Oz transitioned into filmmaking after a successful decade-long career as a high school teacher. Oz attended the National Film and Television School’s Diverse Directors program where he wrote and directed the drama short Cur:few. His other shorts have won various awards with his recent BFI short film Expiation selected at various Oscar/Academy qualifying festivals including Leeds and London short film festival.
Oz was selected for Warner Media’s Director Mentorship Programme for HBO’s House of the Dragon in 2021/22. He spent 16 months on Season one being mentored by Emmy Award winning director and showrunner Miguel Sapochnik. Whilst there he co-wrote and directed a 40-minute documentary for HBO and other material for the show’s promotion. He also completed a short stint shadowing on ITV X ‘s The Winter King with Otto Bathurst and continues to be mentored by Miguel.
In 2022 he won second prize at Centre Frames Short film Fund and was selected for the BBC Studios and Directors UK Continuing Drama Directors workshop. He completed Screen Yorkshire’s FLEX talent lab 2202/23 as a writer and in 2023, his script Juicy made the top 3% of BBC Writers Room for drama from 4287 scripts.
Oz is part of BAFTA Connect and co-host of the Director’s Take weekly podcast which is rapidly growing and becoming a popular filmmaking podcast.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I have loved films since I was young and I have watched hundreds, if not thousands of them. Terminator 2, Goodfellas, Lady in the Van, Boyz in the Hood, Sholay, and Moonlight are some of my favourites and what have made me want to tell stories.
However, I don’t have a story that plays out where a ten-year-old me, played with an unused camera of a family member. I was so far removed from the idea of becoming a director, that it wasn’t something that landed in my mind until my 30s. Late bloomer here. But I did have a creative appetite from a young age, but my creative pulse was music.
Whilst in my teaching career, I began to dabble in the creative as a hobby. It was around the time of DSLR revolution when the Canon 5D mk3 was dropping and Adobe After Effects was around. Because I had a career and a fulltime job, I didn’t need to worry about doing any of the creative stuff for money, it was a hobby. I edited a mate’s wedding film; I made low budget adverts for charities and YouTube videos for local youtubers at the time. It was cheap-quality stuff, but unconsciously I always tried to assemble some form of narrative, albeit poorly. A desire to tell stories was there early on but at this time I was also doing all the roles on my productions.
So, the actual answer to the question of when I knew I wanted to be a director, well it was in June 2014. I visited the set of a new director friend, who was shooting a commercial in which he had built a set. It was amazing and the set was calm and ran like clockwork. I was mesmerised. I remember calling a work colleague on the drive back and saying, “I think this is what I want to do…”. However, I was a decade deep in another career, in my 30s and just had my third child. “… but there’s no way I am leaving a stable job and pension”.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what where your first steps in achieving this goal?
During those initial DSLR days, my strength lay in guerrilla filmmaking, producing stuff on a shoestring budget, pointing and shooting, rather than engaging with the intricacies of storytelling and visual impact.
It was around this time I was approached by a charity with a much bigger filmmaking project than I had previously undertaken. The project’s objective was to create a broad, wide-reaching, family romantic comedy, tailored primarily to the Pakistani Muslim community. It wasn’t a personal story; rather, I was entrusted with a one-year timeline to develop, write, and shoot the film based on their brief. The charity aimed to take the film on a nationwide charity tour, utilising it as a fundraising tool during movie night events. The charity pushed for a Muslim Rom Com love story but they also had a rule that under no circumstance must any of the characters physical touch each other, no kissing, no hugging. The film needed to appeal to a family audience, suitable for multi-generational viewers. I embraced their guidelines and committed to making it a success for the charity. To me, this journey represented a priceless year of learning, away from the guerrilla filmmaking I had been doing and it would be an invaluable education.
They enlisted someone to handle the initial heavy lifting and help create a first draft, a daunting task for me, as I had no prior writing experience. To bridge this gap, I delved into resources like Syd Field’s book Screenplay and various articles, to decipher the intricacies of storytelling. Looking back, I recognize that seeking mentorship or enlisting an experienced writer would have been a wiser choice, given my initial ignorance of even fundamental concepts like the three act structure in storytelling. It was a missed opportunity on both their part and mine, driven by the constraints of time and budget, with only 12 months to deliver. This venture was entirely independent, without the backing of studios or institutional support from entities like BFI or Film 4. So, my foray into filmmaking was marked by inexperience, resulting in a tough production. However, I wasn’t a dick. Sure, a couple of individuals who exhibited rudeness towards the cast and crew had to be fired. But I remained respectful. I recall many days into production, Guz Khan said to me, just make sure you enjoy it, do not get caught up in the stress of it. He was right and I did begin to enjoy it. I was directing.
