When he's not busy scripting Hollywood blockbusters for the likes of Alex Proyas and Scott Derrickson, UK based screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine is wringing his hands menacingly and plotting his own directorial career. Allusions to cartoonish super-villainy aside, Hazeldine has crafted a diabolical debut in Exam
, which sees a DVD release in the US on Tuesday, November 16th through IFC. It is a taut meditation on survival and ambition that takes place entirely in one room in real time. I recently spoke with Stuart about once and future projects, the industry, and how a British filmmaker became one of Hollywood's most sought-after script doctors. JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: I know EXAM was released On Demand back in July. Did it have a theatrical run stateside as well?
STUART HAZELDINE: No, not in the states. It's funny, because IFC picked it up before some good things happened- I got BAFTA nominated, we won the Santa Barbara Film Festival- all that stuff happened after they bought the movie. So I think they already had their plans for the film. They'd already slotted it into their new Midnight genre label. Every time we won something, I went back to them, like, guys! Small theatrical! It's frustrating when you come out with a movie- even if it's a good movie and there are people who like it- you have to get people to like it at the right time in order to get maximum exposure. JC: How did that work out? Do you think the On Demand business model is a viable option for indie filmmakers?
SH: From the perspective of being a filmmaker and a financier, because I financed the film as well, it's a great business model. They've carved out really good and really transparent income streams that come in fairly quickly. Half the profit from the movie, after recouping the budget, can come from On Demand alone. So it made a lot of sense to do it that way. I could have got bigger offers from other buyers who would have given the film a theatrical release, but I still would have gone with IFC.JC: You mentioned the BAFTA nomination, and you also won a bunch of other British awards. How has the International reaction to the film been?
SH: It's been great. It's actually been better outside the UK than in the UK. In the UK we had support within the industry and we got some really good reviews, but we didn't really have a major theatrical distributor. All the distributors seemed to be putting their money into the production of movies, so we just couldn't find anyone. In the end, Sony Home Entertainment picked us up and gave us some money to release the movie, which was fantastic, but we didn't have the kind of release budget you'd normally want. I think we ended up releasing on like twelve screens in the UK, largely because we couldn't even afford film prints. To put that in context- Hong Kong put us on fourteen screens. JC: Wow.
SH: We made like 150 thousand dollars at the Hong Kong box office in two weeks, which was way more than we made in the UK. So Asia loves us. We've sold all over Asia. A lot of Hollywood movies can't even get deals in Japan right now, but we sold theatrically to Japan, so we're pretty happy. I think we sold theatrically to about twenty countries. All over Asia, Russia, Turkey, France, Scandinavia... Mexico is putting us out on seventy cinemas, which blows my mind.JC: You wrote the film based on a story idea by Simon Garrity. Were you aware of the Spanish film The Method at the time?
SH: I wasn't. I wasn't aware of it until after we actually physically finished the film. I knew there were obvious comparisons to films like Cube and the TV show The Apprentice, but I didn't know anything about The Method. Someone mentioned it, so I went and Googled it and watched the trailer and I'm like, shoot, this is kind of similar. At least in terms of the setup. But everyone I've spoken to has said that even though it has a similar idea, it kind of goes off in a very different direction. And I don't know if it was just me, but I thought the trailer looked incredibly over-lit and badly shot. I looked at it and thought, that does not look like a cinematic experience to me, whereas my priority for Exam... I think everybody kind of thought, eight people in a room, so you're gonna shoot it HD, right? Do it like a play? And I was like, well, it's already enough of a play, so I don't need to push that any further. I wanna go the other way and try and make it the most cinematic movie you've ever seen in one room. Because you can't get away from the fact that it is eight people in a room. You need to try and give people a reason to go and see it in a movie theater. So I shot it 2:35, I shot it 35 mill... I tried to give it that extra cinematic quality. JC: Did you watch any other contained thrillers for inspiration or reference?
SH: Not really. Again, I only watched Cube when I was in pre-production. We were already getting it made and I thought, you know, I should really see Cube. I probably should have seen that earlier, but I didn't. But I remember seeing one room or contained thrillers when I was younger and being affected by them. The two that always stick with me are 12 Angry Men, which everyone would cite because it is such a classic, and a great little movie that Sidney Lumet made called Fail-safe. It's just two guys in a room with a telephone and man, I was on the edge of my seat watching that movie. So I kind of thought it could be done. I'd give the script to people or pitch the concept and you could see their eyes get a little suspicious, like, hm... people in a room... I don't know. And then I'd get it back from them and they'd be like, oh, this really works. So I thought if I could achieve that on the page, I could achieve that on film. JC: The contained thriller seems to be pretty hot right now, what with Buried and even, I'd argue, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours.
