Your career as a director doesn’t keep you firmly in one genre you span quite the spectrum, including factual programmes and docu-dramas including Oil Storm (2004) which you also wrote for Wall to Wall Productions for FX which looked at the scenario of what America might be like if it ran out of oil to Who Killed the Honey Bee? (2009) for New Black which looked at the apocalyptic demise of the honey bee.
What is it about factual programmes that you love so much especially from the viewpoint of director?
James: I LIKE FACT AND FICTION. WHAT I LIKE TO DO ABOVE ALL IS APPLY THE SKILLS OF EACH GENRE TO THE OTHER… SO WHEN MAKING FICTIONS, I’M INTERESTED IN SETTING THEM IN TRUTHFUL, AT LEAST ON AN EMOTIONAL LEVEL, SITUATIONS, WITH CONTEXT DRAWN FROM REAL WORLD; IN FACTUAL STORYTELLING I’M INTERESTED IN BRINGING IN DRAMATIC DEVICES. MY MOST RECENT FILM PANTANI: THE ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF A CYCLIST BEING A CASE IN POINT, WHERE I TOOK DOCUMENTARY FOOTAGE AND BUILT IT INTO A DRAMATIC STRUCTURE, AND THEN DRAMATISED WHAT DIDN’T EXIST AS DOCUMENTARY FOOTAGE ACCORDING TO PRINCIPLES OF FICTIONAL STORY-TELLING, SETTING RECONSTRUCTIONS IN ALMOST DREAM-LIKE, OR HYPER-REAL, SITUATIONS.
Where did you go to University to train as a Director and how long after gaining qualifications did you land your first directing job?
James: I WENT TO OXORD UNIVERISTY AND ACTUALLY READ LAW, OR JURISPRUDENCE AS THEY CALL IT THERE. I WASN’T MUCH OF A LAWYER – AND BEGAIN TO WRITE AND MAKE SHORT FILMS WHILE I WAS THERE. I ACTUALLY WON A COMPETITION CALLED THE LLOYD’S BANK/CHANNEL 4 FILM CHALLENGE FOR A DOCUMENTARY IDEA I WROTE THAT GOT MADE BY A PROFESSIONAL TEAM (SIMON BEAUFOY WHO WENT ON TO WRITE THE FULL MONTY AND SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE DIRECTED IT) AND SHOWN ON CHANNEL 4. ON GRADUATION, I APPLIED FOR A BBC TRAINEE SCHEME AND WON THE GOLDEN TICKET I GUESS, WITHIN THREE WEEKS OF JOINING THE INESTIMABLE PRODUCER AND PRESENTER DAISY GOODWIN LET ME DIRECT MY FIRST ONE MINUTE PIECES ON THE SERIES ‘BOOKWORM’ FRONTED BY GRIFF RHYS JONES… I GOT A LOT OF LUCKY BREAKS, AND GOT TO WORK WITH VERY BRILLIANT PEOPLE FROM THEN WHO REALLY CHAMPIONED ME, INCLUDING NIGEL WILLIAMS (WRITER OF ELIZABETH AND MANY OTHER AWARD-WINNING SHOWS)… THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT EASY. EVERY SHOW IS TOUGH, BUT IT SHONE A LIGHT INTO THE DARKNESS OF CONFUSION THAT WE CALL AMBITION.
You directed Torchwood: Random Shoes (2006) Series 1, Episode 9, featuring the life and death of Eugene Jones, reading through your cv list of documentaries, was it because this story featured the character narrating the story very much like Kevin Spacey in ‘An American Beauty’ or was there another reason?
James: NOPE. THAT’S READING TOO MUCH INTO IT. I’D BE CANVASSING RICHARD STOKES THE SERIES PRODUCER WHO I’D WORKED WITH PREVIOUSLY TO HIRE ME ON TORCHWOOD WHEN HE TOOK IT ON… WHEN I FINALLY GOT THE CALL, I SAID YES TO THE SERIES. THE FACT I GOT SUCH A BRILLIANT SCRIPT WAS SHEER GOOD FORTUNE. I DO THINK IT SUITED MY STYLE OF FILM-MAKING THOUGH, AS I’M VERY ATTRACTED TO STRONG SINGLE PERSPECTIVES, AND ALSO HAVE A BIT OF AN OBSESSION WITH EXPLORING WHAT I PRETENTIOUSLY CALL “THE CURTAIN BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH”.
I’ve just viewed a 20 min clip of ‘From The Ashes’ on Youtube and it is a wonderful film that I’d love to watch from start to finish. Tom Hardy has the perfect voice for narrator. I liked how it wasn’t just about cricket and the Ashes but also about life during that period, with the strikes, and Thatcher and a Royal Wedding. Not only did you direct but you also wrote this, how long did this film take to put together and what was the most enjoyable feature of this?
