David Holroyd is a television director. His first independent feature, W.M.D., has recently been completed and will be making its way to screens in the next few months. IndieFlicks was lucky enough to catch up with David to discuss his journey into filmmaking and about his first feature film.
IndieFlicks: Have you always wanted to get into feature film production?
David: I know it sounds like a cliché, but like many people my age I started my film career with my Dad’s old 8mm camera trying to recreate scenes from Star Wars with my Han and Luke figurines. But it wasn’t until I was thirteen and I read Derek Taylor’s gonzo journalism book ‘The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark’ that I had an epiphany and realised that you could make films as a job. From then on I knew that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what made me want to direct. Being a film director was something that no one else at school had stated an interest in and it was something I could claim as my own. What followed was a route after University of fumbling towards that goal – first being an Assistant Floor Manager at Central TV in Nottingham, making short films and finally getting a runners job in a factual production company in London. Thereafter I moved to being a researcher, then director. But that was in factual programmes and I still wanted to get into films, and no one tells you how to do that, so I made another short film which finally got me offered a six week stint directing Hollyoaks. I was there for eighteen months. What followed were a number of dramas including Bad Girls, Footballer’s Wives and The Bill which were all good experience, but still not movies. I spent those years also writing film scripts, and finally, with WMD, my fifth script, seem to have got one that found the right producer at the right time.
IndieFlicks: What made you decide to write W.M.D.?
David: WMD is first and foremost a story about an ordinary man with a mortgage, wife and kid, who unexpectedly discovers the answer to the big question we were all asking in 2002 - how real is the WMD evidence? He then has to decide what to do with the knowledge he has.
Until now I’ve never been even vaguely politically active. I even voted only sporadically. Writing WMD actually came out of the desire to make something, anything that would get me into directing full length films. It’s no secret that getting into directing feature films is like banging your head against the proverbial brick wall. No one will give you a film to direct until you’ve proved you can direct a film. What actually happened was that I was having a coffee with a friend and in the general meandering of conversation we strayed onto the subject of how ubiquitous CCTV cameras were. When my friend said that a government minister had been under surveillance and added “imagine; all that surveillance footage is on a DVD somewhere” a light bulb suddenly popped on in my head. I could actually feel the hairs go up on the back of my neck as I realised that a feature film made entirely from surveillance footage hadn’t been done before, could justify incredibly cheap cameras, and could be achieved with just two characters standing on a street corner. There was the idea. But what was the subject going to be? The intrusive, observational nature of the style meant that the story had to be some form of surveillance operation. The film that kept popping into my head was Three Days of The Condor. From there was a simple step to the WMD debacle, being our own most recent government conspiracy, and one ripe for exploring. So the filming concept actually came before the story. What I didn’t expect was how I would be drawn into the subject. I always thought of myself as fairly well informed, but when I looked into the facts I was astonished at how blatantly empty the evidence was known to be before the invasion, how little I knew about it, how we had all conveniently forgotten about being lied to by our own government and had blithely moved on to accepting that Cheryl Cole’s manicure was the more important news headline.
The more I learned, the more I began to feel seriously disconcerted about what had taken place. Every new piece of information I found stunned me. All of it was in the public domain, yet here we were, not demanding what the hell the government had been doing lying to us. By doing nothing I was effectively condoning the invasion, the government’s misleading of the population who they represented (Me) and was thereby complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people; a sobering realization.
But in spite of my feelings, I didn’t want WMD to be a documentary, but a drama. I’m a storyteller at heart, and by profession. So whilst the facts and politics astonished me, I didn’t want the film to be a polemic. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a cinema and feeling that you are being preached at. This had to be a story first, and the inspiration for the eventual storyline came from my own experience uncovering the facts. Consequently my journey became the main character’s. His growing realisation that all is not what it is claimed to be and his desire to do something about it is not what only I felt, but what many people I have spoken to since have felt too.
Since writing the film I have become intensely aware that it is our responsibility as individuals in a democracy to hold the government we vote into power accountable for their actions lest they commit tyranny in our name. If, as the leader of a country you are going to use certain facts as a justification for sending your fellow countrymen to die in a foreign land then you have to be absolutely sure beyond any shadow of a doubt that those facts are true. So what are we doing about the people who lied to us? Well, for the most part we’re watching the X Factor.
Hopefully the film will contribute to the debate and will stop this shameful part of our recent history from being conveniently brushed under the carpet and forgotten.
IndieFlicks: How long did the writing process take?
