"Writing is very therapeutic in overcoming events or injustice in your life"
Based in Manchester, England, Nick Connor is a screenwriter & director who has been working his way up in the industry- working first as a production assistant and script supervisor on various projects, and then as a director ("I had to personally understand every department before sitting in the Director’s chair").
Only 17-years-old during the production of his short film "Cotton Wool", Nick is also the youngest filmmaker to win LAFA Best Picture award. In this touching drama, a single mother suffers a devastating stroke leaving her teenage daughter and 7-year-old son to care for her, testing the family's strength to hold things together as roles are reversed.
Apparently, the film is loosely based on a personal tragedy ("my grandmother suffered a stroke in front of my mother, who would have been only about 10 years old").
Meet a talented filmmaker who believes that writing has to be personal in order to be authentic ("Every film I make is always semi-autobiographical in some way or based on people close to me").
Nick, congratulations on winning Best Picture with Cotton Wool. What an extraordinary film. Before we talk about it, please introduce yourself and how did you get started?
Thank you so much! I’m a writer and director from Manchester, England. I’ve been working my way up in the industry in a professional capacity for about 5 years now, working first as a PA and Script Supervisor. I always knew I wanted to direct and what style of film I wanted to make but also knew I had to personally understand every department before sitting in the Director’s chair. I progressed onto securing finance for some of my films after my ultra-low budget work was seen and I’ve not stopped directing since.
Who are some of your cinema heroes and what do you like about their work?
I would cite Mark Cousins as my idol when it comes to cinema, he inspired me to get into directing through his 15-hour documentary ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey’, so I have to mention him at every turn when I discuss heroes.
I look up to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh when it comes to true to life social dramas, for me they are genius at understanding human nature and society as a whole through film. I get huge inspiration from Xavier Dolan, Lynne Ramsay, Alex Garland, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Kubrick and Won Kar Wai, the way they all visually grab you and intellectually challenge you - watching their films is the best film school I could ever have.
In terms of actors - Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Amy Adams, Marion Cotillard and Maxine Peake all guarantee me buying a ticket for whatever they’re in. In terms of writers, Aaron Sorkin and Christopher Nolan are my idols, both incredibly different but both have something profound to say and a brilliant way of telling it with each film.
The screenplay for Cotton Wool is based on your own family experience - why was it important for you to tell this particular story?
Yes, my grandmother suffered a stroke in front of my mother, who would have been only about 10 years old. Sadly she passed away a few days later. Having been told about it, I wondered what would have happened if she survived, leaving her children to care for her. When I saw the statistic that there are 243,000 childcarers in England and Wales, 22,000 of which are under the age of 9 - I knew how important it was to make the world aware of their plight. I certainly was unaware of their struggle before making the film.
Is this the first time you bring a personal point of view to the screen? Did you feel it was getting too personal at some point? What was your family's reaction to this idea?
Every film I make is always semi-autobiographical in some way or based on people close to me. With ‘Cotton Wool’ it didn’t feel too personal but I felt an element of needing to protect my grandmother’s story in some way, even though the film is only loosely inspired by her story. My family were honestly incredibly supportive even though it’s so close to home.
One of the scripts I’m writing now is incredibly personal, It’s the most raw and exposed I’ve ever felt while writing - I love and hate it. I think writing has to be in some way personal for it to feel authentic, although you do need to distance yourself at times. For me, writing shows the truth that my smiles lie about. So it’s very therapeutic in overcoming events or injustice in your life.
Tell us about your writing process - How do you normally begin?
I used to figure out the end of the film and then work backwards, it worked for me. For this film and my current projects, I was more linear in my process. I constantly observe human behaviour and speech in everyday life. I try to make the writing feel more authentic by making the dialect and idiosyncrasies feel natural on the page, ready for the actors. Over-researching the themes and subject matter while finding posh patois like medical or legal speak for the dialogue all helps me make the work feel more real. I have writer's block all the time.
Cotton Wool, starring Leanne Best, Crissy Rock, Kate Rutter and Max Vento, includes some fantastic performances. Your ensemble did a marvelous job. How did you get these wonderful talents on board?
It was probably much easier than people expect, we sent their agents the script and they said yes. I’m so lucky to have such a brilliant cast who enjoyed the script and wanted to sign on. We certainly didn't expect this as I was just 17 years of age during production, so we feared it would turn some cast members off, thankfully it didn't - if anything it inspired them to buy into the project.
Can you share a little bit about challenges/problems you encountered during the production, and how did you resolve these issues?
We shot the film in February 2017, as it was the only time we could get our supporting lead Max Vento out of school. February in Northern England is notorious for bad weather and short daylight hours. Each day we battled with the idea that we only had so many hours of natural light and that snow could come at any point, stopping us from getting to our shooting location or back to the hotel.
We did experience some heavy snow at the start of the shoot, which was a nightmare as we had cars stuck along the one-way country road to where we were shooting. The whole team had to work around all the issues by working as quickly as possible and facing the cold. Luckily we knew the challenges we would face so we were prepared with solutions for every problem, following the murphy's law mentality. Without such a great team I have no idea how we could have shot the film in the time we had.
What is the main message you would like the audience to take away from the film?
The message is that we should all be aware of the struggles of the people in our community such as child carers, have empathy and simply do what you can to help. It’s easy to forget in the modern world how important community is and how doing small things for people can make a huge difference. I also hope people are reminded of how beautiful the mundane is, that everyday life is incredibly fascinating - rather than dull.
If you were able to make additional changes to the film right now, what would they be?
I’d cut the running length by a few minutes, cut some dialogue and some montage from the end - probably. I wouldn’t change a thing about the film in any other way. There are always minor things you wish you could change on any film you make, but for me, it works better to take those feelings on board and use them to make the next film better.
Having won Best Picture, you clearly know how to make an incredible film. Do you have any advice for up and coming filmmakers about how to create a meaningful movie?
Make films the way you want to make them, find your own personal voice and unique vision for everything you make. Fail a lot and learn from it. Be humble, passionate and hardworking at every turn. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young for something. Most importantly, only do it if you love it so much that you could never do anything else.
Is there anything you wish to add, and/or anyone you wish to thank?
Thanks so much to LA Film Awards and your judges for awarding the film with such an honour.
I have to thank Mark Quinn at Cherwell Productions Ltd for making the film a possibility, everyone who supported me while making the film including my family and friends as well as my brilliant cast and crew.
Follow Nick Connor:
Twitter - www.twitter.com/nickconnor
Cotton Wool - Trailer