Robert graduated from the National Film and Television School MA Directing Fiction course in 2011. His NFTS graduation film Strays starred Richard Madden and led to Robert being chosen as a Screen International Star of Tomorrow and was broadcast on Channel 4. The publication called Strays “a free-falling ode to youth, excess and a skewed brotherly love which practically rubs sparks off the screen.”
He was lead director on the first series of hit BBC thriller Clique, and also directed the final episodes of Cleaning Up, an ITV six-part drama by Sister Pictures starring Sheridan Smith. Previous credits include A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories, Our Zoo, Not Safe For Work and Jericho.
Most recently Robert was the series director of Guilt, a critically acclaimed 4-part black comedy drama for BBC2/BBC Scotland. He is attached to direct a feature adaptation of the Booker prize nominated novel His Bloody Project.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I grew up in Dundee, a small city in the North East of Scotland. In my early teens I became interested in visual culture and the art of album covers and music videos. I saved up for a cheap SLR stills camera and shot 35mm black and white, and colour. The shots usually turned out differently from what I expected and the creative process of capturing the world around me in an expressive way was so vivid and exciting. In my mid-teens I fell in love with film and television watching everything from classic Hollywood to world cinema. British film felt very exciting due to Shallow Grave and Trainspotting being in the cinemas and those iconic film posters were everywhere. After watching Trainspotting on VHS, and Lynne Ramsay’s shorts on BBC2, it clicked for me that highly distinctive films could be made in Scotland and go on to have huge cultural prominence nationally and globally. Then one night I saw a double bill of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho on Channel 4. I was transfixed by the range of tone and emotion, the stylistic inventiveness and formal playfulness, and viewing those films in one sitting had such a profound effect on me. After that I knew I wanted to make films. Then I saw a television series called Scene by Scene with Mark Cousins. His evocative interviews with directors talking about their creative process, their collaborations and craft, revealed to me directing was an integral part of the creative process of filmmaking. From the age of sixteen I was determined that directing was absolutely the only thing I wanted to do with my life. Conversely, I had no idea how to make it happen.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
This was the 1990s so going on the internet to look for information on courses or how to get a career in film wasn’t a first step available to me at the time. I had no guidance on where to go, no connections to any creative industry, and hadn’t chosen art as a higher or standard grade subject at school, so art colleges weren’t an option to me. More importantly anyone I spoke to dismissed it as an unrealistic ambition or didn’t take me seriously. I was also met with strong resistance from one of my parents who was vehemently against me trying to study filmmaking. It became something that I had to fight for. At that time Ratcatcher was in the cinemas and in an article about Lynne Ramsay it said she’d studied photography at Napier college in Edinburgh and then went to the National Film and Television School. I looked at a Napier prospectus in my school library and came across their Photography, Film and Television degree. It was two-thirds practical, and a really interesting course. The first year was purely black and white photography, then you specialised in filmmaking or photography for the remaining three years. I had the grades, but the main part of the application was a portfolio. Luckily a schoolfriend’s dad worked at Dundee College and mentioned there was a free photography printing class for foundation art students to prepare their portfolios. My career guidance teacher at school got behind me, helped me sign out of school to attend the class at Dundee College, helped with my application to Napier, and also talked to my parent who was threatening to stand in the way of me applying. The course looked like it might be hard to get onto as it seemed to be for mature students, but I worked really hard on my portfolio, performed well in the interview, and got onto the course.
The four-year undergraduate course at Napier was fantastic as it gave me a solid grounding in the practical aspects of filmmaking; students were encouraged to experiment and push the boundaries, as well as learn everything about film history and theory. My first short film that I made at Napier won an award and the prize was a pass to Edinburgh Film Festival. I made the most of the pass, found a way into every networking event and all the panel discussions, including one chaired by Nik Powell who I was really impressed with. Film festivals are an incredible experience for filmmakers making their first steps as they give you an introduction into how the industry works, but you also get the chance to meet filmmakers from all over the world.
