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Exam - Stuart Hazeldine interview


Interview by Lisa Keddie

STARTING out the age of 24 writing Hollywood screenplays, and credited with the rewrite of the 2007 sci-fi blockbuster The Day The Earth Stood Still, British screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine directs on his first feature, Exam, following the 20-minute short film Christian, which he wrote in 2005.

We chat with the debut writer/director to find out more about the new thriller, starring Luke Mably, Jimi Mistry and Colin Salmon:

Q. The original idea for Exam was to set it in a school. The setting then changed to a job interview. At what stage did you realised that you had a feature, rather than a short story?
Stuart Hazeldine: When the short film script came out at 40 pages, which is 40 minutes, I realised that I also had to keep a lot of stuff out! It was then that I realised it was probably easier to expand it to a feature than to shorten it to a short film – plus you can sell a feature film, whereas you can’t make any money out of short films. I had been on the lookout for a low-budget feature idea that I could possibly finance myself. Eight people in a room are potentially something you can shoot for not a lot of money, and I just thought this is it, this is the first film.

Q. Can you tell us more about the job that the candidates are after?
Stuart Hazeldine: I think there are some stories that tell you quite a lot upfront and there are others… Well, it’s increasingly the way storytelling is going, where they hold onto a lot of stuff and pass out little packets of information as you go. A lot of TV shows like Lost do that now and I like shows like that. If audiences do, then hopefully they will like Exam.

I didn’t want you to know too much about the job or too much about the company because I like to enlist the audience’s imagination and do a bit of brain overtime on stuff like that. Obviously, we get there in the end but that’s a lot of the core speculation among the candidates; exactly what is this job? If it’s such an important test then it must be an important job? Sometimes you do discover that there are slightly secretive jobs that head hunters will recommend their guys go for. They are not able to be told everything about them – it’s kind of like joining MI6 or something, isn’t it?

Q. You said that the story can be divided into four sections: practical, philosophical, psychological and physical. This wasn’t your original intention, but what main issues rise from these four sections?
Stuart Hazeldine: I liked the idea of doing a story that I don’t think people instinctively go to the most sensitive places of interaction. They only go there when they are sort of nudged there, and sometimes you need to go down a few blind alleys before you start turning in and asking the hard questions. So, I thought, if you are doing a one-room movie, you want to make something of your environment and that might be the kind of thing that would happen in the test – remembering those old shows like The Krypton Factor that we used to watch as kids.

So, it [the film] starts off with them thinking maybe it’s got something to so with their environment and there are some clues that, that has something to do with it, which is still there at the end of the movie. But I’m most interested in human relationships. The whole issue of maybe one of them holds the key to what the test is, or is maybe holding back on information is something that I wanted to explore. So, I just wanted the film to go through a number of different phases and a lot of that was subconscious and it was only afterwards that I started to look back, and started to realise the structure… sometimes you do things intentionally and other times other people point [things] out and tell you…

Q. As the film is shot in one location, how did you keep the story interesting and the momentum alive?
Stuart Hazeldine: It was partly continuing to reveal things in the environment that had not previously been seen. So, there are constantly new things of interest for the audience. It is also partly trying to make the thought processes of the candidates interesting enough, so you forget that you are in one room. I think people instantly assume that one room is boring, but great movies like 12 Angry Men and Fail-Safe, etc, have shown that it’s not about the room. Part of the movie is about the room and the rest of it is about making you forget that there is a room. As the movie goes on you run out of things to do with your environment and you better have some pretty good interpersonal relationships going on. People would read the script and say, I forgot it was set in one room. I didn’t really focus on that. Thankfully, people will say that about the film, too.

There is a certain claustrophobia with it set in one room, which you can’t really get around. I sort of sailed into that storm, rather than away from it. I’m sort of cultivating some of that claustrophobia and that feeling of tension and just wanting to get out of there and come up with the answer, so that we can be free of all this mess. But just trying to deal with some interpersonal ideas and the thriller aspect of what the solution to the puzzle is, but also some sort of life ideas about what’s life about? You know, different world views looking at this blank sheet of paper. Life is a blank page – I thought that was a cool idea.

Q. Were you at all concerned about the audience’s reaction to the very bigoted labelling in the film?
Stuart Hazeldine: Well, there’s that whole thing that fortune favours the brave, and sometimes fortune just favours the proactive, and sometimes the most proactive guy in the room is the bully. I just thought who would take control in that room? Sometimes the guy who takes control isn’t always the nicest person. I thought that would be interesting that the person doing the running was actually a bit arrogant, a bit prideful and a bit prejudice against people. In the beginning people roll with it and then they start to rebel against him later on, so I though that was an interesting dynamic. There is also another character in there, a brunette, who is competing for leadership of the group and only one of them can survive.

I wasn’t worried about it too much. Some people might flag it, but I think the only people who would have a problem with it are people who are looking at it out of context. I think when you watch the actual film you are ok with it, but if you hear about it… That’s because the person who does the naming is not the nicest person in the movie. But the quiet person, the wallflower is not the kind of person who is going to be handing out names to the group…

Q. What is next for you?
Stuart Hazeldine: Obviously, I do a lot of writing for Hollywood as well, but I am looking for something I can direct next but that could take a while, so I’ve been working on a little series of sci-fi movies called The Tripods – there was a TV show that the BBC made of it in the 80s, a bunch of kids books in the 60s and I’ve adapted the first novel, so we are trying to get some financing and make that. Sort of a War Of The Worlds thing for kids…

Read our review of Exam