Q&A with the Director of Flatshare Grant Taylor
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
Grant Taylor is an award-winning director based in South London. He has made a name for himself directing narrative films, music videos and advertising campaigns. His films have been screened at BAFTA, the London Short Film Festival and the Oxford Human Rights film festival. He directed the first season of the critically acclaimed web series #Reality which opened the BFI’s Future Film Festival in 2017 and won a Screen Nation Award for Best Web Series. In this Q&A, Grant explains why there is no straightforward path to becoming a director, the challenges of making a web series with limited resources, and how working on Flatshare has deepened his understanding of the issues faced by the LGBT community and people of colour.
Can you talk a little bit about your background?
I grew up in Saaaaaaaf London, mate. In the suburbs, zone 4. I had a great upbringing, my parents worked hard and encouraged me to focus on learning and getting a good education. Early on my Dad got Parkinson’s disease and I think that shaped the person I am. My Mum is as unbelievable women. She works, cares for my Dad and together they both try to be as positive as possible.
What attracted you to the world of filmmaking? Growing up I was always asking questions and making things but I didn't really have access to a camera so I always used to sit in my room playing with Lego or making stuff out of cardboard and creating all these different worlds and stories. I really loved making things so when you had to make those choices at school about the future I always thought about being a designer which is why I studied architecture. But the other thing I did growing up was always going to the cinema or spending my hard-earned paper round money on DVDs and then whilst studying I kept thinking about being a filmmaker. For my final architecture project I designed a cinema inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock which I loved and then when I graduated the economy crashed and everyone stopped building. Luckily I got a job in Berlin working for a Film and Design studio and that’s where I first got exposed to filmmaking, there was one extremely cold day where we were filming in some Bavarian forest and it was freezing but I remember watching my boss directing these actors and just thinking that’s what I want to do and that was that.
How did you get into directing?
There seems to be no straightforward path to being a director, you almost have to find your own way. Practically speaking I took a few short film courses to get the basics as I couldn't afford a masters, they’re like £10k! And then I read loads of books on storytelling, screenwriting, directing etc. And I would always ask questions and try to analyse how different shots were achieved. I worked on loads of sets, small and large as a runner, 2nd AD, script supervisor, you name it, just trying to understand and figure out what works and what doesn't. It really is a learn by doing profession. You have to make something, expose yourself to an audience, learn and repeat.
What do you most like about being a director?
I love seeing it all coming together and come to life and having that moment where you can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. The role of the director really is from start to finish and there are so many parts of the process I love, from coming up with the ideas, to filming and the editing, especially when the sound files are added.
What attracted you to work on Flatshare?
I felt like the show had a lot of potential and I also felt like James was trying to do things properly, he and the then producer interviewed me and they had contracts etc, things that aren't always there on low budget projects which impressed me and from the relationship that we developed in that first meeting I felt like even though this was James’s baby he would trust me and listen to me and allow me to make this as much mine as it was his.
You've worked on other successful web series like #Reality. Why do you think the genre is a great platform for independent filmmakers?
The biggest struggle you have as a filmmaker is not having money or an audience. And with a web series you have the ability to make something with limited resources and instantly have an audience on the internet. It’s a place to showcase your talents and make what you want to make with no limits.
As a white, straight cis-gendered male, how did you connect with the themes explored in the show?
This comes back to being inquisitive, I always want to learn and find out about people’s lives and this ultimately is a way of doing that. I don’t understand what’s it like to be gay and black, but I’d like to know so hopefully I can become a better person and that audiences can learn and become better themselves. James was quite adamant that we stay true to the show and try where possible to have a gay cast and hearing their personal stories and hearing James’s allows me to connect as much as I can. On the other side of this I’m a Londoner, I know all about renting, dodgy landlords etc, you know we all have a story, mine didn’t put our deposit in a tenancy deposit scheme! I’ve seen the good and bad sides of gentrification and witnessed the struggles of friends and family buying a house. One of my old uni friends full on became a protester and squatter and was arrested. So if it hasn’t happened to me you can be sure that I’ve asked questions about it to find out more.