David: I started my research in April 2007 and began writing a few weeks later. By July I had the finished script and it pretty much stayed the same thereafter. We had intended to get the film shot and edited in a matter of months, as I know from experience you can easily while away months or even years redrafting a script and never getting it made, so I decided to go in fast, low and dirty; i.e. write something, shoot it and put it out there as quickly as possible. Unfortunately the person who was originally going to produce it promised the money, but it never appeared so we parted ways and it was November before my new producer, a dynamo called Christine Hartland, secured the money. We started preproduction in December 2007, commenced shooting in mid January and had the film at Cannes by May where it was picked up in its very first screening by Independent Film Sales.
IndieFlicks: How does directing a feature film differ from your work directing in television?
David: Film and TV are two very different products. The one exists in a singular point in time and deals with a single event that is a turning point in one person’s life. The other is about continuation of characters from week to week. With television, unless you are the first director on a new series and can create a style, every show you work on will have an established look already and you are basically expected to adhere to that. For obvious reasons they cannot for example have The Bill looking like a film noir one week and a Technicolor melodrama the next. Whilst that can occasionally be frustrating (as a director you of course just want to make ‘your’ film) it is understandable; you are generally one of at least four directors on a show and a consistent look is needed. Also in most TV the actors will probably have been playing their characters from before you join the show, so you often need little rehearsal time with them, which can be a blessing on the manically tight TV schedules.
IndieFlicks: Did you give your actors much freedom with the script and their performances?
David: I’m always open to suggestions and will use anything I think will make the film better, but for a suggestion to do that it has to fit with the feel of the film that I hold in my head. I don’t expect anyone to get offended if I don’t accept their proposal. In WMD, Simon Lenagan, did his own reading round the subject, and as production progressed he began to know more than his character did. That began to influence the way he wanted to play his character and I had to prevent that happening. You have to stop the production going off track and becoming a completely different thing. Having said that you cast people for who they are and the idiosyncrasies that make them fit with your idea of the character, so you have to be open to those moments too. You also have to be open to possibilities you hadn’t thought of, it is always best to have a plan and then be flexible and depart from it if you find you need to. For example in Rome I was following Simon with a camera when he took an unexpected turn into the Piazza Republica. Had he not we would not have found such a wonderful location for filming the café scene.
My primary concern for the actors was that the lines would sound real coming from their lips. To achieve that we met a number of times to talk about the intelligence structure of MI6, discussed intelligence briefings available from websites, and spoke to technical advisors who had formerly been in the intelligence services. Very quickly acronyms such as JIC and CIG which initially sounded like something from a Two Ronnies sketch, came to mean real things to the actors, and I think you can tell when you watch their performances that they know intimately what they are talking about.
IndieFlicks: With the Presidential race currently taking centre stage was it your intention to get the film released as close to this as possible?
David: In reality it takes so long to make a film that timing is the last thing on your mind. I conceived of the idea nearly eighteen months before the elections and didn’t even think of that until someone else pointed it out. As we got closer to the date it did begin to seem like pre election might be a fortuitous time to release, but it was never a definite aim. In fact we began to worry that if we had released in the last few months of the election race a political film that didn’t have McCain or Obama in it would’ve simply been overlooked. The events of WMD took place over five years ago, and people are still obsessed by the story, so I think it’s a subject that will never go away until it is properly resolved. People still want to know what really happened. Right now we are the first feature film to be made about the issue and I think that is going to be one of the biggest factors in our favour.
IndieFlicks: What do you have planned once W.M.D. is released?
David: I would love to say a holiday, but working on the film for nearly a year unfunded has taken its toll and I’m currently directing some TV drama. I’m working with a great group of people, and cast and crew I know well so it’s good fun. I am also talking with a couple of commercials companies and am developing another of my scripts with Producer Nicky Moss of Neon Films whose last film ‘Moon’ was recently picked up by Sony Pictures.
IndieFlicks: What advice could you give to any aspiring filmmakers out there?
David: Just get out there and do it. With domestic HD camcorders and editing equipment like Final Cut Pro there is the sort of opportunity to make professional looking films that there wasn’t even ten years ago. The democratisation of the tools of production means that anyone can shoot and edit a professional looking film now. The internet means anyone can be a distributor and it’s only going to get easier. Until you have made something no one will take you seriously and no one will pay you to make something, so you have to go out and make something yourself first.
Do work on the script. Make sure it’s a story that means something to you or it will have no soul and accept you will never be completely happy with it. Make friends with a sound recordist and then shoot it, then start the next one. Digital distribution will be the future and soon, whatever film you make will find an audience. If you get involved now you will be at the forefront of the first new platform in film making in decades. Accept that you’re not going to get noticed instantly, but keep at it and you will. There are many people out there who say they want to do something but aren’t prepared to put the work in to do it.
Finally, accept that you will never be completely happy. If you were you wouldn’t be a creative. I think it was Victor Hugo who said “There’s no such thing as completing a piece of work, just the abandoning of it”.
For more information about W.M.D please visit their website - click