November 14, 2012

Interview – Dan Nathan

By MOFILM

Dan Nathan has worked in film for some time now. Graduating from the London College of Printing, Dan began his career at the BBC where among other projects he worked on the BAFTA winning title sequence for Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. His work there brought him to the attention of the advertising world, where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a director of commercials. Recently his acclaimed short Critical Eye featured in the 2011 Cannes Short Corner and also picked up a Platinum Award at the Houston Film Festival. Currently busy with some longer projects, Dan kindly took some time from his schedule to speak to MOFILM!

MOFILM: Hi Dan – you worked in commercials for many years… it would seem there’s a general consensus that the industry (the wider film one included) has undergone quite an overwhelming change in the past ten years or so.  As a working director – what state of health do you think the industry is in today?  Clearly money isn’t as prevalent as it once was, but are the opportunities still there?

Dan: Yes, you’re absolutely right, the industry has changed and no doubt I won’t be the first person to say this, but as a director you now have to fight even harder to get recognized, because there are so many more people wanting to direct. It has however become more of a level playing field. The reduced cost of equipment along with more avenues for work to get seen, act as an incentive for those who are desperate to just go and make something. I say this with part reservation, as there’s also a lot of crap out there and I still think good ideas are a priority.

MOFILM: You left the advertising world, to work on projects that are closer to your heart as a director. Could you tell us what you’re working at the moment, and maybe try and paint a picture for those who might be less familiar with the process of actually trying to get a project off the ground?

Dan: Well I haven’t really left the advertising world but I experienced a few life changing events that made me re-evaluate my focus and move towards projects that I’d been sitting on for a while.

My goal has always been to make features and the natural progression towards this was to make a short film (or two!) I had been working through some ideas with a writer for “Critical Eye”. Once the script had reached its final draft, I assembled a team of people who believed in the idea, to come and share the ride. We managed to secure a couple of great actors – Hugh Bonneville and Anna Chancellor – and I invested capital into the project to get it made. The difficult aspect of working on a limited budget is that everything takes a lot longer. You have to pull favours from those you’ve worked with before in the hope that you can repay them down the line.

The film took a year from start to finish but felt like a worthwhile struggle to make something that I absolutely believed in. Now that I have made it, I can see some flaws, but this process becomes another part of learning the craft, and you only learn by doing.

Right now I’ve just finished shooting a much longer short film about two middle aged female friends who reunite and go on a journey with an unexpected outcome. Due to the strong storyline, I was able to attract good actors who got involved for the love of the idea. Ditto the rest of the crew. There is little to no money to be made in shorts, but it’s another opportunity to master your craft without a client to whom you’re answerable, as in advertising.

I’m currently in the process of editing. Alongside this I’m also developing a couple of features. One specifically that I hope to be shooting next year.

MOFILM: If you were to be thrown back to the very beginning and had to start your career all over again from scratch – would you approach things differently?  What would you be doing to try and get yourself noticed?

Dan: I think if I was starting today in some respects it would be easier. That is assuming that you accept the fact you won’t make a crust for the first year or so.

I touched on it slightly earlier, with the cost of equipment being much cheaper than it was and when I started out. These days it feels more people are keen to be involved in getting things off the ground…so there’s nothing to stop anyone borrowing a camera and making something with your friends or family or whatever works. However it still comes down to a good idea and without that you’re just another YouTube lemming.

In terms of getting noticed by the right people that still remains tough, but talent and ambition and a little persuasion can get you through the door, web or any other social network trawling.

MOFILM: I really liked a recent short of yours ‘Going for Gold’. It’s a brilliant example of a good idea, well executed. It also looks like (and this isn’t in any way a slur against the film!) it wouldn’t have been too expensive to shoot… do you think that a good idea is worth just as much as good budget?

Dan: We made Going for Gold on a budget of £400 and that was for feeding the crew, sound equipment and a hard drive. The rest was as a result of various people offering their time and curiosity.

In relation to budget, I think the more money you have the easier it is to get things done properly. The aspect to avoid where possible is becoming a one man band which in effect distracts you from what’s actually important. That is clarity of the idea and not how you’re going to get to the location and what to eat on the shoot day.

MOFILM: What are your feelings on the rise of digital in term of its affects on filmmaking? In this case I’m thinking more specifically of camera technology.  An editor I spoke to was bemoaning the fact that people could just shoot endlessly these days, making it a nightmare to cut all this footage into an actual coherent piece.  Has this newer available technology approached the way you go about making your films?

Dan: I would agree that digital technology does allows you the option for greater coverage but I think the skill of a director is to be efficient on what you need, which means not shooting 20 takes on something that you probably got in the first 3.

I still have reservations on the quality of digital versus film. I was fortunate to shoot most of my stuff on film and although digital gets better by the week it still has limitations with camera chip technology, and in that respect if someone said to me you can either shoot 35/16mm or Red/Alexa, I would where possible shoot on film. Having just said that the work-flow on Digital makes the process more immediate and efficient and the costs are kept down when you have a limited budget.

MOFILM: As a filmmaker what do you look to for inspiration?  A director who works on music videos recently told me that he couldn’t watch music videos any more, as any enjoyment he may have derived from them was destroyed by his not being able to stop himself from deconstructing every shot and scene… do you ever feel this way about movies… pine for a 9 to 5?

Dan: I spend a lot of time thinking, researching and watching movies, initially to extract narratives and analyze why they work. I think if I had a 9-5 I would get caught up with life’s crap and not be able to absorb what’s around me; incidences on the street, a conversation with someone, trips to unexplored locations. For me it’s no good sitting at a computer trying to find inspiration. I think if you are going to direct you have to make a commitment to be open to experiences and I would think that can become limiting if your stuck in a day job. You have to live it and be exposed to it in order to make a valued judgment on how you reflect it in film. I used to believe that everything had to be exaggerated and stylized in my work, but now I’m of the opinion that the performance of an actor is more important than the type of shoes he wears.

MOFILM: Who out there today is making work that you respect? Do you yourself do much collaborative work (taking into account all filmmaking is collaboration, I mean more in a direct sense)? Is there someone you really would like to work with?

Dan: I think for me Danny Kleinman is a very versatile director, he really understands comedy and image well which I think is a rare quality, as most people are forced to specialize in advertising and to some extent in film.

I do think collaboration is possibly the most important part of the process. You may have a vision but without certain key factors it remains just that, a vision.

I think in terms of working with someone specific…. No I don’t have anyone that springs to mind because all sorts of opportunities are around the corner so I keep my head down and wait for the surprises.

MOFILM: What’s been the proudest moment of your career?

Dan: I’m still waiting for it!

MOFILM: Finally then… tell us a couple of films that you wish you could say that you’d made:

Dan: Being There, Sleeper and A Touch of Evil… sometimes it’s ok to dream!!

Cheers then to Dan for taking the time to talk to us!

To see more of Dan’s work head to his website: www.dannathan.co.uk – for working links to Going for Gold and Critical Eye – just click on the film’s titles!

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