At Film Forums, we embrace every opportunity to chat with filmmakers about their experiences of the film industry and the work they put into their individual projects.
We spoke with director Simon Tate as he discussed his second feature film, Weapon (2020), and his own journey to become a filmmaker. Weapon (2020) is a thriller which tells the story of an ex-soldier dealing with PTSD and the struggles of adapting to life back on British soil, when he’s dragged into a plot which takes him to places he’d never imagined.
FF: So, first of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to get into filmmaking?
ST: Sure, I had a bit of a different sporting based career sort of, up until my mid 20s and then transitioned from that into film. At the time I was growing up in and living in Vancouver, in Canada, and the film industry there was booming. And so, I knew a lot of people in production.
Coming from a bit of a writing background, through some work that I’d done I met some people, and started doing some writing for them; ‘PA-ing’ on big shows like The X-Files (1993-2018) and stuff like that.
One thing sort of led to another, and I found myself in the community of people. Then I started making TV commercials, brand films, corporate films, industrial stuff, all of that kind of thing. Then I moved over here in 2000, had a family, and sort of got a bit more of a steady job for a while and helped build a brand agency.
Then, 10 years ago, I got heavily back into features and I made my first feature, a UK Film Council applicant for Sundance. We made that and it led onto Weapon (2020), a second feature. So, it’s just been sort of an organic process that takes a lot of time, because life throws a lot of other things at you; gotta pay the mortgage, so, yeah…
Most people are there doing the best job they can for very little or no money, and so you have to be understanding of everyone’s situation; you have to be kind and you have to know that while you are directing to make the best film possible, the people have to have a good experience.
FF: What would you say are the most challenging aspects of directing, for you?
ST: I direct commercials and things which have decent budgets, and that’s a bit different to directing the two films that I’ve directed so far – and we’ve got a third in the pipeline now.
When you’re directing, when you don’t have a big budget, you have to be conscious that your energy is the energy that drives the set. If things start to go wrong, or if you become a diva, then that energy and that mood is going to be felt by everybody. Most people are there doing the best job they can for very little or no money, and so you have to be understanding of everyone’s situation; you have to be kind and you have to know that while you are directing to make the best film possible, the people have to have a good experience. And if that happens, then your actors will be freer to be able to give what they need to do on camera which is the most important thing; you’re creating that environment for them.
So, you have to be understanding of what other people are going through, and you have to be understanding that you have to stay on a schedule. You can’t just treat it like you’re something special; you need to get your hands dirty, and you need to be the hardest working person there and be very respectful. Everyone else who’s given their time and helping you with what ultimately becomes your film. But it’s everybody’s film.
And also, no one wants to be a d*ck or work with d*cks – it’s, like, there’s no reason why you can’t be a director and be really nice person as well. Be kind to people because ultimately it’s probably the most collaborative art form there is.
Even on this small film Weapon (2020) we probably had a crew of well over 75 people involved, probably up to 100 people when you look at going from the beginning through post production. So, all of those people, it’s an amazing collaborative art form but it’s not open-heart surgery. It’s not that important. You’re making a film, which is important, and we’re all passionate about films, but there are more important jobs. So, be nice to people as you go through this process.
FF: What can you tell us about Weapon (2020) and what attracted you to directing it in the first place?
ST: Weapon (2020) is a film about an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD who is unwittingly led into a plot to further the war on terror in a very character-driven thriller story.
It’s based on a lot of research that I’ve done, particularly around American intelligence agencies, which are a bit alarming, really; to think that this is going on and that people are without them knowing it, getting caught in a spider’s web that ends up with them doing something that they regret.
But, I’ve done a lot of research into this kind of area for this film and for my next film (Viewers)… These sort of topics interest me, because I think there’s things that you expose that people don’t understand are happening around them. But, at the same time, you have to make a good character-driven story; you have to have a good script and, actually, our lead actor, Chris Hatherall, he wrote the script, so I developed the story with him.
I had the story developed with him and then he wrote a fantastic script.It’s this kind of political thriller, dealing with intelligence agencies and that sort of black ops stuff that governments do. It’s always been something that I’ve sort of researched and really enjoyed creating stories from.
FF: Yeah, that’s great. I really, really enjoyed Weapon (2020), and saw a level of detail that you don’t often see in major films, when it comes to intelligence techniques. That was really interesting.
As you say, your lead actor Chris Hatherall helped write the screenplay. Did the final version we see on film differ much from the original screenplay? Can you talk us through like the creative process for working on that and working with him?
