Filmmaker Interview #8 – Greg Hall

Greg Hall (photo by Hannah Powell)

Greg Hall is a London based filmmaker I was introduced to by Tom Wilton who waxed lyrical about this really talented guy he had met at the Portobello Film Festival. When I was down in the Big Smoke in February this year I caught a screening of Greg’s film SSDD: Same Shit Different Day and I was completely floored. The writing was fantastic, painting a comic and realist picture of life in East London with outstanding performances from the actors (at the end of this interview I have included the “Conan the Barbarian Monologue” from the film which is as good as anything Tarantino has written or delivered).

I got in touch with Greg about this blog as I really wanted to feature him, he has an ethos about life which I can relate to and he explores it through his films, and thankfully he accepted. Greg is a talented guy who is obsessed while being acutely aware of the limitations that society has put on him and other people like him but he doesn’t accept these, instead he does everything he can to transcend them.

I am really pleased to feature Greg here on the Write, Shoot, Cut blog and I encourage you to read what he has to say and heed it:

Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you are currently working on?

Hi I am Greg Hall, writer and director of three no/low-budget features The Plague (2004), Kapital (2007), and SSDD: Same Shit Different Day (2010), currently operating under the moniker of Broke But Making Films. Over the years I’ve garnered a reputation as an underground independent filmmaker, helped along by the fact that my debut feature picked up a fair bit of critical acclaim, followed by the unique commission of Kapital with composer Steve Martland by the Manchester International Festival, and most recently with SSDD picking up Best Script at Portobello Film Festival 2010 and Best Feature (No Budget) at London Independent Film Festival 2011.

Currently I have completed a documentary called Sahara Libre (2011) premiering at the Portobello Film Festival on September 9th, which we are planning to also screen out in the Western Sahara refugee camps where it was shot. During October 14th-23rd I will be present at Cinema Global in Mexico City presenting all three of my features and leading a four-day workshop with film students where we will create, shoot and screen a film to close the festival.

I also have some underground screenings happening of SSDD: Same Shit Different Day (2010) in a double bill with Tom Wilton’s Vinyl (2010) which will be announced through the BBMF Facebook page, plus the launch of SSDD on DVD on November 19th put out by myself with no middle man, full details to be announced real soon!

At the moment my script Treading Water (2011) is in the middle of it’s production being directed by Ashley Morris in Stoke-on-Trent, it’s his first feature executed on zero money, which is an exciting concept and I am eagerly awaiting the outcome. Most importantly in the pipeline is my fourth feature pencilled in for 2012, working with super producers Andy Brunskill and Nathan Kelly as part of a Four Cities project where they are producing four low-budget features in Brooklyn, Berlin, Rome and of course London. It will be a Romantic Comedy but not like anything you’ve seen before, based in East London, and I am lucky enough to be working with writer Will Smith from the brilliant The Thick Of It television series.

Apart from all that I run regular film making workshops with young people across London and the UK to pay the bills, plus I have a beautiful four month old daughter to keep me busy on my non-existent days off.

Who/what inspired you to embark on a career in Filmmaking?

My earliest memory as I child is watching Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) on television, then making my mum write down a story that I performed for her in the living room. So from an early age the concept of storytelling has been of great interest to me, combined with a determined focus to create and achieve.

As a teenager I was making short films on an old video eight camera, casting my family and friends and editing on a VCR machine using the pause/record function. A crude D.I.Y approach but a method that is in a similar vein to how I operate fifteen years on. It’s hard to really pin point why I make films or exactly what influenced me to do so, there have definitely been a lot of individuals and experiences that have inspired me and that I have learnt from, but there is also an unexplainable crazy drive behind film making.

That’s how you can tell a real film maker from those just posing, you look deep into their eyes and they have that spark half sane and half mad, like with all creative work it verges on the thin line between obsession, compulsion and destruction.

Have you had to make any sacrifices and how have you coped with that?

I clearly remember being on set of my third feature, having returned from the toilets after coughing up blood, to show the film crew my shingles scar from my first feature and the burst blood vessel in my eye from my second feature. That for me says everything.

My health has definitely taken a pounding from my all-consuming work ethic that verges on the obsessive. Making films is my life. Therefore I would say I have sacrificed everything. You have to really. Making feature films on literally no money isn’t a walk in the park, you have to be dedicated and willing to flaunt every law, break every rule and stretch yourself to the limits in order to capture that shot or get that extra take. But I love doing it so I can’t complain. I wouldn’t want to work in a dead-end job for money or follow the orders of some jumped up boss just so shareholders can make more profit.

