Jury member and editorial contributor to Film Focus Steven Allison joins us in The Green Room!
Steven, thanks so much for the work you do for our festivals. Thanks for joining us. Your website gives a great insight into who you are but I'd love to find out why you chose to go from law to journalism?
Thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure. Well, the home counties school I attended didn’t ask, ‘What would you like to do with the rest of your life?’ It was rather a case of, ‘What university will you go to?’ There was this bizarre natural assumption that higher education was the right path for everyone, and our tutors heavily promoted more academic disciplines. At 17, I had no real passions to speak of, which I guess was pretty unusual. After browsing some course catalogues, I plumped for law – a career path I thought would make me a shedload of money. My parents were all for the idea, so off I went. I hated every minute of it though. It was far too structured for my liking. Strangely, I realised you don’t even need to be super intelligent to study law. It’s just a big memory game involving a hell of a lot of information. And sadly, my memory isn’t wonderful. I’m dreading older age! During my time at law school, I’d developed a liking for writing, so I decided to do something with that. And that’s how I found my way onto a journalism degree. In retrospect, I wish I’d gone into screenwriting, but I hadn’t fallen in love with film at that point. Since the degree, I’ve been involved with the written word in many different ways.
Has that involved writing any screenplays? If not, do you ever want to write one?
I haven’t written any yet. All of the writing I’ve done in relation to cinema has been journalistic – reviews, trailer drafts, features, interviews, that sort of thing. Aside from that, and my content-writing work, I’ve been heavily involved in ghost-writing fiction for clients. That’s actually something I fell into by chance, and there’s usually a strict brief to stick to. Over the years, I’ve written the beginnings to many different books of my own. I abandoned every one of them though, realising the ideas were too weak. A couple of years ago, I finally began to develop an idea I felt was meaty enough to properly get stuck into. I’m still into the story, but I recently stopped at the halfway mark after coming to the conclusion it lends itself better to a screenplay. I plan to get to that when I have some time between projects.
What are the projects you’re working on right now?
An ongoing priority will always be strengthening my film portfolio, getting my foot in the door of the bigger entertainment sites. Lately, I’ve primarily been writing for ‘The Playlist,’ which is the most notable platform to publish my pieces so far. They’ve been great to work with, and I’m excited to say they’ve chosen me to be their delegate at this year’s BFI London film festival. I’ll be preparing for that over the next couple of weeks, especially brushing up on my interview skills as I’ll be speaking to some key figures in the industry. I’m also rounding off my latest ghost-writing project, which was a semi-autobiographical thriller novel for a London-based personality involved in film set design. That will likely require amendments once the client’s agent starts to send it to publishers. And I just started to work as a ghost-writer and social media manager for a renowned businesswoman responsible for many of the digital innovations we’re all familiar with. It’s a slight departure for me, but an interesting one. So, my fingers are in a few different pies!
You said that, with ghost-writing, there’s usually a brief to stick to. Is that your preference? Or full creativity?
It fully depends on the sort of work. With a lot of assignments, I have free rein to do what I like, and the client is almost always happy with the result. That’s often wonderful unless it’s a day where the ideas don’t come so easily. With other assignments, like my last book, the client provides a basic skeleton to work from. Sometimes, that makes life a lot easier, but it can be difficult following, say, a narrative structure I wouldn’t choose myself. I’ve offered advice to clients in the past, leading to compromise, but many aren’t willing to budge on certain aspects of their brief. That’s fair enough – it’s their vision you’re dealing with after all. But it can be disheartening at times.
Can you tell us who any of your ghost-writing clients are?
I’m afraid I can’t. I sign NDAs before starting, and my clients own the rights to the work completed. Essentially, they’re the authors of that work as far as the law is concerned. We’re not talking Brad Pitt or anyone like that, so you’re not missing out on too much.
Given that you’ve never studied screenwriting or filmmaking, how did you come to know enough about either to critique films?
I’m completely self-taught. When I decided that film criticism was something I wanted to pursue, I bought a pile of books and spent almost every waking hour for a long time coming to understand film theory and how to apply it properly. I took some online courses too. I have an excellent grasp of it all, but I’m still familiarising myself with all of the talent in the industry – which is a vast one – and their bodies of work.
Whether you’re brushing up on film theory or writing, what’s your preferred place to settle down and get the creative juices flowing?
This has always been a difficult one for me. I generally need a specific environment to produce good writing – with no noise or distractions – so coffee shops aren’t ideal. I have the self-discipline to work from home, getting up early enough, staying in the zone, avoiding eating everything in sight, and all that jazz. Recently though, I moved into a new place, which I love, but there are four VERY noisy kids in the apartment below, as well as a neighbour with mental health issues who likes to shout on the street into the small hours. It’s a real problem, so I’ve been trying out various local libraries and co-working spaces. I’m yet to find the perfect solution, but I’m on the case.
We recently published your article in our FilmFocus magazine defending the 'mockbuster.' Does the concept anger you? Or do you think it’s clever marketing?!
In the article, I made a case for mockbusters because I’m a true fan of the so-bad-it’s-good genre. There’s something about a low budget flick with shoddy acting and nothing to write home about technically. I just can’t get enough of them, even though I truly appreciate outstanding filmmaking. I can see why some studios are outraged that mockbuster production companies cash in on their marketing efforts and the hype surrounding their major motion pictures. I suppose I’d feel the same in their shoes. But, no, these films don’t anger me at all. Instead, I enjoy them for what they are. You almost have to admire the barefaced cheek of it all – almost.
As a film critic and one of our Jury members, you critique movies of all types, but do you have a preferred genre?
I hate to give a clichéd answer, but as I always say – about music too – I like a little bit of everything. My regular go-to genres are horror and thriller. I love any overlap between the two, and I have a special fondness for psychological horror-thrillers. The stories that terrify me most are those that could actually happen. Take Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Unsane,’ for example, where a woman is confined to a mental institution for nefarious reasons. That’s not outside the boundaries of possibility. I’m a huge fan of supernatural horror-thrillers too, like Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’ or Babak Anvari’s ‘Under the Shadow.’ You can give me a bit of neo-noir or high-fantasy now and then as well. And sometimes a daft rom-com, but don’t tell anyone that.
Other than your current projects and Jury duty for our East Europe International Film Festival in Warsaw, what’s next for you?
I’m very much looking forward to seeing and scoring the Warsaw selection. Other than that, and the projects I’ve mentioned, I’m planning to start a film podcast or YouTube channel. I think I’d prefer the former as I’m not so hot on the idea of being in front of a camera. I have a solid premise already, which I’ll keep under wraps for now, but it involves a concept we’re seeing more and more of in horror films these days – sensory deprivation. For it to work, I need a co-host, so I’m still looking for the right person to get on board. Anyone reading, feel free to get in touch on Twitter or Instagram (@writerfox2) if you’re interested. Thanks for having me!