How has working on Flatshare deepened your understanding of the issues faced by the LGBT community and people of colour?
I have learnt so much. I already tried to be progressive but you can always learn more. Hearing about James’s and the casts life has opened eyes, and the things he’s written about all start from a truth. The devastating effect of chemsex was quite honestly something I had no idea about and that is a huge issue which quite frankly doesn't get the attention it needs in order to help those stuck in that cycle. With all the work I’ve done I’ve learnt so much and it’s easy to forget that as a white middle classed hetrosexual male I have an unbelievable amount of privilege that gives me a huge societal advantage. It’s always worth remembering that and making changes to your life and outlook can be the spark that’s needed to make the world a better place in the long run.
Gentrification is a strong issue in the show. As a born and bred South Londoner, what do you think about the rise of gentrification in areas like Peckham and Brixton?
I really do think it’s managed poorly. Councils don’t grasp what it takes to make a community and gentrification has both good and bad. On the one hand who wouldn't want more money being invested in their area, improved schools, infrastructure and housing, that’s the stuff that wins elections! But on the flip side these new houses are built, prices go sky high and either locals can no longer afford to live where they’ve grown up or if they’re in council housing they are shipped off to a different part of London or even the country. I used to work as an architect and I really do know how some places work. They’ll build duplex apartments which will sell for millions and then they’ll have to build a certain percentage of affordable housing. And it’s just not the priority. In posher places they try to build ‘off-site’ affordable and that effectively involves moving people elsewhere. But if it’s on site affordable the buildings are made really small out of poor materials and they do not get the same level of attention in the design and build phase. I don’t think in the long run you are going to solve things by separating people, it’s like you’re creating the echo chamber that can exist on social media and transferring it to real life.
After spending time working on the script with the show's creator how did you develop the vision for the show in terms of how it would look like on camera?
It did start in the script, because I was able to write in shots that I knew would affect the edit and I’m always thinking about the edit. From the get go I knew that we were going to have limitations with time. We shot everything in 6 days, that’s 4 episodes and over 50 minutes of footage! I knew from the start that to get the shots I wanted for the style of editing I like it had to be hand held. We had to be able to move quickly. I looked at shows like Catastrophe and thought that you can have beautiful shots and have camera movement from that basis I began to create a set of rules. We’d stay quite wide in the mid shot and only go into close ups for really important moments. And also from the start I was excited about the chemsex party and tried to add in some shots that would stand out. Initially we see the show through Omar’s eyes and through talking to the DOP I wanted to play with the idea of light. So at the start Omar is saturated in a hedonistic, neon lit lifestyle. As he takes another life path we wanted to use light to draw him back towards it.
Flatshare was filmed over the course of 6 days. Many thought it was unrealistic. Thinking back to the days on set how did you execute your vision? What approach did you take?
Initially we had 6 episodes to shoot but after some readthroughs, I convinced James that we had to condense it to 4, it was always going to be hard going. Once you start filming it really is a machine that keeps turning and if you’ve planned things out in advance then you have a better chance of getting through it all. These are simple things but having meetings beforehand, getting references, creating mood boards, having a shot list they all put you in a position of control. And there will always be problems to solve when shooting so you need to be prepared for that. And because we’d developed the scripts for 6 months or more, I knew it inside out and I’d thought about the edit so on set if I knew it would edit I moved on. But yeah, my approach was long days, be nice to people and make sure they were well fed. Because if you’re crew are well fed they will go to any length. I’d also surrounded myself with people I’d worked with before. Caleb, Kash, Cass, they all knew me and I knew them which made things easier.
What has been your highlight so far whilst working on the show?
There are so many but nothing beats seeing it come together. You can sit back, take stock and think to yourself we created this. That’s what keeps me going.
What are your hopes for Flatshare?
There isn’t a hope or aspiration that I don’t have for the show. It’s taken a long time to get to this point and we’ve put a lot of effort into it, so I hope audiences like it. I hope that people in the industry take notice and give us the opportunity to work on more. Be it season 2 or something bigger. And I especially hope that everyone who was a part of it and gave their time gets something from it, from the actors down to the runners.