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In Conversation With Writer-Director Nicholas Connor

Nicholas Connor’s film work has screened at over 50 film festivals globally where he has personally won 32 awards with 57 nominations. At just 16 years of age he wrote and directed hour-long drama ‘Northern Lights’ (2016), which won multiple awards including ‘Film of the Year’ at UK Monthly Film Festival. Now available on Amazon Prime Video and Limited DVD.

Awarded the Into Film ‘Ones to Watch’ Award 2017 by EON Productions (The Company behind 007) presented by Barbara Broccoli and Charles Dance. In 2018 he was made a BAFTA Mentee.

In 2017, he wrote & directed ‘Cotton Wool’ starring Leanne Best (Star Wars), Crissy Rock (I’m a Celebrity), Kate Rutter (I, Daniel Blake, The Full Monty) & Max Vento (The A Word). The film won the ‘Special Jury Prize’ at the London Film Awards and Nicholas went on to win ‘Best Director’ at the European Independent Film Awards. Cotton Wool has to this date, won 37 awards with 61 nominations and 26 official selections.

Most recently the film won 6 awards at ‘New York Film Awards’, including Best Picture and a further 4 awards at the Global Independent Film Awards Including Best Drama. Winning 5 awards at ‘LA Film Awards’ including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Actress’ as well as screening in the British Independent Film Festival at Empire Leicester Square. Featuring on BBC News Nationwide and receiving the ‘Humanity Award’ for Film at New Renaissance Film Festival (previously won by the Oscar Winning ‘The Silent Child’).

ScreenCritix gave the film ★★★★★, calling Nicholas one of the ‘UK’s Hottest Prospects’. UK Film Review awarded the film the ‘Best Short Film of 2018’, stating it was ‘Utterly enrapturing’, ’Affecting and heart-breaking’.

According to IMDB Nicholas has been working on various productions such as Star Wars Episode 9, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, and Alex Garland’s new TV Series DEV’s.Having studied Directing at the renowned ‘National Film and Television School BFI Academy’, Nicholas premiered his film ’The Narrator’ at the British Film Institute. The film led to him being awarded the Rising Star Award at Camarthen Bay Film Festival.

Cotton Wool follows “the story of a 7 year old boy who cares for his mother after she has survived from a stroke, with little to no help from his older sister”

What is your first memory relating to creating films? Was there a particular moment that made you decide you need to make films?

Nick: I’ve always wanted to entertain in some way ever since I was able to speak, I’d do puppet shows and force my family to watch, this then transferred to wanting to be a professional magician - which I took very seriously by the way. I grew up in a family of golfers so even in sports, when we were at the club, I would try and give myself an audience by attempting to outdrive muscular 30 year olds who had ego problems. Before I could talk I used to dance around the kitchen in my walker to Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ trying to make people cheer. It all seems pretty vain now but I just wanted to make people emote. Probably a syndrome of being the youngest of three.

My earliest memory of creating films I only discovered recently. I was going through old VHS tapes and found videos I shot when I was four or five of my stuffed animals with my voice narrating over it…creating stories.

The lightbulb moment came much later when I watched the 15 hour documentary ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey’ by Mark Cousins. It led to 12 year old me watching everything from Bergman to Tarkovsky to Makhmalbaf to Kar-Wai, I just fell in love with cinema and filmmaking. I didn’t understand a lot of what I was watching but it didn’t matter because I wanted to work it out - and that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

What is your goal as a filmmaker, what do you want to achieve?

I think that cinema at its heart is for the lonely, made by lonely people who are asking questions and searching for answers. I suppose I make films because I want to ask the audience questions, normally philosophical or make them think differently, not necessarily in an overtly political way like someone like Loach or Potencorvo does but in a societal sense. Most of my work is about family, love, mental health, compassion and community.

To make people relate and see themselves in my work, or see someone they know in a character and to empathise with the unempathisable. Everyone is the protagonist of their own film and has reasons as to why they act as they do, so it’s all about understanding that. I want people to understand me, because ultimately that’s what everyone wants right? To be understood. And if I can make someone else realise they aren’t alone, that other people feel the same way as them then maybe we can make people less lonely...or feel understood. So I suppose that’s my goal. That’s the global crisis no one is talking about, loneliness, because in a world where we’re more connected I don’t think we have ever had such a weak essence of society or community.