In the end, the great bits were that I had become a director. I made lasting friends and most importantly, the film was a success on the independent charity movie tour (I think it went to 20 cities). It ended up raising £300k for charity via an independent community tour. But near the end of post-production the charity secured a distribution deal to use as a PR to publicise a film, so they got more bums on seats on the independent tour. This made me very nervous, as I knew it was not meant for wider cinema going audiences, but I was naïve, new and I went along with it. The mainstream response stung me hard because the film was a broad Muslim comedy, it wasn’t viewed as a piece of work that had much artistic integrity. I felt like Ang Lee after Hulk. But it gave me a much-needed reality check. I knew little about storytelling and visual language. In order to become the kind of director I wanted to be, I needed to focus on those things because after that release I had lost all confidence and was now in creative paralysis.
What obstacles or set backs did you face in becoming a director?
One obstacle was in my own confidence as an artist. I knew I wanted to be a director in 2014 but didn’t do it until 2016. When I finally did, I learned that I couldn’t do it to the level that I wanted to. The voice of self-doubt was sometimes so loud in my head, that it would send me into creative paralysis. I wouldn’t do anything and just wallow in it. But that is not healthy for anyone, so to turn down the volume of that voice, I created more, wrote more, learned more and did more. We know it never goes away but it’s been that negative voice that has kept me prepped and on my shit.
The other big obstacle was financial. Having a family and trying to fund your own films is difficult unless you earn a lot of money or come from money. And for directors you need to show the necessary people (agents, commissioners, talent execs) that you can do the thing they will back you for. It is not easy and means you end up placing a lot of emphasis on a singular short and if it doesn’t open doors, you’re back to square one. But every filmmaker is different and what takes some filmmakers two shorts, may end up being six films for someone else to develop their voice and be good at it. We are always growing as artists and people, so the way in which we express ourselves through our art grows too.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
While my confidence waned due to the disappointing reception of my first feature film in cinemas, a glimmer of hope emerged. Out of 456 applicants, I was selected for the inaugural Diverse Directors course at the National Film and Television School. To be honest, at the time, I didn’t even fully grasp what the National Film and Television School was; I thought of it as ‘just another university’. The course was new and it was still being figured whilst we were on it, so what was meant to be a couple of months, ended up being around nine.
We had to make a film but, in my head, I had built up this thing and if the film wasn’t artistically sound, then I must return to teaching having failed. Plus, I wanted to write this film to ensure it was me. I was strongly advised to take a weaker script written by someone else but I was supported by Alice Seabright, Annetta Laufer, Natasha Mattocks, Lewis Arnold and Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, to have confidence in myself and pursue my own story. Damn, that’s heavyweight list of people to have your back when you type it out. (shout to Chris Chucky and Harjinder Grewel who supported me too).
I made a short film called Cur:Few. It has the NFTS badge at the front and I am very proud of it. It is an expression of me and who I am with themes that matter to me. This film was tough to make for several reasons, but the cast were brilliant, as were the crew. The DoP Olan Collardy, was a real friend during that time. Creating work from your heart is so important.
I recall the late Nick Powell (head of school at the time) being very praiseworthy and he emailed to say how much he liked it. He then went on to introduce me to a couple of agents. Now I didn’t get an agent (I’m still unrepped) but he did that and he knew a lot about film and filmmaking, so that meant a lot. On the night of the showcase at Channel 4 in 2018 I had met Jon Wardle, he was the incoming new head of school at the school, he came up to me and said he really liked my film. I was like first Nick and now Jon. That’s cool. Jon and I stayed in touch ever since. He will return further down into this story.
What happened over that nine or so months was that I fell in love with film, not as a consumer, but as an artist and… I kid you not… I only realised it during this time, how powerful a camera can be for a director and how much control you can have. It was a gargantuan awakening to the void I had from making and releasing the feature film. And all because of the filmmakers who were around me. We were a strong creative group of friends and we all loved and respected each other, no competition. We each made films that have helped us go forward. While validation has its place, what truly continues to enrich my journey are lasting friendships, creative relationships, and invaluable mentors I encounter. The founder of Directors Now being one of them during that stint at National Film and Television School. In moments of uncertainty, these angels provided immeasurable support in a way they probably do not even know.
After this, I embarked on an unwavering journey to study storytelling. I used every opportunity to work on my craft. I seized every possible chance to refine my craft and for my work to radiate integrity, much like my top six films. Each day is an opportunity for growth. I immersed myself in the world of film, continuously studying and honing my skills. Even when tasked with non-narrative projects, I approached them with the same dedication. The hunger for knowledge had firmly taken root within me, becoming an integral part of my identity. I diligently created my own learning environment, writing (crap) scripts, crafting stories, analysing videos, and delving into the depths of Blu-ray and DVD commentaries. Networking and staying connected with fellow creatives played a pivotal role in my development.
