Over the last few years, Steven Knight has made a name for himself as a writer of engaging and intelligent movies. His new film, Hummingbird sees him transition from writer to writer/director, and while it may not be for everyone, it’s certainly a well-shot, well-directed, well-acted and interesting take on the idea of gangland London.
We spoke to Knight about Hummingbird, his decision to turn his hand to directing, and his views on the way the future of the British film industry.
HeyUGuys: You’ve spent your career to this point carrying on the honourable profession of writing. What made you want to become a director as well?
Steven Knight: I know. It seems ridiculous doesn’t it? Writing is warm, and dry, and nice, and virtual, and everybody does as they’re told in your head. But no, I saw this as the third part of a trilogy, and this one I wanted to direct myself, and discovered how hard and brutal it is, and cold and wet. Ultimately, I always think when I’ve written anything and it’s directed by somebody else, 50% of it is better than I imagined, and 50% is worse than I imagined. I just thought I could up the percentages a little bit, because it’s never the same. It’s either better or worse. I just thought that maybe I could get it right – not that the others aren’t right – but just to do what’s there in my head. And of course you can’t, because the physical world betrays you all the time, but it’s fun trying.
Take for instance Eastern Promises, how different did that turn out from your original vision?
Well, it’s different in the sense that anybody who’s a writer will have the film in their head. And they’ll have the dialogue said in a certain way, at a certain rhythm. There’ll be a pause there, and there won’t be a pause there. When it’s for real, you can’t go to an actor and say, “you’ve got to pause there between ‘the’ and ‘if’”, it just doesn’t work like that, so it’s never the same. The script didn’t change at all, I think I had a two hour meeting with David (Cronenberg), and that was it. So the script was shot was, and it didn’t change on the set, because David doesn’t change things on the day, ever. It’s simply that thing, and what’s that TS Eliot quote? Something like, “the dream and the reality fills the shadows”. There is a difference between what’s in your head and what’s real, simply because the real world is the real world.
Did you find that, as a writer, you try to use direction in the script to guide camera, subtly, if not obviously.
Oh no, not subtly at all. I do try to explain to the letter how it should look.
Taking that mantle as director, taking charge overall, do you think that you gained anything?
There’s gains and losses. I think the loss is that from now on it’s not possible for me to write something without being aware of the difficulty of taking that choice. Like for example, cars are a pain in the arse. I now know that shooting anything to do with cars is a nightmare. And when I’m writing, if I’m writing for someone else, I won’t care. If I’m writing for myself, in future, I can’t help but be aware of the practicalities. That’s a loss, I think.
The gain is that you realise the power of things you can’t write down. You can’t write down, or no one would take you seriously if you wrote down, “two cars drive by and it’s beautiful”, because it doesn’t mean anything, but you realise that just pointing the camera at some things, if you’re lucky, can really be powerful. And also, the actors can do stuff that you can’t describe, and if you did try to describe it, it would look so crap, “he’s happy, but he’s also sad”, but that can happen in a look, that you can’t write down/ So you have to be aware that the power of the camera is greater than you can write down.
Before you did Hummingbird, did you spend any time playing around, directing shorts or things like that?
No, I didn’t. I went to all the directors I’ve worked with, and asked them for advice, which is great. They gave me very practical tips.
So how do you persuade a producer to let you take the reins of what is a reasonably expensive film?
I don’t know. I’m still mystified, because I didn’t have to persuade anybody. It’s one of those things that – when something works, it works quickly, and without any effort. When it’s not going to work it takes ages, and it’s a real pain in the arse to try and get through it. With this, it seemed to look after itself. I was doing other stuff, and writing other things, but I wrote this, and said “I want to direct it”, and I think it’s probably down to the hard work of Paul Webster and Guy Healey, who are the producers, who then took it off and we found a home for it very quickly. It then changed, but we found a new home for it very quickly, and we were shooting very shortly after I first put the script forward.
Between Hummingbird and, Dirty, Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, you have been exploring this London gangland. How do you steer yourself away from falling into the ‘gangster’ genre films that are so prevalent, particularly given that you’re working with Jason Statham?
I think the thing to do is, there’s nothing like the authority of what’s true. If you look at what’s really true, rather than – sometimes I think people think, “to be real I have to do a certain thing”, which isn’t actually real. And I think if you spend even a small amount of time around people who are making their living from illegal activity, they’re as diverse as everybody else, for a start, and also they don’t come across as the cockney villains. Any time I’ve spent any time with the London underworld kind of people, they’re quite funny, and they’re not all this broad, aggressive, macho stuff. It’s not there, because there’s no need for it. If you’ve got that power, you don’t need to be like that. It’s finding the messiness of anything. Anything is going to be weird and messy, even gangsterism. I think in fiction you try to straighten up the lines, and make it all follow a certain path, as if it’s in a genre. I try to not put anything into a genre.
The next logical question now, is the one I suspect you’ve been asked over and over again. Why Jason Statham?
I’ve always thought he was brilliant. The analogy I would use is Lee Marvin, where you have this force of a person. It seems to me that actors like that are often pigeonholed and patronised while they are doing their stuff, and then they’re rehabilitated and turned into cult figures 20 years later. The work doesn’t change, the films don’t change, but people’s opinions do. I’ll give an example of John Wayne. At the time, John Wayne films, westerns, were fodder for the masses. Now people see them, and Martin Scorsese loves them – it seems to me that Jason Statham is one of those people who, in 20 years’ time, those films he’s made already, as well as Hummingbird, will be seen as classics of their type. And I thought it would be good to get that person into a film like this now, because I think he’s got all of those abilities, and it’s proven in this because he threw himself into the part, he did all the research, and he’s turned in a brilliant performance. The clincher for me was when I was going to directors and asking for advice, I met David Fincher, and he said the only person he would cast for this was Jason Statham. The only one, the only name he gave, and I thought, “fair enough”.
Finally, I’m curious where you see the British film industry going, from your perspective on it.
The weird thing about British film is that it’s fattened up these huge American productions that are coming over, which is great. So in terms of crews, technical people, producers, it’s never been healthier. I just think that the British film industry, it never – in other words, and American producer will make a film about anything. A British producer will feel obliged to make a film about something British, which is what I’ve done. I think if the British film industry believed in itself a little bit more, it could have a real authority, because it’s got the actors, it’s got the crews, it’s got the finance now – sort of – and it should see itself as, at least a pan-European industry, if not a world industry, but I think the British have this thing of never being confident, and always looking inward and trying to make it parochial, or period, which is the easy way out.