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Episode 255: Interview with Writer/Director Jason Figgis

business tips Oct 25, 2023

David Cady’s Commercial Gym

About Jason Figgis:

Jason Figgis is an award-winning IFTA-nominated film and TV director who has had feature work commissioned or acquired by major broadcasters that include Sky One, Sky Arts, Channel Four, Hulu, RTE, Apple+, iTunes, KSM, SVT, Cinedigm, Discovery Channel, Amazon Prime, and Lionsgate Studios

This work has been placed in territories that include 150 countries worldwide. 

Figgis’ work includes the IFTA-nominated Discovery Channel documentary THE TWILIGHT HOUR, the Sky Arts documentary A MAVERICK IN LONDON (featuring Alan Rickman, Richard E. Grant, and Joanna Lumley), SIMON MARSDEN’S HAUNTED LIFE IN PICTURES (featuring John Hurt), High Fliers Films / Pinewood Studios release THE GHOST OF WINIFRED MEEKS (starring BIFA winner Lara Belmont) and LOVE? (written and presented by Samantha Beckinsale)

Figgis directed the official music videos for the QUEEN OF ENGLAND’S PLATINUM JUBILEE CELEBRATIONS IN 2022. 

He also restored the classic German horror film NOSFERATU for the 100th anniversary. Figgis is in production on the authorized documentary looking at the life and work of actress Olivia Hussey called THE GIRL ON THE BALCONY and has just completed an authorized series of films looking at the life and career of prolific writer and philosopher Colin Wilson under the title COLIN WILSON: HIS LIFE AND WORK. 

Other feature documentary work on the slate include A MAN FOR ALL REASONS, which looks at the life and work of former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, the Manchester County Council sponsored feature documentary SHIRLEY BAKER: LIFE THROUGH A LENS which looks at the life of the celebrated Mancunian street photographer, DIE STRONG which looks at Fallacy of Barriers founder Lily Brasch and FATHER OF DRACULA which looks at the life and work of Dracula author, Bram Stoker

Figgis started his career in TV and film in animation for Murakami-Wolf on the celebrated cult TV series TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. He went on to work for Steven Spielberg at his London-based Amblimation Studios on the feature classic AN AMERICAN TAIL 2: FIEVEL GOES WEST and for legendary animator Richard Williams at his studio in Camden, London, on the cult classic THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, which starred Vincent Price and Kenneth Williams.

I started in communications and then decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker. As a boy, I'd always wanted to be a filmmaker; when the digital world opened up, and it became something feasible, I realized I could launch and start getting work done.

So I moved into the field of documentary because I've always liked reality over artifice. Even when I write screenplays, I put my mind into a real situation instead of creating something fantastical. So I'm much more interested in relationships, other than big spectacles.

In the film industry and writing, a lot of the things that happen, you don't plan for you. You have relationships with people that you feel simpatico with, and you start developing things.

So I worked a lot with a writer called Simon Golding, and he's a real facilitator. He puts people together who he feels will work together. 

I like to write because when I write, I have to get my mind into a character as a real flesh and blood person.

I always loved the idea of putting a camera on a real subject. And having people and letting it just unfold in an interview, for example, but the horror and the beauty, I always think the two of them can live quite well together and that a lot of the real horror in the world is what goes on behind closed doors and people's houses.

Obviously, I don't mean everybody; I mean, even in ordinary couples where you might have an explosive argument and for that brief moment, there might be fear between the couple that it could escalate into something terrible. Thankfully, it rarely ever does, but there still is that how you can go from a really happy moment to a very dark moment in the blink of an eye, if somebody says the wrong thing or something happens, or even if a vase is dropped on the ground and suddenly this explosive anger.

I just think that the light and the dark live very closely together, and to be able to show that on-screen and for people to see a beautiful couple, but then what they hear about, in the narrative or the narration, is the complete opposite to what they're looking at.

So you can have beauty and horror right there simultaneously on screen. 