Back in 2018 when I was kind of pottering around unsure of my next move, I went on this Directors UK event in Bristol. A director had come in who was really cool and I just approached him… well I actually followed him to the toilets and when I got his attention (because we were in washing our hands adjacent) I said hello and he politely replied, what do you want? I said that I wanted to learn about directing TV and wanted advice so I could listen to decisions. He gave me his email and I was pretty persistent in staying in touch with him and finally after six months, it led me onto the set of His Dark Materials, where I had the privilege of shadowing Otto Bathurst. What this did for me was that it opened my eyes to how TV production works and the sets were really big. I spoke to the DoP and picked Otto’s brain. I really enjoyed it, and it gave me a taste of what I wanted to aspire towards. It planted a seed, as I was self-learning and studying in the background, this showed me where I could end up. I had to finance this experience in Bristol and it wasn’t easy doing that and juggling work because in directing there is no pathway. You must forge your own path, hence this website.
Someone once said that making a second feature after your first doesn’t usually happen, especially if the first one didn’t do great. Well, my first feature was more of an assignment from a new employer, but regardless, I did make a second feature. In 2019 I made a feature-length documentary. Unfortunately, the finances fell apart when Covid hit and killed the project. Sucks, I know. But despite the setback, going through the process of a second feature significantly boosted my confidence and strengthened my creative voice. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the documentary medium is—everyone should give it a shot.
I got in touch with Alice Ramsey, the BFI Film Hub North Talent Executive back then. She was a great supporter, loved Cur:Few, and really stood by me. When she moved on, she introduced me to Amy O’Hara, her replacement. Amy became another fantastic advocate, and eventually, I got the green light for a BFI short. This was my first taste of working with a professional producer, Shereen Ali, whom I met during my time at National Film and Television School. Shereen is absolutely brilliant.
But then, the darn pandemic happened. Everything came to a halt. The BFI short got postponed, and I found myself in a creative drought, scrambling for work to support my family. I landed a good marketing job at a charity, which wasn’t ideal, but I was grateful. It took me away from filmmaking for a year and I started feeling like my director dreams were slipping away again, like I’m sure many did during that time.
We finally shot the BFI short and it was a joyous experience, not as stressful as previous experiences thanks to Shereen.
I always kept in touch with Jon Wardle (head of NFTS). He is the one who introduced me to Shereen. He liked Cur:Few from 2018 and always tried to send me opportunities to help. Some were internships that I couldn’t manage due to family commitments, but he understood. At the end of 2020, he dropped me an email, saying he’d recommended me for something, alongside some of his MA graduates. After an eight-week selection process, I found myself sitting across from Miguel Sapochnik, the Emmy-winning director of Game of Thrones, for an interview. I thought, ‘I’ve made it this far, I probably won’t get it, but let me ask him questions I can learn from.’ So, I started firing director-related queries at him. He was like, ‘Aren’t I supposed to be interviewing you?’. Then he asked, ‘What do you bring to filmmaking?’ I won’t repeat my answer, but he took off his Covid mask off (safely!) and said something like, ‘Life experience is something that defines you, yes but to be a director you need to understand how the machine works’. A month later I was in a props tent watching the new Iron Throne get propped up. He continues to mentor me.
My craft took a giant leap when I joined the House of the Dragon director mentorship for seventeen months – it was a real game-changer for me. I soaked up knowledge like a sponge, and my fellow mentee and I were total knowledge junkies. We left no stone unturned, and we embraced every opportunity to learn, thanks to the complete freedom we were given free reigns to rummage and roam. We had the privilege of observing the decision-making of four different directors, two of whom were Emmy winners – absolutely invaluable. I used to think I couldn’t do it but I can.
We also created a 40-minute documentary for HBO that sadly won’t see the light of day, marking the second time I’ve worked on something that won’t be released. The showrunners and directors loved it and shouted about it too. Nonetheless, it underscores the importance of continually honing your craft. Although frustrating, that documentary’s outcome wasn’t the essence of my House of the Dragon experience. One of the biggest things I got from it was building on my confidence and when you have spent over 100 days on set seeing how the machine works, it becomes part of you. We did six months in post with the writers’ room on the floor below in Soho. It was so invaluable.
How did you get your first break?
When do you call a break, ‘a break’. I love this question because it is so different for so many people. I think a break has to be when I left my teaching career in 2016. I have been fortunate enough to have different opportunities along the way and hopefully more to come.
So that’s all folks, my journey thus far and I wanted to round off with a few thoughts…
When things feel like they aren’t going well, stay off social media. Call up your friends and get it off your chest, go see them. Go hang out or something. Don’t let AGE be a barrier. I know two big directors who recently got their breaks way later in life. It doesn’t matter.
Reach out and tell a director if you like their work. No matter how small or big they are. This is an act of charity, a small mercy. People struggle in this business and you might be a motivator. Words are powerful.
One of the biggest lessons I did learn on House of the Dragon was that character matters. It is pretty insane how small the industry is and you can get found out very quickly if you’re not nice.
For those who believe film school is the only path, it definitely isn’t. Filmmaking ‘talent’ isn’t innate, it isn’t something you are born with; you must work, train and build the muscle however you can.
Our craft (stories, ideas, voice etc) plus our character equals our talent. Our talent is currency. A wise person on House of the Dragon once said, never stop working on your talent because talent won’t get you into the industry but when it does, all that talent will carry you to stay in it.
Photograph: Theo Whiteman