Thursday 10 July 2014

Interview with Neil McGregor

Neil McGregor is an Australian director who lives in Vancouver, Canada. His short film Out of Sorts (2006) opened the Brisbane International Film Festival while he was still studying. His debut feature, The Little Things (2010), won numerous awards. Neil is one of the youngest people to be inducted into the prestigious Australian Directors Guild. He quickly established himself as working director. Some of his projects include high-end commercials, the comedy series Share House, and his documentary The Brisbane Bard.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up? What kind of a family did you grow up with?

I'm a Queenslander through and through. I was born and grew up in the eastern suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, to a father with a bloody good sense of humour, a mother with a heart of gold, and a sister who had great taste in music and films. It was your typical Aussie family. We lived in a modest house on several acres of bushland where I came to appreciate the beauty in nature. The older I grow, the more I see a part of each family member in who I've become. I have to give my parents the credit for encouraging me to do what I wanted in life, to direct films.

Where did you go to school?

I enjoyed walking to and from Capalaba Primary School, which was close to my home. My high school years were spent at Redlands College, which was a great school that strongly promoted the arts and further piqued my interest in pursuing a career in film. I was humbled to be invited back, a few years after graduating, to talk to Film & TV students and give advice on a career in filmmaking.

When did you first take an interest in movies?

That's something I've asked myself, but I could never really pinpoint a moment of epiphany. My parents often took me to the cinema when I was young, and would show films from their childhoods (the 1950s and '60s) on the weekends. My sister had a love of Australian films. I think that's where my love of cinema originated, in a culmination of events. I've always loved the power that films have, they let you escape into another world, but can stay with you long after the credits roll.

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

At high school I worked weekends at a Pet Store; I was surrounded by fish tanks and aquatic life.

What was your first paying job as a filmmaker?

Before jumping in the Director's chair, I began as a casting assistant and worked my way up to a Casting Director running my own studio, and cast numerous television commercials, television series and feature films. It was here I watched and learned how other directors worked with actors and learned what worked on screen and what didn't.

What prompted your move from Australia to Canada?

I had established myself as a filmmaker in my hometown, and interstate, in Sydney and Melbourne. I was securing regular work but wanted more from my films. I was stuck in a filmmaker's purgatory, with projects on the boil but nothing seemed to simmer. It was all taking too long on the back burner. 
    When you're at a creative crossroads, confiding in your soul mate is the best thing to do. She also worked in the industry, was stuck in a similar place in her career, and suggested we push ourselves outside our comfort zone. So we did, and haven't looked back since. 
    It was not easy starting from scratch, taking a step backwards to take three steps forward. I've worked AD crew roles on Godzilla (2014), The Interview (2014), Monster Trucks (2015) and countless television series, as well as directing television pilots, commercials, corporate and feature films in pre-production, as well as secured an agent.

What are the biggest differences between living in Australia and living in Canada?

Mark Twain is famously misquoted as saying, Everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. People in Canada talk of the weather, often. From the European-styled Summers, the rainy and leaf-changing Fall, to the freezing drizzle, rain and snow of the winters, only for the flowers and trees to blossom again with life. 

Coming from the two-toned seasons of hot, and not-so-hot, tropical Australia, watching the seasons change is the most striking and inspiring difference to living in Canada. It's also amazing to discover how much the weather affects people in their day to day life, while they remain so unaware.

Do you ever wonder if you’d have been better off moving to L.A. instead of Canada?

It was something I had considered and have made many trips to Los Angeles since living in Vancouver. Films with a global reach have, in their storytelling and the way they are made, universal elements. Where you live does not dictate success. Although
Hollywood might be the epicentre of the filmmaking world, most of their films are shot outside of L.A., many of them in Vancouver; and, now that I have a great literary agent, it makes it much easier for me to participate.

What practical lessons did you learn from making The Little Things?

Even with all the time, money and rehearsals in the world, your film will never become the perfect vision you embarked on, so be open to a spontaneity of the moment.

What are three things you wish someone had told you about making a living from movies when you were starting out?

1. If you like 9 to 5 business hours, film is not for you.
2. Not every goal you set yourself comes to fruition. It's the ones that come out of left field that bring the greatest satisfaction.
3. Focus on and enjoy the work itself; surround yourself with creative people you can collaborate with; build a team.

If you had to suggest just one filmmaking book to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

There are many insightful books about writing and the filmmaking process, but there is one book I turn to for characters and building a story. Will Dunne's The Dramatic Writer's Companion is a brilliant book for any screenplay writer, director or actor. I found it by chance in a quaint little bookstore, while taking a wrong turn down a street on the way to Big Sur, California, during a road trip down Route 101, and have barely put it down since.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

In no particular order:
Children of Men (2006)
Honorable mentions to Georges Méliès' Trip to the Moon (1902) and Chopper (2001). 

[Ed.: The one Australian film on Neil's list, Wake in Fright, was directed by a Canadian, Ted Kotcheff.] 

What’s next for Neil McGregor?

Between my long form projects, I direct TV Commercials, do some screenplay writing, and keep my creative mind active by working on other projects I'm developing. I have two feature films in early pre-production. One here in Vancouver, a slow-burn thriller based upon the traditional legends of the First Nations people of the west coast of Canada, titled On Savage Ground. Another is a character fantasy/drama titled Indifferent, to be filmed in Wales, UK. I have just secured Rory Taylor, the cinematographer of Dr Who, for that project.

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Unknown said...

Neil McGregor made an amazing career change in starting all over again in Canada. It's frightening to think that an Australian filmmaker can do better in another country. Come on, Australia, support our movie makers, please!

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