Interview with writer/director Alexei Slater for Continuance Pictures
“I want to write. That’s what it’s always been. But I’m not some writer in an attic who’s got no understanding of the industry. I co-produced my first short film and got into this habit of learning what to do. If you look at my career trajectory and what I’ve done, it suggests that I want to be a feature film producer. But for me, if I could get my novel published by a proper book publisher, that’s about as good as it gets. If it’s adapted somewhere down the line by another company, then that’s all just great.”
London-based Alexei Slater received accolades of the highest order from across the world for his short film ‘82’ which he wrote and produced. It won 15 film awards, screened at 60 festivals globally, and the British Council flew him to international film events to speak about it. Alexei has made 8 short films for his company Turn The Slate Productions. He wrote 6 of them, of which he directed 2, and produced all of them. The films are:
82 – Starring Nick Moran
Scarlet Says – Starring Alexandra Gilbreath, Emma Amos and Mark Brent
The Driving Seat – Starring Janie Dee and James Lailey
Ewww – Starring Harrie Hayes and Nick Read
Great Dane – Starring Maddie Rice and Tom Machell
Candice – Starring Olivia Poulet and Nicholas Pinnock
Call Me Alvy – Starring Tracy Ann Oberman and Kevin Eldon
Stationary – Starring Rebekah Murrell and Aaron Thomas Ward
The only ones I didn’t write, I produced for filmmaker friends of mine, Alexei said. They both did really well and I’m glad I did it. I‘ve been approached so many times to produce films, but that’s not what I’m about.
Alexei submitted ‘82’ to Continuance Pictures co-founder David Gim to be considered for a short features initiative. It wasn’t quite what the company was looking for, but David and other co-founder Tristan Barr have an instinct for bringing like-minded creatives into the fold, and a connection was made.
I reached out to David with ‘82’. Continuance was looking for a short and a feature, unmade. I had written a feature adaptation for ‘82’, but my short had already been made. Still, out of that, when David was next in London we met for coffee and ended up chatting for two hours.
Alexei described how he went about editing his current novel, and The Occasion got an insight into how a prolific creative thinks.
Over the next three months I brought the first draft down from 226,000 words to 170,000 words, which I finished a few weeks ago. I was cutting out a thousand words in a sitting, and it became a slog. It had to be done, but it’s not rewriting, it’s editing out. It’s boring. Then I saw this short story competition in a monthly (publication). I used to write short stories, so I thought: I’m going to write something for that. So I did that in an afternoon. Then I got into a habit, and after the (morning) editing session I would write a new short story in the afternoon. It gave me this release of creativity! I didn’t submit to that competition because I wasn’t impressed with the details in the small print. But again, these little things lead to other things, and I’ve started writing short stories and some of them are quite ambitious. I’ve looked back at my various unmade short scripts, and feature screenplays. I’m thinking: “Right, there was something in those. What if I turn those into short stories and that could be the genesis of whatever they are, and send them to David.” That’s where I’m at, at the moment.
Alexei went to Sheffield University to study English, and says he took a 15-year side-step into film.
I went to university to study English but ended up discovering film. I was studying all the different film genres with two excellent teachers, one of whom I have stayed in touch with. Classical Hollywood, auteur theory, all these different things. They would stop and deep dive, and I loved the deconstruction of a movie. They had a film library of VHS tapes, and I had a tiny little tv at uni, with a video player.
Alexei describes himself as a “bit of an obsessive” when he’s working on a project. Combine this with a can-do approach to the unknown, and you’ve got a story.
I got work experience in this company I’d never heard of, Handmade Films. It was a huge British company in the 80’s, which George Harrison of The Beatles set up. I went there for two weeks of work experience and ended up being there for seven and a half years. By the time I left I was Head of Development. I hadn’t given up my writing ambitions, but I’d just moved into film, and when I get into something I go totally deep dive, I fully immerse myself and I really work pretty hard at it. If you don’t know the name Handmade Films, you probably know some of their classic films: Life of Brian, Time Bandits, Withnail and I, Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday, How To Get Ahead in Advertising.
Over time Handmade Films underwent restructuring, and retained two people, Alexei and the company’s lawyer.
