Growing up in rural Scotland, the idea of being a filmmaker was not far behind astronaut, so I struggled through law school, did a bit of travelling, then some very odd jobs, before seriously thinking about who got to make the films. I spent a few more years trying to get on set and then a few more learning the trade, before I finally picked up a camera and started making films of my own.
From shorts, adverts, comedy sketches to pop promos, I would shoot everything and anything on a rented mini DV camera, before a Channel 4 Coming Up commission finally opened the door to work as a professional Director. Earning my stripes on continuing drama like Doctors, Eastenders and The Bill, led in turn to directing Shameless, Mr Selfridge, Silk, Young James Herriot and then a breakthrough with Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty and JK Rowling’sStrike.
The last few years I have focused on mini-series, directing Chimerica, an ambitious four-part adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood’s Olivier winning play, David Hare’s BBC political drama Roadkill and most recently navigating the raw emotion and family heartbreak of Jack Thorne’s Best Interests.
I am still trying to make my own feature films, but as you will know if you are reading this document, it’s hard.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
We were probably the last family in Dundee to get a VHS video recorder, and during the long Scottish winters in the battle against boredom, this was a life changing event. The video shop became both my inspiration and education. The latest films were of course invariably rented out – this is long before ‘Blockbuster’ – so I was left judge the films left on the shelf by their covers. From Artificial Eye classics to 80’s action B movies labelled ‘straight to video’, this was a pick and mix, empire of cinema on demand. Or at least when my Mum drove me down there. Renting a film was such novelty, and films were rented so sporadically, that anything I got home, I invariably watched two or three times. I am not sure exactly when I worked out I wanted to be a director, but I watched The Hitcher three times on the bounce and you soon get the idea that someone’s behind all the madness.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what where your first steps in achieving this goal?
Firstly, I had to work out who actually made films or did any kind of film production, in Scotland. This meant reading the yellow pages and under ‘film production’, were a few small commercials companies in Edinburgh and Glasgow. A friend knew someone in advertising who explained the role of a runner, and I spent a year pitching out my CV until I finally got a job. One day on a Daily Record commercial. This slowly led to other jobs on set, and I spent the next few years trying to learn the absolute basics. At the same time, I hired video equipment from the film and video access centre and taught myself how to use it. On set work was poorly paid and very inconsistent and this combination was a major barrier to my forward progress. That and the fact very few films or TV dramas were made in Scotland in the late 90’s.
What obstacles or set backs did you face in becoming a director?
Growing up, I had little engagement with of the world of film, theatre or the arts. I also had no real understanding that creativity, could lead to a career. There was no drama class at school, I dropped English to study law, the family business was truck building, and the future was just about getting a job. Working on set was a real breakthrough, understanding that filmmaking is essentially practical, you are making something, it just happens to be creative.
The perennial setback has always been a lack of money, but inspired by Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriquez, I overcame this by building a career on credit card debt. In retrospect, not something I would recommend, both for your mental health and future financial security.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Honing my craft has been all about working, and the brutal realisation that any semblance of a ‘vision’ comes secondary to getting the actors in front of the camera, making sure they say roughly the right lines and shooting all the scenes by the end of the day. Once I got past those logistical challenges and psychological head wrecks, then opportunities arose, that in the magic of the moment felt unique. I would capture something exciting, which feels personal. Get enough of those moments into the edit and gradually over time, my voice seems to have found me. Ultimately, I think this is the lifelong work in process that makes directing so endlessly fascinating, work on your craft and your voice will naturally find itself.
How did you get your first break?
There have been lots of breaks that have led to other breaks, which on reflection were only mini breaks. My first job running on set felt like a watershed moment. I had been cold calling for a year. After an interview at the National Film School, I thought I had arrived and then I didn’t get a place. Getting paid to direct comedy acts at the Edinburgh festival felt like a breakthrough. Winning a commission to write and direct a short for Channel 4, which got me an agent and played at the Edinburgh film festival, felt like a lottery win but only got me a gig on Doctors. Though importantly, this finally gave me the confidence to call myself a Director. In truth, there have been a catalogue of small steps over a twenty-five year journey and even now when a new project lands, I still think, this might be the big break.
TV Credits: Line of Duty (2015), Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling (2017), Chimerica (2018-2019), Roadkill (2020), Best Interests (2022-2023).
Film Credits: Happy Slapz (2006), Labour (2009), Munro (2010), Liam and Lenka (2014).
Photograph: Steffan Hill