Known until now for his work as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Stuart Hazeldine is making his directorial debut with Exam, a tight, suspenseful low-budget thriller. In what seems like the near-future, eight short-listed applicants looking to secure a job in a big pharmaceutical company are locked in a high-tech room to take their final test of the interview process. An intimidating invigilator reads out a set of instructions that they must follow or be disqualified. They have 80 minutes in which to find one answer to one question. But when they turn over the papers, they are blank: they have to find the question first. Unfolding in quasi-real time, the film observes the group dynamics and the different reactions of the characters in a pressured environment. Virginie Sélavy interviewed writer/director Stuart Hazeldine on the occasion of Exam‘s screening at the Raindance Film Festival in October 09.
Virginie Sélavy: You’ve been working as a scriptwriter until now, is that right?
Stuart Hazeldine: I’ve been selling scripts since 1995. I started very young as an action writer, then I became mainly known as a sci-fi guy. I’ve just been working on Milton’s Paradise Lost with Scott Derrickson, so now I’m moving into different areas like religious fantasy/sci-fi (laughs). It’s the old predictable story: some things turn out like you imagine, other things turn out differently, and you just want the opportunity to put your vision on film and have the whole of your ideas out there instead of people cherry-picking them.
VS: Is that why you decided to direct your first film?
SH: I’d been planning to direct since I was 19. I never liked the idea of a writer going on to direct out of frustration. But directing takes a lot longer to get into, so writing was my route into making films. I felt that the story is the foundation of every movie, so I wanted to get very good at building foundations before directing. I don’t regret doing that, but you can very easily get sucked into just scriptwriting when you’re being paid well. Thankfully, I have good relationships with a couple of genre directors. I’ve worked with Alex Proyas four times now. I’ve just done an adaptation of a BBC sci-fi trilogy from the 60s called The Tripods with him. It’s something that both Alex and I grew up with and were fans of. I like having repeat business with directors who I think have got talent. You may not make a great movie every time, but you are more likely to, and I’ve been able to learn from them. It took longer than I expected to direct something of my own. But I financed the film myself, so I was saving up money and looking for an idea that could be done very cheaply.
VS: Was it your choice to self-finance or was it because it is difficult to find funding?
SH: I always planned to self-finance it. Everybody always tells you that you should never put your own money into a film, so I quite liked the idea of ignoring that rule. I thought, well, if you shouldn’t put money into your film, who should? I think the idea is that studios make money by spread-betting on 10 or 20 films. But if you can control the risk, and if you are in a rare position where you can actually make the film you want, then I think it’s not a bad thing to do. I figured the idea for Exam had a commercial hook: you have young, ambitious, good-looking ABC1 personalities stuck in a room to take an Apprentice-style test in a near-future environment where there are huge stakes. The one thing they’re not prepared for is nothing – they’re not prepared for no guidance, no question. It’s a commercial hook but it’s also philosophically interesting. You think they’ll be good at team work, at taking the initiative, at writing an essay on why they should be hired, but what happens when very structured, driven people are given no guidance and suddenly they have to think in a very lateral way? What would that do to their different psyches? And on a macro level, life itself is a blank piece of paper, so what do you project onto that blank piece of paper?
VS: How did you create the different characters? Were you influenced by reality TV?
SH: I have to confess I don’t watch reality TV. I think if I did, I’d watch The Apprentice because I could watch it without feeling too dirty afterwards. I think that show and Dragon’s Den are interesting because they’re about business and the contestants have some talent. In Exam, I started with the most obvious character confrontation, which is the one between the characters of White and Black. White is essentially a social Darwinist, this sort of wide boy trader who simply believes in the survival of the fittest and sees the test in that way; Black is someone who believes that everyone should work together as a team, and he draws that from his religious principles. That was like the midnight position and the six on the clock, and then I started trying to fill in the other characters. It started out as a short film script, which originally had six out of the eight characters in it. It had Brunette, who was competing for leadership of the team with White. Deaf became a bigger character in the final feature draft. He started out as someone who was a little bit more of a mad philosopher, someone who seemed to have been pushed over the edge, but maybe had some extra insight. In the feature draft, I added Brown and Dark, the gambler and the psychologist. Dark thinks that the answer is all about human behaviour and relationships and can read the other characters in the room, whereas Brown is the poker player who won’t show you his cards until he’s ready to strike. So in a way, he’s as much of a social Darwinist as White is, but White isn’t self-aware whereas Brown is. I like the fact that Brown likes the chaos. When White says, ‘they’re playing with us’, Brown says, ‘great, isn’t it?’ He’s still determined to win but he’s not scared of what’s going on.
