Mega-Interview: David Slade Discusses the Changing Film Industry

By  · Published on May 7th, 2013

After five episodes of NBC’s Hannibal, it’s already fair to say creator Bryan Fuller’s horror drama is one of the most atmospheric series on television. From the mood to the show’s bold textures, each episode leaves a cinematic impression ‐ an impact director David Slade (Hard Candy) had a hand in sculpting.

According to Slade, production in the often chilly Toronto weather and fast-paced production is no cakewalk ‐ which you can read more about in a production blog he wrote ‐ but the final reward is worth it. Speaking with the show’s executive producer for well over an hour, it’s obvious Hannibal encapsulates the genre work Slade wants to see more of on television, and he’s proud to be a part of Fuller’s new show. The two men have different sensibilities, but Slade those two distinct outlooks fused together rather nicely.

Here’s what else Slade had to say in part two of our massive discussion with him (you can read part one here), where he touched upon the show’s striking atmosphere, the long-gone music video industry, and how the film business is not one to inspire noble actions:

You mentioned not wanting to do something that’s easy, because there’s little point without a challenge. After gaining plenty of experience, does most of it come easy to you or are challenges still out there?

I look for challenges. I really do. Listen, the whole notion that nothing good is easy is a misnomer. There are things that are good and easy. And sometimes you want to focus yourself in certain places. I’m trying to find a really easy way to say this. If you are going into a very mainstream area where there is a hell of a lot of incredibly closed doors, not for any negative reason, they are just closed. I’m talking about the way things have been done. And there are lots of standards there, and those standards don’t match yours. Your standards are different. I wouldn’t say they’re better off, just different. Then you are going to have a fucking lot of fighting going on. I can’t see me going in and doing a half hour comedy where I just hold the cameras, sit there, and drink water on a director’s chair and say action and cut. No, it’s far more immersive, the process, to me. And that’s what’s makes it exciting, which is not to say I invite fighting. I really don’t. I’d actually rather not. But it’s part of the process.

It is, just because, quite simply, there are people that have way more power than you do who have a vision of the way something should be done. And if you don’t come on the door and say, “Why can’t you do it differently?” they’ll just keep doing it that way. And so it’s just common sense. You have to knock on the door and you have to ask politely. If that works it’s great, and then you can go onto the next door and you can knock on that. And sometimes people won’t be as polite and they’ll tell you, “Go fuck yourself.” And you have to weigh, “Well, okay. There’s two ways we could this: my way or my way really complicated later on down the line and angry.” You find a way through. I think it would be crazy to assume either, first, that I go out looking for any kind of fight. But it’d also be crazy to assume that I don’t expect one.

When I say fight I don’t mean in an antagonistic way. I just mean fighting for something. The context of the word fight is fighting for something you believe in. it’s not about antagonizing people. It’s about pushing something really hard so that it breaks through ahead of the way it would have been done normally and becomes the thing that you want it to be, because it’s going to last longer than you are.

I spoke to Francis Lawrence who made it sound like music videos prepare you for that because sometimes you’ll be fighting over the smallest things imaginable. Was that your experience?

There was never a thing where you were like, “Well, this is just a training ground for something.” I think I was so immersed in it that I never went, “Well this is just practice for something.” I was just very happy to be doing what I was doing at the time. Francis Lawrence is an astonishing filmmaker, an incredibly gifted visual filmmaker. I have great respect for his work. I remember talking to other people about how gifted he was at just getting those fine details down. It was something that I probably wasn’t as good at, but I wanted to get those little details down.

But yeah, when you are doing music videos through the 90s, which I did, and the 2000s, you were put in the position, really, as an independent filmmaker. You were being financed by a major record company, or a minor record company, or whatever. So you were expected to deliver incredibly stunning production value, incredibly strong performance, and an incredibly good idea that was going to last. You were given one day to shoot it, and it was brutal. It still is. It’s weird. Someone showed me this thing where bands have competitions now for people who make videos for…I don’t know what the website is. But I found that withstanding that it’s gone so far around that now to get a music video you have to enter a competition and do it for free, which is a little fucked because that means that only either students or rich people can do it, which I don’t like, personally.