That’s the beauty of art, that you realise other people have felt the exact same emotion as you, from when you hear Amy Winehouse sing ‘Back to Black’ to see Emma Thompson trying to hold it together at the end of ‘Love Actually’ after Alan Rickman has cheated on her - we can see we weren’t the only ones in the world to feel that, that every other person is as emotionally complex and deep thinking as you.

The subjects of your films often seem to be close to your heart. How do you adapt moments from your life into a story so that others can relate and attach?

Good question, I suppose it’s the only way I know how to write, which is why I would struggle to write anything set in space - I don’t know what it’s like up there I haven't lived that! ‘Think Of Me’ and ‘Northern Lights’ were particularly autobiographical, ‘Cotton Wool’ was still pretty personal but a step away from that. I don’t often live in the moment, or feel the emotion of events while I’m in them, I need to ingest, mull over and reflect before anything really hits me. So I only ever really process memories or certain deep emotion when I make the moment into a film. Because it makes me dichotomise and dissect it to an extreme. Some people just enjoy living life, whereas I like spending my life analysing it. Living through other people and being overly self-analytical. It’s nice to have my older films as time capsules of how I felt at that age and moment, I’m very lucky that I can remember my past through them even if they are more allegorical.

There’s this beautiful love letter from Zelda Fitzgerald to F Scott Fitzgerald where she playfully remarks that ‘Plagiarism begins at home’ for Scott, the quote hangs proudly in my room, reminding me to use my past when writing, but not to repeat the past in real life. All I seem to do is want to repeat the past, so I tend to try and do it through my films.

My most recent film has taken me to the darkest place I’ve ever gone to, it’s the most personal piece I’ve ever written and needed a lot of self-reflection and deprecation. Finding your own flaws through writing is really quite therapeutic and helpful, you end up understanding yourself more and see why/where it all went wrong.

What compelled you to write Cotton Wool? What sparked your interest in young carers?

My grandmother suffered a stroke when my mother was only about 10 years old. Sadly she passed away shortly after, but I took the premise of what would have happened if she had survived and my mother would then have to care for her. The opening scene of the film is the only piece of non-fiction involved, my mother witnessed the stroke thinking my grandmother was joking at first, pretending to be a monster, this of course wasn’t the case. The story stayed with me with me, this idea combined with a feeling that society has generally become far less compassionate over time inspired me to write the film. Discovering the statistic that there are 243,000 Child Carers under the age of 19 in England/Wales and 22,000 under the age of 9 was the turning point in knowing I had to make the film and make it now.

Why did you make the decision to shoot a scene from Cotton Wool on 35mm film? Would you like to shoot entirely on film in the future?

I always fantasised about shooting on celluloid, it’s become a cliché to say - but you really can’t achieve the blacks and the way texturally it feels on digital even with a really good D.I (Digital Intermediate).

The scene which I shot completely on 35mm was the only flashback in ‘Cotton Wool’ and I had been reading studies on how we often think of memories and even dream in the way celluloid looks. There’s an undeniable comfort and nostalgia to how it feels even if you aren’t aware something is shot on it, you can just feel it psychologically. That’s why rom-coms that are talked of as ‘feel good’ and the kind of films you’d watch repeatedly as ‘comfort films’ are often shot on celluloid, you only have to look at ‘Bridesmaids’, ‘Trainwreck' or ‘Notting Hill' to see why.

Back in 2016, me and my DOP Alan Mclaughlin saw Xavier Dolan’s ‘ It’s Only the End of the World’ when it screened at Leeds International Film Festival, he’d come to visit me for a shoot recce and decided it would be a good film to see given my undying love for Dolan. Immediately after watching it I turned to him and said - ‘I wanna shoot on 35mm, and this is the film I wanna do it on'. He laughed and said ‘we won’t be able to afford it for the full film, but I have a spare roll of Kodak Vision 250D in the fridge, we can use that.’ I was settled, Panavision gave us their Arriflex 435 and I knew the exact scene it would be perfect for. It’s my favourite scene, not just because it looks great on 35mm but because it’s so pivotal. At least now I can die knowing I got to shoot on film. I have plans to shoot on it again but it really depends on the budget and the project. Until I realised how the industry worked and understood budgets I was a completely pretentious film purist thinking ‘I hate Digital!’, but really it’s simply another great tool and both should be used and remain in the market. I can’t stand this discussion of having more pixels, it’s about how it looks not how many dots there are on a screen.

