Mega-Interview: David Slade on Shooting a Serial Killer

By  · Published on April 15th, 2013

Acclaimed directors often drop in to shoot the pilot for a TV series. They don’t often stick around for seconds. Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) is one of those rare film directors who must love brains and chianti a lot. He went from directing the pilot of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal to serving as an executive producer and moving on to direct more episodes, fully immersing himself in the world of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter.

The material for Hannibal is right up Slade’s alley, a director known for having a moody and atmospheric eye. It’s very much in the genre mold we’ve seen on television in recent years, the type of television Slade says he’d prefer to see more of. We recently had a long-form interview with Mr. Slade regarding Hannibal and many, many, many more subjects. As you can tell by our chat below, Mr. Slade isn’t exactly a man ever at a loss for words.

Because of that, we’ve got two big interviews with the filmmaker on tap. For now, here’s what director David Slade had to say about Hannibal, how digital can’t touch film, the obsessive nature of filmmaking, and why The Man Who Fell to Earth is really an allegory for working in Los Angeles:

From the start of your filmmaking career, did you want to avoid that stigma of a style over substance music director turn filmmaker and jump right into character driven material?

Hard Candy was just a great script. I had never really had any conception of how the work I did would be appreciated or not appreciated or judged or valued. And it is certainly well to keep that kind of point of view that attitude of, “Well, I’m the world’s worst critique of my films and work because I can see the flaws above everyone else.” So if you wanted anyone to tear my work apart, it would be me. I would be merciless. I would rip it to pieces.

It was something that I picked up and read cover to cover, put down again, took a breath, and then read again. It was just a very original piece of material. I never really considered the quandary of the commercials video director being rejected by the film world at large, most certainly the critical part of the film world at large. And it’s something that, throughout my career, I’ve always had to kind of be on the outside of that anyway.

When I was doing music videos, everybody was very snobbish about music video directors doing commercials. It was all guys from ad agencies. To this day some of the top amazing, fantastic directors came out of the ad agency world. There was a lot of snobbery around that. So I didn’t do too many commercials. And I just try not to think about those kinds of things. When you start making a film there are so many problems to solve. Certainly, from my own experience, I don’t think anybody really thinks about how you are going to be perceived. There’s so much to do in the moment [Laughs]. I think it actually serves you well. I think it’s a mistake to try and overthink how you are going to be received because that assumes that you are going to be received in the first place.

I’m just very happy to be doing this for a living. I worked real jobs where you had to work. I worked in a gas station. I guess just from your title of your website that we’re talking about today, I applied to a national school of film and television and was rejected from that in England. I ended up doing my degree in fine art because they had a film department there.

It’s always been on the periphery of things. The answer really is, I was always lucky enough to be so embroiled in it that I never had the chance to think about how it would be perceived. By the time the first film was out and being perceived, there was such a huge backlash against the subject matter in the film in general that I was just fighting to stay above water. I was lucky to have a great cast who fought with me. Ellen Page was several times confronted at film screenings. Someone jumped out of the crowd to try and attack…It’s so fun to talk about now, but at the time it was a bit scary.

People ask other crew members when you work on a TV series like, say, Hannibal, you know, “We’ve wrapped the final episode. We feel like the family is all…” There is this great feeling of loss. In my experience, I don’t really get that because you are always into editing, you are on to the next thing, and then the next thing is coming along. You’re always developing other things, so you are writing, or you are taking photographs. You are doing something. I guess it just fills a void, really. I can’t imagine the void being there, if that makes any sense.

It does. Before we jump into Hannibal, when you were rejected from film school in England, how did you take that?

Just exactly what I expected to happen. I was already making short films and videos anyway. I was working with the drama department at a local college doing theater stuff. I was filming in a film department in Sheffield, a Sheffield independent film unit, and I managed to get…What I would do is I would learn hands-on by basically serving as a staff member there and they getting free time on the editing, whatever it would be, in lieu of work. So I would be the person who had to sit there with tons of BNC cables and figure out how to put a three-quarter editing deck together or a three-machine suite together because people were always pulling them apart. I’d do that all day and then I’d get all night to work on the stuff.