We had a big film library and all these films I’m telling you about, they generate income because they get resold internationally, all the time: DVD, Bluray, film screened, remakes, I knew the company very well by then, and they retained me and my legal colleague. I was sitting there not enjoying it but it was an income. It’s very difficult to have a regular income in this industry. After some time I started unofficially working for a film financier called Future Film. I would take care of my tasks for Handmade, and invited myself to do some development, read scripts and have meetings on behalf of Future Film (and a wonderfully supportive producer there called Carola Ash).
I started having coffees with film executives, development executives and producers in the industry. I went on a short, creative writing course, and wrote some things. A friend said a story I’d written would make a great short film. So in 2011, I set about making it. I’d written the story in March, and in December 2011 we shot it for 2 days. That was the short film ‘82’.
Everything I did was self taught. I’d been working for 5 or 6 years in the film industry, so I soaked up stuff but I hadn’t made anything. I didn’t necessarily want to be a film producer, but I worked as hard as I possibly could, on every aspect of the film, completely controlling it, and it became a massive success. We screened about sixty film festivals and won 15 awards. The British Council supported it. All my friends who didn’t know what I did for all these years suddenly realised what I did because it was something tangible. The ICA in London screened the premiere of ‘82’ and we won an audience award.
Alexei also gained a wealth of knowledge about the film festival industry.
These days people consult me about festivals but back then I didn’t know much about them at all. When it comes to festivals there’s a whole other huge world that’s separate from directors. There’s so much to learn. Much of it is about how much money you’ve got, but it’s not just that. Reading up, and platforms, what do you submit with, what forms and marketing material you need. Your communication, social media, all of that. I learned a hell of a lot. I set up my own production company as well. Of course not every short film is that successful. ‘82’ was the Number One short film on UK iTunes when I released it, because I did a lot of marketing. I had worked Marketing at Handmade Films and learned most of the skills along the way. I had experience in databases and communications, and all of that filters into what I do.
Some people say I’m a producer – my IMDB credits say that, or a writer. I would love to be called a writer. But I’ve also got this other background – directing two shorts. Most people who get into film want to become directors. You’re directing a vision of what the piece is. It hadn’t occurred to me to direct a film, but a friend said I should direct something, and eventually I did in 2016. It was a small project, it cost peanuts and we did it in a day, with some extra pick up shots. But it got picked to screen at Aesthetica, which is a BAFTA-qualifying film festival. That’s the sort of thing I get a buzz out of! That film is called ‘Ewww’, it’s a bit of a pun. I got a lovely write up, Aesthetica is a great film festival. ‘Ewww’ also won best comedy at Crystal Palace festival, and we went there, with the cast.
Alexei said self-starters gain all-round experience by default.
When you do things yourself you end up controlling every part of the filmmaking process. A director may write even though he’s not a natural writer because he wants to make something for himself, and a director might produce because he just wants to get the film made.
Alexei casts his own films and has a mind for remembering faces. He has a good success rate with his first choice of actors.
I’ve written for actors once or twice, but more often I visualise an actor that I might not ever go to, but it helps the writing process. I’ve got an encyclopaedic knowledge of film actors, and I’m a “super recogniser” which is an actual thing. It’s not about getting a well-known actor to put bums on seats, although that helps. It’s about knowing what their strengths are and matching them with the characters you are writing. It’s actually the reason I get many of my first choices for actors.
Expect to see Alexei Slater appear in the Continuance universe. A friendship has been made and good things are sure to come from it.
With Zoom and Messenger, distance is not an issue for sharing ideas. Of all the people out there, David and I make a point of staying in touch. He shares lots of ideas with me. I show him things I am doing in my company that I think he will be interested in. I love the way David is, and the vision of Continuance and what they’re trying to do.
Sometimes I’ll get an idea, I can feel there’s some sort of ‘X’ factor in it, and I’ve got this idea for a sort of mystery horror feature film. I’d love to give David an original horror concept – it doesn’t have to be UK centric, it could be in the US or Australia. That’s the sort of thing that’s in the back of my mind. But it’s got to be right. It’s got to be good. That’s what I’m thinking.
Watch this space.