He’s been acting since he was six, but lately the Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Topsy-Turvy and Layer Cake star has turned his hand to directing and his debut feature, Wild Bill, is released next week. Fresh from leading a directing masterclass at IdeasTap HQ, Dexter shares his advice for young filmmakers…
As someone who’s been acting since childhood, what route into the industry would you recommend to young actors?
Go to smaller, experimental theatres and campaign people about what they’re doing next, what’s going on this season, [ask them], “What do you think’s right for you?” You have to be relentless and dogged and get yourself in there. Writing to lots of agents is not necessarily the answer because that happens all the time. You’ve got to find the alternative route round the route that everybody else tries to take. No one’s an overnight success – it’s a complete fairytale.
You’ve said elsewhere that film is an industry built on ideas. What are your tips for coming up with ideas?
Your biggest resource is yourself. It’s about what you feed into the machine, ie your brain and your heart and your soul. Go to art galleries, watch plays, experience things that give positive energy to you and help build you as a person. All this stuff is input that somewhere along the line hopefully will click into place. You’ll read something or something will spark off that that chain of events that will make your mind lead you to a story you’re passionate about. But I don’t know what the magic ingredient is – no one does.
Has your background in acting helped your directing style?
Certainly in terms of the ensemble element of acting and understanding shorthand for actors, what they can do, where you need to push it and where you don’t. It’s quite easy to undo actors unintentionally – you just say the wrong thing and it sends them off in the wrong way – and it’s experience that stops you from doing that. I was very lucky because [being on set] is a natural environment for me. I felt secure there and that obviously has a trickle down effect to the actors, crew and other creative departments. And I enjoyed it immensely! Few people are in film or in the arts for the money. People are there because they love it.
Did anything surprise you about directing?
No, because I knew there was a lot I didn’t know and I was prepared to try to learn everything I didn’t know and not go, “Well that’s not my remit”. [As a director] my remit is to know everything about as many aspects of it as I can – from financing to creative decisions to managing people. With the director it doesn’t stop. There’s no, “Okay I’ve done my bit now, bye”.
How can a director ensure the best performances from his or her actors?
Be present on set and not too wrapped up in all the preparation you’ve done. Be open to outside influences that come into the moment when you come to filming it. A set is a place with a lot of creative people and a lot of ideas flying around, and you’ve got to be able to manage that and say no to some things and accept a few things that are really going to help. It’s about being focused and present with the actors and not disregarding them by just sticking them there and filming them.
What are the biggest challenges a director faces?
When people get ill or when the weather doesn’t do what you expect it to, and you have to change the schedule. Actors getting ill you can’t forsee, but if they get ill and the doctor sends them home, you can’t stop filming. It’s a moving train – you stop, everything’s lost. The weather is massive. On my second day [shooting Wild Bill] it snowed. I was going to have snow for four days and then the rest of the film would have no snow. Continuity-wise, that’s completely ruined, so I had to rewrite two scenes in a morning. Someone said to me, “It’s like trying to nail a snake to a moving train with a glass hammer”. It’s difficult. But it doesn’t stop.
Wild Bill is out on 23 March 2012.
Are you a filmmaker? We're offering eight IdeasTap members £5000 each to make a short film. Apply here.