6 Filmmaking Tips From Steven Knight

The mastermind behind 'Peaky Blinders' and 'Locke' tells us how it's done.

Steven Knight Locke
Lionsgate/A24

Calling British screenwriter and director Steven Knight prolific would be an understatement. He’s the creator and writer of the acclaimed television series Peaky Blinders, a genuine phenomenon in the UK with a somewhat smaller but no less devoted fanbase here in the US. And by the writer, I mean the writer, with writing credit on every single episode of all four seasons, with a highly anticipated fifth season expected next year. Ditto for Taboo, the Tom Hardy-led period drama renewed for a second season.

Although best known now for his work on tense dramas for both film and television, Knight’s first claim to fame was as co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 1998. After that, Knight broke into screenwriting for feature films, with his second produced screenplay, Dirty Pretty Things, earning him an Academy Award nomination. Since then, Knight has maintained a steady presence writing for screens big and small, delivering a wide range of titles including Eastern PromisesThe Hundred-Foot JourneyAllied, and The Girl in the Spider’s WebKnight has also started working as a director, with two features, Hummingbird (released as Redemption in the US) and the one-man-in-a-car film Locke, under his belt, and a third, Serenity, set for release in January 2019 — all of which Knight also wrote.

With such an extensive and varied body of work behind him, Knight has shared more than a few words of wisdom over the years. Here are six highlights:

Pull From Real Life, Not Other Movies

Talking with The Huffington Post in 2014 about Locke — a film starring Tom Hardy, in his car, driving through the night for an hour and a half, and Knight’s most acclaimed directorial effort to date — the filmmaker revealed something rather surprising about himself: he doesn’t see many movies. The information came up when he was asked about the trend of long, uninterrupted takes in film, and particularly the more extreme examples of that trend, such as Russian Ark, which lead to Knight admitting that he’s “not a great film-goer.” And that, furthermore, it’s kind of intentional:

I often find in the film world, that it’s very self-referring. If you talk to someone about films, they talk about them in terms of other films — rather than as something that happened to them in their life. And I’m really keen to get back to film as a reference to real things, not necessarily to other films.” 

Steven Knight Pic

(Lionsgate/A24)

Actors Love Taking on New Challenges

While still known mainly for his writing, Knight has taken on directing on a few occasions now, for a range of different projects. In a 2015 interview with Film Talk, Knight elaborated the rather specific method he used in Locke: five days of rehearsals, then night shoots in which, instead of filming certain sections on repeat and asking the actors to try out different approaches over the course of one night, they would go through the entire film every night, filming from three angles, with Knight giving the supporting (non-Tom Hardy) actors different motivations “halfway through” the filming schedule. The interviewer followed up this response by asking Knight if he always took the same approach towards directing actors, and he replied as follows:

It depends. Another film I did, was ‘Hummingbird’ [2013] with Jason Statham and Agata Buzek. Jason obviously is an action hero; he jumps, he shoots and he shouts. We sat down in a room with him and Agatha, we went through the script and talked about why the characters were saying what they were saying. He absolutely loved it, it was like a revelation for him and he really got into it. Everybody likes to do what they normally don’t do, and for him that was great. The whole process of filmmaking can be chaotic, but if you can have an enthusiastic cast, you’re pretty much there.”

If You’re Not Directing What You Wrote, Stay Off The Set

There are many kinds of writer-directors out there. Some basically only ever make movies when they wear both hats. Others are more firmly entrenched in one camp than the other. Knight, for one, considers himself first and foremost a screenwriter, though he has admitted that directing, for all its stresses, does have an “addicting” quality. In a June 2018 Metro interview focusing on Woman Walks Ahead, the Jessica Chastain-led period piece for which Knight wrote the screenplay but was directed by Susanna White, Knight was asked if he spent any time on the film’s set. His response was “not at all” — not for any film he does not direct. As he elaborates:

“If you go one day a week even, that’s not enough and it is too much. Because you can’t just turn up one day, make a comment, and then not turn up the next five days. I think it is best that if you are the writer you just leave the director to it. With the caveat that you state, ‘Be gentle with the script. And if there are changes, consult me.’”

Follow the Rules You Establish

In an April 2014 feature about the rare and daring thing that is the feature-length one-man film published in Filmmaker Magazine, Knight shared his tips for taking on such a challenge gained through his experience with Locke. While the one-man film is a niche genre, to say the least, the following piece of advice rings true for moviemaking in general:

“There are rules. If you establish the rules early on, people just go with it. I think if you break the spell by doing anything else, then you are in trouble. Once [Locke] was in the car, I sort of insisted that we resist cutting to anything else other than the road.  Once you establish the audience in this frame of mind, don’t let them off the hook. If you do that, then it’s perfect because it’s a nice simple scenario, you are in a car with him, and you are only going to see what he is seeing as if you are in the passenger seat.”

Tom Hardy Steven Knight Locke

(Lionsgate/A24)

Put Identifiable Characters In Unfamiliar Situations

In a December 2016 interview with The Guardian, Knight talked about his two biggest TV drama successes, Peaky Blinders and Taboo. In addition to both being period pieces, with the former spotlighting industrial post-WWI Birmingham while the latter is set in 1814 London, both are also noteworthy for focusing on the grittier, grimier parts of society instead of the ritzy world of the aristocracy as period pieces are wont to do. In discussing his draw to these “alternative period dramas,” Knight had the following to say:

“I think audiences like to see characters that they can identify with presented with a different set of rules, which they certainly [have] with ‘Taboo’ because of the period in which it’s set […] It’s not familiar and there’s a simmering tension, yet there are some recognizable aspects. It’s like playing a computer game in a wild west setting – you play the game and it’s the same game you’ve always played but the setting is different so what does that mean for how you play?”

Steven Knight Peaky Blinders

(CARYN MANDABACH PRODUCTIONS LTD & TIGER ASPECT PRODUCTIONS LTD 2016)

Go For The Histories That Haven’t Been Told

And on that subject, Knight espoused another noteworthy benefit of pursuing “alternative period dramas” and other history-based fare that strays off the beaten path when talking to Interview magazine in 2015:

“True stories are always good because they’re so odd, and so unlikely. It’s always good to have a world that people don’t know about—a world that hasn’t yet been done. It’s like treading on fresh snow. You’re the first one there. It always feels good to be dealing with a period of history or a world that no one else has dealt with.”

What We Learned

Generally speaking, filmmaking is a form of storytelling, and there are practically infinite stories out there, and just as many different ways to tell them. While the tips featured here are already just a small sampling of advice Knight has shared — and, by the way, for the curious, he did do a half-hour screenwriting lecture that you can check out in full on Youtube — to further boil everything down into one coherent, conclusive statement, I’ll leave with this: with infinitely many stories out there, there’s a strong case to be made for choosing a road less traveled by, and taking an audience somewhere they haven’t gone before.

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