Stuart Brennan is one of the most prolific and exciting actor-filmmakers working in the British independent sector. As a producer he founded Burn Hand Film Productions, which was responsible for the likes of RISEN, THE REVEREND and the forthcoming SMOKE. Stuart also collaborated with Welsh filmmaker Neil Jones on these films, and acted in all of them too. To add to all of this, he also frequently writes or co-writes the screenplays to his films, and has directed various short films and feature films as well. I spoke to Stuart about his increasingly busy and diverse career.   

How did you get involved with acting?
Originally I wanted to be a professional footballer, but my parents wouldn't support me. While I was in college, I got offered a play. I'd always been interested in acting since I was a kid. My parents came to see me in the play and afterwards they told me they thought I had talent, and that I should consider taking it up as a career. With their blessing, I withdrew my application to study Law at Oxford and decided to study Drama at Winchester. From then on, I threw myself into any acting gig I could find.

By the time you started working with Neil Jones, how much experience had you gained?
I did about 25 short films as an actor at Winchester University with different students and independent new companies. I did one short film that some juniors were producing, and they were having problems with where to put the camera and I found myself coming up with creative solutions. I really enjoyed the whole process, and I thought "This is easy. I'd like to do another film." I had no idea how to go about finding a film project. I decided the best way was to just write, produce and direct my own film. That way I could also make sure I was going to be in it. It was called GETTING HIGH WITH LEO and I don't think it will ever get released. It was a great learning experience. After that I did another short film and a couple of feature films. And then I met Neil.

How did you two meet?
He was also a student at Winchester. We both signed up for the University newspaper. He was going to cover politics and I was going to cover films. He came round with the editor one day. I remember I was in my dressing gown, ill and feeling sorry for myself. He handed me a script he had written and asked me "Would you mind reading this script?" We ended up filming that script as THE BOND (2006).

What was your first impression of Neil?

He seemed like a really cool guy and not out to impress anybody. A straight-shooter. His script was so creatively written that I told him he should direct it himself. The characters were so detailed and he had an eye for what worked. I was really sure he could make his ideas work visually.

What was THE BOND about?
It's a gritty drama about two guys. One of them goes to jail for a crime the other one has committed. The film looks at their relationship after they meet up years later.

Why do you and Neil make a strong creative team?
I'm an incredible optimist and have lots of energy. Neil is more of a realist, and grounded. The dynamic works really well. I'm always pushing us forward and Neil's always bringing us back a little. We're good friends and we've been through a lot of things together over the years, both professionally and personally. We've always supported each other. There's a tremendous bond between us. It's kept us together this long and although we've done films without the other, we enjoy our partnership and I'm sure we'll work together for a good few more years.

How did you and Neil come to make RISEN (2010)?
After THE BOND we made some more short films together, and after we graduated from Winchester we decided to try and collaborate professionally. RISEN was a project close to both our hearts. The project came about because we were on a bus to the Cannes Film Festival, and I suddenly realised I had never asked Neil what film he would make if he could make any film he wanted. He turned to me and said "The story of Howard Winston, hands down." I had never heard of him. Howard was a real legend in Wales - an incredible boxer and an incredible man. He lost three fingers from his right hand but still managed to win a World Title. I thought it was a great premise for a film, and once we got back from Cannes, we started researching the story further with the idea of making a short film.

We had just set up a company in Wales, Burn Hand Film Productions, and because of the Welsh aspects of the story we thought we'd be able to get some Welsh funding. Unfortunately, it never came about at all in the end. We ended up financing the short film with our own credit cards. It got really well-received and the greatest thing about the project were the people who came up to us and were genuinely moved by how we'd recreated the period and shown Howard in such a positive light. We were inspired by that to go ahead and make a feature film version of the story.

We wanted to raise a decent budget and get a good cast and crew. The idea was to make a film that would put us on the map. The next 8-12 months were spent working on the script, and, as I was going to play the role of Howard again, I worked out with Don James in the gym. Don was one of Howard's friends. (Howard died in 2000.) We got Howard's family and the entire community of Merthyr Tydfil involved in the film.

What obstacles did you face making the film?
We raised the cash, started filming and then some of the money fell through. Production had to be halted, and as we'd spent some of the budget, we now owed quite a bit of money to the investors, which for a pair of guys in their early-'20s was a big pressure. The next five years were spent raising more cash, paying people off and filming as much as we could. We also had to keep the spirit of the project alive. Temple Heart Films were our White Knights. They saw the rushes and said "This is a great project. We want to help out." With their help, we got the film completed and released. I still get e-mails from people telling me how much the movie means to them. Neil and I are both very proud of the film.

How well did the film do?
It did really well on the festival circuit in the US, had a small theatrical release and played on VOD too.

How demanding is it producing and acting in your own films, as well as sometimes co-writing too?

