Azhur is a graduate of the London Film School who’s recent works include Doctor Who Flux and Baghdad Central. He is next up on Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys adaptation for Amazon Studios.
An alumni of the Berlinale Talent Campus, BFI’s Think Shoot Distribute and B3 Media’s TalentLab for BAME Talent, he is also a ScreenCraft Fellowship Finalist, Script Pipeline Semi-Finalist and Final Draft Big Break Quarter Finalist.
He has been mentored by directors Colm McCarthy and Alice Troughton.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I grew up in Manchester and we used to have these big family dinners with cousins, aunts and uncles every weekend or so. At one of these dinners, when I was eleven years old, my cousins and I, bored out of our minds decided to make a short film (my first!) with my older cousin’s camcorder. It was a Western, starting off with a robbery at a remote post-office, which led to a shootout between two rival gangs in an epic canyon. Despite it being shot entirely within the house and the garden outside, in my head I saw the perfect movie locations! Having no idea about the post-production process, it was all shot in sequence and edited in-camera. We showed it to all our aunts and uncles later that evening and I just remember everyone laughing along—though most likely laughing at us mucking about on camera—but to me it was a moment where I realised that something I had created garnered a strong reaction from an audience. That was definitely the moment I caught the filmmaking bug, though at the time, I wasn’t even sure that it existed as a job.
Cut to a year later and I was watching Jurassic Park at a sold-out screening. It was the first time I’d seen it packed like this—I had no idea that this many people would be as excited about a film as I was—and watching the film felt like magic; seeing these images up on the screen making a whole audience laugh, jump and scream was genuinely awe-inspiring. I’d been interested in films for a few years and watched them endlessly, but this seemed to be the first time that I specifically noticed the ‘Directed by Steven Spielberg’ credit at the end. I distinctly remember the realisation that this was a job and that job was making films. I walked out of the cinema, turned to my mum and said, “I want to be a director,” and she just went, “Okay” and that began my journey!
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what where your first steps in achieving this goal?
I started making a whole bunch of short films with my brother and friends. When they weren’t around, I made films with Lego. I raided my mum’s sewing box for endless amounts of string to move the pieces across the Lego sets (stop-motion was too laborious for me…).
I only had four Hi-8 tapes to make these films on, so I had to keep recording over them. On the one hand, I’m gutted I don’t have all the films I made, but thinking back, I believe it unwittingly focused my attention on the filmmaking process rather than the finished product. I think this really instilled in me the importance of craft in my work—and always to enjoy the process, something that I still remind myself of now when the pressure and stress mounts!
I kept making films all through school and that led me to study Media Production at Staffordshire University. There used to be plenty of Media Studies courses at the time, which focused on theory, but my course was one of the very few that was centered on practical filmmaking. We made short dramas, documentaries, radio plays and even a ‘live TV’ light entertainment show.
In the summers between university, I worked at a post-production company in Manchester, where the main work was corporate videos and DVD creation (the heady, early days of DVDs!). They offered me a full-time position after graduating, but I only stayed for about a year as I wanted to get more into production. London felt like it was where it was all happening, so I made the move down, doing work experience for a couple of weeks at a time in various music video and commercials production companies. This led to getting an office manager position at a production company called Flynn Productions. It was a fantastic experience where I learned a lot on and off shoots and where I got the chance to direct my first music video.
What obstacles or set backs did you face in becoming a director?
There were a lot of obstacles along the way. One of the hardest is getting funding for short films, especially for the genre films that I wanted to make. Science-fiction for example, is especially hard to get funded, even when it’s not reliant on visual effects, but I really love genre filmmaking so I just kept persevering and making the type of films that I wanted to, however I could.
One thing that isn’t talked about enough in our industry is the effect on mental health. There are endless rejections in this industry and I soon began to think that they were rejecting me as a creative, rather than the specific ideas. It’s hard to separate the two, but I learned along the way that a lot of times, funders/commissioners/execs say no for a multitude of reasons. It takes time, but separating your self-worth as an artist from endless rejection is an important step in keeping up your endurance, especially when you’re yet to have your break.
One of the biggest set backs was a sci-fi feature film that I was very close to putting together that fell apart at the last hurdle. The script had been selected for Film London’s MicroMarket which gave twelve projects an opportunity to pitch to production companies and financiers. We managed to get enough financing to get us to the starting line and get cast attached. However, as we started moving into official pre-production one of the main financiers pulled out. One by one, the other financiers pulled out and the project came tumbling down. There’s always setbacks and obstacles in this industry, but this time it really shook me, to the point I decided to pack it all in and give up on my dream.
