I found directing hard but I thought I'd try it before I die ; Birmingham writer Steven Knight makes his film directorial debut this weekend. He talks to GRAHAM YOUNG about life behind the camera.
TEVEN KNIGHT was part of the Celador Steam which helped to create television history with the global success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The lifelong Birmingham City fan followed that up by earning himself an Oscar nomination for writing the immigrant organ- donor movie Dirty Pretty Things.
Though based on his own research, it was a story he wrote off the top of his head, about a hotel where desperate immigrants would swap a kidney for a fake passport.
At the time of its release, he told me: "I think ignorance is a great virtue. I'm not even a big cinema-goer. This story began as a novel!".
Now, for his next trick, the TV and film writer is set to make his directorial debut in cinemas with this weekend's release of Jason Statham's new movie Hummingbird.
The story of a royal marine who falls for a nun - or is it a nun falling for a marine? - might surprise even Statham's own fans.
But for Steven, who grew up in Streetly as part of a family originally from Small Heath, he felt compelled to write the script because he was fascinated by the underlying true story.
"I can't actually say on screen that Hummingbird is based on a true story in the film, because I might get certain people into trouble," he reveals.
"I wanted it to, but you have to get 'personal permission' for stuff.
"It is, though, based on a nun who had a relationship with an ex- soldier in London. Recently!" Like Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises (2007), the brilliant thriller which starred Viggo Mortensen directed by David Cronenberg, Hummingbird portrays the dark side of London.
Not least because it was also shot mostly at night.
"I found directing hard but I just thought I would try it before I die," Steven laughs. "I thought it would be simple because it was in London. Doing so many nights made it hard, physical work. But you have to do it if you want to get it right.
"I called up directors I've worked with before (Stephen Frears / Cronenberg) to ask for advice.
"David Fincher (Se7en / The Social Network) said to me: 'You've got to use Jason Statham - he's capable of doing stuff that he hasn't done yet'.
"Jason was going to play a character who, the minute he walked into a room, you knew he would be trouble.
"Having someone like Jason helps with the finance, too. Audiences from the US to Russia love Jason and will forgive him for anything. He was so committed to doing a performance that was right.
"He's sick of doing the other stuff and wanted to do something else and he said to me: 'I can jump from 12ft. It's the acting I've never done'."
And casting an actress to play a nun who might want to bed Mr Statham? "Agata Buzek is a Polish actress who has done a lot of work in Germany," says Steven.
"She's brilliant. I wanted someone who doesn't look like a familiar star, but who looked like a nun."
Steven used the exciting aspects of Hummingbird to overcome any fears he might have had about stepping up as a director.
"I like to do research and then to ignore it. It gives you what people believe is the truth about certain situations.
"Reality doesn't obey any rules and I just try to tell stories about the most interesting people.
"So I hope my portrayal of a banker isn't too subtle - I don't understand why there's not more anger about bankers.
"The way I've done it is probably quite a crude and crass way of expressing it, but I thought somebody should."
Although Hummingbird is an action thriller with an unconventional romantic twist, there is one scene inside a lorry full of illegal immigrants holding out their hands from the darkness that some viewers might find truly haunting.
"I found it very disturbing and upsetting myself," says Steven.
"That, too, was based on a real event and one where lots of people died. Just being there and filming it was very emotional for me. "Hollywood is much more averse to offering people what they are not expecting. When something does work they will do it a million times."
How did he find directing his own script? "That was easier, because you can do it with shorthand. When you are writing for other people you have to really spell it out.
"You should know in your head what you want."
It's that willingness to try new things that's at the heart of his advice to anybody wanting to follow in his tracks, which includes working as an advertising copy writer and penning Jasper Carrott's comedy series The Detectives and All About Me.
Even he's found that 90 per cent of his film writing has never seen the light of day, but at least he knows he's done the really hard yards first.
"I used to write for all of the old comics like Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd and it sharpens you up," he smiles.
"With those guys you have to get every word just right."
Steven now has other writingdirecting jobs on the go, including a completed thriller called Locke for next year, starring Tom Hardy.
He also really enjoyed writing Peaky Blinders, a forthcoming TV series about gangsters in 1920s Birmingham.
Proving how he's never one to miss an opportunity, Steven grins: "I'm starting to write a second series now. I'd like to do more work in the city because I've really enjoyed working with Film Birmingham. My dad's uncle was an illegal bookmaker in the 1920s.
"And my mum was a bookies' runner in Small Heath.
"There were lots of gang wars in Birmingham...".
So that'll be a few more "true" stories then when the series goes on air in the autumn.
'"I like to do research and then to ignore it. It gives you what people believe is the truth about certain situations. Reality doesn't obey any rules and I just try to tell stories about the most interesting people. STEVEN KNIGHT
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OCTOBER 31, 2014
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