James: DON’T WATCH IT ON YOUTUBE!!! THAT’S BREACH OF COPYRIGHT. IT ANNOYS ME THAT YOUTUBE CONTINUES TO CARRY COPYRIGHT MATERIAL WITHOUT CENSURE. IT’S WRONG AND SHOULD BE STOPPED. YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A CAR – DON’T STEAL A MOVIE!!
A YEAR IN THE MAKING, BUT REALLY SIX MONTHS OF THAT WAS RAISING MONEY BEFORE PRODUCING FOR SIX MONTHS. THE MOST ENJOYABLE BIT – THE PREMIERE!!!
What got you into directing?
James: THE POSSIBILITY OF TELLING A STORY IN THREE DIMENSIONS, I SUPPOSE, AFTER I FIRST GOT TO SEE A DIRECTOR IN ACTION. I’D THOUGHT I SHOULD BE A PRODUCER OR WRITER AND THAT DIRECTORS NEEDED TO BE ABLE TO DRAW. I THINK ACTUALLY THAT’S THE LEAST IMPORTANT SKILL FOR A DIRECTOR, IT’S ABOUT SOMEHOW DRAWING THE BEST OUT OF TALENTS BE THEY WRITING, ACTING, CAMERAWORK… IT’S LIKE BEING THE HEAD OF A COMPANY REALLY… SO REALLY THE ANSWER IS AN EGOTISTICAL DESIRE TO CONTROL THE WORLD, OR AT LEAST CREATE MY OWN WORLD.
If you were able to meet your 12 year old self, what advice would you give him?
James: CREATIVITY IS AN ACHIEVEMENT IN ITSELF.
Can you tell us about your new film The White Room?
James: THE WHITE ROOM iS A MAGICAL REAL THRILLER ABOUT A MAN WHO COMES TO BELIEVE HE CAN SEE THE FUTURE IN PEOPLE’S BIRTHMARKS. IT’S AN EXPLORATION OF ISOLATION, MADNESS AND BELIEF SET IN THE EAST END OF LONDON, AND STARS THE INCREDIBLE SPANISH ACTOR OSCAR JAENADA AND LEGENDARY SCOTTISH ACTOR BILL PATERSON. IT’LL BE IN CINEMAS THIS XMAS.
Battle of the Sexes (2013) is yet another sports documentary this time featuring the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, what is it about these types of documentaries that hook you?
James: I’M INTERESTED IN THE IMPACT EVENTS HAVE ON LIVES… THE MOMENTS WE SUDDENLY FIND MASSES OF PEOPLE WILLING THE SAME THING AND WHAT IMPACT IT HAS ON THEIR LIVES AND THE SOCIETY IN WHICH THEY LIVE. IT’S SOMETHING QUASI-RELIGIOUS, HOW OFTEN CAN YOU FIND TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE TOGETHER THINKING THE SAME THING, DREAMING THE SAME DREAM. SURELY THAT HAS POWER? SPORT HAS THE POWER TO ENTHRALL. IT ALSO THE POWER TO OPEN US UP TO NEW IDEAS. THAT’S WHAT I’M INTERESTED IN – MOMENTS THAT UNITE US, BECAUSE SO OFTEN WE ARE ALONE.
Out of all the programmes, films, documentaries that you have directed and /or written, which have been the most enjoyable and which have been the most challenging to date, in terms of anything?
James: I LOVED MAKING TORCHWOOD AND ROBIN HOOD, IT WAS GREAT TO BE COMMUNICATING TO THAT AUDIENCE AND HAVE THE SUPPORT OF THE BBC IN MAKING ACTION-PACKED STORIES. BUT EACH FILM IS A NEW CHALLENGE, AND I LOVE AND HATE EACH ONE EQUALLY IN THE END. I DON’T WATCH BACK FILMS. I HATE SITTING IN THE CINEMA OR IN FRONT OF THE BOX WATCHING FILMS I’VE MADE – NOT BECAUSE I CAN’T HANDLE IT (THOUGH I SEE THE FLAWS MORE CLEARLY THAN THE AUDIENCE), BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE FINISHED FOR ME, I’M ON TO THE NEXT ONE. ONE OF THE GREAT JOYS OF TV AND FILM IS SEEING SOMETHING FOR THE FIRST TIME, BECAUSE THAT’S HOW THE ILLUSION PLAYS BEST. OUR EYES ONLY SEE 10% OF WHAT THEY CAN SEE, OUR BRAINS FILL IN THE REST, SO WHEN WE’VE SEEN IT BEFORE WE’RE INFLUENCED BY THE MEMORY, NOT JUST WHAT WE SEE. I’VE SEEN THEM TOO MANY TIMES AND LIVED EVERY SHOT, I’M NOT SEEING THE FILM, I’M SEEING PARTS OF MY LIFE.
