Director Martin Stitt Said No to Hollywood
Martin Stitt is the writer and director of Psychodrama ‘Love/Me/Do’ which premiered, and was nominated for Best UK Feature at The Raindance Independent Film Festival earlier this year. ‘Love/Me/Do’ is his first full length film.
How did you get where you are today? There were a number of films I loved at university which made me really want to make films. They are all French films actually – ‘Betty Blue’ and ‘Diva’ by Jean-Jacques Beineix, and one of my favourite ones ‘The Big Blue’, also ‘Subway’ by Luc Besson. I always like those kinds of bourgeoisie-type stories.
Ages ago I did a film called ‘What Does Your Daddy do’. That premiered at Venice, went on to play at Raindance Festival, and Raindance put it forward for a British Independent Film Award.
That film got me a scholarship to the American Film Institute in LA. I studied there for two years. Some of my tutors were Frank Pearson who wrote ‘Cool Hand Luke’, then I had D C Fontana who wrote the original ‘Star Trek’ series with Gene Rodenberry. Then Gill Dennis who wrote ‘Walk the Line’ for my graduation film. It was an amazing year. Sean Penn came in and did Q & As with us. We had Walter Hill who did ‘Warriors’. He was amazing. It was a really brilliant exposure to industry and to the craft. My graduation film ‘Family Jewels’ premiered at Venice then got selected for The Sundance Film Festival.
I was offered a franchised film which was fully franchised at over $1 million, then ended up turning it down because it just was a terrible script. I could have stayed in L.A but the kind of films I was interested in were more likely to get made in the UK.
Who do you most admire as a director? I keep being asked who my favourite director is. I don’t really have one because most directors do some weaker films, but there are certain films I think are genius. My guilty pleasure would be ‘Alien’. You have to say ‘Apocalypse Now’ but then I am a military guy.
I think a lot of the films I like are not the kind of films I would make. I do like Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke. They do films which I think are really thought provoking, but I don’t think I would do a Lars Von Trier film because he doesn’t like his audience – he puts his audience through Hell. He is kind of a punk director. I like to annoy my audience but I don’t hate them! I don’t think Haneke likes his audience either.
I am mainly influenced by real life – the David Finchers of the world. I thought that ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Seven’ were brilliant.
What kind of challenges does a film director face in the UK? The problem is getting the attention of the formal side of the industry. If you can get in with the British Film Institute (BFI), Creative England or Film London, then you can get films made, but they are very selective. The challenge is finding an outlet. It is actually very easy to make a film these days, but the hard bit is getting it seen by people. Festivals like Raindance are really important for Indie people who haven’t got government backing.
The other problem is that we (in the UK) tend to be parochial in the types of movies that we make. We predominantly make period dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’ or we do gritty inner city dramas.
The stories I am interested in are middle class ones, but the industry tends not to like them. The problem is how to get the industry to look beyond its comfort zones. There is a massive middle class where there are some amazing stories – harrowing, tough, difficult – but the industry doesn’t like it. We are a society that doesn’t like being self-reflective. I think we need to get uncomfortable and film is the once place we can still get uncomfortable.
Would that be different anywhere else in the world? I think ‘Love/Me/Do’ would have been a lot easier to make on The Continent because it is something they wouldn’t shy away from. A lot of people in the film industry (in the UK) told us we couldn’t do it. On The Continent they are a lot more accepting. A bourgeoisie middle class film. They make them. We don’t.
You worked with Sam Mendes (Director of ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Spectre’)? I got selected through the BFI Guiding Lights Scheme, which is a mentorship scheme. We are asked to put down which UK director we would really like to be mentored by.
I was really lucky and got my first choice, which was Sam Mendes. He does get amazing performances from actors in his films, which is something I found really intoxicating.
I did get to spend some time on the Bond set. It was a fascinating to see that high end of the film world. The Bond set is like a big family and I think they handle an amazing franchise. If you can have that kind of harmony on set it means you are focused on making the same story.
They say that every author’s first book is autobiographical, is it the same for film? Having been in so many careers – the military, banking, biology at Oxford and now film, I got really interested in what kind of personalities are needed to fit in with these worlds, mainly because I have always felt like a fish out of water.
