Ben A Williams is a director from London, UK. His debut feature The Pass was nominated for Outstanding Debut at the 2017 BAFTA Film Awards. Ben has since directed episodes for major TV dramas Humans (AMC / Channel 4) and Baghdad Central (Channel 4).
Ben graduated from the University of Bristol in 2005, where he co-founded the UK’s National Student Film Festival, Screentest. He was assistant to BAFTA-winning producer Duncan Kenworthy 2006-2012 and for Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald 2009-2011.
In 2012 Ben created the award-winning web-series Tube Tube which organisers of Virgin Media Shorts described as ‘masterclass in short filmmaking’ by ‘the UK’s most exciting new filmmaker’. Short film credits include Selfie starring Jasmine Brienburg, Post Jump starring Thomas Turgoose, and 2010’s The Fan.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I can pinpoint the moment I decided I wanted to be a director: I was 13 and I was in the cinema watching Men In Black. The movie ends with a phenomenal (and really 90s) CGI climax, fuelled by a pounding Danny Elfman score. It was a total adrenaline rush. I knew I wanted to make people feel how I felt in that moment, so I knew I wanted to direct.
Before that, I’d been interested in the technical side of filmmaking. I wanted to be a BBC cameraman (as they were called then), going from place to place filming TV programmes. I loved stage tech, too: remote controlled lighting heads, crane cameras, smoke machines, the lot. And theme park rides – to be honest, anything that combined high technology with storytelling seemed to be my bag. But it was always movies that I loved the most.
I don’t have any friends or family members in the industry. I went to a West London state school, and everyone else in my family works in the public sector. So in Year 9 I wrote to BBC Resources (again, as they were called then) and applied for work experience. Miraculously they replied and I did a week’s work experience at television centre, shadowing different camera operators. I worked at CBBC, on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, The Sky At Night and on a Children’s drama whose name I can’t remember.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
At the time, I was getting good grades in history, and that continued into A-Levels. So I applied to Bristol Uni to study Historical Studies. I was given a very low offer from Bristol, which I gladly accepted. Their Widening Participation Scheme is incredible, and it changed my life.
I’m often asked why I didn’t do an undergraduate film course, and the answer is twofold: first, I’d read enough to realise that the odds of making a directing career in film were really slim, so I wanted a stamp of approval from a good university in case I had to do something else. Secondly, I had seen my two older brothers go to uni ahead of me, and realised they had a lot of free time when they were there to follow their hobbies. I reckoned I could spend 30% of my time on the course, 30% doing student filmmaking and 30% drinking and sleeping. Those odds didn’t exactly work out, but I won’t tell you in which way…!
So I spent a lot of time at university dicking around with cameras and directing shorts. I had a pretty shit video camera, and the student union had a decent Mini-DV camera. In my first term I made a short film and held a screening, and was amazed when 40 people came to watch it.
Then I started to run the university’s filmmaking society, which was ironically very bad for my directing. It brought together lots of like-minded students and wannabe directors, but meant I stopped directing my own films. Still, after a couple of years we started a film festival and invited other students to send their movies. It was called Screentest, and was the UK’s first national student film festival. In our first year, we wrote to any film industry figure we could think of. BAFTA were amazing, and sent us their current President Duncan Kenworthy as a keynote speaker. He did a brilliant Q&A, and I asked him afterwards for some careers advice. We kept in contact and later when he was looking for a new PA he asked if I’d like the job.
When university ended I went to work for Duncan and I stayed for six years. In that time I watched on as DNA Films (whose office we shared at the start) made amazing movies like Sunshine, The Last King Of Scotland, Never Let Me Go, Notes On A Scandal and 28 Weeks Later. Then, Duncan made a film of his own called The Eagle, and he asked me to continue on as both his and director Kevin Macdonald’s PA. It was a brilliant, enthralling time – but again, it didn’t involve any directing. When The Eagle was finished, I thought I should seriously start thinking about my future.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I’d realised I wasn’t quite selfish or tenacious enough to be a director. I was happy working for or with others, but when it came to my own work I was shy. After six years as a PA I learned that directing jobs were only given out to people who could both prove and show that they wouldn’t mess up the opportunity. I had been making my own short films on-and-off for years, but I often ended up in a vortex of doubt and lethargy. That had to change.
Still a PA, I watched a great interview with comedian George Carlin. He famously wrote new material every year and didn’t care about making things perfect. So I got to work amping up my short film output. I made 22 shorts set on the Underground, with the proper permissions and insurances, starring a range of actors of all abilities, shot in a naturalistic style. It was fun, but also a brutal learning experience about creating performances and working with a crew. I was assisted by an excellent young producer called Omar Kenawi who was studying at the NFTS who I met through my work with Duncan.
I took the plunge and left the safe harbour of Duncan’s job soon after I’d finished these shorts. I had made enough friends that I knew I could make a small living making corporate films whilst working on my directing career. I moved home in my late-20s, which was humbling, but also necessary. I shot training videos and promos for charities, in a way fulfilling my earlier dream of becoming a cameraman. In the first year I earned just shy of £14K which was lower than I’d hoped. But it was the first time in my life I’d made money in service of myself and my ambition. I could never go back.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
In this period I made two shorts that I paid for using some of that money. We shot on Alexas, had good cast, and everyone worked really hard on them. And then nothing really happened. One was awarded a Vimeo Staff Pick – but that was it.
