Nick Murphy is a British film director and television director. He is best known for directing the films The Awakening and Blood. He has directed episodes of the television series Prey, The Last Kingdom, A Christmas Carol and the docudramas How Art Made the World, Surviving Disaster, Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire and Heroes and Villains. He also wrote the episodes for all the docudramas he directed.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

My old man was a timber importer with his own business and because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, I assumed I’d do the same. But I liked theatre and acting at school so it was agreed I could do a Performing Arts degree before joining him; three years off before life got ‘serious’. I realised two things on that course: one that I really was a pretty bang-average actor, and two, that I had a genuine fascination with the decision-making process of drama. Researching my final year thesis on Francis Coppola, I read that in the The Conversation he used a locked off camera in Harry Caul’s apartment to enhance the sense of him being monitored. I’d watched a million movies by that stage, a VHS rental addict, and yet it had never really occurred to me just how the behaviour and attitude of a camera literally was cinema. Without being too dramatic it was a damascene moment. A week later I rang my folks and told them I wanted to make films.

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

Out of college I figured any job in TV or film is better than no job so I got unpaid work experience as a tape librarian in a financial news company in London; cataloguing and fetching video tapes (decades before digital media and instant meta-data searches). I slept on my mate’s floor. After a couple of weeks, they kept me on and paid me a small amount. My mate’s floor wasn’t comfortable so I spent most nights on the sofa in the news studio and at night I learned the tape editing equipment and how to use the BetaSP cameras. Gradually I took on those duties at the company and my income crept up until after a couple of years, after losing one of their cameras, I was sacked. After being told, I rang home to tell my folks I’d quit in order to go freelance, like it was a deliberate thing. It seemed that way from the outside because after a few months I started to get freelance shifts editing BBC news, earning far more than I had before. Over the next few years I moved from working in news to editing and then directing observational documentaries. Once I started to get pretty big gigs in that world, and then in high profile BBC Specialist Factual projects, I just assumed I’d spend my whole career in factual TV. I figured it wasn’t worth going ‘down’ the ladder to make low-rent drama or soaps when I was quite a known name in factual. It was only when the BBC Science department asked me to make a film about the Chernobyl disaster that I resolved to make it as an all-out drama and write it myself. Nobody saw it – although you can be damn sure the makers of the recent HBO show did (!) – but it was critically praised and it was that piece which, three or four years later, would get me my first ‘proper’ drama: Occupation, a three-part series by Peter Bowker for the BBC. Occupation won a BAFTA and that effectively locked me into being a full-time drama director. I’d made “the transition”.

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

I don’t recall huge setbacks but there must have been some. I was hired to make a drama before Chernobyl, which was cancelled before I started work on it, which felt like a major blow but otherwise I don’t recall obstacles. But here’s the thing: I work harder than anyone I know. I am also pretty talented and I’m not a pain in the arse. I take the work and responsibilities more seriously than I take myself, so people generally like to work with me. I don’t feel bad about my success and it is unlikely many people would argue I am not worth the projects I’ve been making these last couple of decades. But…. and it’s a maaaaaaassive but… I never sat in front of a commissioner, producer or potential employers who had reason to suspect I COULDN’T do the job because of how I looked or sounded. I am a white, privately educated male – I look and sound like the vast majority of directors before me and so I am well aware of the terrible advantage that gave me, not because the industry was peppered with active racist misogynists but because I felt like less of a risk. I was also middle class so my dad could afford to support me in those early months in London when working class families simply would not be able. What I mean to say, while I don’t suggest I don’t deserve what I’ve achieved, I do feel a degree of guilt about the industry culture that allowed me to flourish when there simply must have been people who didn’t look and sound like me wanting to do the job too. I passionately hope any director writing something similar to this document a decade from now isn’t able to say the same thing.

How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?

I learned my craft in the cutting room. Editing news and current affairs means you handle vast amounts of  material on a daily basis. And cutting on video tape – in a linear way – means you gain an intuition for timing and shot structure that non-linear digital systems don’t demand of you. I now cut in my head on set. Of course the editors I work with often enhance, change and ignore the cut I had in mind but the shape and pace of the film at least starts somewhere good. What they do is just make it better. Filmmaking is editing. It’s that simple. If you can’t cut, if you haven’t cut your own material, you won’t be half the director you could be.

How did you get your first break?

I’ve had the same agent all my career. Factual directors didn’t have them back then and perhaps still don’t. After Chernobyl and a couple of other factual dramas for BBC, I sent my stuff to a few and was turned down by them all except Jago Irwin. Two years after he took me on, I’d won a BAFTA and was about to make my first movie. If you think it feels nice to know the guys that turned me down will have regretted doing so then you’d be dead right. It feels fucking great. Maybe I’m just mean spirited. 

So you should send your stuff to the people you really want to rep you first and foremost. Most will watch material sent to them as they mostly do want new exciting clients. My only advice is this: agents can spot bollocks from a thousand yards. When you meet them there is no point in trying to play Mr Big or pretend you know more than you do. It’s an important relationship for them which will require honesty between you, so if she or he thinks you’re going to be a little tiresome, and difficult to sell, they will probably not bother. Don’t be a dick, basically, especially not with them. Jago undoubtedly got me the interview for my breakthrough job, Occupation, and because the budget was known to be tight for the ambition of the script, the success I’d had with tiny budgets up to that time obviously didn’t hurt. 

I knew the material REALLY well before meeting. I considered what the story was actually ‘about’ in a general, thematic sense. In this case it was “control”; all the characters (and different factions and countries involved in Iraq at that time) were seeking to regain some control of their lives. So I thought hard about an approach to the filming, a visual style, that could heighten, clarify and express that. Going along and just saying you really like the script isn’t enough. Then before going to interview, Jago said, “You probably won’t get it because some really big directors are going up for it but it’ll be good to meet the producer.” Weirdly this lack of cheerleading made me relax so I could explain my ideas, as well as elements of the script I felt could improve, without worrying if it was what the producer wanted to hear. 

This has shaped my approach to every interview since. Of course not every job is an original project. Often we have to slot into the tone and feel of what is already in play and excel within those parameters, and even with new projects the interview is a chance to listen to the producer and writer as much as tell them how you see it. But you can’t fake it. The most important thing a director can do is to make sure everyone is making the same film. I mean that, I’m even going to write that again, THE MOST IMPORTANT JOB OF A DIRECTOR IS ENSURING EVERYONE IS MAKING THE SAME FILM. If the film you have in you is not roughly the one they have in them, or if you have failed to explain to your collaborators what film is being made, the ship will hit the rocks. You’ll get the blame, and rightly so.

TV Credits: Primeval (2008), Occupation (2009), Rogue (2013), Dracula (2013), Prey (2014), The Last Kingdom (2015),
The Secret (2016), The Mist (2017), Save Me (2018), Nightflyers (2018), The Hot Zone (2019), A Christmas Carol (2019). 

Film Credits: The Awakening (2011), Blood (2012).

Photograph: Robert Viglasky