As one of the few people to have experienced the film industry both as creator and critic, Neville Pierce certainly knows something about the cinema. As a journalist he is Contributing Editor of movie magazine behemoth Empire. As a filmmaker, he has made numerous short films, starring the likes Jason Flemying and Alice Lowe.
His latest film is based on a script entered into UK short-script competition The Pitch. Founded by Luke Walton to help fund short films, The Pitch requires entrants to be inspired by an area of the Bible and is judged by industry experts, including Pierce. This is where he came across Hannah Lee’s Promise, which would become the engaging moral drama that has been recently released online. Nouse had the pleasure of interviewing both Pierce and Walton to discuss their respective creations, and the film industry in general.
Nouse: The film was written Hannah Lee; why did you choose to adapt someone else’s story, and why this story in particular?
NP: Hannah was a finalist at The Pitch, an annual competition where people enter pitches for shorts based on Bible stories. The winner gets a £30,000 budget to realise their idea. I was a judge, thought it was a compelling story and when it didn’t win I offered to help try and get it made anyway. We used the runners up money and then sought other investors. It’s a film about loss and desire, entitlement and asylumand I thought it was pretty timely.
Nouse: Do you find that being the director of a film you have not written takes away some of your creative control?
NP: No. Everything goes through you, one way or another. Hopefully you’re choosing the story because you love it. And you’ve spent time with the writer understanding their aims. So it’s not so much about control as it is about realising the story as it was intended. That said, I am always mindful of something David Fincher told me: ‘Take all of the responsibility, because you’re going to get all of the blame.’
Nouse: Have you found that being a writer in other forms has made you more or less compelled to write your own screenplays?
NP: Ambivalent. The important thing for me isn’t writing the stories. It’s telling them.
Nouse: What for you is the link between the twin issues of refugees and childbirth that the film discusses?
NP: They’re not necessarily linked, but I do think it’s interesting to consider the lengths we’ll go to have our children and the lengths we’ll go to to spurn others.
Nouse: The storyline of Promise focusses on a refugee in Britain; do you think that the current global political situation presents an opportunity for filmmakers to contribute something and make a
NP: The real difference is made by people on the front line: politicians, journalists, social workers, cops, doctors and nurses et al. But stories – the ones we consume growing up, the ones we see and read every day – make a huge difference to how we view the world. And therefore how we behave. I think filmmakers have the opportunity to make us question our assumptions. To entertain, but also to make us think.
Nouse: Promise approaches its characters without heavy judgement and with moral shades of grey. Are stories more interesting to you if they come with this moral grey area?
NP: Absolutely. It’s rare that you meet a villain. Usually it’s just someone with a very different point of view. And, even if you think they’re an idiot or mendacious, they probably think they’re trying to do the right thing. That’s interesting to me.
Nouse: What was your approach to casting the film? What were you looking for?
NP: A feeling. I knew Rebecca Callard – we’d become friends via twitter – and while she’s often cast as rather nice (and she is!) there’s steel and determination there I thought we could use. I can’t remember how Nabil occurred to me, but it felt like he had the right blend of decency and vulnerability. He recommended Lara, as they’d done a play together, and I thought she was winning without being a pushover. A tricky blend. And perfect to play Hajar.
Nouse: For someone who has made just four short films, you have worked with some big names, such as Jason Flemying, Alice Lowe and Tim McInnerny. How did you find working with less well-known actors on Promise? Is there a discernible difference between famous and lesser-known actors when working with them?
NP: I didn’t think of there being a difference, really (Callard, in particular, is pretty well-known). I guess when you’re dealing with someone very established, who you watched growing up – as I did Tim McInnerny – then there’s the thought, ‘I hope I don’t say anything stupid to a national treasure’. But good actors want direction, I think. It’s all about helping each other identify the way forward.
Nouse: The film is nicely made but has no ‘flashy’ visuals. How would you describe your approach to visualising a more subtle story such as this?