SH: Definitely. We're always going to come back to them because it's a good way for young film makers to get movies made. You don't have a lot of money, you've got to figure out how to stretch a buck, so there's always gonna be a bunch of teenagers in a house with a mad axeman. It's just a case of how interesting you can make that. Even though some people have sold the film as part torture porn, Exam is not that kind of movie. It's a psychological thriller. I didn't want to make a grisly horror movie. I thought it would be better to come up with a tense thriller where the clock was ticking, but also have something more under the hood thematically. This is the way I wanted to do my low budget baby. JC: So was it more of a budgetary or a creative decision?
SH: Initially, I was interested in the idea of financing my first feature because I had seen some friends be quite compromised in terms of the notes they had to obey and the people they had to cast. Then when the movies didn't work, they got the blame because their name was there as director. And I thought, if I could make a movie in the half-million buck range and I could finance it, then I'm my own boss, and if the movie doesn't work I know it's my fault. I can't point the finger at someone else. I wanted to have control over my first movie.
So I was looking around for a couple of years for an idea, and it just so happened that right around the time I got the money together this idea came along. My friend pitched me a two or three line concept about these school kids going into an exam hall and turning over their papers and finding them blank. I was like, that's really interesting, where does it go from there? And at the time he hadn't really worked it out; it was a short film idea. And I started thinking, well what if it was the most important job of your life? You're a type-A motivated personality and you're prepared for everything except nothing. There's something surreal about a blank sheet of paper and it would throw a lot of people off beam. Life's a mystery, life's a blank page, so it just seemed interesting to put a bunch of personality types, a bunch of different world views into one room in a pressure cooker scenario and see what happened. JC: How much of a challenge was it to sustain a 90 minute film on that concept and keep it interesting?
SH: First of all, you've got to get it to work on the page. But then you find that you re-make the movie as you shoot it and then you remake it in the edit. And I think in the edit we realized that some parts of the movie were looking a little flabby. So we did a lot of tightening here and there. I think there are a couple of sections in the movie where we really had to work to try and keep it interesting. Other parts sort of came together naturally. It was a lot of work to try and keep it real time and to track the clock, and there was a lot of digital replacement that had to go on. But I think it ended up in pretty good shape. Every filmmaker will always want more time, more money, more this, more that- but over all, I'm pretty happy with it as a first movie.
JC: Exam says a lot about human nature, and can also be viewed as a social commentary on disease and the pharmaceutical industry. Where did that aspect of the story come from?
SH: I didn't think people would necessarily be put in such a pressurized situation if it was purely about gaining money or gaining status. I wanted that to be the motivation for some of the people in the room, but if you've got a carrot, why not also set up a stick? At the time I was writing, there was a lot of paranoia about Bird Flu, which even I was feeling, and it's becoming an increasingly small world and pharmaceutical jobs are getting bigger and bigger. So if you're working for that company, you're the first one to get the drugs. It seemed that might be an interesting theme to work into the movie.
Earlier drafts were a lot more sci-fi than the movie ended up being- because I like sci-fi, I write sci-fi- but further down the road I realized I needed to strip out as much sci-fi as possible and try and make it as broadly applicable as I could. But there's still just enough of a dab of sci-fi in there that I think sci-fi fans will find the ideas interesting. JC: I've seen confusion online over the ending of the film - what the actual question was in reference to and what the answer meant. It's been a while since I've seen the film, but the end seemed pretty clear to me at the time. Is there room for interpretation or are people just not getting it?
SH: I felt it was pretty unambiguous, what the answer to the question was. Obviously it's difficult to talk about it because you don't want to spoil it for people who haven't seen the movie yet. I tried to write the ending of the movie in such a way that even if you didn't get the twist or like the twist, there was more to the movie than just the twist. I could have punched out immediately after the twist- and some people wanted me to do that. But for me, if it was just about the twist, then it would have been about, how clever is the filmmaker? And can you be cleverer than the filmmaker? And while that's fun, and is one element of it, I wanted it to be more about human nature and why the test exists. It's not about what the test is, but why was the test mounted? And so I hope, regardless of whether you get the twist or like the twist, I hope there's something a bit more there.
There's a twist in tone at the end of the movie, and I'm a lot more interested in the tonal twist than I am in the plot twist. I kind of figured going into this, with a twist, you're never going to please all of the people all of the time, so if you can come out with 60 to 70 percent of the people on your side, then you're ahead of the game. JC: You've done a lot of screenwriting work in Hollywood. How did a British filmmaker become such an in demand screenwriter/script doctor?
SH: Well it depends what day of the week you catch me whether I feel like I'm in demand or not. I sold my first script in the UK when I was 24, so I was pretty young. It was kind of like Die Hard on a London Subway. At the time, Air Force One hadn't even come out, so that was en vogue. Nobody was writing big contemporary action movies set in Britain, so it got me noticed. Then I wrote a bunch more specs and went out to LA and signed up with a big agent and I've been writing ever since.
