers, now I felt my own style developing. My own fascinations, techniques and habits, good and bad.
How did you get your first break?
Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give is that you should never focus solely on the project in front of you. Always know where you want to go next. Always know what you are trying to prove with each project, and how it will allow you to progress.
Six years ago I got lucky and received an email from the Central School of Speech and Drama, and acting school in London. They had £7,000 to make a film, the only catch being that I had to include some of their graduates. This is more money than I’d ever had to make a short film (I was rejected for funding by BFI, Creative England, Film London, you name it…) and I wanted every penny to count.
My writing partner, Jed Shepherd, and I had been developing an idea called Dawn of the Deaf for a few years, but had never been able to get it off the ground. The film focussed on an apocalyptic disease that spread through sound, leaving only the deaf alive. I decided that I was going to use that £7,000 to make this project a reality by making a short film version of the concept.
Using the Rebel Without a Crew approach once more, I wrote a script that utilised every resource I had available to me and made sure that every penny we spent went on screen. I hounded my Facebook friends to come and star as zombies, eventually tallying up over 300 bodies for our grand finale.
The film blew up. We played at over 200 film festivals around the world, including Sundance. This is when my career flipped. Certain doors had always been locked, and seemed impossible to breach. I never thought I’d direct for TV. I never thought I’d sell a film to a US studio. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to keep working consistently.
After Sundance, that changed, slowly. The big milestone was booking a one-off TV drama called True Horror, which I made with Eleven Film (Sex Education) for Channel 4. It was incredibly low-budget, and felt more like one of my short films than a professional shoot, but it did the job of putting a TV credit on my CV. I’d finally broken free from the Catch 22 of “we can’t hire you to direct TV unless you’ve already directed TV”.
This was huge and gave producers a vote of confidence in my ability to work within a TV schedule. From there, I was able to book jobs directing big-budget TV, including a recent pilot for AMC.
Dawn of the Deaf is now set up as a feature film, with an Oscar-winning writer and producer attached. I’ve sold films to US studios, and set up a new horror series with a major US network. All of which I can trace back to Dawn of the Deaf, and the decision to take a big swing on a tiny budget.
TV Credits: Bite Size Horror (2017), True Horror (2018), Living In Fear (2018), Britannia (2019).
Photograph: Samuel Dore