VS: Exam is a modern take on the locked room mystery. Is that something you wanted to explore?
SH: I wanted it to have a bit of the locked room, a bit of the morality play, a bit of Jean-Paul Sartre, a little bit of everything (laughs). I was trying to mix it all up but I wasn’t trying to go after too many influences too consciously, otherwise it becomes an homage and nothing else. I like works that have a lot of levels, like in Shakespeare: there’s something in it for the smarter people who care to look for it, and there’s also the grave digger’s scene in Hamlet with lots of humour for the masses. That’s what I tried to do – I don’t know if I’ve succeeded! (laughs)
VS: There have been a few films that have been trying to reinvent that locked room set-up, like Cube or Fermat’s Room…
SH: Yes, and The Killing Room this year as well. I think it’s an interesting genre. I missed Fermat’s Room, but from what I could tell, it seemed more coldly intelligent than Exam because it is about mathematicians. I wanted to have a universal scenario that people would relate to so I thought a job interview would work. Somebody who saw the film early on called it ‘the Wachowski Brothers meet Harold Pinter’, which I thought was great and wanted to steal for the poster! (laughs). I like examining human nature and what happens when different philosophies of life, or extremes of altruism and selfishness, come up against one another. So for me, the one-room-ness of it was largely just about being able to finance it. I like the idea of creating a microcosm of the world, which is what the exam room is. It’s about why we are here.
VS: There is no indication of the time in which the film is set, but the harsh-looking, high-tech room makes it feel like it is set in the near-future. It seems like a world very close to ours, but not quite ours, which gives the film a certain strangeness. Was that the sort of effect you wanted to achieve?
SH: I like the idea of leaving it up to people, to make the film accessible. Science fiction often has a problem. People who love science fiction really love it, but people who don’t will avoid even if it’s got something to say to them. So I didn’t want Exam to be too exclusive. There was an earlier version of the script that was more sci-fi and some of the concepts that were being discussed were about nanotechnology and other things that I’m interested in, but I realised that some people wouldn’t be, so I stripped them out. It was the same with the names. I tried not to focus people on real names. It wasn’t so much an homage to Reservoir Dogs, although some people might think it is. It allows people to focus more on the characters’ views of the test than on them as unique individuals. I wanted them to represent world views.
VS: They come across as types.
SH: Yes, they’re types, absolutely, and I’m completely unapologetic about that fact. I wanted them to be very international and multi-ethnic to allow the different people in the audience to say, I’m that person.. But after watching the film for 30-40 minutes, they might say, OK, I might be blond and Caucasian but Brown represents my world view, so I’m actually him. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I liked the idea of people identifying with one character and then slowly focusing in on the idea that it’s actually about general philosophies.
VS: The other interesting thing is the time device. Ticking time is always an effective tool to build up tension but you also make the events unfold almost in real time. What was your aim?
SH: I like limitations and the walls of the room are one limitation, one dimension, and time is another. Again, it’s a metaphor: we have a limited time to decide what we think life is about. It’s also my Hollywood training, I like things to be on a clock. When I’m sent novels to adapt I’m always compressing. Film has that effect. There are a lot of things in the film that I did for multiple reasons. The clock was one of the most stressful things in the film, trying to physically work out how we were going to shoot with the clock and stick to that. When we did our first cut of the film, the actual real-time cut from when the clock starts to when the clock ends was exactly 80 minutes. My editor and I were really surprised. The problem was, we wanted to cut stuff, so actually it ends up closer to 74 minutes. There are little jumps in there.
VS: In a way, it seems to be a Hitchcockian sort of film in the sense that the plot appears to be a pretext to build tension and suspense for the pleasure of the audience.
SH: The plot is like the wrapping for the ideas, and the ideas are a mixture of philosophical, religious and psychological observations. It’s about human behaviour and life, that’s the core of what I’m interested in. Stylistically, I keep hearing Kubrick from many people who have seen the film, and I’ll fess up to doing a few conscious references there. I used to tell people that the white sheet of paper and the black screen were our version of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The long tracking shot towards the screen at the beginning of the movie is all quite precise and controlled. The film starts off with these very controlled tracking moves and a lot of composition and cuts, until the middle of the film, when we brought in the hand-held camera. That’s the point where the characters have turned on one another and they’re trying to uncover some truth from each other. I’m definitely quite a stylistic person, but I just don’t want to be only a stylistic person.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Read Alex Fitch’s review of Exam in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: interview with John Hillcoat about his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!