Since graduating from the National Film & Television School in 2008, director Michael Pearce has continued to refine his quietly powerful approach to storytelling with a series of critically acclaimed films and commercials
Nominated for a BAFTA and BIFA for his short film “Rite” in 2011, the film went on to win “Best Short” at Rushes Festival, Message2Man and Almeria Film Festival. As a distinguished writer and director Pearce’s personal and cinematic style when approaching complex stories has earned him a reputation as a truly compelling filmmaker. 2014 saw Michael win the “Best Thriller Short” award at the London Short Film Festival for Keeping Up with the Joneses which was also nominated for “Best British Short” by BAFTA.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
As a child I had a vague ambition of wanting to be an artist. I would spend hours drawing pictures and getting lost inside imaginary worlds. I enjoyed movies like any kid, and had certain obsessions – Star Wars, The Lost Boys, Point Break, but never thought much about the people behind the camera or the filmmaking process. When I was 16 I started a two-year art course in Jersey and we were taught in different mediums: painting photography, sculpture, ceramics etc. One assignment was to make a short film and something about the process really intrigued me. It was the year the book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ came out, I read it and became swept up in the movies and romance of New Hollywood (which I’m still enchanted by). I started to comprehend that movies weren’t just a form of entertainment but an art form that involved hundreds of creative people working for years to put them together. I watched all the New Hollywood movies I could get my hands on, then I began watching the films that influenced those directors. Seven Samurai came up a lot and I bought a copy for myself for Christmas and watched it when everyone else was asleep. The film blew me away and the experience crystallised my fascination with cinema – I realised that it incorporated aspects of all the other arts I was interested in: photography, painting, sound, music, architecture, literature, performance etc. When the credits rolled I had made up my mind to be a director.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I transferred onto a media course and spent a year making short films and exercises on a bulky VHS camera. They were of course terrible (me and my friends dressed up in charity shop ‘gangster’ suits, meeting on Jersey’s quaint cobbled streets, exchanging briefcases filled with packets of flour) but I started to understand how to block and shoot a scene in a visually interesting way. I wanted to be behind the camera as much as possible so decided to go to a practically focused film school. I went to the Bournemouth Arts Institute as you could specialise in directing and spent three years watching films and making shorts, with each becoming incrementally less shit.
Though filmmaking is a deeply collaborative venture for a director it can also be a very personal one. You can be acutely sensitive about your work, wounded when you receive criticism and dispirited by the countless mistakes you make. This is true of every department but (in typical director fashion) I think it’s a little bit more true for directors. However I quickly discovered how unproductive it was to let your ego dominate the process so I started to see ‘failing’ as a journey of getting mistakes out of my system (an on-going process). It really is such a long and tough road to becoming a director, there is so much craft to learn and it’s such a collaborative medium, you really need to remain open, honest, curious and generous in spirit, and turn the volume way down on ego, pride, envy, defensiveness etc. You’ll be much more clear-sighted about your work, more robust and appreciative of critique, develop a richer creative intuition, forge stronger collaborations, make more friends and have more fun.
The university had a phenomenal film library and I think half my degree was spent holed up in the tiny video room feeding my insatiable appetite for movies. Many days were effectively back-to-back solitary binges. I’d curate retrospectives for myself on different directors: Kiarostami, Antonioni, Fassbender, Tarkovsky, Yimou, Lumet, Denis, Campion, Tarr, Dumont, Hankeke etc. A dark room with a TV, a semi-comfortable chair and stack of films, are all the ingredients you need for a mind-expanding experience. I don’t think you can become a director without first being a movie freak, so be as pretentious, broad, niche, highbrow or lowbrow as you want to be, just be an obsessive about it.
