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Interview: Director Alex Nicholson

Alex Nicholson was featured on the first ever D&AD Next Director Award Shortlist in 2015 for his film Mr X. In this interview he tells us about the extraordinary production process that went into it, and reveals his latest, gruesome, film.

Warning – Alex Nicholson films are not for the faint-hearted.

You're making the move from producer to director – why?

I studied film at university and all I came out with was a published paper about Manga films ("studies of tits and tentacles") and a penchant for picking movies apart, scene-by-scene. I always wanted to be a director but had no idea how – still don't really. When the time was right, I quit the day job and made a few bits and pieces.

What challenges have you encountered?

Numerous. By nature I’m caustic and take the piss, so perhaps producers thought I couldn't make the leap because I couldn't be taken seriously. These days, anyone can get access to a camera, briefs are flooding the internet and if you have friends with spare time you have the opportunity to make something. The main challenge is trying to get great people together. It takes patience. Something I'm not great with.

Tell us a bit about the shoot for Mr. X.

I had an idea to make a film about the man who tattoos me. It was a relatively hard sell because to look at the man, and know little about him, meant that people would question why I was making it. Turns out, it was the most important part of the whole film.

I knew the film was going to be post-heavy right from the off, so we had numerous meetings about how we could achieve what we wanted.

MPC were a huge help in this and indeed throughout the entire process. With a post house in place it became obvious that we needed a tremendous makeup artist and we got one in Denise Kum (who does most of the work for the Wachowski brothers). We did a quick camera test (with DP Richard Mott) on myself – taking off the tattoos on my left arm with makeup, and seeing what did and didn't show up in camera.

We had to shoot everything in reverse, so I sat off camera and began to ask Duncan (Mr X) about his life. I knew one or two things I wanted to ask before going in, but I was also aware that I didn't want to make him sound like a madman. What you hear in the film are his genuine answers in context.

After I had shot a section I was happy with, we took Duncan off for two hours and proceeded to make his tattoos disappear (which freaked him out massively). He returned to set with tracking markers on his body instead of cat nipple tattoos.

I was lucky that Duncan was great in front of camera, as the makeup took so long that it meant every time we turned over I had to get it right.

After a really long day, a thousand questions, and his makeup returned, we turned to edit. We had to keep scenes long and imagine the post-work (without a pre-viz) but eventually I was ready to sign off the edit and let the extremely long process of post begin.

Long story short, I engaged a fantastic team for the post work and although it came together slowly, I was, and still am, over the moon with the result. 

You made the shortlist for the 2014 Next Director Award – what is the value of competitions and award shows for creatives?

It’s a huge honour. A really talented jury and god knows how many films entered and I still managed to squeeze myself in. I don't know what the full value is yet, but I am really looking forward to seeing what it brings.

How did Death of a Man come about?

After Mr X came out I had a thousand ideas I wanted to make. I read about the Japanese suicide forest (don't ask me why) and discovered a famous poem by Gesshu Soko had been attached to one of the bodies.

The poem was based on the traditional act of Seppuku but it didn't really say anything especially descriptive. I was fascinated by it, and wrote a short that I believed the poem could have been about.

The next thing I knew I was on set with an actor who could barely speak English (my Japanese is awful) and a mountain of fake guts.

The film came out with Little White Lies magazine and the reception so far has been amazing. It’s a very odd and perhaps Marmite second film but I wanted to make it and I hope people like it.

How valuable are self-initiated projects?

They’re extremely valuable to both directors starting out and those who have long been in the 'game'. It's a glimpse into the mind of the director, but you must bring something to the table that sells – something I completely bypassed when making Death Of A Man. Selfishly, perhaps.

The D&AD Next Director Award aims to discover and showcase the next generation of talented directors from around the world. Are you next?

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