Over the four-year course at Napier I directed three experimental short films, and learnt practical skills in cinematography, editing and sound design. I would say the most important aspect of studying is the people you meet. My best friend on the course and I really pushed each other; we watched films every night, discussed them in detail and worked on lots of short films together. It’s important that you find kindred spirits and the right creative partners so you can bring the best out in each other and those relationships continue to support and nurture as your careers progress.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
After graduating from Napier, I tried to get funding for short film projects but didn’t get close to being shortlisted for any of the entry level schemes and I didn’t have any of my own money to spend making a film. I worked on short films and commercials in Scotland in various roles from camera assisting, production assistant, or assistant director while working in bars and cafes in Edinburgh. I didn’t really have a plan for how to become a director apart from try and make short films then enter them into festivals. I became aware that people who worked in the industry were represented by agents, but obtaining this and achieving the goal of working as a director felt very far off.
About eighteen months after graduating a unique job came up to be a filmmaker in residence at a mental health arts centre in Edinburgh, funded for two years by the Scottish Arts Council. It was highly competitive, and I was thought to be quite young, but I got the job as my graduation film had a mental health narrative, and I had the range of adaptive practical and personal skills needed. The centre was for people living with mental health problems and for half of the week I taught the members about filmmaking and collaborated with them on their films. The other half of the week I got to work on my own practice which provided an opportunity for me to try and move away from making experimental films to fiction films. Over those two years it was remarkable working with such a range of people, making films every day of the week, and it allowed me to look at what I needed to improve on as a director. I felt that I wasn’t a natural writer and I was focussing too much on the visual concepts of a film and not enough on characterisation and performance. For my final film of the residency I stripped my practice right back to writing the bare bones of a script that I then workshopped with young actors coming out of drama school. With a budget of £200 I shot it myself with a low-fi camera using available light, put radio mics on the actors, and filmed them walking around the streets of Glasgow at night totally live. It was my most instinctive and personal film; I was thrilled with the performances and the way I’d shot the city, but it still had major shortcomings and didn’t get into any festivals.
The residency was incredibly fulfilling but it meant that I’d spent two years working in the community arts sector and I needed to get back on track trying to work in the industry. I saw that Nik Powell had become director of the NFTS and I had a feeling the film school would be pretty exciting with him in charge. I also came across a mentoring scheme called Guiding Lights. With my low-fi short film I applied for Guiding Lights and the two-year MA Directing Fiction course at the NFTS. I was accepted for both and moved to London.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
On the Directing Fiction course at the NFTS you make four films over two years and my plan was to get an agent off the back of my graduation film. I wanted to focus on becoming a better storyteller and to develop this side of my directing I felt I needed to be quite disciplined. I learnt the fundamentals of drama and characterisation, and worked with screenwriting students on films about subject matters I wouldn’t normally have been drawn to. I developed my script analysis, how to figure out the script’s intentions, and how to give constructive notes to a writer. I focused on directing performance, how to choreograph movement, how to shoot economically, how to design developing shots, and how to collaborate closely with the amazing talent studying in different departments at NFTS. My first-year films were well crafted but felt lacking in personality. In hindsight, during my first year I could have made films that reflected my personality and voice as a director, and still developed those storytelling and craft skills, but I felt that I’d had time to do that over the course of my previous studies and residency.
I learnt a huge amount in my first year and took on a really ambitious film at the start of second year. I loved the script which had a unique tonal complexity but it was very hard to realise, and I didn’t cast it right. The film didn’t achieve its potential and I was really disappointed with myself. However, everything I learnt over the first three films at NFTS really prepared me for my graduation film Strays. I wanted to make a film that burst off the screen, full of energy, vibrant style, irreverent humour and emotion. I wrote a treatment that combined some of my experiences working at the mental health arts centre with a wild story I’d heard about two teenage criminals in Dundee, then approached a screenwriter to take the essence of the idea and write the script. It was another ambitious film with an exciting range in tone and it allowed me to show every part of my personality and voice. The film had some risky elements but Nik Powell really got behind what we were trying to do and trusted us to pull it off and make the film safely. I needed to find two leads to play brothers, and they had to have scintillating chemistry. I had a strong feeling that two up and coming young actors, Richard Madden (before he was in Game of Thrones) and Andrew Hawley would be worth seeing as I noticed on Spotlight they were at drama school together. I held out on making any casting decisions until the last minute so I could see them. It turned out they were best friends, were incredible together, and I cast them on the spot. I knew exactly what I wanted to make, and how to make it, so it was an exhilarating creative process and a wonderful collaborative experience. The performances were electric, and from the first frame of the shoot to the last second of the mix, myself and my fellow students had an amazing time making it.