I find exciting work that I find challenging is…you come across it every now and again. I scour the internet and everywhere for it. I’d much rather be excited than to be depressed about things.

Do you think it’ more difficult to break into the music video industry now?

There is no music video industry now. [Laughs] I mean it’s not an industry. But it’s interesting. It’s a paradigm shift. Right now, and it sounds like I’m being apocalyptic, but it’s just because we’re on a paradigm shift into something else. And when we get to the other thing, people who were wanting to make films, and are good at making films, and who have really put in the work to become filmmakers and wanting to make music videos will find themselves unsure of something to do in a world where…I have to think that way. I’m interested in all forms. I know that television is now becoming largely for online delivery.

Independent films are really hard to make. So people do deals where their film is going to come out on demand. All of these distribution ways are shifting the paradigm. Digital technology is changing every three months. I love that because I am thoroughly excited by change and infested by it. I love studying it, but I know that it terrifies some people. I try and remain optimistic and just say, “Well, this is not the end of anything. This is just a paradigm shift.” The goal post may be shifting, but at a certain point you either get used to shooting into the goal as it moves or get to a place where you know where the goal is again. You’ve just got to keep up with it.

So I don’t think it’s any more difficult or easy than it ever was. I just think it’s completely different. I think filmmaking is largely about preparation, and taste, and luck. If you have all of those three things, I think you will find you can work somehow. It’s a very interesting time, though, because filmmaking is something that people…It’s great. The internet is like this ’70s punk ethos. It’s like, “I don’t need to be able to sing. I’m a punk band. I don’t need to know how to make a video. I got an iPhone. Which I actually welcome. And as much as it actually leads to huge rivers of dirges of shit, there’s a pearl in there. There’s this famous line and I have to re-appropriate it to everyone, essentially. When they said, “Hey, anybody can make a film. We didn’t mean everybody should!” [Laughs]

But out of all that comes Shane Carruth, who I think is a kind of visionary that couldn’t exist without the way that the internet works. I find him to be fascinating.

I just spoke to him this morning, actually.

You did? I find his work to be astonishing. There is no depressant for Shane Carruth. Hollywood could never make Shane Carruth. The music video industry could never make a Shane Carruth. Shane Carruth makes Shane Carruth. He shoots for himself, and I’m excited for people like that way more than I’d be excited for filmmakers of the ’70s at the time, because it was still a fairly nepotism-run industry. It always has been. It costs a lot of money to take a camera out of the box. I know we should talk about Hannibal some more…I’m expanding my bullshit pontifications on the world of film.

Just to sum up, the thing is the blank page, the blank canvas which painters always face, there was no such thing in film, and there still isn’t this thing in film, whatever you want to call it, the way of using moving pictures and sounds to tell stories, because it costs so much money to get all the various tools assembled that that canvas is no longer blank by the time you sit down to work on it. It’s already well covered and filled in. It has to be. It’s just the way the industry works and the process of making films works. The closer you get to a blank canvas as a filmmaker, or, rather, the closer, I think, that a filmmaker can get to that experience, starting with a blank canvas, I think the better it’s going to be for films.

Obviously you mentioned how difficult it can be to get a studio film made and then to finally make it. Do you ever see yourself continuing to only make movies like Hard Candy? Or do you think it’s impossible for a filmmaker to be financially successful off films like that one?

I’m trying to figure out the question behind that. It’s so hard to make a film anymore that making your film is good. [Laughs] I think that the film industry is one of the things that is really under analyzed and, often, people get it very wrong from the subtle point of view of the world wide web. It is a very, very tough and weird and ever changing industry. The idea that, “Well, that person screwed up because they did this,” I can’t give you an example. I don’t know what it would be. But it’d be good if I didn’t think of an example, because then I’d be being specific and that’d be a bad idea…

The assumption that, “Well, that director made a really big mistake with that,” is something that I don’t have that much experience in working with. But, I tell you, that director fucking knows it. That director probably didn’t make that decision willingly. He was probably rushed towards the cliff, and as he was going towards the edge of the cliff, “How the fuck do I get off this cliff before I fall off?” And he falls off. It’s not to say that everyone is innocent and that the filmmaker is noble and mighty. God knows they’re not, mostly. I think the industry does not inspire nobleness and mightiness. Mightiness maybe, but the word noble and film don’t often go together.