ST: So the final version is probably a bit more commercial than the original screenplay was. Because as we went through the editing process, we wanted to realise that we’re not trying to compete with Hollywood, it’s stupid to do that. The way we operate is very transparent, so, we had £25,000 to spend on film and, believe me, most of that goes on hotels, food, and a very low day rate for your actors.
So, the script that Chris wrote was great but we had to just speed it up. We had to make it slightly more commercial to appeal to a wider audience, particularly when we realised that we were going to get good distribution. So that happened in the editing process, and Ricky Milling was our editor. He did a fantastic job of resculpting a lot of different areas of the film, and then making it just more commercial and tightening it up. So the other thing is just my style and knowing the actors that I had, and the quality of them and of their improvisational talent. I just wanted to create an environment where we knew each scene. We had to get from A to Z.
The film’s coming from a script and they had a proper script. Everyone came in properly prepared, but I wanted to give them freedom too. As long as we get to the end bit of that scene and everyone’s characters are doing the right thing, then it’s okay to throw some other lines out there. It’s okay to improvise. I, on purpose, shot with multiple cameras so that I knew, going into the edit, we could cut around things. But also I knew the actors could have the freedom to not be constrained by really tight marks and things like that all the time. They can move around within an environment.
And my cinematographer Mark Pullon, who I work with on a lot of commercial projects as well, did an amazing job of lighting spaces so that people had the freedom to move around. He still had an incredibly tight budget, but he did a fantastic job in that way. Because everything, like I said before, it’s about creating that environment. So, when the actors come in, they know that they can just go for it.
FF: We’ve already touched on the intelligence techniques that we see in the film. How did you go about researching them? And was it difficult at all to conduct any of that research?
ST: So, I know that these things happen but I have no proof of this happening in the UK because I purposely didn’t really research that. I wanted to be a little bit removed from it. I’ve done a lot of other research into things like this. With other alternative intelligence practices, a lot of them are funded by big business. Because obviously the War on Terror is a classic one; it’s just an open cheque book for big business. Particularly arms companies, and things like that, too. It’s definitely within their best interest to keep it going. There’s also no boundaries, there’s no,”you never win or lose”, it’s just different groups come up.
But these are just areas that I’ve been researching for probably about the past 20 years, really, and just looking at the most interesting stories; stories that are unbelievable but have these bases of fact.
I think if things interest me, there must be an audience out there. There must be a few other ‘idiots’ out there that are like me, that might find it interesting. But the main thing is: when you find these interesting things, you’ve still got to deliver around a core central character. That was one of the things that Chris did so well in writing the script, and then also delivering that as the character on screen. He really, really just drove it home.
Try, fail, or succeed, it doesn’t matter, but stay in the game.
FF: Yeah, he was brilliant in the film, couldn’t take your eyes off him almost, a really great performance. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first embarked on a career as a filmmaker? And do you have any advice to any other young filmmakers coming into the industry?
ST: There’s a lot of things I wish I’d known, and there’s a lot of things I’m still learning on a daily basis. The nice thing is, if you surround yourself with good people, and you are a nice person as well, and you’re respectful of people, regardless of what their role is, then I think you can keep learning.
My main advice for other filmmakers and for younger people getting into the business is you’ve got to stay in the game. You have to have a long-term approach. You can’t look at it and just say it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or nothing, because what you’re actually seeing there is the lottery winners. So, if your investment tactic is to buy lottery tickets, then that’s one thing; if your investment tactic is to look at how you’re going to build up some wealth over a 20,30,40 year period, that’s different.
So you’ve got to stay in the game, you’ve got to get in it, be a good person, and just not leave; it’s a war of attrition, and a lot of people will leave. Particularly now with technology in the way everything’s so accessible, and anyone can make a film, and I think that’s a brilliant thing. And I think, if you want to, go for it! Try, fail, or succeed, it doesn’t matter, but stay in the game. With so many people, young people, getting involved now, the people that can hang around, that can take it, that can take the rejection, that can be resilient, that can keep chipping away at it until they’ve got a number of years under their belt, or a number of different experiences – those people ultimately are the people that will succeed.
And what is success? Success is just about being able to keep doing that. Success isn’t about winning awards, or having Ferraris. It’s about being able to sit there and say, ‘actually, I’m still telling stories’ or being part of telling stories, and I think that’s a great thing. So, definitely stay in the game.