This is controversial, but I strongly believe that after a certain point short films are a waste of your time. You never hear back from festivals and development people don’t take you seriously enough to hand out the big jobs. I knew I had to make a feature film, and make it myself. After all, it was such an effort to get a good short film crew together, how much harder could it be to ask them to stay on for a few more days to make a feature?
I had a decent idea, drew up a budget, and began to think about how I’d get it made, without any formal financing. Just as I was about to start work in earnest, the phone rang and I got my big break. My former employer, Duncan Kenworthy, asked me to direct a low-budget feature film of a play he’d just seen. It was called The Pass, and it was my debut film.
I’m still a bit torn about this. I was extremely lucky to get that call, and that opportunity, and no one can use this as repeatable route into the industry, because it was such a one-off. If I’m being really cruel, it’s just another example of the closed-shop reality of the industry.
But at the same time, if I hadn’t spent years earning his trust, whilst learning how to direct on my own time and with my own money, Duncan probably wouldn’t have asked me, and the film wouldn’t have been any good.
All I can say is this: I’ve learned that luck may get you a job, but your ability lets you keep it.
How did you get your first break?
Where do I start?
I’m a straight, white male from a lower-middle-class background, who lived in a house in the London suburbs. I grew up in a safe home with parents who would occasionally show an interest in my hobby. I went to a good university filled with people who were willing to join in and help one another. I’ve always had a safety net.
All of these things are lucky breaks and were real advantages to my career. If you don’t have them, getting a start in the industry will be much harder.
At the same time, if you do have them, it’s still hard. And I suppose I’m lucky again because I’ve known for a long time what I wanted to do, and kept going until I was doing it.
Professionally, The Pass was of course my biggest break. But I think my biggest test was whether I could get a job where Duncan Kenworthy wasn’t involved.
In the wake of The Pass I’d been lucky enough to sign with Jennie Miller at Independent. I went for lots of meetings. I was sent a few scripts. I went in to meet for some episodes of TV dramas and had excellent, laughter-filled meetings. But I never got the gigs.
Then I went to meet at Kudos. I had a string of what I thought were the worst, hardest meetings I’d ever had. Not much laughter, lots of frowning, awkward silences. After one meeting I came out of their offices and kicked a can down the street, furious at myself for ruining my chance with such a prestigious company. It was honestly awful. But then they offered me a job directing two episodes of season 3 of Humans.
I guess the lesson is that you just can’t tell. Nice meetings don’t mean good outcomes. Enthusiastic people don’t necessarily want to work with you. In short: rejection has many faces.
Directing Humans was harder than The Pass. It was longer, the schedule was tighter, and I set myself high standards. Thankfully, Channel 4 liked what I did and I was then offered the final three episodes of their new drama Baghdad Central. Baghdad Central was harder than Humans. It was even longer, the schedule even tighter, it shot in another country and the story took place in various languages. Now I’m prepping the final four episodes of the second season of Fox and Canal+’s War of the Worlds. I’m hoping at the very least I come out of it alive.
It’s a crowded marketplace, and I often wonder what, if anything, I have over other filmmakers. This may sound corny, but I think it’s because I am still – genuinely – a 13-year-old boy in a cinema seat. I want to make work that is as impressive as possible, by making people jump, or laugh, or cry, or gasp or hold their breath.
Even when they’re lucky enough to be given directing work, I’ve noticed that some directors love to complain about the job. There are times when this is the right thing to do. I’ve had to confront archaic, sexist behaviour from producers. I’ve had to counsel and advise crew members who are being actively bullied. In the chaos of a production, it’s very hard for crew-members from minority backgrounds to be heard and be taken seriously. These are deeply-rooted, industry-wide problems that are getting better, but have a very long way to go.
But amongst directors, I don’t think grumbling is useful. We all like to talk shop and swap war stories, but if you find yourself sighing and complaining about everything, you will definitely become worse at what you do. It wastes time, you become complacent and resentful. And I think it’s very disrespectful to all the others who wish to do what we do.
Instead, every time something gets changed or resources get taken away, I try to let things go and start again with enthusiasm. I think that might be my edge.
If you’re reading this and starting your journey in the industry, I hope it’s been useful. I’ve had more than my fair share of lucky breaks, but I’ve also never stopped making things. I’ve never let lack of resources stop me from making a film. In short, if you want to direct, direct. If you want to produce, produce. Listen to feedback and shamelessly steal the bits you like. Don’t dwell on rejection. And most importantly: keep enjoying yourself. It may sound utopian, or naive, but if you’re not enjoying the work, you’re not doing it right. Good luck, and please do reach out if you need any help!
TV Credits: Humans (2018), Baghdad Central (2020).
Film Credits: Tube Tube (2012), Post Jump (2013), The Pass (2016).