Here’s my tradeoff. If I can make a film and I can make it with the people around me knowing more about film than I do, then I’m going to be okay. That’s just a really hard paradigm to find. Not that I’m really smart and clever, it’s just that the industry…I want to learn from everyone around me. I really do. I want to work with a director of photography who is going to challenge me. I want to work with a producer who knows more about filmmaking than I do. But finding that team of people is really hard. And feeling that that team of people are focused on a piece of material that will go all the way to screen is even harder. I’m trying all of it. I’m trying to make films the size of Hard Candy. I’m trying to make size films a little larger right now. And I’m looking at studio projects right now as well with the right people. Because, at the end of the day, films aren’t made by machines; they’re made by people. It’s about getting the right people. I know that’s a really dull answer, but I think you have to look at all of it, really.

I’m lucky because I did a big movie and I did a little movie. The big movie gives me a certain amount of clout to be able to go and do a little movie. But then, certain people have a certain expectation of what that little movie is going to be. I’ve been trying to make that little movie for several years. Maybe this year is the year I make it, but I may also not make it. I may make the bigger movie. As long as I’m moving forward I think ‐ I think you are happier if you are moving ‐ If you enjoy just moving forward, I think that’s better. I think if you expect people to love you and like you and love your work, you are always going to be unhappy [Laughs].

[Laughs] And you’re always lucky to be moving forward, too.

I think so. I don’t take it for granted. I think a lot of hard work went into it. I think I’m at a high place right now because I feel very proud of Hannibal. But, really, I’m moving into the next film and how to make a film in a world that’s changing completely and how I can make all that stuff work. I still do commercials every now and again, largely for charity, especially UNICEF, which is a really interesting place. It seems to be the only place where great scripts exist.

And with your experience on Daredevil, after that, all you can do is move forward.

Yeah, you have to because you’ll just go crazy. If you think of every choice the director makes as a junction, just think about that for a second. It just becomes mind boggling. It’s like I’m not Kasparov playing chess. I can’t imagine that many permutations. That’s crazy talk. You just can’t imagine that many permutations. I can’t hold it in my consciousness. I have to handle it with a teaspoon.

But I feel like we should talk a bit more about Hannibal if we could. I don’t have time restriction and I don’t want talk to bore you to death, but I want to support it. I just want genre TV. I want The Walking Dead, I want The Following, I want Hannibal to be shows that continue to play. I like genre TV.

Same here. Let’s talk about the structure of the show. It’s a procedural, but it doesn’t follow the typical episodic narrative of procedural shows. Is that because Hannibal was never seen as a procedural show first and foremost?

It was an interesting thing. I think everybody had in the back of their mind that the worst thing that could possibly happen here is this could turn into a procedural show. But nobody ever really talked about it out loud. And everyone was pretty confident that Bryan… Actually, we did talk about it a couple of times. Bryan was never interested in making a procedural show. So there’s a kind of Trojan Horse mentality that has to come in to some degree, so you have to hit certain things and get excited when those things work, and some of them do. As the season goes on you’ll see the procedural crime aspects become more humbled to a greater arching character narrative it goes through.

I was really proud of the 3rd episode…I did the 3rd episode, and I was really proud of the way that one turned out because that one does not have a procedural kind of crime of the week in it. I went at that one as a real character piece. It’s a horror, like real horror. I’m as happy with that as I am with the pilot. It’s a horror episode, like Dario Argento horror. It’s about the darkness of the soul and everything that comes with it. There’s a certain moodiness to Fuller…he is such a encyclopedia of horror and cinema. It’s gleeful to work with him. I love watching films and I watch as many as I can, but I don’t have his huge encyclopedic brain. There are certain things we bonded on, like, Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot. There are certain things we like. Argento is one that I like. There’s a certain atmosphere that comes with a number of his films. David Lynch has that as well.