I think the journey is the destination. If you enjoy the journey, then you’ve already won. At least for me, this is just the way I look at it. I’m just one person and someone else might look at it completely differently and have a completely valid point of view. But if you enjoy the process… It’s a hard process, sometimes, particularly getting films financed – like my current film. The next one, Viewers, has a decent, small seven figure budget, which is a huge step up. But that’s on the back of the first two films. Had it not been for COVID it would be financed.
So, things are on hold until we understand a bit more about this vaccine and a few other things. But it’s a several years journey to get that. I mean, I shot Weapon (2020) that’s coming out now but we shot it in 2015. It just takes so long to get these things done sometimes, particularly when you can’t just pay everyone. So definitely stay in the game. And yeah, the journey is the destination. If you can look at it in that way, then I think you’ll succeed.
FF: Yeah, that’s really good advice and I think that’s one of the positives of talking with several filmmakers; they’ve all got their own view on it. It’s really eye opening having a look into the industry like that, so thank you.
Are there any contemporary actors that you’d love the chance to work with?
ST: I like people who just have the ability to improvise; you’d have to look at someone like Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019). You hear about his process and what he goes through. People like that it’d be a dream to work with. But I was really lucky with Weapon (2020) to get some of the people. They’ve done 350 episodes of Eastenders (1985-), so they’re incredibly professional people; they come totally prepared. When they come prepared and you say, ‘Okay, well, now you can open up and do what you want,’ it’s such an easy transition for them to do that. So yeah, there’s a lot of actors out there.
It’s fun at the moment…I’m packaging the next film, so we’re sort of doing the high level main casting of it in the sense that we are getting our bankable marketable, internationally marketable two to three cast. We’re trying to approach them, get them on board and get them properly invested into the project. And there’s a lot of different names that fly around, and it’s exciting to think that these people will like your script, because I wrote Viewers, the next film. I want these people to look at this and go, ‘Yeah, this is an exciting project that I want to be a part of. Can we make it work?’ And I don’t have that contact to get in touch with these people; that’s why I have other producers on board, and they do. And just seeing that happen and being able to see different people get excited about your script, people you really respect and have a lot of years in the industry and at a very high profile position is exciting.
FF: You’ve talked about your new film in the pipeline, Viewers. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work on that? And do you have anything else coming out in the future you can tell us about at all?
ST: So Viewers was pretty much ready to go, it’s 100% ready to go to the point where we’ve done a lot of the first AD work on it. As in, we have a shooting schedule, we’ve done some initial location scouting, but then we were very close to getting finance.
I got a couple of other really good producers on board and they have exec-produced some good films. So it was ready to go, and we were about to put all the legals in place and get everything financed. Then COVID happened and the bottom came out of the entertainment industry, which is clawing its way back now.
Just seeing a massive film like James Bond put off twice, like, wow, that just doesn’t happen. So for financiers and their faith in the industry, I think they need to put that on hold for a bit, and they need to get a proper understanding of how you can do a project in this time.
I just spent two weeks on a big brand film which has a very good budget, and everything was COVID friendly, and we even had COVID medics on set. So, for me, part of doing that was also a test so that I could go back to my financiers and say ‘Okay, look, we’ve just done this, I’ve just done this, my crew, the crew that I will use on this next film, have done this.’ So it was just about proving that it can be done, so hopefully that starts to get the ball rolling again a little more quickly.
But I think COVID, for pretty much 12 months, just put everything on ice. The nice thing is, going into 2021, what the government say they’re gonna do, we get some proper timescales for mass vaccination, and for coming out of this, even if it’s March, April, May, whatever it may be, at least then we can start planning again. Or we can get that finance actually signed on the dotted line. Because we have the people who can do it, who can finance the film, who are excited about the project. It’s just the investment side of things is just very iffy at the moment. But we will come out of that. And we are coming.
FF: That’s great. Well, thank you. It’s been great to talk to you here and you’ve given them some really insightful answers and glad you could take the time to do this. It’s been really fun.
ST: No, I really appreciate it and really appreciate platforms like Film Forums. It’s you guys who really help out the industry as well and you’re a massive part of it, and for us to be able to have a voice, because you guys do what you do is really appreciated as well. I mean, I know I appreciate it. I know other people appreciate it, too. So, you guys play a massive role in helping keeping independent film alive as well, so, thanks.
Transcription and edit: Pete Straley
Senior editor: Richard Williams
Film Studies graduate. Aspiring screenwriter.