What are you working on now?

I'm developing something called ‘The Betrayal of Maria Sivan’, on a basic level it’s a break up film but it’s completely out there and unique. I won’t give much away as I think it's the most important story or message I’ve ever tried to get out there and there’s quite a lot of twist and turns. It’ll be my first feature too so it’s a whole new landscape.

The film is an anti-romantic drama all about adultery, stardom, family, home and overcoming the past. It came through being a hopeless romantic and leaving a relationship into what now seems like a completely unromantic world, the culture has changed, love has changed. My own character arc really mirrors that of the films lead, how I was so in love with the idea of love that I forgot what it means.

It’s the kind of film I want people to watch after been cheated on, it’s in many ways the film I needed to watch, so that’s why I’m making it. I haven't seen anything that evokes that so I had to make it.

A big part of the essence of the film is trying to show a true representation of the aftermath of a break up, from the outside there is a feeling of ’They’ll get over it’, but when you're in it - it can feel cataclysmic. Often people forget how it feels once they’ve healed and lose empathy for the raw nature of a relationship ending. Love is such a delicate thing and its mental weight shouldn’t be underestimated.

Does your writing approach change between films? If so, how?

I wrote and directed Cotton Wool when I was 16/17 so my process has evolved greatly in the last 3 years. I’m more cut throat now about killing my darlings and getting to the point in a scene. But equally I’m more ‘ideasy’ now, I have more life experience to write on and I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’m so glad I made them back then rather than now.

While doing rewrites and getting producers notes on ‘The Betrayal of Maria Sivan’ I’m also writing a biopic of a man called Paul Scates. It’s an incredible story based on an incredible man, it’s so inspiring, I’m really privileged to be writing it. It’s also a book adaptation so it’s a completely new challenge for me. It’s very early days, it’s a hard hitting true story, adapting that and constantly speaking to the person the story is inspired by is very much at the centre of my writing now. It’s a whole new experience because I’m analysing someone else’s character to an extreme and their tragic life events. It’s nice not writing about myself or my life for a while but I’m using a lot of that still.

Ultimately with these things you could spend half a year to a year on a script and it never get made, even with a commission and a budget or team in place. There was a point when making Cotton Wool where they almost pulled the plug two weeks before the shoot. I’m just very fortunate to be able to have made what I’ve made so far. You always have to think, this could be the last film I ever make, make it good, make it you, while the other half of your brain questions if it will ever get off the ground.

Stylistically I write like I direct, and I make it clear how everything will be from the get go so there are as few questions left to ask as possible. Nevertheless each film has a very different tone and the dialogue will definitely amalgamate or mould with that. Currently I have a more comedic character in ‘Sivan’ - well maybe I’ll wait and see if the audience laughs before I call it ‘comedic’ again, but I’m finding the tragedy in her so much more than any of the other cast, this is all very new but you find yourself evolving with each script, I love it.

What is your creative process usually like? How do you hone your idea(s) into something that will work as a piece of cinema?

I get messy, very messy. Absorb myself into the world of it. It’ll often start small and simple, like I want to make a film about carers, or a break up movie with a twist, or what it’s like to be an angsty teenager and having to deal with unrequited love. Then I expand on it, what makes it different from other films, what’s my voice in this or philosophy and what am I wanting to make people think about or question. I come up with lines, scenes, discover the wants and needs then the obstacles. My current script has a 40 page document purely of notes for scene ideas or lines of dialogue - and the script is already written, so if I hadn’t cut what I’ve already added it would be well over 100.