Cinema is an art form, a bastardized and over prostituted art form, but an art form all the same. And sometimes it takes the dedication of artists to keep that spirit alive. You leave it to the industry and the omnipresent consumer driven mentality will produce the same old homogenous drivel. So it takes everything you’ve got, it’s just a question of whether you are willing to commit that much?

What is your ultimate goal/what drives you?

What drives me is the world around me, and what I see I don’t like. I’m in a pissed off mood 90% of the time. Basically a majority of people on this planet live in slums and poverty, while a tiny few are super rich with all the power, and it winds me up. The injustices and the immorality around me drive me to despair and if I didn’t vent that anger through a creative outlet I would have gone insane a long time ago. It probably sounds a bit self-righteous but I don’t really care. That’s fundamentally what drives me.

My ultimate goal? Well I guess to counter-balance that, to have a world that is a little bit more fair, where wealth, opportunities and health is at least more evenly spread and accessible for all, but I know that is idealism speaking. I would be happy just to rattle the cages and make a bit of noise, which I am doing. Whether I end up rich or die in poverty doesn’t bother me too much. You only live once so you might as well enjoy it and not compromise one inch to anyone but yourself.

How do you define success?

Wow. That’s a difficult question to answer. Creating the films that I want to make I guess is success and to some degree I have achieved that but I don’t feel successful in all honesty. Would money help? Success isn’t all about money but we live in a money driven society so it would help, I’m not going to go on like money doesn’t mean anything to me because I would be lying, I currently live in a one bedroom council flat with my girlfriend and our new-born daughter so of course getting money would be important so we can live in a house or a bigger flat. It’s a hard one to give you an honest and clear answer that isn’t embroiled with hypocrisy.

Ultimately success would be getting paid to make the films I want to make. Whether that will make me a sell out I don’t know and I don’t really care. It’s not important what others think of you, what the film industry or the media think of you, it’s how much you value yourself. I believe in what I do to the point that I have put every energy and motivation behind it. It would be nice not to be stressing out each month trying to make the rent, having to scrape together your last bit of money to buy nappies, so maybe success is just being comfortable and having a quiet life.

Maybe I have completely contradicted my answer to the previous question but we live in a contradictory world and it’s difficult to fully answer. I’ve already received a modicum of critical recognition, I’ve seen the films I’ve made screen in cinemas, but this is only a small part of success because I still strive onwards. Success to me would be waking up in the morning with a day completely free to relax and do nothing. Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for?

How do you feel about collaboration?

Collaboration is the key to successful film making end of. You cannot make a film on your own. As a director I consider every aspect of the production to be a collaborative process. Whether it’s working with the writer, producers, cinematographer, art department, crew, actors, editors through to even people helping out on the marketing. I have a strong vision but to be able to express that vision, to be able to bring it to life I have to collaborate with my entire team. And I find when working with people, in a collaborative or collective sense, you really get 110% out of people which means your vision, being the sole product of one person, is taken to greater creative heights that you never could have conceived of on your own.

The key to successful directing for me is how you go about facilitating that collaborative process, how do you make it work, how do you get a bunch of creative people to work constructively together for a shared outcome. Collaboration is the glue to getting a film made no matter what the budget or circumstances, with enough enthusiasm, drive and optimism anything is possible, as has been proved many times over the course of the history of cinema.

Do you have a niche or genre that you specialise in?

A fellow filmmaker recently described my work as being “3D without the glasses” which I think has a lot of truth to it. I guess I am transfixed with the concept of realism and am in a constant process of striving towards a sense of what I call “hyper realism”, constructing a cinematic experience that through it’s construction is both self reflexive but also captures and expresses a concrete feeling of reality. Blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction has been a driving force behind my work, I guess it is pre-dominantly drama based, but I try to steer clear of the whole kitchen sink label and consider my work to be pioneering the under represented genre of social realism comedy.

What was the title of your first film(Your first first film, not the one you are happy to call your first film) and can you tell us a bit about it?

My first film was The Plague (2004) shot when I was aged 22 on a budget of £3,500, loosely based on personal stories of my friends growing up and pre-dominantly working with untrained actors in the lead roles. I was fresh out of art school and naively threw myself into it head first, I had no interest of working in the media or the film industry, in fact the very opposite.

