Nick Alexander talks to Izzy Ashton about his route into directing – via a stint in the military and some bad acting – and how his film Bandits, which won a Gold Screen in the Film School category, is in many ways a love letter to his mum.
What do you enjoy about directing? Did you always know you wanted to be a director?
There are so many elements of directing I enjoy. Working with the actors, finding the most expressive camera frame possible, and how close you become to your crew. But I guess, above all, I can be really moved by a good story. So the opportunity to move others in the same way is what I love most.
I came to directing quite late, having done a small amount of (quite terrible) acting in my youth. I actually ended up joining the military after university, so went in completely the opposite direction. It was only after I’d left and started working in the film industry as an AD/Production Assistant that I started to look at the director’s role and think ‘I have some stories I can tell too’.
What was the inspiration behind Bandits?
My main inspiration was the experiences of my best mate Jack, who spent several years as a social worker in supported housing. He would tell me about some of the people he’d met, and some of the stories he’d heard about the countless individuals caught up in impossible circumstances.
That combined with memories of my mum growing up. She gave so much energy and love to me in order to ensure I wasn’t exposed to, or affected by, some emotionally testing moments in my childhood, often bearing the brunt of such moments herself instead. It had a huge impact on my life to see someone act so selflessly, even if she didn’t realise at the time that I could see through it. In a way, the film is a bit of a love letter to her.
How did you set about capturing the stark contrast between the young boy’s reality and the games he plays?
I think a lot of the credit has to go to young Blake Williams, who plays Kyle in the film. He is much like the character he plays, cheeky, full of imagination, but with an amazing emotional intelligence for his age. Really, the entire film rested on the shoulders of his performance, and he delivered.
But also I have to credit Steven Lee’s writing. He helped me to craft a story arc that began in the young boy’s imagination and finished in his reality. Doing this was so important in order to capture the deeper meaning of the piece, which is that when a child is surrounded by love, despite the circumstances, nine times out of ten they will be okay.
And although you could say Maggie is flawed, and the decisions she makes are dangerous, she is still a mother who loves her son very much. And it is for that reason that Kyle is able to remain a happy, precocious child, despite their dangerous living situation.
The Western genre was a tool with which we could bring together the imaginary world Kyle enjoyed so much, and the reality that his mum is trying to protect him from.
How did you come to choose the Western theme for the film?
For us the Western genre was a tool with which we could bring together the imaginary world Kyle enjoyed so much, and the reality that his mum is trying to protect him from. He begins as an imaginary cowboy defending another boy from a bully, and ends as a real life vigilante trying to protect his mum from harm. The tragedy of the situation is that at his age, he can’t really comprehend the difference between the two.
What we couldn’t have known at the time of writing was that our shoot was to be scheduled during the heatwave last summer. So it turned out that the fields around the English town of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, where we shot much of it, would end up resembling the dusty fields of the midwest.
Could you tell me about the casting process? Particularly when it came to your lead mother/son roles.
It was tricky, but I was incredibly fortunate to be assisted by Heidi Lawry, our casting director. We were aware that we were going to be asking a lot of both characters, particularly with the young boy, but the moment we got Blake in a room we knew he was the real deal. And the same goes for Mia Tomlinson, who plays Maggie, who completely blew us away with her self-tape. We actually cast her straight from that. So again, we just had a lot of luck in finding them both, for them to both be available, and for them to have the chemistry they had. Really I didn’t have to do very much!
How was the shoot? Were there any standout or memorable moments?
To be totally honest, the shoot was hard work. The budget we had didn’t actually go that far, the number of locations required over a seven-day period was tough and the hot weather brutal. But the crew were amazing, and that’s what made it achievable. There are too many people to name, but for a few it’s worth doing so. Producer Emma Grazette – with Jen Smith and Matilda Weaver in production – worked tirelessly to keep the shoot moving. Our 1st AD Matt Hall dealt with the countless stresses and strains with a smile. And the entire sound, camera and lighting department really pulled a blinder.
But in particular I have to shout out my DP and Production Designer, Toby Lloyd and Nivitha Muralikrishna. They were truly inspirational, and my biggest champions on set. I owe them a lot.
What do you feel you’ve learned from making this film? Is this a subject matter you’d like to explore again in the future?
I learnt a lot from the process, particularly about how to work with child actors. This was my first experience working with someone so young, and although Blake is perhaps just one of a kind, I was amazed at how capable he was and how he took on quite emotionally complex directorial notes.
In terms of the subject matter, I think it’s too early to tell if I’d revisit it, but I think certainly all of my films will try to find a middle ground between social commentary and genre filmmaking in the way Bandits did. At least, that’s my hope.
What does winning a YDA mean to you?
It means a huge amount. The YDA is the first award that Bandits has received, so I’m incredibly grateful. And the experience in Cannes was just wonderful.
What are you working on at the moment? And what’s coming next?
I have a few things going on at the moment. I have a feature that I’m developing with a production company which I’m very excited about, and a few shorts I’m hoping to make over the next year.
But my main aim for the rest of the year though is to break into the commercial world and to find representation for my fiction work, so fingers crossed!
Interview by Izzy Ashton shots