The discipline of documentary filmmaking has helped you with scripted content. 

When you're interviewing a real person for a documentary, when they're talking about their own real-life experience, I find that if you're really concentrating on the person and what they're telling you, you get a much greater understanding of the human condition all over because you're forced to put your attention on a subject when you want to bring it to life.

For example, if you're directing narrative fiction, you're worried about all the different aspects. You're concerned about the lighting, camera setup, exterior, and any extraneous noise, and it's quite stressful. But if you're doing a documentary, it doesn't matter about the other stuff happening around you. If something annoys the person while you're doing an interview, it's part of the reality and that real moment.

What are the key questions to get the best response instead of just the standard questions? I like to get to know the person before I film. So then you get an idea of how you can relate to them on camera. Will they be able to trust you in a given circumstance?

I'm working on one at the moment. An amazing thing called Gladiator School with a guy who was a former prison inmate and who decided that when he was in prison, he was going to change his life. He's come out of prison, and he's now setting up a thing called gladiator school for kids on the street to get them away from crime, motivate them to do creative things, and follow their passion.

But again, when working with the young man involved, I had to be very careful about the kind of questions, I had already spoken to him beforehand. I said, “Look, what kind of things can I ask you? Is there anything triggering that will throw you right off the page?”

And he was like, “Ask me anything you want. Ask me anything you want. I'm here to be honest. I'm here to be truthful.” 

So I did. So I asked him some searing questions about how he ended up in prison, what led him, what were those life choices, what were those experiences that moved on and rolled onto another experience that got him into a position where he ended up in drugs and prison.

But again, it's still essential that I get to know him first and have a few phone calls to build that between us so I can ask the right questions. 

If you're passionate about something and put your mind, thoughts, heart, and feelings into something, it's amazing how the Universe works on your side and allows those things to happen.

But what's really important is to be yourself, be genuine. 

Don't have somebody meet you and go, “There's an artifice there. I don't believe how he's dealing,” because if you do that, they're not going to trust you. They're not going to work with you. One of my main things is I'm always myself. I never tried to be anything other than.

Just being yourself is highly important in anything you do because people know. 

How do you come up with your ideas? 

It could be anything. I could read a headline. I could see a little snippet in a book; it is a line that will lift off the page as an idea.

It could be a name; from that name, an entirely fleshed-out story could emerge just from the title, which has happened with several things. 

I'm open to being inspired by absolutely anything.

Once I come up with the story and know who the characters are, I will allow the characters to speak to each other. And a lot of the time, I've no idea the direction they're going in, and I just follow it. I speed write with it, so I don't think, if anyone saw my notes, they're illegible, and I do have very neat handwriting, but when I'm writing a script, I always write freehand in notebooks, like A5 notebooks.

I'm usually excited by the characters' direction and the elements of their life that emerge just through a conversation. 

What are the questions that you ask them to start getting, moving them in the right direction? 

Decide on a character they're comfortable with and then get to know the character and allow the character to speak to them.

But if you're going to write a one-woman or one-person show, don't miscast yourself in the role, right? Write something that's going to suit you. That the people are going to look at you and go, “I believe this immediately, I believe this.”

What's the story you want to tell?

Now, take that story and put it into the mouth of a character you can inhabit in that 45 minutes or an hour and a half on stage and grab people's attention. 

The scripted content becomes a documentary because it's that real, or you know a character so well that it's not a character; it's a person.

It's taking what I've learned in making documentaries and bringing them into scripted, you know, narrative drama because if you listen and listen, the words will come to you. 

Now, just find this character in a particular situation and let them tell their story.

When I started writing, I never knew I could write screenplays. 

I realized that with honesty, you could write things that came across powerfully.

I believe that Characters exist in space, waiting for the right actor that they can choose to play them. 

Creating the backstory for your character, you arrive in a scene, but who were you before that?

Acting is reacting to your environment and the people you're in the scene with. 

People just need to get out of their own way.

Find the people who can see what you're trying to do.