Television is not known for atmosphere. One of the things we talked about is Hannibal should have an atmosphere, a sense of pressure, dread, and all those good things you expect from horror or a thriller. We had to be tangible with what that was. Then we cast Mads Mikkelsen, who, by virtue of standing in a room, brings atmosphere. He’s terrifying even when he does nothing. In the third episode, to this day, there’s a day where I remember sound-mixing it and people went, “No, no, no! Don’t talk to him! Runaway!” [Laughs]

Once you’re in it and you realize so much of the engineering you put into it is working quite efficiently, you just keep checking it all the time. It really becomes a joyful experience. It’s always really tough and really hard. We would workaround the clock sometimes with the frozen Toronto weather. It’s not easy to do. If you weren’t doing something we felt was worthy, it would’ve been a lot harder to do.

Yeah, Mads is like this black hole. He has this gravity. He’s such this friendly fellow, which I shouldn’t say to keep the mystique going! He’s a gracious man. The thing is, we shot this show, did a lot of things with the camera that I hope gave it a cinematic look. It maybe looks different than what’s shot differently at the moment, but there’s a result. It was an interesting experience with the actors. Usually with digital photography, you have to do less because the camera sees more, which is the general consensus. Usually that’s just contrast, with these little black lines which come around the edges and accentuate little things. What we were doing was getting rid of all that stuff, so the actors had to do a little more. It was really interesting to go through that.

With Mads, I remember saying, “I know you felt that and I felt that and I saw that, but the camera didn’t. We have to do it again.” [Laughs] With the final episode, I remember having to explain with Gillian Anderson ‐ who joins the show later, which should be very exciting ‐ that the camera sees less, so she has to do more. It’s not really seeing less, it’s seeing it in a different way.

One thing Bryan Fuller mentioned to me about Hannibal is that there were somedays where the bleaker material and research could really have an effect on him. From your experience on the show or, say, Hard Candy, does that happen to you as well?

Bryan and I are different. We’re very different. I had this conversation with Bryan. When we were preparing this last summer, I was reading Thomas Harris books again and “Hunting Humans” by Elliott Leyton. I remember telling Laurence Fisburne about this, because Jack Crawford is the moral center of the show, and he’s also dubious, morally. He’s just manipulative, but he thinks he’s fucking right. What I love about our triangle as that our three leads think they’re right, and they all are. They just have different standards of morality [Laughs]: Hannibal is right, if you’re in his shoes; Will Graham is right, if you’re shakily in his shoes; Jack’s right. That’s what makes compelling characters.

I remember reading Elliot Leyton, and it’s a study of serial killers from an FBI profiler. Every page of that book is moralistic. He reminds you these people killed people, destroyed lives, and were horrible people. I started getting nightmares, sweats…I really did.

Bryan is into magical realism. He sees things quite different. I think the two of us balance quite well, because he’s able to go into really horrific places with ease, while I’m not [Laughs]. He can walk straight through the knives and various torture devices, while I get cut and ripped up by them. On the pilot, in particular, we were able to bring something else, somewhere in between the two [of us]. In the third episode, that episode shakes me up. It’s the same thing with Hard Candy. I hadn’t seen it in years, but I did a little while ago. I was just so fucking tense going through it, which was not narcissism. I have to be clear about this: it’s not any form of celebration, it’s just the way it effects me. If I can get lost into it and I know it’s effective…you know, I don’t ever sit down on set. I don’t have a director’s chair. I don’t like ever feeling comfortable. I do get emotionally wrapped up in it all. I think that’s helpful for actors, to be with them in a moment.

You can’t truly be with a great actor in the moment, because they’re a great actor and you’re not, but you can be somewhere close. In my experience, actors who noticed you’re going to the same place they are with a different form of craft at least do share the issues they’re dealing with in that place. I find that, as much as nerve-wracking and takes years off my life, to be a part of the process.

Hannibal airs on NBC, Thursday nights at 10e/9c

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.