I've done it for ten years, and I guess I've got it down to a fine art now. I get heavily involved in pre-production and then I step aside during the actual production period to focus on my acting. This involves bringing on a very good line producer and production manager. It's about being strict with yourself and others, making sure others respect the boundaries. That said, it happens quite a lot that when I step on the set I have to deal with a production problem before I get in front of the camera. It's a difficult thing to juggle when you've got 101 things on your mind. But it's fun and I love doing it. Once filming is over, I get heavily involved with post-production.

What are the main pressures of producing independent films?
We're trying to compete with Hollywood films in the marketplace but we don't have that kind of money for our budgets. Finding money is the biggest pressure. You have to make every penny count too. That's where the stress really kicks in. There's no spare money. RISEN and THE REVEREND were financed through a multitude of investors (crowd-funding), which is always difficult because you're dealing with a lot of people. Our budgets are getting bigger, and with bigger films what you really need are a couple of committed investors, which is the point we're trying to get to. I always try to be brutally honest with our investors, which I think they respond to. The sky's the limit one way, but the floor is the limit the other way.

Do you have any horror stories trying to get your films financed?
Every producer has horror stories. I've had investors steal my projects or pull out a week or even days before production was about to begin. Sometimes people get excited by the idea of investing in films but then the reality hits them. It's also often just bravado.

What are some of the joys of producing?

It's a joy to take something which was an idea or a conversation and turn it into a film that people enjoy. That's what it's all about for me.

What makes a good producer?
You have to be able to talk with anybody. If you don't ask, you don't get. You've got to ask a lot of favours when you make a film, from the guy on the street to business people. You've got to be able to have the confidence to send your script to some of the biggest stars on the planet. You have got to have steel inside you and not fear rejection.

What's your process when you take on an acting role?
I'm very research-oriented. For RISEN I researched everything I could about Howard's life. As I was playing a religious man in THE REVEREND, I read a lot of The Bible. I've studied pretty much all the schools of acting that are out there. I like the Stanislavsky method of building a framework for the character before you begin. I follow some of the Method teachings of people like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. I try to ask myself questions about the background history and personal life of the character I'm playing. I'll do anything that will help me better understand and inform my character. After all this, I figure out how my character will move and talk. I then focus on each line and each scene, trying to see how to approach them and bring in any colours or ideas from my research. I'm fully prepared by the time I get to the set, and take notes from the director and other actors. It's a long, hard process but a lot of fun.

How does the writing collaboration with Neil usually work?
Well, it depends. For example with RISEN, I wrote the first four drafts and Neil came in and kept tweaking it. Neil wrote THE REVEREND. In pre-production we get together and clear up any differences we have with the script. In general both of us go away and work on our own scripts and don't tell the other what we're working on until we present the finished work to the other. Half of the fun is surprising each other.

You can lose your objectivity, unless you write together, which we don't because our writing styles are so different. There has to be a perfect time to present your work to another. You need to be able to lay your hat on it and feel happy with your work and ready to accept criticism. It's good to have someone look at your work with a fresh perspective. When you're close to a project, it's hard to be critical sometimes.

What's an example of something you've learned from working with Neil?
I've learned that as an actor it's great to have a vision for your character but it needs to fit in with the director's overall vision of the film. On THE REVEREND I imagined my character doing his sermons in the style of an American preacher. Neil felt it would be inappropriate because I was playing a Baptist reverend. I think he was right, because it wouldn't have fit with the overall tone of the film.

What was your first reaction to Neil's REVEREND script?
I thought it was really cool and different. It wasn't your average vampire film at all. It certainly wasn't TWILIGHT (2008)! It had a lot of heart to it, and I enjoyed the parallels to the story of Job. I was also really intrigued to see how Neil was going to make some of the violent scenes work. When Neil told me he wanted to give the film a Spaghetti Western vibe, I was intrigued even further.

How was the experience of working with Rutger Hauer?
Amazing. We called up his agent and told him we had a small part for Rutger that would be one day's work. His agent responded that Rutger probably wouldn't want to do it, but I said "Well, we'd appreciate it if you'd give him the script anyway." The agent got back to us and said "Actually he wants to do it, but he wants to speak to you guys first. " Neil and I couldn't believe our luck. I think we had a night on the town to celebrate.

Neil and I set up a Skype call and we nervously awaited talking to him. We had a good hour-long chat with him and he asked a lot of good, insightful questions. At the end he asked if he could see RISEN. We sent him a copy of it and he enjoyed it. Rutger wanted another chat with Neil to go over the character, which they again did on Skype. We managed to find a day in his busy schedule when he was free. He flew from South Africa, where he had just made THE HEINEKEN KIDNAPPING (2011), to the UK. A few days later he was going to be filming Dario Argento's DRACULA 3-D (2012). We spent three days going over some of the issues he had with the script and working on getting him costumed. We filmed his scene the next day.