Recently I've been able to work with some directors who like me and want me to write more than one script for them. I've collaborated with Alex Proyas four times and worked with Scott Derrickson a couple times. As a screenwriter my priority has been to work with directors that I respect. If a director really likes you, they'll hire you one time in two, whereas if a studio executive likes you, they'll hire you one time in twenty because they're meeting writers all the time. There's always some new hot writer of the month they want to give work to, so you have to figure out how you are going to achieve longevity in the business. For me, one of those ways was to get in with directors, and I think I write scripts directors respond to because I think like a director. Part of it was becoming a director myself and showing that other side of me. Right now I'm not abandoning screenwriting, but directing is definitely priority one. JC: How did your relationship with Alex Proyas come about?
SH: We were at the same agent about ten years ago and he read a script of mine. I did a draft of Paycheck, the Ben Affleck movie, that was never used. He read it and liked it and he called me up to do an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death. A very different take than Corman's version. And I'd just seen Dark City and was blown away by it, so I didn't need to be asked twice. I jumped on a plane and we kind of hit it off. We did a TV pilot for Sci-Fi Channel called Riverworld which ultimately wasn't that great; we didn't have the money that we really needed to do that story justice. Then I ended up working on Knowing. I did a bunch of drafts of that. We've just co-written The Tripods together, and now Alex is on Paradise Lost, so we keep bumping into each other. JC: Will Masque of the Red Death ever see the light of production?
SH: I don't know. Alex sometimes says he wants to go back to it, but it's kind of mired in turnaround at Fox. I think maybe Lord of the Rings took a little wind out of the sails of that one because we were doing it as sort of a medieval quest movie. Somewhere between The Lord of the Rings and that Chris Smith movie, The Black Death, that just got made. So I don't know if that one is ever going to come back to life, which is a shame, because there's some really good stuff in it. JC: You mentioned Paradise Lost. Were you a big Milton fan?
SH: I had studied Milton a tiny bit when I was younger, but I was in the British educational system at a time when they thought it would be really cool to have students study people's minor works. So I ended up studying obscure Charles Dickens instead of reading Great Expectations. Milton was a minor on the syllabus, so we kind of glossed over it. But I've always had a big interest in theology and came from a very devout family growing up. So Scott Derrickson called me up and said, I'm doing Paradise Lost and I want you to write it, and my initial reaction was, they've already made it and it was called Star Wars parts one through three. But then I read the poem and took a look at some of the theological ideas involved and thought, this is fantastic, I really want to do this. So I worked on that with Scott for a couple of years. Unfortunately Scott has moved on to other projects, but Alex is now on it, so we'll see where it goes from here.
I'm really hoping that it gets made, because I do think it's got the potential to be an Avatar. Everybody knows Paradise Lost as a name or a brand, but they don't really know the poem. I think there's a latency there that's ready, if it's done the right way I think it could blow up pretty huge. Because ultimately, a huge, vertical style 300 with tens of thousands of angels and demons warring in heaven- who doesn't want to see that? Regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not, even if you just see it as mythology, it's an event. I think it's got the potential to be one of those rare movies that win a best picture and take a billion at the box office. We can still screw it up, but I think in its DNA, it's got a shot at being a huge cultural event. I just hope that we nail it.JC: You also wrote an adaptation of the comic book Battle Chasers. What's going on with that?
SH: I like Battle Chasers, we just didn't get any traction at Fox because it's not X-men or Fantastic Four. I don't quite know why they bought it in the first place. It's almost like the reason they passed on it was something they should have seen before they bought it. The weird thing is, I know that Fox liked the script. I was pretty happy with the script and the reason why I chose to do it over some better known fantasy properties that I was offered is because I thought it had something slightly different to offer, aesthetically, to a blockbuster audience, because it is one of those hybrid universes. You've got elements of Star Wars and you've got elements of Lord of the Rings. You've got wizards and dragons, but you've also got flying robots and laser cannons, and I hadn't really seen a universe where those things co-existed and felt like they belonged together. So for me, that was quite a fascinating world to go into. I still hope that somehow at some point in the future it will come back to life. JC: You said you are going to be concentrating on directing, do you have your next directorial effort lined up?
SH: I was just trying to crack that today, actually. I've got a bunch of candidate projects. There's kind of a supernatural detective thriller that I've come back to on and off over the years, a spec script of mine that I really like. Just trying to work that up and see if I can crack it the way that I want to. I would love to be shooting that next year. But there are two or three other candidate projects, all very, very different. You never know. You've got to shoot a lot of arrows at the target before one of them strikes. I'm just trying to get as many arrows out of the quiver as I can right now.