I quite enjoyed the fact that you set your own boundaries and you push yourself as much as you can. And it’s odd now sometimes. I feel like I’m in a weird state and I wake up in Hollywood and I’ve got a couple of studio movies underneath my belt, and I take these meetings with people. Sometimes it’s this great, weird sense of oddness that comes at you, because I’ve never really stopped thinking the way that I started thinking. I realize now that it…What was the character? A good friend of mine and I, often talk about Jerome from The Man Who Fell to Earth as a study for somebody who ends up here in Los Angeles. I mean the book version more than the film version. I thought Bowie was fantastic. Just this man slowly being corrupted and just being angry at being corrupted, but not knowing what to do except the thing that he knows how to do and surviving, but into a state of madness. [Laughs] You get those kind of moments which you think are clarity and you’re not sure whether they’re madness or not. Does that make sense?


Yeah. It’s a very strange industry full of strange people. Some of them are endearing and some of them are the antithesis of endearing. As my old mum said, if you haven’t gotten anything nice, don’t say anything, because nobody wants to fucking hear it. [Laughs] I think I kind of rolled all over your question there, and that probably wasn’t a real answer. I’ll try to get better. I promise.

[Laughs] Let’s get to it, then. For Hannibal, often directors with a background similar to yours work on a show like this as a hired hand and generally move on. What made you stick around?

Yeah, I know about that. Television, for me, just again, it’s another form of filmmaking. I believe that filmmaking is a brilliant thing to do be doing for a living. I go at any kind of form of it. but I’ll go at it the same way, which is not really as the person who comes in to do a job, but just as a director I think your job is to know as much about every single department that works under you as possible so that you can challenge every person in that department in the most respectful way to give you the best work they possibly can.

So that’s not really the attitude of a hired hand. It’s difficult to be that hired hand. I mean it sounds like something anyone would say in this position, but it is very difficult to say, “Okay, I’m coming in for eight days or whatever it’s going to be on an episode and then I’m leaving. I’m just going to do the bit of directing about talking to actors and putting cameras in places and making things look nice and making the scenes work.” Directing encompasses so much more.

But I did that on Breaking Bad. I did one episode of Breaking Bad, which is the only episode I jumped on outside of Hannibal, and it was really nice. It was really good, because you felt like everyone else had it covered because it was such a well-orchestrated show. But it’s not common, that experience.

With this one, I think I’ve been on it for nearly a year now. I was supposed to be the director on the pilot. I’ve ended up being a very hands-on executive producer and overseeing all the sound mixes, the color timing, all the stuff. It comes from the same kind of world view of, as a director, your job is…even if in television the writer is hierarchically above you, it’s not really about hierarchy. It’s more about getting the film made, or television, or whatever you want to call it. What do you call it these days? We don’t really watch them so much on the television anymore. A lot of people watch it On Demand, or Hulu, or whatever. And it’s not shot on film anymore usually, certainly not in television.

I’m just waiting for the title to change, but I guess I’ll be waiting a really long time. A really boring, interesting side note that the frames per second, the shot on digital video cameras is 23.976, which is actually a staple that comes from black and white television before it switched to color. So I hope we’re not waiting for too long for it to change its label.

Working on a show like Breaking Bad, it must be nice being able to jump into a project where everyone already knows exactly what they’re making.

Oh, God yes. It was very much like being a mouse and just being as quiet as humanly possible and trying not to be seen as a director, in the sense of I studied the way the show was shot. I studied the way it looked. I didn’t want to suddenly have it look like one of my films that I had done. I wanted it to look like it was Breaking Bad. You had to go all the way back in and say, “I’m not going to make a huge statement here. I’m going to do what’s best for the show.” And then you get the truly enjoyable part, which is working within that family of people. There was a moment there with Bryan Cranston where, watching the way he worked and the way he, as an actor, the way that he acted in steps, and each step inform the next, informs the next, informs the next. Just able to watch that and then be able to give a comment here and there that actually is somewhat useful is what I found incredibly rewarding.

It’s a different job. That’s going back to your hired hand question. They run such a great production there. You would never feel like a hired hand. Vince Gilligan would involve you all the way through the process. There would never be a kind of a, “Okay, now you are done. Get out of here. We do our business.” He called me up. He was like, “Well, David, we made a few changes to your director’s cut. I hope you don’t mind.” I’m like, “I’m sure they’ll be brilliant.” And they were really good changes. But it was just that respect that I like to try and project, and it’s great when you get it back, which you should never expect.