I'm a big fan of his, and it was a thrilling, incredible experience. He has real nervous energy when you talk to him. He literally doesn't stop talking, and he's always moving. His eyes are always flickering everywhere. He always has interesting thoughts or ideas. Then, when the camera starts to roll, he switches to become the coolest guy on the planet. I thought he gave a wonderful performance and I loved working with him. It's rare to be able to work with someone on that level in your career, especially in the beginning of your career. It gave the crew a real boost.

Did you get to hang out with him and talk about any of his great roles?
Even though I didn't have any scenes with him I spent a lot of time with him hanging out in his dressing room, chatting about different projects. He's a really cool guy, very passionate about what he does. He enjoys working with new filmmakers and promoting their work. He has a great bullshit radar and he doesn't get involved with anything for the wrong reasons. Rutger's very project-oriented and isn't solely motivated by money.

How was working with Shane Richie in a very different role from his TV persona?

I love Shane and had worked with him on RISEN. I was really intrigued to see him play this evil pimp. When he arrived to the set, he was buzzing. He came straight from filming 'EastEnders' and had been driving for two or three hours. He jumped out of the car and came running to Neil and I, saying "Guys! I'm so excited to be here!" He had all these interesting costume and make-up ideas for his character, and came back an hour later how he looked in the film, all ready to go.

Shane was really excited to be doing something fresh and different. He's a great actor and he has real range. It's the first time I can honestly say I've ever been intimidated by another actor in a scene. We did the interiors of the pub first - the scene where he walks in and throws me into the tables. I was so caught up in his performance that I almost forgot my line. I asked Neil for another take because I was in a completely different zone. He really blew me away and it was fun to work with him. He's been acting for 20-30 years but he still loves acting. He really took the character in an unexpected direction and I'm proud of his work. Shane's been getting some great reviews. We did a Q and A once and an audience member couldn't believe it was him in the role!

THE REVEREND has had mixed reviews. How do you feel about that?
You have to be able to take the rough with the smooth. It seems like people are at least responding in some way to the film. We're proud of the film. With our movies we are trying to make our own kind of movies. We're not setting out to make something obviously commercial. Our films focus on character and story in the way something like John Carpenter's THE FOG (1980) did. 

Do you feel that British critics should get behind your films more?

If they don't like our films, that's fine. But I do feel that a lot of British critics see an average independent British film as something like THE KING'S SPEECH (2010) or SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008). Well, the latter cost about $8m and the former $15m! These filmmakers are not having to beg, borrow and steal to make a movie like we do. They should support low-budget film production more, and consider what the likes of Neil and I have to play with and what we're trying to do. We don't have the time or the resources to make a film that's going to have universal appeal. That's a very hard thing to do. When it happens, as with something like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), I take my hat off to the filmmakers. But we do try to make real films, and not just fodder for the DVD market.

Does having a low budget stimulate creativity?
Yeah, it does. In pre-production you've got to figure out how to do every little thing with the amount of money you have. You really have to collaborate. It makes everyone focussed and excited to come to work. I enjoy it when I watch a low-budget film and I can see how they've increased the value of a location by, say, filming during a festival and making it look like they organised the festival just for the film.

Which current filmmaker do you admire the most?
Christopher Nolan. He takes the low-budget attitude of making every single thing count, and applies it to big budgets. I haven't been disappointed by any of his films. I think he's a superb filmmaker. He always takes you on a rollercoaster ride, and you just don't know where it's going to leave you. I'd love to work with him.

What are your hopes for future collaborations with Neil?
I'd like our films to get financed a bit easier, and to have bigger budgets. Right now we have five projects in various stages of development. It would be great to be able to shoot three or four films a year.

What projects do you have in the pipeline?
SERIAL KALLER is a horror from the award winning director Dan Brownlee. It's a slasher movie, set in a BabeTV Studio. It's the first movie from Loaded Films (Loaded Magazines new company). I'm the skittish producer trying to take control of the situation, as girls are dying around me! TOMORROW is a powerful drama being directed by Martha Pinson and exec produced by Emma Koskoff Tillinger and Martin Scorsese. I can't say any more about this project at the moment, but it's incredibly exciting! My next collaboration with Neil Jones is SMOKE. It reads like a British TRAINING DAY (2001) with Danny Dyer and Tamer Hassan. I play a nasty Polish money launderer. IRIS is a drama from Matt Walker, about a husband and his wife struggling to have children. I'm the lead in this one, which is a touching true story about love, loss and hope. I'll also be on stage this September in a touring play of 'Houdini' being directed by Peter Snee. It's coming to the Stoke Rep Theatre, Blackpool Grand Theatre, Windsor Royal, Swansea Grand and Dublins famous Gaiety Theatre. I play Harry's brother Theo and the show is going to be incredible! It's proving a busy year!`

I spoke to Stuart by telephone on 7th September 2012. I would like to thank him for his time.

Burn Hand Film Productions' site.

Thanks to Richard S. Barnett.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

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