NP: It’s pretty instinctual. I guess if we’d had unlimited funds I may have gone for some tracking shots – and certainly more set-ups (angles on the action) – but I don’t think the look would’ve been radically different. You think and discuss and feel your way to the right place, hopefully.
Nouse: What is your approach to genre? Two of your shorts have been horror/thriller pieces, but Promise is less of a ‘genre film’. Do you approach a film differently based on its genre?
NP: Only in the sense that serving steak with ice cream would be odd, so you don’t shoot a social drama like a Hitchcockian thriller. That said, while I was thinking of Ken Loach when making Promise, the films I actually watched were Ida – at the suggestion of our DP, Sarah Cunningham – and, for about the tenth time, Rosemary’s Baby. Most of the things you’re influenced by – or stealing – are unconscious.
Nouse: Do you enjoy working with actors? Do you view collaboration on performances as your primary role as a director? Or are you more preoccupied with visuals?
NP: It is, sadly, all primary! The actors are likely to be crucial to telling the story, but so is the space they’re in and the frame they’re in. But, yes, I do enjoy working with actors. They tend to be curious, interesting people and working together to find something that feels right is terrific. Good acting is magic.
Nouse: Why did you choose to try your hand at being a filmmaker yourself having already been a journalist for many years?
NP: I realised that the pinnacle of journalism wasn’t going to satisfy me the way I hoped, say, the *middle* of filmmaking might. Plus, I was never gonna be as good as Mark Kermode.
Nouse: How did you find the transition from critic to creator when you began releasing shorts? Some people seem to view the critic/filmmaker dynamic as quite antagonistic, so what is your take on it given you have been on both sides of the divide?
NP: It took me a long time to get started, cos I felt the work had to hit a really high standard because of my background. I thought it would be judged more harshly. No idea if that’s true. I think some critics can be cruel and some filmmakers can be dismissive – either saying critics don’t matter or, if their films tank, blaming it on critics because of reviews. Some reviewers drive me nuts because they don’t know anything about the mechanics of filmmaking and that ignorance can lead to misjudgments. But a lot of critics are extremely well informed, passionate people trying to spotlight good work, for not a lot of money.
Nouse: You have had great success as a film journalist. How important is arts and culture journalism in our society?
NP: More important than most people think it is, less important than arts and culture journalists think it is.
Nouse: What advice would you have for young journalists, particularly those writing on film?
NP: Write as much as you can. You will get better. Ape writers you admire and your own style will emerge. Make sure you’re doing it cos you love it. If you’re doing it for money or to meet famous people you’ll be disappointed or rubbish. Probably both. If you dislike something then try to review it like a disappointed friend not a gleeful enemy. And if you’re interviewing people, really listen to their answers. It took me years to realise this. Yeah, I’m not that bright.
Nouse: Tell us a bit about your involvement in The Pitch and the effect it has had on your film.
NP: Promise wouldn’t exist without The Pitch. And over the years I’ve made many friends because of it – and learned a lot, too.
Nouse: The Pitch requires entries to be in some way connected to The Bible; how do you see Promise as being connected to The Bible?
NP: It’s based on Genesis 16, the story of Sarah – who has been promised she’ll have a child with Abraham, but decides he should sleep with her servant, Hajar, to be sure of having an heir. Hannah’s script riffs on that and explores jealously and identity and desire. It’s rich source material.
Nouse: Short films are not that visible to the general public and sometimes not readily available. Do you think the film industry would benefit from a change in how we distribute and promote short films?
NP: I think short films suffer the same way short, prose stories do. From the feeling they’re not ‘proper’. But telling a compelling and satisfying story in 10-15 minutes is difficult. And making them is a great way to understand and learn about filmmaking. It is very hard to raise money to make shorts, cos it’s very difficult to make money off them. I think if more funding was available for them it’d probably improve films in the UK overall.
Nouse: As somebody who has had success with a short film, how do you view their place within the industry? Some people see them just as stepping stones to making features, but some regard them as a crucial art form in their own right; where do you stand on this issue?