With the first few episodes of Hannibal, there doesn’t seem to be that “finding your footing” feel. Did you get that sense when shooting the pilot?

The thing is I met with Bryan coming up a year ago now in a coffee shop. We just sat and we talked for about four or five hours, which it always is a good sign when that happens. He said, “What do you think of Mads Mikkelsen?” I said, “I’d fucking die to work with Mads Mikkelsen. Mads Mikkelsen is an astonishingly good idea.” We talked about imagery, character, and we talked about everything. We must have covered everything because we were there for about five hours. Despite the way I’m coming across, neither of us is a particularly tangential speaker. We generally stick to the point and get on with it, particularly in production.

And then I had to do a lot of grueling meetings with various people to secure the position. By the time I got through there, I finally got this really symbiotic relationship with Bryan Fuller. When he would describe things I could see them very clearly. I was able to then say, “Well, here’s the mechanics. Here’s the engineering behind making that image come to the screen.” That goes back to 15 years of commercials and videos and understanding production, and also understanding character through films I’ve done and other experiences as well.

I can say it got so symbiotic at a certain point, Bryan was like, “You know what you’re doing. I don’t need to be here. You can just keep doing this.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s incredibly flattering. Then I shall continue doing this.”

Coming up with the visual vocabulary for the show, how did you and Bryan see the style of Hannibal?

Bryan is a very visual writer. He writes a lot of things down as he sees them. I’m also very visually driven, as well as everything else, but character is paramount. There were always interesting discussions about character which would go on for a long time about why and how. And then necessity leads to imagery, as opposed to the other way around. It wasn’t, “I’ve got this brilliant image in my mind. I’d love to make it look like this.” It would always be, “This, this, this, and this is happening, this is happening.” You get all these bits together, they lead to this kind of imagery and this kind of work here. And it all goes by necessity of character.

So there’s some really odd imagery in the scheme of a television-policed show that happens. It’s a conscious world from Bryan’s head. But all of that stuff came from the character. It was really fun to do. And I’m not really evading your question. I’m just kind of answering it backwards. There was a point at which we said, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. This is how we are going to decriminalize the scene.” And Bryan had written that out. It was written, not every single detail, but it was written pretty much as we did it. Then there would just be fundamental things that had to be put in place, like the engineering part, the bits that kind of made it all work.

The idea that a man experiences through empathy as best he can a crime that’s taken place, it’s not the easiest thing to put in a film. But a lot of it was already there and most of it was already in Bryan’s writing. It was just a case of finding a really solid way of telling that, using everything that is involved in making a film, from character all the way through to visual effects or whatever there may be.

I started working on that. And some of the stuff we wouldn’t talk about. We’d just be, “Well, let’s just assume that that’s going to be fine.” And then I would go away and say, “Okay, I need to work out some interactive lighting. Someone is going to have to swing a two foot kino flo in front of it to get some interactive lighting through this camera.” All of that stuff was kind of exciting exploration along the way. Again, I was very lucky to be left alone to do that stuff. As long as it came up on screen the way Bryan wanted it to come on screen, how I got there was fine with him. And he seemed to like it, so I just kept doing this stuff and he kept liking it, and I kept liking it, kept liking working with him.

It was interesting. I worked with my editor Art Jones, who cut Hard Candy, and he cut every film I’ve done. I worked with him in commercials, videos, too. We’ve done a few things over the few years. We’re very, very proud of Hard Candy because it’s exactly the film we wanted it to be, as close as possible without all of the self-loathing and crap that comes with being relatively creative. Take away all of the, “If only we’d had another day,” it’s pretty fucking close to what we wanted to do. It’s pretty much the director’s cut is the director’s cut. There isn’t a producer’s cut. It’s the script that Brian Nelson wrote. And the filmmaking was really another character in that film, and it was very important to that film as, I guess, a Hitchcock type thriller.

You do a studio film, it’s not as easy. Things don’t go exactly the way you want them to. You come to the end of it and you appraise it, and you do another one, you come to the end of it, you appraise it. Still, Hard Candy is the one that you go, “That’s the one that…” And nobody is interested in the boring stories about why whatever didn’t get done. It’s just about the fact that it is now, and will forever be. Therefore, we serve the film. The film does not serve us. If the second and third films weren’t as good, well that’s fine, because that’s chaos theory and here we are now.

