Director Stuart Hazeldine talks about his one-room thriller Exam.
As a screenwriter, Stuart Hazeldine has worked on big budget American films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 2008 remake) and Knowing, though his name is absent from the credits each time. He spent three years working on the latter, but such is the life of a writer in Hollywood. “If you do enough and get credit, you’re talked about as a main writer. If you come up a bit short, suddenly you’re a script doctor” Hazeldine wryly explains.
Like many screenwriters before him, Hazeldine has made the transition to directing. Is this lack of control over the fate of one’s script a factor in this move? “Definitely it is frustrating, so that can be a part of it, but I didn’t first get the idea to direct because of that. I knew from nineteen years old that I wanted to direct - to take it from the first idea in the shower right through to it being on the screen exactly how you wanted it to be”.
His first feature, Exam, is probably as close to his original vision as he could hope for. As writer, director and producer, he presides over all aspects of the end result. His best friend Simon Garrity is responsible for the original concept, of school children going to sit a test only to find the paper’s blank. “It didn’t really have an ending, but I liked the idea. The thought of going into an exam and finding nothing on the paper is a sort of abstract nightmare - the kind of thing you might dream about the night before a test, like going into an exam and finding you’re naked. I thought if you upgraded that concept into a job interview scenario, made it more life or death, there might be a movie in that”.
Shot in twenty-six days for less than one million pounds, Exam is a slick, clever thriller set entirely in one room. The increased pressure on the eight candidates comes in the form a pandemic outside, which is alluded to but never seen or specifically explained. One thing’s for sure; the outside world is a scary, dangerous and disease-ridden place. This is not just any old job interview.
Of course, there was pressure to reveal the world outside the four walls. Resisting these requests is possibly the smartest move Hazeldine could make. Looking far more expensive than its meagre budget would imply, each pound has been spent making the most fluid, sleek film possible, which would have inevitably been compromised should the outside world have been shown. Trapping the viewer in the room with the characters increases the feeling of claustrophobia and isolation, while the film plays in real time and there is nothing to distract the eye from the actors.
“Some people read the script and said ‘you’ve got to get out of the room’, and yeah, I could have done that. It might not have made the film worse, but I’m not sure that it would have made it better. I was getting reactions of scepticism about how it would work, but in the back of my head I thought, well, Twelve Angry Men does it so it is possible”, Hazeldine explains. “All the good bits of shooting in one room were very apparent up front, and all the bad aspects became apparent later on. There are no other locations, hardly any jumps in time - the acting, dialogue and plot development are really the focus and every moment of the film has to work seamlessly with the moment before and the moment after.”
Exam benefits from an excellent ensemble of actors. Some are recognisable, such as Jimi Mistry and Colin Salmon, others ring vague bells of familiarity, such as Luke Malby, while some, like Adar Beck, are brand new to the big screen. The eight never reveal their names, instead using words to represent their physical appearance - hence, they are referred to as Brown, White, Chinese, Dark and so on. As the situation becomes more desperate, with some concealing ulterior motives, the actors are relied upon to create believable reactions and decisions. As Hazeldine says, “I didn’t feel people would necessarily be forced into the hardest choices purely by their desire to become rich. My way of doing it was not so much looking into psychology of group dynamics but coming up with a bunch of characters who were differentiated not only by race, gender and culture but most importantly by world view. I created the characters and as plot points developed I started seeing how they would react to that point and how each would react to each other’s reactions.”
The resulting film is a gripping one, in which characters and viewers strive to discover the solution to this infuriating puzzle. It is refreshing to witness a film that focuses on the characters’ intelligence, while not appearing patronising or pretentious. Hazeldine admits “I wanted to make something that was smart though not overly cerebral, so you didn’t feel you could only enjoy the film if you were a techno geek or had a PhD.”
After finally getting the control he had lacked as a screenwriter, one might expect Stuart to be pursuing his directorial career even further, yet this is not the case. With a broad selection of ideas to expand upon (amongst them a Quadrophenia-style film, a psychological thriller and a gritty American drama, to prove diversity beyond his sci-fi roots) he is willing to relinquish his control again, for the time being at least. Happily, his debut as decision-maker has been a successful one. “I think I just felt that when I did my own film I wanted to have as much control as I could, so if it turned out well I would always be able to look back and say, you know, I did that off my own back and it’s not a mess”, he reflects. “You just have to do what feels authentic to you and hope the audience agrees.”
Exam is released on 8 Jan 2010