I spent a few months trying to figure out what I wanted to do, but bit by bit, I started to realise that I still couldn’t stop thinking about directing. I needed a break away from it to realise that a passion for directing and storytelling wasn’t a choice—it was a need. I figured I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to film and TV, so I joined a film collective that made a film every month by pooling resources, chose a simple script and went out and shot a short in a day. I found myself enjoying every moment of it. It was a liberating experience to go back to basics and the short rekindled my passion and restarted my path to directing.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
The London Film School was where I started to develop my voice. I was lucky to shoot on film, which taught me discipline when it comes to shooting and editing. I had to be absolutely sure with every decision, as I only had one roll of 16mm film to shoot a short film on. What was great about LFS was that the first year you change roles and work on each other’s shorts. So, one day you’ll be sound recording, the next you’re camera operating, then assistant directing, then you’re producing and directing your own work. You start to specialise in the second year, and I believe this is a great way to help find your voice as a director, because you start to understand how to use all the tools at your disposal in telling your story. I’d encourage all aspiring directors to try this on other filmmakers’ shorts.
After film school, I was funding short films myself. I’ve never had public funding so most of the time it was about saving up or begging for free kit and asking people to work for expenses. Each new short you make you’re developing your voice and it’s just about making as many as you can. Even the act of getting a film off the ground is a big learning experience in negotiation and communication, so even the ones that didn’t get made (of which there are many!) make you into the filmmaker you are.
I also branched out into video games where I directed motion-capture for a first-person shooter for the PlayStation and Xbox. I was designing the sequences in the game engine, setting up virtual cameras and then using that as a rough animatic for the motion capture stage. One thing that struck me about the games industry was how it felt like prep, production and post-production all happening at the same time. I took this job being an avid gamer and seeing the cinematic quality of some of the games out there. I was aware of how video games and film would merge. I wanted to have this particular technical feather in my cap, which has paid off for the VFX and technical requirements of my current job, Anansi Boys.
Finding your voice as a director is all about taste and you can cultivate that by watching as much as possible, but then also studying them. I’ll regularly break down films and TV shows in how they were shot, the camera placement, the editing, the sound design and so on and try to work out why that choice was made. This was something that started at film school where we’d have a weekly lecture on a film and our lecturer would then break down the directing choices afterwards. In my downtime, I try to maintain this weekly and keep them all saved on my computer to refer back to. It becomes a useful resource when working to be able to refer back to them.
How did you get your first break?
When the feature I mentioned was slowly falling apart, my casting director introduced me to a producer, Jonathan Curling to see if he could offer advice. We had a coffee and he helped where he could. I mentioned about wanting to get into TV and we talked a little about the show he was working on, Baghdad Central. Cut forwards a few months and Jonathan got in touch about an opportunity to be an Assistant to the Director and Producer on that show. I went for the interview and got it, starting prep in London and moving to Morocco for the entirety of Block 1. Lead director, Alice Troughton also gave me the opportunity to direct 2nd Unit on the show.
I mention this chain of events as it demonstrates that you don’t know where opportunities will come from and how important it is to keep meeting people and developing relationships. What felt like the end of the road with my feature falling apart, suddenly opened a new avenue into television.
It was after working on Baghdad Central that Alice Troughton introduced me to a friend of hers, Ian Benson an agent at The Agency who, along with Nicola Biltoo, signed me up for representation. Soon after I made my short film Muse. I took the themes of my feature reworked it as a short, but it was important to me that it worked as a standalone story, not just a flashy proof of concept. There are always shorts in your early career that you’re never fully happy with, but with Muse I was beyond pleased. The short was selected for several big genre festivals around the world and it started to open doors with producers and executives.
The composer of my film, Segun Akinola was the composer of Doctor Who and he passed on the short to Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens and Nikki Wilson, saying that they had to meet with me. I had three interviews over the course of the summer of lockdown, which thankfully kept me occupied! Doctor Who is one of those rare British shows that deals with big sci-fi themes, has immense world-building and VFX, stunts, technical requirements and yet still works with new directors and writers. It was a show that I really wanted to be a part of as not only would it be a lot of fun, but I knew it would be a great starting point for my career as a director in television.
It’s worth remembering that a ‘break’ in the industry is many years in the making. Every script you write, every film you make, every professional interaction you have all builds towards a moment that can be called ‘your first break’. It’s all about perseverance and knowing that each step you make, up or down, matters.
TV Credits: Doctor Who Flux (2021), Anansi Boys (2023), After The Flood (2024).
Photograph: Ross Ferguson