I do tend to lock myself away for a few months and just become a recluse F. Scott Fitzgerald wannabe, it’s a bad habit but it’s my only way of getting it all down. You tend to have an instinct when something’s good and not been done before, you feel like you’re chipping away on a new stone rather than bouncing a tennis ball back and forth against an already flat, overdone wall. I’ve probably come up with 30 odd ideas for films in the last year, 5 of which are good, 3 of which are good enough and only 1 or 2 of which will ever get made. You know it’s the film to make next when it feels like a gigantic risk.

Who would you say your inspirations are?

For me, directors like Xavier Dolan, Lynne Ramsay, Alex Garland, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Lars Von Trier, Kubrick (obviously) and Won Kar Wai have all had a massive influence on my directing style and way of working. Writing wise anything written by Richard Curtis, Kay Mellor, Aaron Sorkin, Greta Gerwig, Stefan Golaszewski, or Nolan….Oh and Arthur Miller as a playwright of course.

How do you usually approach casting?

Personally I just watch as many films as possible and as soon as I see an actor I love the work of they are added to my IMDB pro list. I have about 500 plus actors stored there. I don’t tend to do open calls or cast through agency lists, nor do I cast friends or actors that contact me online because they’re almost never right for the role, usually it’s purely through adoring someone's work and them being right for the character. I sometimes write with a cast in mind, in fact immediately after watching Max on ‘The A Word’ I knew he was who I wanted, a few weeks later he was signed on, well before the script was even written during the treatment stage. Equally I’ve been a massive fan of Crissy Rocks since I saw her in Ladybird, Ladybird in my personal favourite on screen performance of all time, she should have at least been nominated by the Academy that year, but at least she won the Berlin Bear (I think it was the same year as Tom Hanks won at Berlin for ‘Philadelphia'). I tend to steal actors from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as often as I can, hence Crissy and the brilliant Kate Rutter.

Max Vento was incredible in Cotton Wool, was it hard to find a child actor? How did you direct someone so young to play such a moving character?

When it came to working with Max I emailed Dai Bradley who played the iconic Billy Kasper in ‘Kes’ for advice, I wanted to understand how Loach directed him when he was so young, his advice has been monumental in the film’s success in my eyes. Max really is a little method actor, during one scene he got so frustrated and upset that he threw himself onto the floor, remaining in character and started improvising. Luckily we were handheld so we followed him, none of us expected it - he was only 6! - I never asked him to go off script or to do it, he just felt it. This moment obviously made it to the final cut. It’s just trying to create a safe space for that and giving young actors to room to bring something new or raw.

Cotton Wool has been such a success -you’ve won so many incredible awards at such a young age, how does that feel? How did you and your family react?

Thank you so much, It means a lot. It’s been an incredible hearing people enjoy the film and emotionally react to it. Ummmm personally I was very surprised by the reaction, I expected it to be far smaller and it to have finished it’s festival rounds by now. My family has been so supportive, some of course not feeling ready to watch it yet given the personal undertones but all have been so happy for me and the team.

And finally, do you have any advice for budding filmmakers? Anything that you wish you knew?

Ummmm… Personally I quite like 14 hour long days, 7 day weeks and thrive off doing that for months on end but I wish someone told me that at some point you’ll hit a road block and be sat around for months waiting for that resurgence of work to come back - It’s almost guaranteed as a writer, director. The anti-climax of adrenaline and filmmaker postnatal depression kicks in and you have to learn how to deal with that and make each day count - actors have it even worse.

Advice wise - not that I know anything, but I’d tell myself to - Fail lots, learn from those failures. Take the biggest risks you can, make sure your heart is with those risks and they will work out somehow. Don’t try and be someone else be you…but better. I’ve tried for years to write like Aaron Sorkin and Pete Bowker - and I’ll never succeed because it’s not me. If you are questioning if the film industry is for you, then I’d do something else, trust me it’ll be easier (unless it's being a doctor or open heart surgeon I don’t envy those amazing people), I only do this because I can’t imagine a world where I’m not.

Don’t listen to anyone telling you you’re too young or going down the wrong path, I’ve never seen a filmmaker take the same career journey as another, so it’s impossible to expect the same to work for you too. Equally don’t listen to me, find your own way and be nice to people along the way.

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