NP: I made shorts because I had to in order to get to features. But I learned a lot. Enjoyed the process. And am proud of the films. I think making a good short is very hard and perhaps that’s reflected in the general quality of them and how eager, or not, audiences are to see them.
Nouse: What will you be working on next? Can you tell us a bit about it?
NP: There are a couple of features in the works – a potentially controversial thriller and an uplifting comedy-drama. But experience has taught me not to say too much. You can never really predict what’s next. At least, not without looking foolish.
Nouse: Why did you decide to found The Pitch? Why did you choose this as your way of contributing to the film industry, as well as being a producer?
LW: I was looking to support the film industry in a creative and sustainable way. While I love film festivals, this concept offered real support to filmmakers and addressed a gap in the industry. In developing this idea into a working viable model I wanted to back it in every way possible – hence stepping into the producing. I am grateful to producers Mark Blaney and Jackie Sheppard (Footprint Films) for their support in all this from the start.
Nouse: Where did the original idea for The Pitch come from?
LW: A colleague in the music business had tried to pitch the concept behind The Pitch but hadn’t managed to get the backing needed to make it fly. I saw an opportunity to pick the idea up and give it the oxygen it deserved. It worked!
Nouse: Why did you decide that entered scripts had to be tied to The Bible in some way?
LW: The challenge of adaptation is an industry wide one (and the most successful for receiving top awards – 74% of best film Oscars go to adaptations). By using material that is in the common domain it makes a good fit for the industry and offers a level playing field for participants. We also had backing from a Christian charity to get started (and they still support the programme), so all credit to them for going for it!
Nouse: What place does The Bible and its role as a collection of stories have in modern society?
LW: People have been retelling Bible Stories throughout history, particularly within the arts, resetting them within their context and time. Ultimately they are stories of real people, real places and real relationships, so essentially surprisingly enduring human stories and challenges.
Nouse: Why did you launch a script competition particularly for short films?
LW: We were looking to support emerging talent, with a robust programme that properly backs the filmmaker. Running a feature version would be fantastic, but it’s also a huge step up in seeking funds!
Nouse: How important are shorts for the film industry?
LW: Short films are still the calling card for filmmakers in the industry, the ability to tell a short story well will always help the development of the long form film.
Nouse: How big an impact do you think script competitions such as yours have on the industry?
LW: Our past Alumni have gone on to gain representation, film deals and numerous awards. We are making an impact but just one talented filmmaker at a time!
Nouse: What do you and the judges look for in an entrant?
LW: Obviously, we expect our finalists to be pitching a great story! Filmmakers of outstanding potential usually show a fluency in cinematic language – from references and style, to potential shot choices and scoring. However, we will back the best story whatever discipline the filmmaker comes from.
Nouse: How did you/do you choose the judges for The Pitch, such as Neville Pierce?
LW: It has been a huge privilege to work with our judges, and very sad that one of our best, Lucy Scher, sadly died [recently]. They are not just colleagues but have become friends. The film business is actually incredibly collaborative and most experienced filmmakers are generous in supporting a project that is focussed on backing the next generation. I owe huge thanks to David Suchet, David Oyelowo, David Gyasi and especially Nick Park for getting us established in those early years.
Nouse: Hannah Lee’s script for Promise made it to the final of The Pitch; what appealed to you about it?
LW: I could see that Promise was a really smart adaptation – an apparently simple story and yet ancient and profound, brought into the everyday contemporary world to devastating effect.
Nouse: Is it common for judges such as Neville to go on to direct a Pitch entry?
LW: That particular participation is unique, but if you are in the boardroom there is always a chance you will win not just support but participation – David Oyelowo featured in Rob McLellan’s winning pitch Rahab and David Gyasi in Aurora Fearnley’s Pulsar.
Nouse: How do you see the Pitch changing and expanding in the future?
LW: We want to back film makers around the world, not remotely but with teams best placed to support them. With this in mind we have launched a hub for Africa in South Africa and are discussing with potential partners to establish a specifically North American version.