My whole approach was anti-industry and with a tiny crew of friends and family we pulled off the impossible through a process of begging, borrowing and if all else failed stealing. The life and trajectory of the film afterwards was a steep learning curve and something I never could have predicted, noticeably receiving the Katrin Cartlidge Foundation Scholarship from Mike Leigh at the 10th Sarajevo Film Festival catapulted the film forwards. From screening at festivals across the globe, receiving a lot of critical acclaim, picking up a few awards, showing on the BBC through to a UK cinematic and DVD release, it taught me a lot about the industry and put me on the map in a small way.

Thinking back it was an incredible experience that spanned a number of years, I definitely made a few mistakes along the way, but I’ve learnt a lot about how the industry operates through to my craft of refining the narrative cinematic form, so it put me on a path that I am still happily treading along.

Favourite Filmmaker?

It has to be hands down the greatest British film director alive today Peter Watkins, the genius behind Punishment Park, War Game, Edvard Munch and The Commune, he is by far the most interesting and inspiring film maker I have ever come across. I find it an absolute crime against culture that you can walk into any HMV across the UK and pick up a Guy Ritchie film but the likelihood of finding a Peter Watkins film? Probably zero. It’s a disgrace and we should all be ashamed of ourselves that one of our most creative, innovative and outspoken filmmakers has to live abroad to make films and finds hardly any distribution in the UK, although it is changing with a few releases now available, he is still shamefully under represented. It makes me really angry. But that’s probably because I am a massive fan of his work and it’s really difficult to see a lot of it. Definitely Peter Watkins is closest to my heart as a filmmaker, fusing the forms of documentary and social realism with an outspoken attitude is everything I strive towards.

All-time top 5 movies (as of this date, we all know it changes daily)?

  1. Punishment Park (Peter Watkins)
  2. Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler)
  3. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
  4. High School (Frederick Wiseman)
  5. Happiness (Todd Solondz)

What is the best short film you’ve seen?

I don’t know what the best short film I’ve seen is, I’ve seen a lot of short films over the years, probably too many to even recount so it’s all become a bit of a blur. Maybe nothing has stuck in my mind because I have never felt that I have mastered the short form being so transfixed on features. But recently I watched the short film Soft directed by Simon Ellis, which I highly enjoyed. So I would recommend that, not as my favourite short film of all time, but definitely worth a watch.

Favourite film related website?

I use IMDB to check out people’s credentials, which I suppose is standard for most people, and that’s about it to be honest. I don’t actually use any film related websites. Bit of a crap answer I know. I think I spend too much time on computers as it is, so I’m more inclined to read a book. Some people might call me old school.

What advice would you give to first time filmmakers?

Don’t listen to me. Listen to yourself. Deep down you have all the answers to your problems. Take what you want from what others tell you, heed their tales of success and failure but ultimately do what you want to do. The film industry, in the widest possible sense, as in not everyone working within it but all the hangers on, all the chancers that sniff around like circling vultures – and let me tell you there are a lot, probably 90% of the people you will meet within the media – they are pre-dominantly full of bullshit. It’s an industry built on bullshit, facades, false promises and egos. So don’t even bother. Don’t bother with all those scams that charge you a ridiculous amount to learn how to make a film. Use your money wisely and invest in yourself. Go out and make your film.

But like I said don’t listen to me. The real filmmakers will already know that. They will already be out there making their films right now, they didn’t have to take my advice, they did it on their merits not waiting for me to tell them to. And if you do find yourself being one of those people that say’s “I’ve always wanted to make a film” then just give up now. Stop talking about it and just get out there and do it. By any means necessary. Every lesson you will learn will be invaluable for your craft and probably for you as a person. So stop reading what I think, turn off the computer and go out there and make your film. Trust me it will be worth it.

Now if that isn’t a call to arms then I don’t know what is. I hope you are not reading this but instead have done what Greg asked and have already started shooting.

Thanks Greg, I really appreciate your brutal honestly and no-holes barred approach to the interview. The only way these interviews can work is if the filmmakers are willing to bear their soul and that’s exactly what you have done. Cheers.

You can find out more about Greg and his films over on his website, you can read his blog and watch more videos over at his Youtube page.

Both The Plague and Kapital are available to purchase as a double-disc DVD over on the Broke But Making Films site.

If you’d like to comment on this interview please do so below and now as promised is the “Conan the Barbarian Monologue” from SSDD, enjoy!

8 Responses to Filmmaker Interview #8 – Greg Hall

  1. Pingback: Write-Shoot-Cut Interview « Broke But Making Films

  2. J Farfort says:

    Great interview and website. Almost as good as mine ;)

  3. Neil Rolland says:

    Thanks! Right back at you, that’s a great site you have!

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