After ten years making documentaries, including the award-winning and controversial Tottenham Ayatollah and Lifters, Saul’s debut feature film was the critically-acclaimed Bullet Boy in 2003, which amongst others won him an Evening Standard Award for Best Newcomer.
Saul went on to direct an adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker-winning novel The Line of Beauty with Dan Stevens and Hayley Atwell, followed by The Duchess in 2008. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling, this was nominated for and won at the Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, European Film Awards and many more.
In 2013 Saul directed and co-wrote an adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s acclaimed novel Suite Francaise starring Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas and Margot Robbie. In 2016 he directed NW, a single TV film starring Nikki Amuka-Bird, adapted from Zadie Smith’s novel which was nominated for two BAFTAs and won the top prize at FIPA.
After that Saul directed the critical success Journey’s End with Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield and Toby Jones, followed by the opening two episodes of Dublin Murders starring Sarah Greene and Killian Scott. His latest project, the mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings, starring Anne-Marie Duff and Rafe Spall, has been a massive critical and ratings hit for the BBC and will air on AMC in the autumn.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
My parents had a Super8 camera which I used throughout my childhood and I really loved watching films – of which Bugsy Malone, which I saw when I was about 8, was the one that totally blew me away. But it wasn’t until I was encouraged to take a course in photography as a teenager at school that I really began to get interested in using a camera and was told by my art teacher that, while I couldn’t draw, I did have an eye for taking pictures.
A few years later I enrolled on a film studies course at UEA and it was here – around the age of 19 – that the idea of making films properly took hold. The course had no practical element to it but was great for learning about and watching, a massive variety of films – and often ones that I wouldn’t necessarily have come across like the Russian avant-garde. At the same time a whole new group of filmmakers – from Spike Lee to Robert Rodriguez – were making films seemingly conjured out of thin air and with a new and very particular take on the world, showing things that hadn’t been seen before. I could’t think of anything more exciting to do.
Here I think it’s worth saying that I grew up with my dad making documentaries, so although I had become set on making feature films I never had that nagging feeling – which I think a lot of people have, particularly because the world of film can seem very daunting and exclusive – that it was something that wasn’t for people like me. So for those that ever get that voice in your head, please do your best to ignore it! The film and TV industry is desperately in need of people from as wide a variety of backgrounds to come into it, and the fresher and bolder your point of view or approach the better.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Although my degree was theoretical, I started to try and make films at university, with varying degrees of unsuccessfulness (thank God no copies exist). And when I left I put everything into trying to make more of them – which after not getting into the NFTS – meant finding a way to fund them and teach myself (the latter proving much harder than the former).
I’d decided to stay on in Norwich, because I knew the competition for funding back in London was massive and I wanted to buy some time to experiment and be able to live a decent life on a tiny amount of money. In retrospect this really paid off – what little resources were available proved possible to get hold of – and I was among a small group of aspiring fellow filmmakers all trying to do the same thing.
The first film I made after university was a short with my friend Andy Devonshire, called Silent Witness (no relation to the later TV series) He’d had a great idea about a landlord wiring up his house for sound and then written a script about it. So we decided to try and raise the money to shoot it in his house, predominantly using actors we knew from the UEA drama course to star in it.
Inspired by all the guerrilla filmmakers who’d made films on a shoestring, we managed to get about £4K from the local arts board then went about borrowing equipment, getting short film ends from Anglia TV, persuading a professional actor to appear for free and Bob Williams, a proper grown up cameraman, to shoot it. It still amazes me the sheer amount of help and goodwill we found. It was invaluable.
When it was finally finished the local arts cinema screened it as a short before Delicatessen (out of kindness more than anything else) and it got sold to Poland for 500 Zlotys – which to our minds meant we’d made a proper film and shown it in the cinema. From then on it was about seizing opportunities whenever they came – and in the meantime avoiding going after time-consuming proper jobs that might actually pay some money but wouldn’t leave time or energy to pursue doing my own films.
A key next step was when the local TV station, Anglia TV, ran a scheme for young filmmakers called First Take. I made a short film for them and on the back of it was given a couple of documentaries for Anglia itself, which led me off in that direction for the next decade or so. I am (hopefully) assuming there are various versions of this kind of thing around now because I only need to look at the other people who also took part and since gone on to do great things – Andrea Arnold, Iain MacDonald, Andy Devonshire, Guy Myhill, Mike Barker – to know how important they are as a stepping stone.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I’m sure that like most filmmakers, I found the route to becoming a director required an enormous amount of perseverance on so many levels and still does. In fact, there were so many obstacles along the way it would be impossible to name them all.