When you were 12 (you can tell I watch CBBC) what were you like, what were your interests and were you involved in filming at that age, recording your own events with a tape recorder and camera?
James: I WAS ACTUALLY MORE INTO THE OUTDOORS, CLIMBING, HIKING ETC. I DID WATCH A LOT OF TELLY THOUGH, AND WENT TO OCCASIONAL DRAMA GROUPS BUT WAS, EVEN THEN, MORE INTERESTED IN WRITING AND DIRECTING (TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO) THAN STANDING AROUND BEING A TREE OR WHATEVER. I NEVER SAW MYSELF AS A PEFORMER, THOUGH IRONICALLY, THAT’S WHAT ONE BECOMES WHEN YOU ARE INTERVIEWED.
As director and writer do you have any control over what music is used and who narrates your work, or is that left to other people in the production team to decide?
James: OH YES – IDEALLY TOTAL CONTROL. IN TORCHWOOD I PICKED ALL THE MUSIC, ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS, BOWIE – THEY WERE FOR ME KEY MOMENTS. I LOVE WORKING WITH MUSIC AND AM JUST WRAPPING UP THE EDIT ON A FEATURE FILM WITH JOHN HANNAH AND NICO MIRALLEGRO CALLED SHOOTING FOR SOCRATES, WHERE WE GOT THE GUYS FROM SNOW PATROL AND THEIR FRIENDS TO RE-RECORD SOME CLASSIC SONGS WITH A CONTEMPORARY TWIST. SIMILARLY NARRATORS, I’VE BEEN ABLE TO WORK WITH GARY OLDMAN, TOM HARDY AND MANY OTHERS, AND I ALWAYS PICK THE VOICES. THAT’S PART OF DIRECTING, IN MANY WAYS THE KEY PART – CASTING, BE IT A VOICE OR A FACE. AND MUSIC IS SO IMPORTANT, IT BECOMES PART OF THE PERFORMANCE.
When you’re not working, although given the list of credits I don’t think you do actually have any time to rest, but shall ask anyway, how do you relax?
James: IT’S TRUE, I WORK A LOT, BUT SINCE HAVING MY FIRST CHILD TWO YEARS AGO, I’VE LEARNED TO TAKE MORE TIME OUT AND TRY AND SEE THE WORLD THROUGH HIS EYES. OTHER THAN THAT, FRIENDS, FAMILY, COOKING, READING, WATCHING BOXSETS… NO HANG-GLIDING I’M AFRAID, THOUGH I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO MY FIRST FLYING LESSON NEXT MONTH.
When you’re writing, where do you find the best locations for inspiration, what drives you to write?
James: I LIKE NOISY LOCATIONS – I SEEM TO NEED THE NOISE TO FOCUS ME ON THE TASK, WHEREAS MY WIFE (WHO IS ALSO A WRITER, BUT OF FAR MORE SERIOUS STUFF) DEMANDS TOTAL SILENCE. I WROTE THE DEATH SCENE IN A SCRIPT LAST YEAR IN THE LOCAL PUB WHILE A SKA BAND WERE PLAYING AND PEOPLE DANCED AROUND ME… MIND YOU THE SCRIPT WAS SET IN ALASKA AND THE PUB WAS CALLED THE NORTH POLE.
Claudia Lindner I would like to know, though he is not the writer, what he thought of that episode "Random Shoes". Tbh, I don't understand this ep, it doesn't really seem like a Torchwood episode, as it's just Gwen there. What's his view as director on this?
James: THE EPISODE WAS DESIGNED AS WHAT’S CALLED A “STAND ALONE” WHICH ALLOWS BREATHING ROOM IN THE SCHEDULE FOR SOME OF THE OTHER CAST, IN THE CASE OF TORCHWOOD THIS WAS PRINCIPALLY JOHN BARROWMAN, TO EITHER REST OR FILM SCENES THAT HAVE GOT MISSED OR REWRITTEN AFTER SHOOTING. WHAT I LIKE BEST ABOUT DOING A STAND ALONE IS THAT THE REST OF THE SERIES DOESN’’T REALLY MATTER – IT’S MORE LIKE DOING A FEATURE FILM THAT STANDS UP ON ITS OWN.
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©BBC Torchwood 2006