Marc Munden was an assistant to Mike Leigh, Derek Jarman and Terence Davies before directing documentaries for the BBC.

His TV dramas have been nominated on seven occasions for a BAFTA, winning for both The Mark of Cain and National Treasure and on seven occasions for a Royal Television Society Award, winning for both The Devil’s Whore and National Treasure. In 2017, after three BAFTA nominations for Best Director, he won for National Treasure.

Utopia won an International Emmy for Best Drama Series in 2014.

Marc most recently completed feature The Secret Garden for Heyday/ Studio Canal starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters.

He is currently directing The Third Day for Sky Studios/HBO/Plan B/Punch Drunk starring Jude Law.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

My father was a filmmaker who made documentaries for the Ministry of Information during the war but he died when I was young so I had no idea what it was like to be a director. But I suppose it must have been lodged in my mind and definitely in the air as a possibility. When I was older I saw his film Song of the People, which told the history of the “common” people in the UK from a socialist perspective – but as a musical. It’s wild – hundreds of factory workers singing together as they work on lathes in a vast machine shop. It’s a classic bit of post-war idealism made for the Manchester Co-operative society telling history through working-class movements like the Diggers and the Chartists. I went to UCL to study Philosophy and Maths. They had a great film society which Christopher Nolan later ran and which had screenings of classic European films every week. The film that sparked with me was Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, a highly formalist film which chimed with my sensibility at the time. I loved Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and those abstruse conceptual films that came out of French new wave as well as the irreverent experiments of Godard and Truffaut. But I also loved Jacques Tati as a child and still do. I consumed Bunuel, then later Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini. As a consequence I have big gaps in my knowledge of classic Hollywood. The Scala Cinema was in Tottenham Street just around the corner from university halls – they had film and music all-nighters with the noise band Throbbing Gristle playing pneumatic drills – a lot of post-punk bands, David Lynch’s Eraserhead was always playing, John Waters and George Kuchar films. So all that went into the melting pot. 

Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?

After University I started making Super 8 films with my friend John Mathieson (who went on to shoot Love Is the Devil and Gladiator etc.) while working as a runner on films. I’d work on a film and save up enough money to shoot a bit more of my own work. I wasn’t a writer so I started making documentaries and performance pieces. I made a short called Hommage a la Viande about a cookery show that degenerates into a very bloody semi-naked meat-juggling act. That played at the Scala and the Film Forum in New York. I was lucky to work for and get close to a few great indie directors of the time like Mike Leigh and Terence Davies – I worked as an assistant director on High Hopes and Distant Voices, Still Lives and Derek Jarman’s War Requiem, but I continued making my own stuff between those films. 

What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?

In the early days of Film 4 being a studio I made a film for them which was pretty disastrous in all sorts of ways. The project started out as a monologue the writer used to read at Battersea Arts Centre; very dark, a bit pervy, very funny and original. It wasn’t really enough for a film in itself but everyone loved the idea and was ambitious for it and soon it had a “thriller” plot grafted on to it. Kyle MacLachlan and Christina Ricci became attached to it and consequently there were big expectations for it. But it morphed beyond its original eccentric concept and was “indie” in a self-consciously American way. And it just didn’t work. No one’s fault, just the perfect storm of everyone wanting desperately to make a popular film. It still haunts me but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?

Still trying to develop a voice, still learning, still failing, still making basic mistakes every day. Filmmaking isn’t an Olympic sport – you can’t train to get better and better at it – the discipline is changing all the time. Even Kubrick made Eyes Wide Shut 🙂 

I still love films – that counts for a lot, still love difficult, challenging pieces. I learnt a lot about directing actors from Mike Leigh. I am obsessed by film grammar – I have learnt that that is probably the most important thing to get right. And I have learnt one small thing in television: the difference between compromising and feeling compromised. 

How did you get your first break?

I made a documentary about a man who made his living playing poker in the small casinos of Bournemouth – he lived in a small bungalow with his wife who ploughed all his earnings into the house, gold plating the light fittings and the taps in the bathroom. It was about the peculiar marriage of two spiritually very different people – very heightened, quite bizarre. The sound for the film was built in a music studio, the composer and I making sounds for their little dog, simulating a bicycle going past with squeaky chairs – that sort of thing. It played the London Film Festival and a couple of other festivals. It was grainy as fuck – big golf balls on the screen. Paul Watson who had made the classic fly-on-the-wall series The Family in the ‘70s and was starting his own department in the BBC asked me, “Is that thing really a documentary?” I said, “Of course it is”, and out of that came my first professional job – making documentaries.

TV Credits: Forty Minutes (1993), Modern Times (1995), Christmas (1996), Toughing Evil (1997), Arthouse: Rebel with a Cause (1997), Vanity Fair (1998), The Secret World of Michael Fry (2000), Canterbury Tales (2003), Conviction (2004), Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In my Heart (2006), The Mark of Cain (2007), The Devil’s Whore (2008), Some Dogs Bite (2010), The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), Black Sails (2014), Utopia (2013-2014), Quantico (2015), National Treasure (2016), Electric Dreams (2016), The Third Day (2020).

Film Credits: Beverley Hills Is Bournemouth with Sunshine (1989), Miranda (2002), The Secret Garden (2020), Sovereign.

Photograph: Jack Plummer