How did you get your first break?
There are lots of important steps along the way, and having graduated from two courses I know how challenging and difficult it can be starting a career in film and television. I would say my most substantial break came a couple of years after graduating from NFTS, as it was the break that gave me a foothold in the industry, and a platform to build my career as a director.
At the NFTS graduation show Strays got lots of interest; I signed with a great agent and had rounds of introductory meetings with execs, producers, and development people from all over the industry. I was selected as a Screen International Star of Tomorrow and I got attached to a feature that was shortlisted for a low-budget scheme called Microwave. It felt like things were progressing well but I needed to cover my living costs during the feature film’s development process. During this period, I had a string of random jobs including making a short film for an architect, working as a census collector, and making a mood reel for The Weinstein Company. Then I was chosen for a Channel 4 entry level scheme called Coming Up and got the opportunity to direct a half hour drama that I shot in four days, and edited in approximately one week. It was a great scheme as you worked with a blend of new and established talent, and got your first broadcast credit. I really enjoyed learning from the executive producer who had worked with Danny Boyle, Jimmy McGovern and Stephen Poliakoff.
I felt like I was heading in the right direction, but then the feature film I was developing wasn’t selected for Microwave and subsequently fizzled out. Eighteen months on from graduating I was struggling; unemployed, not attached to any projects, no money left to live on, so I registered for jobseeker’s allowance. Then the architect I had worked for previously commissioned me to make a film about the shard for the Venice Biennale. After that I started making some very low-budget educational films which I supplemented by doing teaching work, but my combined income was very small and unreliable. Every couple of months I got meetings to direct episodes of television but was unsuccessful. I made a short film for Rankin Film Productions (on which I cast Daisy Ridley before she was in Star Wars) but more than two years after graduating I didn’t feel like I was close to getting the break I needed. My wife was expecting our first child so I decided to get a job with a regular income working for a company making community films and running youth filmmaking workshops, which felt like I was slipping backwards. Then one day at work I got an email from my agent – he’d got me a meeting to direct the second series of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, a black comedy drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm. It was one of the best jobs I’d been up for since graduation so I was even more determined to get it. In the evenings I planned meticulously: read the scripts several times, read the book the series was based on, spoke to the director of the first series, figured out what my take on the material was, and focussed on being mentally ready for the meeting. During the meeting some of the questions were very direct such as, “You’ve not made anything and have no experience. How do we know you can direct two of the biggest actors in the world?”. I answered with such conviction that the interviewer stared at me for a long time then said, “Yes, I think you can”. I knew at that point I was in with a great chance of getting the job. It turned out that the executive producer from Coming Up had recommended me as I handled tight schedules well, and there was an interest in hiring an up and coming director. Next I had a meeting with the writers, then had a meeting lined up with Daniel Radcliffe. On my way to meeting Daniel I felt incredibly nervous as I knew I was so close to getting the job. Luckily, I randomly bumped into a guy I knew from Dundee which was such a fortuitous encounter as it totally grounded me, and meant I was completely relaxed for meeting Daniel. Later that evening, I’d just finished some camerawork for the educational films company on the River Thames by City airport, when my agent phoned to tell me the life-changing news that I’d got the job. I’d got the break. I stood on the river watching the planes coming and going, watching the sun setting. The joy, and the relief, was indescribable.
TV Credits: Coming Up (2012), A Young Doctor’s Notebook (2013), Our Zoo (2014), Not Safe For Work (2015), Jericho (2016), Clique (2017-2018), Cleaning Up (2019), Guilt (2019).
Film Credits: Fault Lines (2008), Thicker Then Water (2010), Strays (2011), Cold Comfort (2014).
Photograph: Mark Mainz