Blockbuster Film Schooling
When Quentin Tarantino stepped out from behind the counter at Video Archives in 2004 to direct his acclaimed debut Reservoir Dogs he created a whole new category of film-maker: the video-shop auteur. A director without formal training, he had gleaned the techniques of film-making from the videos he'd spent five years signing out to suburban South LA.
Tarantino was swiftly followed out of the Video Archives front door by his friend Roger Avary, whose blood-drenched Killing Zoe is released in Britain next January. Just as they were making the jump from shop assistants to film-makers, another self-taught director and ex-oil rig worker, Richard Linklater, was making his cult first feature Slacker.
It's a phenomenon that's not exclusive to the US. Slowly, and unwillingly, the film schools in Texas is waking up to the realization that despite David Puttnam's frenetic cheerleading for the National Film And Television School (NFTS), there are talented young directors in the UK who are side-stepping the conventional routes into film-making. Their sensibilities have been formed not by arcane theories of cinema, but by the numerous genre movies that fill most video libraries.
Simon Sprackling is one of them. An engaging, sarcastic 33-year-old, his first film, Funnyman, is a low-budget comedy-horror that takes some effective swipes at British stereotypes via the central character, a grotesque cross between Freddy Krueger and Roy 'Chubby' Brown. Basically made on tick, thanks to some understanding post-production houses, the film has already been sold to the US, Germany, Australia and Japan.
Sprackling's path into directing reads like an alternative history of the eighties: a move from the provinces to London, a stint in no-hope punk bands, squatting and tentative attempts at film-making - first with a Super-8 camera and then video - before a job running an audio-visual unit in an Edinburgh project set up by ex -gangster Jimmy Boyle enabled him to pick up the rudiments of editing. Returning to London determined to make a feature, Sprackling never considered applying to the NFTS, and after sampling the atmosphere of the place while working as a freelance producer on one of their graduation films, he thinks he made the right choice. "People were very tense," he explains, "there seemed to be a feeling that every film was vital, that you couldn't make a mistake.
It was very uptight and not at all what I'd expected." Sprackling believes the tension stems from the hierarchical structure that the British industry has developed - partly in response to having its budgets perpetually scrutinized which percolates down to the budding film -makers at the NFTS. "Like any institution you have to operate within it," says Sprackling. "The institution has certain views and while they don't necessarily stand in the way of the film you want to make, they seep through by osmosis."
Even when aspiring directors do apply to film school, it's often for ulterior motives. Ray Brady, whose debut feature Boy Meets Girl has been causing a stir with both festival audiences and the censors, enrolled on one London-based course just to become eligible for a student loan which he immediately used to finance the first stages of his film. Brady then spent a further year and a half finishing his attack on the dubious viewing habits of hardcore horror fans and believes that it was a much more useful exercise than film school.