I got obsessed with the holy trinity of the dark character traits, the corporate psychopath / sociopath, the Machiavellian and the narcissist. The film world is full of narcissists, the government world is full of Machiavellians and the corporate psychopath tends to do well in the legal and finance worlds. In ‘Love/Me/Do’ for instance a corporate psychopath falls in love with a narcissist.
They (in the real world) are not very evil, just manipulative. These characters have some very good character traits which make them good in business, they are just not very likable. They lack empathy. I like focusing on the darker side of human nature, because that is more interesting.
I am working on another story about a woman who goes backpacking in Nepal, which again is a world I know from my time in the military.
What skills do you need to be a director? I think you have to be very meticulous and love planning, but you also have to enjoy chaos and spontaneity. You have be a jack of all trades and understand everybody’s job. You also have to understand what is real and what is not.
Your chief responsibilities as a director are the performances and the story, and that is about understanding human nature both visually in front of you and in narrative form. If you have an interest in human nature that is a good starting point – but you had better love chaos as well!
The best thing I love about being on set is those spur of the moment decisions, getting things done, driving a team and getting the most out of it. What you can’t be is indecisive and you have to make other people be decisive and move. You need to be able to build a team which can work together.
What advice would you give to be would-be directors in Brighton? If you want to get into directing, do you see the film in you, or do you see yourself in film? You need to know you are doing this for the right reasons.
Then make as much as you can and fail. I think failure is brilliant. Some of the films I made early in my career didn’t work. I would compare it to my favourite directors or what was on at the multiplex and think “why is my film not working when theirs is?”. You have to make as much stuff as possible because that is how you learn – and don’t be scared of actors!
Most importantly pick up a camera and make it. Don’t talk about it. Make it.
How did it feel directing for the first time? It is really scary, but it is only really scary at the end. Knowing it is going to happen is really intoxicating, and actually making Love/Me/Do was fine. The scary bit is actually trying to find an audience. It is not easy to get into festivals these days, and it is really difficult to get anybody to watch your film.
The industry is the worst critic. The audience is the best critic. It takes time and you can start to doubt what you have made, but you have to stick to your guns.
What do you hope to achieve with the film? I don’t think anything will happen off the back of Love/Me/Do like being offered a major film. I don’t think the industry works like that. Maybe one day somebody will say “Can you make this for me?” but you can’t factor these things in. If it happens fantastic, but the likelihood is that it won’t – but I still want to make films so I will just carry on making them.
You have some links to Brighton? Our sound designer (on Love/Me/Do), Anna Bertmark, is based in Brighton, so I used to come down every few weeks. The mentorship scheme where I was mentored by Sam Mendes is run through Lighthouse, which is a Brighton-based organisation. I used to come down to Brighton quite a lot for our training and meetings.
Lighthouse also managed the BFI Short Films Scheme. We will bring the film to Brighton later this year, maybe doing two nights because it is an artsy place.
What else have you been getting up to? I have recently been deputy chief leader and media leader on a British Exploring (a charity based out of the Royal Geographical Society in London) expedition to the Himalayas. The expedition was carrying out scientific studies as well as mountaineering. I ended up filming the summiting of a 6,000m peak.
One of the explorers succumbed to high altitude cerebral oedema and so I had to haul up an oxygen bottle up the mountain and arrange evacuation off the mountain. Then I ended up driving her over a 5,500m pass to the hospital in Leh. I am happy to say she is now OK, but it was a concerning few days and highlights the difficulty of working at high altitude.
I also ran the media for another British Exploring expedition to the Empty Quarter and Dhofar regions of Oman. Both trips I made a documentary.
What is next for Martin Stitt? I have three screenplays I would like to do next which are narrative fictional films. Commercially I would like to get one of the scripts I am working on made.
In the meantime I am still making things. A bit like the advice I give, I take my camera everywhere, shoot lots of things then figure out how to make a story out of it.
I have got two shorts I am playing round with at the moment, a documentary about a journey from Beijing to live with Tibetan yak herders and a 60 minute film about the expedition I went on through the empty quarter of Oman. That is an experiential film. I would like the viewer to get the feeling of what it would be like to go on an expedition.
‘Love/Me/Do’ will arrive in Brighton later this year.