A lot of the early ones were obvious practical ones – not getting into film school so having to find a way to learn on the job and in public, getting people to take a chance and give you money to make films when you have very little to show them yet, trying to find the money to live on while doing all that.
But more than anything I was continually frustrated by my own limitations, that what I’d made seemed to have fallen way short of what I wanted to achieve. This stubbornly spurred me on to do more (as the saying goes, to fail again, fail better). I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it – along of course, with that great motivator, the fear of failure. But it wasn’t until I’d been making films for a good while that I really felt I’d made something that was anywhere near what I wanted it to be.
The one potential obstacle I hadn’t fully taken into account though, which in retrospect feels very naive given what a collaborative form it is, is the potential for others to obstruct what you’re trying to achieve. When everyone is pulling together films can be brilliantly creative. But when they aren’t it can be very difficult, especially if you’re up against someone with a mix of bad taste, money and power.
My worst experience by miles – which I’m sure will come as no surprise to anyone – was when Harvey Weinstein came on board to part-finance Suite Francaise. Despite explicitly reassuring me he’d let me make the film I wanted to make, he became increasingly and destructively intent on trying to turn it into the antithesis of what I had set out to do, and using a litany of threats and intimidation to do so.
By the end, about the only promise he ever kept was to not release the film in the US if I didn’t make a series of changes to the film, which I considered would ruin it beyond recognition. So I dug my heels in and he stayed true to his word – and with it went all the attention I hoped it would have otherwise achieved.
But like most obstacles and setbacks, you can find a positive side. It was a very important reminder – about the importance of creative control and being true to your original intentions, of not giving in to bullies, of working only with good people. And ever since I think I’ve become a much better filmmaker.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I think for both of these it’s a continuing process. Having not gone to film school, or worked up from runner route, or come from another discipline – like cinematography – there’s been no other way to learn other than by doing it.
Initially I began to realise what I didn’t like – quite a few short dramas and documentaries that were more stylised in look and feel – and then a little later what I did – documentaries that I’d begun to shoot myself. There’s nothing like being in charge of the camera to explore how you want things to look, the feel and tone, how the scenes and sequences will be edited, and the big picture it all fits into.
Of these the most important one was Tottenham Ayatollah. It wasn’t approached in a traditional way, with no other crew, just me and the journalist Jon Ronson, and a very small camera that could get us into places we wouldn’t usually be allowed. It was a completely liberating experience and ended up getting a really good reception, winning some awards and the freedom to do other projects that follows.
Even when I steered a course back to fiction, I’ve always tried to maintain a documentary element. In fact my most recent project – the mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings – I took a very stripped back and realist approach, using the best digital camera available (the Alexa mini LF) but without any film lights or grip equipment. It felt equally exciting and would love to continue applying that approach to whatever I do next.
Throughout my whole career I’ve also watched a lot of interviews and read a lot of books by people whose work I love and of course watched and rewatched their films. I try to get into their heads, to understand all the choices they made, to be inspired, and hope each time that a little more might rub off.
How did you get your first break?
I don’t think there was any single first break I could point to at the beginning – more a series of small breaks that added up over time and led to the most significant single one, which was for my first feature film, Bullet Boy.
The BBC had started a semi informal scheme for documentary directors to make feature films, produced by the legendary producer Ruth Caleb. So it wasn’t exactly out of the blue – I was only in the running because I’d spent a long time making documentaries – but it was certainly serendipity that I had the right experience at the right time and then came in with the right idea.
To cut a long story short I was asked if I had any ideas to take to the head of BBC Films, David Thompson, and I told him that I wanted to make something about kids in London growing up with guns around them that I (tongue in cheek) pitched as ‘Kes with guns’. To David’s eternal credit, he saw the idea immediately – and that I wanted to make something human and intimate, not glamourised – and set me on the path.
That said, the green light was a long way off – there would be a thousand hoops to jump through – research, treatment, outline, script, revisions, raising the money, budget, schedule, casting – before we’d even arrived on the set and shot anything.
TV Credits: Tottenham Ayatollah (1997), Lifters (2001), The Line of beauty (2006), Dublin Murders (2019), The Salisbury Poisonings (2020).
Film Credits: Easy Money (2003), Bullet Boy (2004), The Duchess (2008), Suite Française (2014), NW (2016), Journey’s End (2017).