I sent some of my shorts to film festivals but received what most young filmmakers receive – a deluge of rejection letters. Ouch. Deep breath. ‘Fail, fail again, fail better’. My graduation film had a bit more success and the experience of going to festivals was incredible. It was my first introduction to an international film community and I met so many directors who were just as passionate about film, but were a damn-sight more talented and ambitious. It really raised the bar for the quality of work I felt I should be aiming for. The competition (as in ‘friendly competition’) wasn’t the person next to me in class; it was the Mexican girl who made a short that made everyone’s jaw drop with her visual storytelling, and the Hungarian dude whose short was a balletically orchestrated twenty-minute tracking shot.
At the end of my degree I didn’t think my work was in the place I wanted it to be (certainly not compared to the other filmmakers I met at festivals) so I applied to the NFTS to do a MA in directing. I didn’t get in the first time so I worked in a bar, wrote ideas, and used some festival prize money to make another short (with slightly less mistakes) and got in the second time. I loved being at the NFTS. Similar to my degree you were just focused on making films and I found many kindred spirits who became collaborators and close friends.
The shorts I made at the film school started to have more success at festivals, but I still graduated and didn’t feel my work was where I wanted it to be and so I worked at crappy jobs and spent all my spare time writing film ideas, applying to funding schemes, and occasionally getting selected to make one. One of those shorts, Rite, did really well at festivals and kind of legitimized me in the eyes of the industry as a new young filmmaker to watch.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
For most directors the journey towards a career entails a near constant barrage of obstacles, rejections and setbacks, whether that be; not getting onto a course, into a festival, receiving funding, getting hired, or just continuing to financially survive as you chip away. The hardest obstacle for me was trying and ultimately failing to get a job directing TV. After I made Rite I sent a DVD to all the big agencies in an attempt to get a meeting but no one would receive my calls or answer my emails. It was only when the film was nominated for a BAFTA that I got to meet a few agents and signed with one. I then naively thought I was on my merry way of quitting charity street fundraising and start directing professionally. I went up for a lot of TV directing gigs, got called back for multiple interviews, but never got hired. I did Channel 4’s TV scheme Coming Up and did more interviews with no success. I tried to take it on the chin but it was a tough few years as I felt that I was still stuck at square one. At some point I kind of stopped trying to break into TV and decided to just focus on making my own work, improve my craft and develop my feature ideas. Along the way I managed to get signed at a production company and the couple of commercials I made really saved me.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Making films and watching films was the simple formula that (eventually) worked for me. As mentioned, I very much adopted the ‘fail, fail again, fail better’ approach when it came to making stuff. I think being honest about your work is extremely important; if you’re not humble enough to see your mistakes then you’ll be condemned to repeat them. Once I left the NFTS I applied to every short film funding opportunity there was. I felt that making work, better work, was the most sure-fire way of breaking into the industry. If you make something that’s undeniable, that unequivocally demonstrates you have a unique voice, a story to tell and can use the medium in a compelling way, then ultimately it’s going to be hard to ignore you. Perhaps not impossible. But hard.
How did you get your first break?
I’m never thought in terms of ‘first break’, more about lots of ‘mini-breaks’ – getting into film school felt like one, getting into my first festival was another, being awarded funding to make a short was another, getting onto the Torino Film Lab (a script development lab for first features) was another, getting development funds from the BFI to write Beast, meaning I could leave the day job, was another. These were all significant stepping-stones on the journey to making my first film. I feel like the biggest break I got was when the BFI and Film4 signed onto being financiers of my first feature. It was a twenty year journey from thinking ‘I want to be a film director’ to making my first film, so that moment, when people commit to financing your film, is huge. However it doesn’t happen from one meeting, it was an evolving process over many years. I made a short with the BFI that went well and through that experience developed good relationships with the execs there. And since Rite I had started to have conversations with Film4, and would update them with how my feature idea was developing (it was many meetings as it took seven years to write).
I’m not sure I’ve answered all the questions as fully as I could have, or in the right order, but hopefully there’s something useful in there. My advice really boils down to stay curious, be passionate, dig deep and fail better.
TV Credits: Coming Up (2013).