So we finished and we got [composer] Brian [Reitzell] to bring his Dario Argento magic. Brian writes magic. He’s been informed by so much horror cinema music and just great, great music and sound making. And we watched this cut, and by the time we were finished, we were quite scared because we were like, “This is really good.” [Laughs] You know, “If pride is a sin, we’re sinners. We’re pretty proud of this. This is probably the best thing we’ve done since Hard Candy.” And then my wife saw it and said the same. Art Jones’ wife was also said it was the best thing we’d ever done together, very established editor in her own right. She was like, “This is the the best thing you’ve done together, probably ever.” We were like, “Oh, my gosh! Fuck! We better not fuck it up from here on!” [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s great.

But it was really good. There are always struggles in making films. It’s fucking hard work. If someone tells me their film was really easy to make, I don’t expect it to be very good. I’ll put it that way. It is really hard work, but you shouldn’t complain about hard work. It’s par for the course. When you see it and you go, “This is going to work,” it’s not like you were faking it and you didn’t think it was going to work. You always knew it was going to work, but it’s astonishing when it does. It’s still a phenomenally exciting thing when it does. Even if what you had in your mind is exactly what is on the screen, it’s still amazingly fun and rewarding to see that happen.

And yeah, there was a lot of stuff, technical stuff, that I really jumped into. I want to make films…I want to make images, and films, and tell stories that excite me. Part of that is trying to find something new to do, always. Trying to find a new way to tell a story, not for the sake of it, but just to keep progressing and to keep learning and to keep challenging yourself. You get excited about everything you’re doing.

So we got to this point where we had these fucking video cameras. We shot on the ARRI Alexa’s, which are digital cameras. My feelings with digital cameras are that in five years they are going to be great. Television, because of various reasons, there is no option. You don’t get to shoot film anymore. You always have that discussion with the studios of, “Maybe we should shoot this on film?” And then they go, “Yeah, right…” You go with a really solid argument with great power and strength. And then it gets hacked to pieces and eventually you are there with a digital camera.

To me, getting into trying to make this visually arresting was like tearing apart a digital video camera and figuring out what it does really well, embracing it, not rejecting it and saying, “Film is so beautiful and so much better quality,” which it is. But, still, saying, “This is what we’ve got. Let’s work the best we can with it. How can we push this as far as it can go? And how can we make this look as cinematic as possible? How can we make this camera, which as far as a lot of people are concerned, including the DP, is not the best you could be shooting on in the world, but it just happens to be the common choice right now because of the way the industry has formed, how do we make this more interesting than it possibly could be? How do we make this camera work for us?”

And we did. We did a lot of camera testing and we pushed the Alexa. What we ended up doing a lot of was just being very, very careful. The latitude of digital cameras is not great. You don’t want to get into noise. Signal to noise is a really big issue with digital because it’s only going to fall apart further down the line upstream. So you have to kind of understand that at the end of this thing it’s going to be compressed to hell anyways. You’ve got to think about that because certain things don’t look good compressed. You have to consider the entire point of television of doing a television pilot if you are truly there to create the look of the show. You can’t just go, “Well, this is just how the character is going to look and I’m going to paint it red.”

You have to kind of consider everything all the way down to how is it going to be distributed, on what? I’m used to that. When we did Hard Candy I checked every print that went out, back in the day when we had print, seven years ago. On this, we had screenings at Sony, and I would go, and I would go and I would pull the gamma down on the projectors. I would check the sound levels and make sure it was all in the right place. I went to Sony and they went, “What the hell are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m turning the gamma down on this projector. It is way too bright.” “You can’t do that!” “There’s a reset. There’s a standard reset to where it was before I started.” “We’re all going to be fired!” No.

You have to be obsessive. I know I’ve probably come across as obsessive now, and I just have to admit it. You have to be obsessive to do this and to love this. Otherwise, it’s just too big. It’s a Leviathan. It will swallow you. The only way to not be swallowed by the Leviathan is you get a ton of tenacity and a small spoon and go, “Well, I’m going to eat this fucking beast before it eats me. It’s going to take 10 years, one tiny spoonful at a time.” And that’s how you make a film. That’s how you make anything in this industry. You deal with the immediate and you deal with the long term rejection. And you have to consider both.

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

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